Man’s first trips to the moon produced a series of memorable images, including the now-iconic one of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the lunar soil during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong took the photo during the first-ever moonwalk, using a camera mounted on the chest pack of his bulky space suit.
But wait a minute. If the photograph was taken from chest level, why are we clearly looking down at Aldrin? After all, you can see the top of his helmet. And why are no stars on the horizon? If no atmosphere exists on the moon, there are obviously no clouds, so what is obscuring the view of the heavens?
As it turns out, Armstrong was standing on an incline, and a fast shutter speed does not allow for recording the dim light of stars on film. (Try it on a clear evening in your backyard.) To conspiracy theorists who consider the entire moon-landing effort an elaborate hoax, however, these “discrepancies” provide convincing evidence we all were hoodwinked.
In their paper “(In)visible Evidence: Pictorially Enhanced Disbelief in the Apollo Moon Landings,” published in the new edition of the journal Visual Communication, David Perlmutter of the University of Kansas and Nicole Smith Dahmen of Louisiana State University note conspiracy theorists disagree over who was behind this hoax. (Richard Nixon is cited most frequently.)
But the skeptics unanimously point to the photographs taken on the moon — which they consider fakes — as proof. In turn, scientists use the exact same images to debunk the disbelievers.
“The important principle that Nicole and I were writing about is something that psychologists of vision, perception and cognition have talked about for a long time, which is that believing is seeing,” said Perlmutter, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “While there are certain objective facts about vision, our interpretation of an image — what details we pay attention to and what we make of them — has a lot to do with our pre-existing biases.”
Perlmutter, fascinated by astronomy and the UFO phenomenon as a boy, decided to approach the moon-landing photos as part of his continuing study of iconic images of photojournalism and the often-surprising way they are interpreted. He and Dahmen studied a series of moon-landing-hoax Web sites and watched several films purporting to tell the real story.
In their paper, they focus on six images taken on the moon’s surface that conspiracy theorists commonly point to as evidence for their case. For each photo, they lay out the skeptics’ suspicions and provide the surprisingly simple explanations.
A number of the photos feature shadows that fall at different angles. Conspiracy theorists contend this proves the existence of a second light source, when only one such source was on the face of the moon: the sun.
In fact, as Perlmutter and Dahmen point out, the moon’s surface featured both direct light from the sun and reflected light, which can be quite intense. If one figure on the lunar surface is lit by reflected light, its shadow will fall at a different angle.
Such plausible explanations do not deter the conspiracy-minded. “Most of these people are pretty much fixed on their theory,” Perlmutter said. “When you bring up alternative evidence (debunking their ‘proof’), they will keep the ball moving to another point. There are dozens of photos (they contend support their case).”
He considers their reaction understandable, at least from the point of view of evolutionary biology.
“We come from several hundred-thousand generations of people who jumped to conclusions based upon scant visual evidence,” he noted. “That works — most of the time. It’s what we’re designed for.
“We’ve had several million years of evolution where, if you didn’t jump to a conclusion, you died. That’s our normal brain function. If (our cave-dwelling ancestors) were walking through a valley and noticed something rustling in the bushes that jumped toward them, they didn’t say, ‘That looks like a saber-toothed tiger, but I don’t want to prejudge it.’ They threw the spear and ran.”
This tendency to make snap judgments based on perceived threats was, and sometimes still is, an important survival tool. But it’s far more problematic at a time when the tigers in the bushes tend to be metaphorical — or imagined.
Thanks to our innate tendency to reflexively protect ourselves against perceived threats, a few can look at the Apollo photos and see proof that President Nixon was cleverly diverting the public’s attention from his many failings. Of course, President Kennedy kicked off the moon program a decade earlier.
More recently, others use photos of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to “prove” the 9/11 attacks were actually carried out by the U.S. government (claims detailed and debunked by Popular Mechanics magazine).
“(Perceived conspiracies) make the world more understandable and give the conspiracy theorist a sense of control,” Perlmutter said. “They believe that ‘I have this secret knowledge. I have pierced the veil of subterfuge by the vast powers that control the world.’ It gives people power when they feel that way.”
Of course, photo manipulation did exist in the 1960s — the Soviet Union used the technique to doctor images — and it is evermore common today, thanks to widely available, increasingly sophisticated computer programs. Perlmutter doesn’t want his students to become too cynical and disbelieve everything they see, but he instructs them to look at images with the same set of critical thinking skills they use while reading a text.
“I teach students to understand that other people with different upbringings, different political beliefs (and) different religious beliefs might look at the same photo as you and see something radically different,” he said. “I judge from the weight of evidence that those pictures from the moon landing are authentically taken from the moon. But with many other images, there is a question of point of view.
“I’ve written a couple of things about the iconic image of the man standing in front of the tank near Tiananmen Square. It will probably remain forever one of the most famous images of photojournalism. Officials of the Chinese government were furious about the Western interpretation of that photo (which emphasized the heroism of the lone man standing up against the massive military might of the state). They said, ‘It shows how merciful we are! The tanks stopped. We didn’t run over the guy.’
“We’re visual animals,” Perlmutter added. “Ninety percent of the data we use (to make sense of our world) comes through our eyes. But the meaning of a picture can often be in the head of the viewer, not in the picture itself.”
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