Brian Cox is great. Hey, I can’t always be controversial. He is. He’s doing so much to get people interested in cool sciencey stuff, with his Wonders series and the BBC Stargazing thing and whatnot. The first time I saw him in person was at his lecture for 2009’s TAM London, and it was also the first and only time I’ve felt like I was starting to get my head around this whole Standard Model business.
But I’m wondering about something. Critical thinking blogger Crispian Jago recently recounted a thing on Twitter which, without his kind permission, I’m going to share with you now:
The tale of science communicator and the fortean in 4 short tweets…
Despite liking astronomy my father-in-law believes we never landed on the moon and the world will end in 2012
On Monday he tuned into to BBC Stargazing live just as Brian was talking about moon landing denial
Brian said something to the effect of all the idiots who believe we never landed on the moon will be watching ITV
Apparently my father-in-law muttered “fuck you Cox” and promptly switched to ITV.
So Brian was completely right
Now, first of all, the theory that the NASA Moon landings were faked is utterly ridiculous. The reasons people cite for doubting the accepted story cannot possibly be grounded in a thorough and intellectually honest assessment of the evidence. There’s a lot of idiocy surrounding the conspiracy theories, without a doubt.
Brian’s antipathy to such piffle while he’s trying to talk about real and interesting science is understandable. There are countless fascinating things awaiting to be learnt about the Moon and mankind’s efforts to visit it, without being distracted by such fatuous and implacably recurrent drivel.
On a similar note, Stephen Fry once went so far as to ban anyone who believes in astrology from watching his interesting-factoid-based quiz show QI. Once again, I can entirely sympathise with the frustration.
And yet while it undoubtedly does succinctly communicate an important scientific point to dismiss astrology or Moon-landing hoaxery as worthless bullshit, it’s not the only thing we need to do to fix the problem that millions of people still believe it.
In the case of Crispian’s father-in-law, I don’t know whether he’d be open to learning more about why he’s so badly wrong about everything, or whether he’s so firmly committed to his preferred nonsense that no approach, however diplomatic, will ever shake him from it. But insofar as Brian was absolutely right about him, it feels like a fairly hollow victory.
Some people will cite a few individual bits of trivia about the flag on the Moon waving even though there’s no wind to blow it. Some people will point to the time their horoscope told them to expect a financial windfall, and they found a fiver on the pavement. Some people will laud a homeopathic preparation for curing their headache, after about the length of time during which headaches will normally go away.
And although it might not always be possible, I don’t want these people to switch over to another channel and be wrong somewhere else nearly as much as I want them to understand why these are terrible and unconvincing arguments.
I don’t want to sound too censorious here. Brian Cox really is great at talking about important stuff in a way that’s engaging and makes sense, and part of that should sometimes involve calling out irrelevant bollocks that doesn’t deserve any further attention.
But it’s worth remembering what the real victories of science communication are, when considering people who believe the wrong things. Maybe they’re just not right yet.