Friday, January 28, 2011

Tinfoil Thinking-Cap Time, a Civic Soapbox essay by Chris Edwards

At a family gathering recently, I overheard two bright young guys critique a page in a history.

“‘One giant leap for mankind’ – gimme a break!”

“Everyone  knows the moon landings were a hoax.”


No one seemed to “know” that, in 1969. When most of us had yet to touch a computer. How come we felt free to accept moon landings, when today’s 18 and 19-year olds, holding marvelous technology in their palms, feel free to deny them?

Google “Moon Landing Hoax,” and you get 1.8 million results. More even than “Global Warming Hoax” (1.6 million). So my question is: Is there still such a thing as an agreed-upon reality anymore? Does the Flat Earth Society’s website represent madness? satire? or merely one, among many, postmodernist “realities” – Is it possible that there IS no reality anymore -- just my truth, for me, and yours, for you?

I mean, did Jared Loughner’s online ramblings really predict the Tucson massacre?

If they did, how can we draw a clear line separating his posts from the 1.4 million posts on alien abductions, or 5.7 million supporting a flat earth? Millions of on-line references claim President Bush deliberately carried out the 9-11 attacks... while 27 percent among us think, or suspect, President Obama isn’t American. None of those claims can be remotely grounded in fact.

I’ve heard both leftists and right-wingers, people I’ve known and in the media, screaming that we live under fascism. Have they listened to anyone, such as a Holocaust survivor, describe real fascism?

Of course, next to all the online rants and fantasies, we can pull up countless bytes of solid, useful information. The Internet will certainly make today’s kids better informed than we were...if only they can sort it all out.

There’s a criterion for sorting out an idea’s credibility, called Ockham’s Razor: Given two possible explanations for any event, go with the simpler one. A patter on my roof could be footsteps of little green men from the Andromeda galaxy, but more likely (if less excitingly), it’s rain. Try asking: what would be the motive to fake a moon landing? Cold War Strategies? Perhaps. But think how many parties would have had to be in on the hoax – not only protecting the truth then, from Soviet spies, but each person, without exception, hiding it for more than 40 years! Ask yourself what’s more likely.

Also, there are widely-verified websites that can help sort truth from rumor, such as and

Getting informed won’t change the mind of a fanatic, but may help those of us who are merely confused. For instance, knowing Hawaii is a state (which a sizeable percentage of Americans don’t) may cast doubt not only on the Birther, but the Flat-Earth claim, if you’ve worried about boats plunging over Earth’s edge in those tropic seas.

Of course, I guess you could just claim Hawaii is a hoax.

It seems to me that in this “information"-glutted age, determining reality is, in itself, a challenge.

But without shared reality, how do we know if we’re still sane?

               --Chris Edwards is a writer living in Harrisonburg.


  1. Hi, Chris. Say hello to Robin for us. Your piece about weird unsupported and unsupportable beliefs is scary. Our own scared belief is that while contemorary electronics and media offer reasoning and evidence to refute such beliefs, they also offer abundant opportunities to spread them. They are, it seems, a permanent feature of human societies. But let's keep trying to do what we can.

  2. Hi Chris,
    So well said. It is frightening to think that people actually believe some of the unsupported thoughts put forth in your message. Are we sane??? Sometimes I wonder.

  3. Well-said, Chris. All you have to do is listen to a raging Holocaust denier to become panic-y about the dueling realities in our world! To continue your comments about HOW our kids are getting info...I teach a class on College Success at BRCC and, each semester, my students are amazed and appalled when I suggest that they should avoided citing Wikopedia in a research bibliography. Go figure.

  4. Posted by Martha Woodroof for Mark Heinicke :

    Chris Edwards’ radio essay was surprising and entertaining, but a good deal more. Troubling, really, despite her lightness of tone. We are awash in so-called “information”—I say so-called because much of it is massaged, twisted, spun, distorted, and just plain fabricated to become misinformation if not disinformation. Even most of what is true is trivial—so much noise, of little value. Information overload is becoming a way of life, and the overload threatens to overwhelm our faculties of interpretation and evaluation.

    For example: from the political left I hear that the Social Security system has a huge surplus, from the political right I hear it is going broke. The reality—insofar as we can know it in the present—is embedded in a mountain of statistics subject to multiple interpretations issuing from multiple economists with their multiple economic models employing a wide range of postulates and assumptions and perhaps even different mathematical approaches to running the calculations.

    What are we to make of this? One is inclined to suppose, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. We could flip a coin. But, we could also just shrug and say, to extract a realistic answer may be as hopeless as countervailing the delusion, apparently held by many, that the moon landings were a hoax. “Reality,” for you, today’s information hyper-consumer, is merely whatever you choose to believe.

    The term information connotes putting raw data into a form that the mind can grasp. But the glut of data coming at us may tax to the limit all the forms to which the human mind can adapt. It’s no wonder that there are scientists who maintain that only artificial intelligence is capable of digesting these unending floods of data and yielding interpretations that make any sense. I fear that they are right. I’m not sure whether to dread or welcome what that means for the future.

  5. Provocative. And just earlier today I read a blog post by my friend Wayne North on "A Nation of Nuts."

  6. Ockham's razor? I'm wondering how that propogates thought focused in/on reality. I bet it doesn't from the way you described it. I think the main reason for getting away with faking the moon landing for 40 years (if it was fake) is that very few people care about it. Most people will just believe it because they think it is a wonderful thing or be skeptical to a degree.

    A lot of it has to do with people who are influental and what type of people they are, artistic or scientific (for lack of better terms). I have more of a scientific mind that is detail oriented (i realize that artists can be detail oriented and scientists can be focused on rhetoric steeped in a canon of historical instances) and I know that Hawaii doesn't really look like that artist's rendition of the "Hawaiian Islands", but i can see how that really doesn't matter because it is close enough to people who are not trying to explore those islands. Hopefully we can remain vigilant as a people and not be influenced by vague information, fear, anger, or any information that our souls do not seek and our minds can not verify on their own. Not easily said, but easier said than done.