Never give a monkey your car keys

By Phil Plait | April 12, 2008 2:52 pm

Dwayne Day at The Space Review takes on Hoagland. Sortof. I agree with him. Sortof. We do need to take on crazy people when otherwise not-so-crazy people start listening to them. I’m still wavering on the point-at-them-and-laugh method, though. It gets tougher every day.


Comments (29)

  1. There seems to be a parallel with the in-your-face approach towards creationism by Dawkins/Hitchins/PZ, versus the softly-softly approach by Mooney/Nesbit. Dawkins, Hitchins, PZ et al have done infinitely more to kick ID/creationism back into its cage than the latter two (whom I never even had heard of before the whole Expelled! affair).

    Without the obnoxious, loud, and in-your-face mixture of arguments and ridicule, conspiracy theories also have a tendency to gain some respectability. The first time you hear that “we never went to the moon” you may laugh, ignore it, and move on. The second time you hear it, you think “yeah, I heard something like that”. And the third time you recognize it as an idea that is doing the rounds (especially if you see it in the form of a “documentary”). If the conspiracy theory had been accompanied by ridicule, you may have filed that particular idea in another compartment in your brain.

    Oh, and Jim Carrey is talented, just not in comedy.

  2. bkallee

    I never tire of explaining to acquaintances the faults in the hoax mumbo jumbo.
    I get a little concerned about acknowledging individuals like Hoagland publically, but can see no alternative but to fight them.
    To me the real question is do we take them on their own turf, like radio shows? I think this is a mistake based on “debates” I’ve heard. Hoax believers can get us bogged down in minutia that barely relates to the subject at hand, not mention the defensive nature of these individuals gets distracting. One on one and writing works best for me.
    Truth is I fight my own demons of wanting to ridicule nonsense, instead of making only reasoned arguments with conspiracy believers. I’m always given to laughter at such nonsense as “face” claims, but sometimes fair no better with the pixel resolution and shadow explanations.
    Getting drawn down to their level is a catastrophe.
    My car keys are firmly in my pocket and bigfoot was always my older brother.
    I still read his shoe size and have trouble believing it.

  3. Mike C.

    You have to fight in the field where battle is offered. And you have to fight however is necessary to win. My preference is for a debate of factual information, but let’s be honest here – the average person these days thinks lining up 9 folks to do soundbite answers to questions from some hack constitutes a “debate.”

    The basic problem here (as I see it) is that people who spend all their time weighing eveidence and trying to draw logical conclusions are often ill-prepared to “duke it out” in today’s media circus in a winning manner. There are a very few, but they’re rare.

  4. But most importantly, never ever elect a monkey President.

    Look what happened the last time.

  5. Pieter Kok: “There seems to be a parallel with the in-your-face approach towards creationism by Dawkins/Hitchins/PZ, versus the softly-softly approach by Mooney/Nesbit.”

    Not really. You are confusing being soft on creationists with being soft on theists, and, IIRC, many of the people who have been in the thick of the fight against the creationists, such as Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, or Wesley R. Elsberry, are either fairly conciliatory towards theists or are theists themselves. Nisbet’s insistence on being conciliatory toward theists at least partly stems from this. I daresay that the NCSE has done infinitely more to kick ID/creationism back than either Nisbet or Dawkins.

    This isn’t really about softly-softly versus loud and obnoxious, but about weighing two risks, the risk of raising the profile of denialists by arguing with them versus the risk of allowing others to be convinced by denialists by not providing a counter to their claims.

    Furthermore, ridicule is a double-edged sword. Depending on how it is wielded, it can add punch to a well-reasoned case, hide the flaws in a poorly reasoned case, or turn someone off. It is telling that the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions” and also “Resort is had to ridicule only when reason is against us.”

    There aren’t any easy answers here, and if you think that simply becoming more obnoxious will have the desired effect, let me repeat Mencken’s warning about the easy availability of answers that are neat, plausible, and wrong.

  6. Arrgh! In the second-to-last paragraph, it should read: “It is telling that the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions” also wrote “Resort is had to ridicule only when reason is against us.”

    I need to go to bed. Lack of sleep bad is on grammer and speling.

  7. Thanks for the link, Phil! Dwayne’s a pretty good writer!
    “sexy blonde space aliens in form-fitting spacesuits” indeed!
    Rich in Charlottesville

  8. Gary Ansorge

    Ummmm, sexy space babes,,,my favorite kind.
    I wonder, do they come in chocolate?

    Ridicule works best when those being ridiculed don’t realize it. Then the more nearly rational get to feel superior because they’re with the in group that “gets it”. Thus the popularity of Steven Colbert.

    I expect Hoagland laughs (at us) all the way to the bank, for as it’s been noted in Hollywood, there ain’t no such thing as bad publicity and apparently if it’s in a book and accuses THEM of all kinds of nefarious deeds, it must be real,,,

    GAry 7

  9. I’ve said this before, here, but never let them put you on the defensive. Never wade into the minutiae with them. No matter how many pieces of their “evidence” that you debunk, they just run off to the next one, never coming to the conclusion that if every piece of evidence so far is wrong (and often self contradictory), then maybe their whole premise is wrong.

    My tactic is to make them think by going on the offensive. Not in a nasty, supercilious way, but by asking them some questions:

    1) Billions of 1960’s dollars and hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the Apollo program. Obviously the head of NASA had to be in on the conspiracy (bonus entertainment points, ask them who the administrator of NASA was during Apollo), but how far up and down did it go? Was the government involved (Yes? prove it). Did it extend down through NASA HQ to the research centers?(Yes? prove it) To the contractors? (Yes? prove it) To the subcontractors? To the vendors? (Yes? prove it)

    2) A conspiracy this vast cannot be administered by phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Do you have one memo, one phone message, one page of meeting notes that suggest the conspiracy? Every thing was kept on paper back then and nobody is that good at destroying every document.

    3) Is the space shuttle real? Does it really carry people into space and back? Is the ISS real, and are there really people living on it?

    If the answer to 3 is “yes” then ask, “If NASA can build the shuttles with technology only 5 years beyond Apollo, why couldn’t they build Apollo?

    If the answer is “no” then ask questions 1 and 2 regarding the shuttle.

    – Jack

  10. Cory

    Never argue with a fool. Those watching might not be able to tell the difference…

  11. SkepticTim

    Of course there are invisible alien structures on the moon. I can prove it! I can’t see them: they MUST be invisible!!

    Seriously though, taking a quote (out of context) from your link “…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 beg to differ. In 1969 (and even before that date!) I was doing multidimensional Fourier transforms on a CDC 3200 and other computers. (Anyone remember the IBM 360 series?) We may only have had 32k of memory (sometimes less), but with a bit of clever programming (even in FORTRAN) one can solve very complex problems. I admit that the display was not nearly as pretty as what one can do now, but the answer was (and still is) the same (funny hoe math works). By 1969 many of us had found ways of superseding the sliderule for anything but ‘first estimate’ sort of calculations.

  12. Michael Lonergan

    They took a real Lightsaber on the Space Shuttle?! Are they nuts! I think Hogie was right on this one! The man is a genius.

  13. Ad Hominid

    He has a point. Once a conspiracy theory reaches some critical mass of public acceptance, it ceases to be called a conspiracy theory and comes to be considered a more or less legitimate issue, especially if there are identifiable political overtones. Creationism, for example, is essentially a conspiracy theory but it is seldom recognized as such, at least in the US. As with the UFO culture, a claim of an enormous, world-wide, multi-generational conspiracy is a crucial and necessary component of its viability.
    Indeed, the alleged evolution conspiracy is far more extensive than the great UFO cover-up, since its origins extend well back into the 19th century.

    I seriously doubt we’ll get to the point where presidential candidates will publicly hedge about their disbelief in Hoaglandism, but we cannot ignore the “assumption of the consequent,” the tendency for belief in one conspiracy theory to facilitate belief in others.
    This results from a natural “if/then” question.
    For example, “If they can hide the existence of Bigfoot (fake the Moon landings, conceal UFOs, etc.), then why couldn’t they blow up the WTC?”
    Anyone who knows any significant number of true believers will realize that conspiracy beliefs work this way in real life.

    Minor or silly conspiracy claims are not harmless, since they help establish a potentially dangerous belief in the power and evil nature of the alleged instigators, making truly dangerous and harmful beliefs more credible to those who are susceptible.

  14. JJ Ramsey, I am not confusing nothin’. 😉 The point is that the loud ones are the ones that are heard, not necessarily the ones with the best arguments. It is not the ideal situation, as Mike C points out, but you gotta work with what you have.

    You are of course right that ridicule is a very dangerous thing (watch the French film Ridicule for a brilliant example of this). If done badly, you can come accross as a bully. I have seen this happen to James Randi when he took on a psychic debating Sylvia Brown.

    Ad Hominid, comparing creationism to a conspiracy theory is an interesting angle, but I think intelligent design fits the profile better: it makes claims about cover-ups and all that, whereas straight creationism is closer to the theory of phlogiston (superseded by better scientific theories).

  15. Scythe

    Each person is responsible for their own cr*p filter. It’s not something that can be enforced from the outside, although it certainly can be damaged/influenced by the external.

    Once heavily contaminated by bad input, it’s very hard for the brain to recognise what is and what is not rational. Most contamination is through upbringing (if a family has one particular bit of irrationality that they condone, it’s hard for the children to get a clear message about what should and should not be accepted).

    I find that it’s the political correctness of not pointing out what is ridiculous just so one does not offend which is the true slippery slope of our modern age. I hate to say it but religion is one of the most damaging. The idea of one central reality with many perceivers of it seems to have gone by the wayside.

    There is even a story that warns children of going down that path…

    “The Emporer has no clothes”

    Shame it’s not being told more to make the point.

    Just in case you need a rule of thumb… A good measure of a person’s sanity is how well developed their humour is. A person with a fairly balanced outlook will, more often than not, be able to see things from several contradicting perspectives, and that friends is what “tickles” us into laughing, a sign our cr*p filter is operating.

    Multiple perspectives is what also allows us to have empathy. Show me a person with no humour and I will show you someone capable of unspeakable acts.

    Hopefully that’s a useful contribution to the discussion.

  16. allkom

    Ironically, people prone to believe NASA is hiding alien structures found on the moon , are the same that would as likely be moon landing deniers.
    In my view one should not give them more attention than to some weirdo carrying an “end is near” sign on the corner , unless they come to close to one’s social circle, whereupon one should urbanely but firmly refute their arguments. If that fails, cut him/her off or reason with a club , depending on the mood :))

  17. blf

    One advantage of the point-and-laught method is very simple points can be brought out quite effectively. As an example, Day points out that if the moon landings were a hoax, there’d be a vast paper trail (and it’s impossible to completely hide or destroy such a trail). That there’d be such a trail is, now that he’s pointed it out, obvious, but I must admit the point had not sunk in before. Now that it has, I doubt(? hope?) I won’t forget it the next time I run into one of these (or other “pre-computer” conspriracy) nutcases.

    As for the point there were powerful computers at the time, yes there were. But, as Day points out, the bulk of computations were done by slipsticks. My own dad, whilst not directly involved with Apollo, was a rocket engineer (working mostly on solid-fuel engines), and he certainly used sliderules et al. much more than computers or (at the time in question) calculators.

  18. Matt Penfold

    I do notice a difference between Europe and the US over this. For example, in the UK creationists are in a small minority with no political support at all. On those occasions when they do try and push their agenda in the mainstream media laughing at them seems to have worked very well indeed.

  19. BaldApe

    Day’s friends’ attitude :“It is impolite to challenge crazy people. They have a right to their opinions too.”

    This seems to me to be the main point here. How many times have you had a conversation with someone who eventually said “Well I don’t believe in ……. I’m a Christian (or whatever).”

    We are conditioned to back off of criticizing someone’s deeply held religious beliefs (Uhmm I mean “superstitions”).

    How much better to point and laugh? “Oh yeah? Then you are one of those nutcases who believes (fill in the blank, virgin birth, resurrection, reincarnation, 6 day creation, whatever)”

    Lets put them on the defensive for a change.

  20. flynjack

    Attacking someones religous beliefs is a waste of time. I went out with a beauty in college only to discover she was a devout creationist, the contradiction in logic made it impossible to be attracted to her, so I moved on. Thats all you can do with those type of folks, move on.

    As far as conspiracy theorist go, I always laugh at the fact that they cleary havent worked for the government or they would know how difficult it is for the government to keep anything secret, let alone a vast conspiracy. They (the conspiracy nut cases/monkeys) make the mistake of assuming competency in the government employees, while some competency exist it is limited.

    One must make the best read of reality that they can from knowledge and experience, and as my dad used to say “dont believe everything you read”. Tangle with the monkey only when you are bored or he has your keys.

  21. BaldApe


    You’re right about that, the same people who claim the government can’t possible manage health care think it can manage a vast conspiracy.

  22. KC

    Time to ask something nasty:

    I’ve have very little success in pointing out various misconceptions. The coworker with doubts that we landed on the moon is one. Some with some screwy ideas about religious beliefs are another. Very few have been willing to acknowledge they might be wrong, even after being presented with evidence to the contrary.

    At times I wonder what’s the point. I doubt any of us are as open minded as we’d like to think. Those people writing his blog site are just as convinced that he’s mistaken as he is that they are (granted the evidence is on his side on issues like the Apollo program, Lee Harvey Oswald, and 9/11). Neither have changed the other’s viewpoint. I doubt BA has changed the minds of Moon Conspiracy folks, and I know that those who think that global warming is primarily solar based have not changed BA’s.

    So, if are ways are all set in granite, what do any of us accomplish other than a feeling of self-satisfaction?

  23. @Pieter Kok,

    Are you kidding? Dawkins and Hitchens? Especially with Hitchens, they are advocates of atheism specifically, and have done very little in recent times to counter ID alone, whatever their progress in a semi-related area. Just because someone is loud, it doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing anything.

    PZ sure, and Dawkins a little, but the fact you’ve never heard of Mooney and Nesbit simply illustrates an information selection bias. You’re a fan of spreading Atheism, which is okay but not necessarily related to countering ID. I think a lot of confusion is generated by there being a group that sees this as a fight against religion in general, and those that see this as something a lot more limited in scope.

  24. Quiet Desperation

    At times I wonder what’s the point. I doubt any of us are as open minded as we’d like to think.

    Sadly, I find many fellow skeptics to be *more* prone to ideological (political) woo woo and extremism than other folks. I try to counter it, but I have found only frustration as you have. It’s even worse because many skeptics think they are smarter than they really are.

    Disclaimer: I’m not referring to anyone around these parts or this blog.

    I work in an industry where I have regular interactions with folks who have titles like “Chief Scientist” (mine is “lead technologist”, thank you very much). Great to chat with on science.

    Mention anything political, and I wind up wanting to go home and hide in a dark room for a bit. It still staggers me how the human mind can be so organized in one area, and a seething cesspool of nonsense in another.

    It’s like how some serial killers are actually really smart guys. There’s a dichotomy there that’s difficult to understand.

  25. Jim

    KC, many minds are set in granite. The next generation’s mind is not. A gen 2 seeing a gen 1 being laughed at may be a bit more skeptical, perhaps.

    Another case in point. The religious chatter in a city where Catholics and Protestants live together is substantially reduced over a city where most everyone is the same religion (citation needed). Laughing at and ridiculing Bible thumpers in public makes talking about religion more ‘dangerous’ and potentially embarrassing.

    Probably the best history lesson are civil rights. Being a good slave or sitting quietly in the back of the bus got you nowhere. The TV images of blacks being beaten over water fountain rights or voter registration shocked the nation.

    My grandfather was apparently some KKK nut case. He was my early political teacher and let me know all the world’s problems were due to n===rs and Jews. I am still uncomfortable around Blacks and Jews. I notice this and try to get to know them, if the situation permits, – I usually initiate a conversation with them. It nevers ceases to amaze me how the boogie men in my mind turn into nice, real people. I wonder as I get older and my frontal lobes deteriorate, I will have James-Watson moments.

    Many of these fundie preachers are playing hardball. We need to play ball!


  26. Jim

    Dr. Quiet Desperation:

    I have had similar problems. Perhaps one of the requirements for a PhD is to have that neural network in your brain the is responsible for saying “I don’t know” removed. Once they get their PhD in basket weaving, the are suddenly awarded all knowledge.

    I have tried a number of things. One is betting pay-checks on one of their claims. Most of them hate that and just ignore you, although others often smile. A few comments about putting their money where their mouth is and the subject seems to change. No one will bet with me. Even obvious wins for them.

    I think that there are articles about that discuss this problem.

    Perhaps you could take notes, analyze the situation and email everyone. When you show up with your pad in tow, the subject might start to get changed. Then again, you might get outcast. A few co-conspirators might be of use.

  27. KC

    I don’t think any one group is more guilty of an ossified mindset than any other. I think this is something ingrained in us all. Misconceptions abound despite evidence to the contrary.

    It’s probably not wise to give a laundry list of items, since it would border on trolling. I’ve heard them among secularists and the religious, among skeptics and those knee deep in woo-wooism. Suffice to say these misconceptions are easy to find if you keep your eyes and ears open. And the simple expedient of presenting facts is not sufficient to dispel them.

    Why yes, I am a cynic. How did you know?

  28. BaldApe

    “Very few have been willing to acknowledge they might be wrong, even after being presented with evidence to the contrary.”

    That’s the thing, isn’t it? People who believe in these conpiracy theories are immune to evidence, because they don’t accept evidence as paramount. If the evidence conflicts with their ideology, they reject the evidence rather than question their oppinion.

  29. Irishman

    KC said:
    > At times I wonder what’s the point. I doubt any of us are as open minded as we’d like to think. Those people writing his blog site are just as convinced that he’s mistaken as he is that they are (granted the evidence is on his side on issues like the Apollo program, Lee Harvey Oswald, and 9/11). Neither have changed the other’s viewpoint. I doubt BA has changed the minds of Moon Conspiracy folks, and I know that those who think that global warming is primarily solar based have not changed BA’s.

    >So, if are ways are all set in granite, what do any of us accomplish other than a feeling of self-satisfaction?

    Worthy question, but I think it’s faulty in premise. I don’t think it’s true that all ways are set in granite. There may be people who won’t look at the evidence or refuse to accept the evidence because it conflicts with their greater worldview. But there are also plenty of people exposed to the idea that aren’t necessarily commited, they are just trying to figure out what makes the most sense. It is these people that you need to argue for, not to convince the conspiracy theorists and nutcases, but to inform the uninformed and mislead. For instance, on the Moon Hoax topic, I have encountered people who came to the discussion board leaning toward the moon landings were a hoax but primarily because the information they used to make that conclusion was faulty. It typically misrepresented technical topics, was incomplete, or in some cases was just blatantly wrong. With some patient explanation and a few references (and sometimes some real-world self-generated examples), these poeple were able to change their belief and accept the reality of the Apollo program.

    You also seem to be conflating people who conclude based upon factual evidence with people who conclude based upon opinion, wild speculation, and agendas. For example, above you cite the author of that article’s beliefs about Apollo, Lee Harvey Oswald, and 9/11. Then you admit the evidence is on his side. Yet you equate his level of belief with the alternate explanation crowd who think Apollo was a hoax, Oswald was a patsy, and 9/11 had some other explanation than a dedicated group of terrorists executed a complex plan that took months to plan and prepare in order to fly commercial airlines into public venues. So tell me, why is it that you think it is just as relevant that the nutters can’t convince him to change his opinion as it is that he can’t change theirs? In this example, he has evidence.


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