The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Face on Mars illustration
The author takes on those who believe in the Face on Mars, among other things. (credit: T. Warchocki)

Never give a monkey your car keys

When I was a toddler, my parents were friends with a couple who kept a pet monkey in a cage in their dining room. Looking back on this as an adult, it seems… unwise. But I’m sure that as a kid I thought that this was The Coolest Thing Ever. They used to tease the monkey by dangling car keys just out of reach. Then one day I gave the monkey my dad’s car keys, and he (i.e. the monkey) refused to give them back. I’m sure that I found this hilarious, but I cannot remember the incident at all; I only know about it because my mother once used it as an example of what a trouble-maker I had been as a child. The lesson: never give a monkey your car keys. (Corollary: never give a monkey a gun.)

Many years later, while on a college internship with the British Parliament, I was in London’s famous Hyde Park where, according to democratic tradition, anybody is allowed to stand atop a crate and say anything they want, no matter how silly or inflammatory, as long as they don’t call the Queen fat. A man was there when I visited and he was saying some rather ludicrous things about my country, so I decided that in the interest of free speech, I was going to tell him he was wrong. And I did so, as politely as an uncultured member of the colonies could. What surprised me was the reaction of a couple of my fellow American students, who felt that it was “rude” for me to say anything at all, even though a) this was Hyde Park, where free speech was supposed to be celebrated, b) what the guy was saying was rather offensive, not to mention wrong, and c) the man was a bit of a nut. Their attitude could be summed up simply: “It is impolite to challenge crazy people. They have a right to their opinions too.”

So there’s two life lessons for you: don’t ever give the monkey what he wants, and don’t respond to the nutcases.

But is that always the best strategy? Should we ignore the crazies? Put another way, should crazy people be allowed to say crazy things without being challenged by sane people? Is the risk of some innocent bystander believing them so great that we should intervene? Or is challenging them in effect giving them your car keys and asking for trouble?

But before discussing that really serious topic, I’ll admit that sometimes it’s worth doing this stuff simply because, well, it’s fun—like a few months ago when I wrote about Richard Hoagland. (see “The truth, it is out there…”, The Space Review, December 17, 2007).

Hoagland, if you have forgotten, is the person who alleges that NASA took a highly dangerous lightsaber aboard a Space Shuttle mission, thereby endangering the entire space program. If some drunken astronaut had turned that thing on, somebody could have lost an arm, or a head. And if it had been a Russian, that could have started World War 3!

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Astronauts are not allowed to drink in orbit. (Cosmonauts, in contrast, are always drinking.)

Should we ignore the crazies? Put another way, should crazy people be allowed to say crazy things without being challenged by sane people?

Hoagland’s claims are actually a little nuttier than NASA flying a real live lightsaber on a shuttle mission. His claims are that NASA is run by Nazis and Freemasons and they have been covering up the existence of extraterrestrial structures on the Moon that, coincidentally, are invisible. Only Hoagland has been able to see them. Nobody else with a space program, or at least a telescope—not even our enemies in China and France—has seen anything of the sort.

Oh, I forgot to mention: he’s trying to sell a book. But his problem is not just that it’s a nutty conspiracy theory, it’s that it is remarkably underwhelming—boring. Not as exciting as Bigfoot, or as sinister as Roswell. No lizard people from Zeta Reticuli. No Cigarette Smoking Man. I attended Hoagland’s October press conference not because I cared all that much, but because it turned out to be convenient, and somebody asked me if I would go just to listen in. So I went, and was rather bored, but still found enough material to write something interesting (well, okay, I had to invent some material to make it interesting, because if Hoagland couldn’t conjure up some sexy blonde space aliens in form-fitting spacesuits kidnapping humans for breeding purposes, then somebody had to, and that might as well be me, right?).

This is not Hoagland’s story.

Immediately after the article appeared about a dozen e-mails quickly arrived from people who really liked it. Then came one from somebody who liked it and wanted to repost it on his website which focuses on, well, to be charitable, let’s just say that it focuses on phenomena that the government wants to cover up. (Some of those phenomena include giant structures floating in space that nobody else has been able to photograph or even see. But they’re there. Honest. And somebody will charge you money to show them to you. He also has a bridge available for rent or purchase.)

This person also wanted to remove the part where I said that I believed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing John F. Kennedy and that Arab terrorists were responsible for the attacks on 9/11. He informed me that I was wrong about these things, and conspiracies were in fact responsible for both events, and my article would be “improved” if he removed those parts, for my benefit.

I politely informed him that he could not repost my article on his website, and he could not remove any of my text (especially the stuff that I actually, well, believe—like the sexy blonde space aliens in form-fitting spacesuits kidnapping humans for breeding purposes and Lee Harvey Oswald killing Kennedy). But I added that I could not prevent him from linking to the original article because this is the Internet and all that. I received no further response from him, But the next day when I checked my e-mail there were a dozen nasty e-mails from people who really hated my article and hated me too, and wanted to make sure that I was aware of what a miserable person I am.

This is their story.

A couple of e-mails accused me of being a paid disinformation agent for the government, because only a paid disinformation agent would have written what I wrote about Hoagland, giant extraterrestrial structures, and, I guess, the Kennedy assassination.

To which I thought: You mean I can get paid for this? How much? And who do I talk to about that? After all, I wrote the article for free, and if I actually could have collected a check from the Government Disinformation Agency (GDA), then I would have applied for one. Can I still do that? What about it, GDA? Where’s my check?

(Oh, and are they looking for freelancers or is there a full-time position available? Perhaps with full dental?)

Then there was the e-mail from the woman who was “sadly disappointed” in me because I had not seriously considered Hoagland’s claims, but instead chose the easy route and ridiculed him. At the end of the article I had identified myself as a member of the Illuminati (which is not technically true: I quit years ago when I learned that Steve Gutenberg was a member). She informed me that I was not really “illuminated,” but I could become so by taking my “light sabor” (her spelling) and “put it where the sun don’t shine.” I believe she was being nasty. Witty, but nasty.

I lost no sleep over that one.

Then there was the message from some guy who used the subject line “youre a dirty scumbag liar,” and wrote in the body of the message “i hope you rot in hell.”

I wished him a Merry Christmas.

(You might have noticed a pattern already: many members of the American public—especially those who believe in space aliens—have lousy spelling and punctuation. This prompted me to peruse Hoagland’s book for typos. I can only conclude that he has a good copy editor.)

Another writer speculated that because I referred to movies and videogames in my article, I must be under 40 years old. Well, you see, I used to refer to vaudeville stars and Victrola artists in all my writings, but then I realized that this did not make me, you know, groovy, as the Generation Y kids say these days. So I started adopting references to contemporary movies and video games to seem more “with it” and “hip,” by jiminy.

(A quick aside: In that essay I mentioned the Jim Carrey movie The Number 23. I’ll confess that at the time I had not actually seen that movie. But in the interest of accuracy, I decided to rent it and watch it. All I can say is that those are 93 minutes of my life that could have been better spent doing laundry and cleaning my guns.)

Anyway, yeah, I am under 40. The videogame Pong was first invented in 1958 (although it was not named “Pong” until 1972). Movies were invented a long time ago too, so I would not draw inferences on the age of a person simply because, well, they’ve seen a motion picture. After all, Orson Welles talked about movies a lot too, and he’s over 40.

In the end, the tally was around three dozen positive responses and two dozen negatives, with virtually all of the negatives being rather weird.

Over the next couple of days I received about a dozen more of these nastygrams—about two dozen in all. Some of them were overtly hostile. Many people felt that it was vitally important that they inform me that I was lamer than a three-legged mule. Others told me that they had only read as far as my third paragraph before concluding that I was a moron and/or a tool of the government, and they read no further. (Somehow stopping reading at the third paragraph did not prevent them from scrolling down to the bottom of the article, clicking to part two, and scrolling all the way to the bottom of the second page to find my e-mail address.)

Several people informed me that I’m not funny. I believe that they did this in order to hurt my feelings. (My standard response: “Thank you! You’ve been a great audience! I’m here all week! Enjoy the veal!”)

Some of the messages accused me of being pompous and assuming that I’m superior to them. To which my response is: I do feel superior… to them. I mean, there are lots of people I don’t feel superior to: my mom, Stephen Hawking, my parents’ dog (smart dog—she just knows stuff), and, well, a whole bunch of people. But if you believe that Nazis and Freemasons run the space program and have been covering up extraterrestrial structures on the Moon, or if you believe vastly complicated conspiracy theories that are based upon no evidence that would pass peer review by a panel of fifth-graders, then, yes, I have my doubts about your intelligence, or at least your reasoning abilities. And I wouldn’t trust you with my car keys.

In general, the nasty e-mails fell into three categories. By far the largest group consisted of people who told me that I was an idiot for believing the federal government’s official lies about what happened on 9/11. Instead, the World Trade Center towers were brought down by the CIA (or the Mossad), and the planes weren’t real. Or they were real, but guided by the same kind of laser that was used in Iraq to make somebody into a three-foot-tall midget (I’m not making that up—look it up on YouTube). Or the Pentagon was hit by a missile at the same time as the World Trade Center—a missile that eyewitnesses said looked suspiciously like a jet airliner. Anyway, it was a US government conspiracy, and I was a moron.

But… I never actually said that I believed the government about 9/11. I believe Osama bin Laden about 9/11. Osama says that his fellow terrorists conducted the attack. I don’t believe he is an animatronic dummy invented by the CIA and Disney in order to appear in those boring videotapes on al Jazeera. Nope. He’s real, he said he did it, and I believe him.

The second group of e-mails was smaller and consisted of people who told me that I was stupid to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, especially in the face of such overwhelming evidence, like Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.

Well. Oliver Stone is a twit. And Kevin Costner was in Waterworld. Case closed.

The third group of e-mails was much smaller and consisted of a handful of people who assured me that a) Hoagland was onto something about the space aliens, or b) Hoagland’s interpretation was wrong, but there nevertheless are alien structures on Mars and the Moon, just more invisible than the invisible ones that Hoagland has found.

Mixed in with the nastygrams were a number of positive e-mails, and after the nastygrams died down, the positive responses continued to trickle in (probably due to The Space Review being mentioned on other space-related sites). In the end, the tally was around three dozen positive responses and two dozen negatives, with virtually all of the negatives being rather weird. Then again, it is hard to claim that there are giant extraterrestrial structures on the Moon, or that the CIA blew up the World Trade Center or fired a missile into the Pentagon, and not come off as being half a bubble off plumb.

Okay, so do I have a point?

I’m trying to get to that, and it ties into the warnings about never giving a monkey your car keys or arguing with a crazy person. And there is a space angle. Honest.

A few months ago I visited the Johnson Space Center and paid to take the tour. I’ve been to JSC on business several times and in fact have seen all of the stops on the visitor’s tour—Mission Control, the astronaut training facility, etc.—from the other side of the glass, where I was even allowed to touch stuff, with the proviso that if I broke the $4 million space wrench I had to pay for it. (I’m not bragging about this, but… well, okay, I am bragging about this—it was like being in a Space Geek toystore.) I was primarily interested in seeing the restored Saturn 5 rocket and I thought that the only way to do this was on the tour, with the tourists.

Years ago when the Fox Network ran their “documentary” that claimed that the United States never went to the Moon I was not that bothered about it. But since then I’ve started to conclude that at least anecdotal evidence indicates that more and more young people are starting to believe this conspiracy theory.

At one point while we were looking at the old Mission Control our guide took questions and somebody in the audience—he must have been in his early 20s—asked how could we have landed on the Moon without powerful computers. The guide offered what I thought was a weak response: we got lucky, he said. A better response would have been to note that we did have powerful computers in the form of thousands of people on the ground doing computations with slide rules and graph paper and logarithm tables. Although this is not as efficient as a modern pocket calculator, it is how we used to do lots of engineering projects, like atomic bombs, ballistic missiles, supersonic airplanes, and the Hoover Dam. Certainly those things are real, right?

But the tour guide’s response was not really what concerned me. It was the questioner’s tone. He was very skeptical. He never said so, but he clearly did not believe that we had landed on the Moon. All of his experience told him that big technological accomplishments require powerful computers, and since we did not have them in 1969, we obviously could not have gone to the Moon (of course, the irony of this is that the space program helped to create those very same computers). I don’t think that the tour guide convinced him, but I somehow doubted that anything would have convinced him.

Years ago when the Fox Network ran their “documentary” that claimed that the United States never went to the Moon I was not that bothered about it. But since then I’ve started to conclude that at least anecdotal evidence indicates that more and more young people are starting to believe this conspiracy theory. I’m not sure why that is happening now; there has to be a cause for this—i.e. a source for this skepticism—and so far there are only a few isolated totally nutty people making this claim. One of them was featured in a documentary. He lives in a trailer in the desert, surrounded by dozens of cats. (If he was a dog person I’d be more inclined to believe him. But dozens of cats? No.) So if the Moon landing hoax conspiracy theory is able to propagate even without an active engine to push it, then that tells us something disturbing.

There’s a lot of nonsense in this world. A lot of people who believe a lot of crazy things: the government is covering up the existence of space aliens, men never walked on the Moon, angels are real, you can determine your fate by calling a psychic hotline number on your cellphone, Jim Carrey has talent. Oh, and there are giant invisible structures on the surface of the Moon.

Why do people believe crazy things pushed by crazy people? Are they emotionally predisposed to do so? Or do they lack the training and the education to carefully evaluate situations and reach logical and reasonable conclusions? If given these tools, would they stop believing crazy things? Should we try to give them these tools? (Note that by tools, I’m not referring to giving them car keys, I’m referring to engaging and educating them and teaching them how to use logic and its sisters like the scientific method and data collection and evaluation.) Should those of us who know better try to contradict the crazies in order to protect the vast uneducated public?

Or should we ignore them? Should we let the crazy people stand on their tiny soapboxes and yell nutty things about Freemasons and alien structures, confident that they will ultimately have little influence on others, and that the few people they will influence are beyond saving anyways? Should we be amused by the monkey, but not give him our car keys?

Man, I don’t know.

(Yes, I realize that all of you were hoping for a bigger, stronger finish. Sorry, I ran out of steam.)

I do know that it takes a lot of time and energy to try to reason with the nutcases. And there will always be nutcases. And as long as there are nutcases, there will also be people who will be influenced by them.

If you’re going to spend time and energy fighting the supernatural, you should focus your attention on Bigfoot. That guy’s a menace. Don’t ever give him your car keys.