Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. This is fact. Somehow, though, conspiracy theories about the moon landing being a hoax remain alive. Much time and effort has been spent debunking these wayward theories.
There is psychological link between the moon landing hoax and a pattern of thought that influences the debate about current, serious issues such as the re-emergence of communicable diseases like measles and the global crisis of climate change. The cognitive gymnastics that lead to support of the anti-vaccine movement and to climate change denialism appear to be grounded in the misapplication of the concept of proof, and a lack of understanding of how science works (although to be sure, that may not be the only reason, as breeding misinformation may be advantageous to one’s economic position, as can be seen in the refusal to address climate change). This was stated well by Jeremy Shapiro, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University: “Proof exists in mathematics and logic but not in science. Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth but no final end point to the process. Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as ‘unproven.’ Such statements are technically correct but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.”
Watching a 72-year-old Buzz Aldrin punch an aggressively obnoxious moon landing hoaxer in the face might be satisfying (video available online), but unfortunately that approach won’t make any headway in the battle against scientific denialism. You may have heard before that facts don’t change the mind of someone with a strongly held belief. That’s in part due to confirmation bias: we give little credence to evidence that contradicts our beliefs and weigh heavily any evidence that confirms them (a cognitive bias we have to combat in the diagnostic process). We overlook inconvenient truths and arguments to the contrary, allowing our established opinions to become entrenched. Schmid and Betsch recently published “Effective strategies for rebutting science denialism in public discussions,” in which they described a series of experiments showing how certain approaches fared in counteracting the spread of misinformation about vaccination. They found that using topic rebuttal (opposing misinformation with facts) and technique rebuttal (unmasking the flawed methods of argument, like cherry-picking data, etc) were both effective, but combining the rebuttal approaches was not additive. A nice review can be read in the Scientific American article “How to Debate a Science Denier” by Diana Kwon. As if to emphasize the point, a study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication looked at whether or not Americans were changing their mind about global warming; they found a small but meaningful percentage of people had changed their mind to recognize it as a serious problem.
Regarding Climate Change, the ACP outlined its stance in a May 2016 Position Paper and there is additional information in the Advocacy section of acponline (Climate Change Toolkit). ACP has also recently come out in support of the Vaccine Awareness Campaign to Champion Immunization Nationally and Enhance Safety (VACCINES) Act. This is bipartisan legislation that would provide federal funding for surveillance of low vaccination rates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and outline a national public messaging campaign informed by this research to help improve vaccination rates.
Parenthetically, there’s an interesting moon-measles connection; one you might remember if you saw the movie Apollo 13. Charlie Duke, a member of the back-up flight crew, contracted measles; he exposed Ken Mattingly, a first-string crew member who was non-immune. Because of fear that he might develop the disease while in space, Mattingly was grounded, to be replaced by Jack Swigert. Some believe that contributed to the safe return of the ill-fated mission because of Swigert’s particular knowledge of command module emergency procedures and Mattingly’s particular engineering skill which helped the flight crew from the ground, but that is just speculation (and not a testable hypothesis!).
-Rob Nardino, MD, MACP