Strange ideas and misconceptions slip into astronomy perhaps more than any of the other sciences. Surveys have often found that even college graduates carry unreliable ideas or even completely wrong ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons or why the sky is blue. For the last few years, a number of prominent astronomers have found themselves battling a flood of conspiracy theories regarding the moon landings, as the internet has opened up chat rooms and websites for amateur theorists to chew the cud. Its important that real scientists fight back against misconceptions as these strange ideas have a real possibility of undermining peoples belief in science and the credibility of scientific authorities. Scientists have a very important role to play in our society: they must protect us from lies. They must take a more active role in educating the public.
To begin with, it is interesting to take a close look at the American educational system to see just how much elementary astronomy is not taught, or not taught well. The average person is unable to answer straightforward questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “How long does it take for light from the sun to reach the Earth?” Because of the quantity of scientific illiteracy in this day and age it should be surprised that conspiracy theorists are able to seize a large part of the public attentions on questions such as the moon landing—one of the signal scientific achievements of the 20th century. This is a sad situation. Specific instances of incorrect astronomical knowledge among regular people are not cause for concern. Not everyone is going to care about outer space. But like in other sciences, the general public often displays a pattern of misconception and ignorance on these issues, and with astronomy in particular is more than willing to believe wild claims such as alien visitation and moon landing hoax theories. Scientists must do more to alter this situation. They must actively educate the public.
The problem with so many conspiracy theories or claims of well-organized hoaxes, however, is that they can never agree on exactly who did what, when, and why. For those 9/11 truthers out there there as many reasons for the conspiracy as there are grains of sand. Likewise for the moon landing hoax. It is a cottage industry without any professional credibility. A lot of it has to do with resentment and hatred of the government which some people believe is an all powerful, malign force. Events like Watergate and the build up to the Iraq War do not inspire much confidence in people, but most historians and political observers see these events as isolated incidents or even undirected actions. In order to counteract this, scientists must step up to the plate and work to inform the general public about such situations.