Opinion

Conspiracy theories are increasingly becoming accepted fact – but science tells the best stories

Encounters on a train brought home how conspiracy theories are increasingly becoming accepted fact

Astronaut James Irwin during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission

Astronaut James Irwin during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission

With age, and a small amount of prescription medicine, I have become better at talking to friendly people on public transport.

As the train departs from Birmingham New Street, I have appeared friendly enough for the stranger next to me to start a conversation. They’ve been at a convention of hospital workers and they tell me of the parlous state of the health service. We share stories on common ground. She asks me what I do. I never really know how to effectively answer that, it is usually an answer with a ‘sorta’.

“I sorta do live shows and sorta write books and sorta talk to scientists on the radio.”

My answer was some “sorta” version of that reply. I must have mentioned something about science because her first reaction, is “so do you really think we’ve landed on the moon?”

I say, “Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“I’ve met someone who has been there.”

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I explained that I had met Charlie Duke, Apollo 16, now 88 years old but in 1972 he was the youngest person to set foot on the lunar surface. We went through a few things that might have popped up when they investigated why we hadn’t walked on the moon – from why the stars don’t appear in photographs to the difficulty of keeping a secret that big for so long via “why, if you have successfully faked it once, would you fake it six more times including one failed mission?”

By the time I disembarked at Telford Central, I don’t know if she believed the Apollo missions were successful, but I hope I had left her with a few more questions.

But this was not to be the end of it. In the next 48 hours, I found myself drawn into two more conspiracy conversations with strangers who doubted the moon landings. All three were calm, pleasant, inquisitive people who just also happened to find one of the most remarkable achievements of the 20th century unlikely at best.

Twenty years ago, this opinion would have been brushed off, an outlier opinion most probably held by a crank.

There is a new respectability in conspiracy thinking, it almost seems mean to challenge it. Some may even cry foul and declare it a free speech issue, but as the irascible and vivid author Harlan Ellison said, “you are not entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”

With those who are not using their conspiracy opinions for money and ego, it is best to go gentle. Shouting that they are wrong or sniggering at them does no one any good; when there are so many untruths out there, it is easy to understand why we can end up believing refutable propositions.

There is little to be gained by arguing with those who have been drawn to the preposterous as a business model, there is nothing to be gained by those who bamboozle for cash, but there are plenty of good-natured people who have been bamboozled.

Perhaps fate gave me a weekend of moon landing deniers because it knew that my working week included conversations with four astronauts.

Sitting with space shuttle pilots and space station commanders, I think what a pity it is that some people are robbed of the fascinating narratives of those who have had the opportunity to look back at the planet Earth and how those reflections should inform how we care for the planet – which really means how we care for us.

Because the planet will survive us, it’s just when the sun swells into a red giant that things will get tricky for the planet.

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £10.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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