Future Fact? Present Fraud? Or…?

Once more, just the other day, someone said to me and my wife, “We never really went to the moon. It was all a fraud.” This person is not uneducated. In fact, the individual has an earned graduate degree and spent some fifteen years as an executive in the financial industry.

It doesn’t seem to matter to this individual — or the millions that share such a belief — that scientists are bouncing laser and radio beams off the reflectors left on the moon by our astronauts. Nor do the photographs and records that could not have been obtained any other way count against this belief. Nor the fact that ground-based and space-based evidence agree. Nor does the fact that we and other countries have put dozens of astronauts into space matter.

Nope. To such people, the moon landings were all a fraud.

Maybe this kind of belief has something to do with the brain. A recent study confirmed that there is indeed a difference between the way “liberals” and “conservatives” process and react to information, and that that difference goes far beyond politics. Liberals tend to be more open to new experiences, conservatives more entrenched and unwilling to move away from past beliefs. And, of course, interesting enough, there are those who classify themselves as liberals who actually have a conservative mind-set, who will not deviate from what they believe regardless of evidence, and there are those who claim that they are conservative who are very open to new evidence and ideas.

Neither mindset is necessarily “good” or “bad.” As many conservatives would say, and have, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” That can be very true. On the other hand, no matter how hard one wants to believe that the earth is flat, I’m sorry. It just isn’t. When new information arrives that is soundly and scientifically based, regardless of opinion and past beliefs, a truly intelligent person should be willing to look at it objectively and open-mindedly.

In a sense, I think, most people are basically conservative. We really don’t want to change what we believe without very good reason. In evolutionary, historical, and social terms, there are good reasons for this viewpoint. Just as in mutations affecting an organism, most changes in social and political institutions are bad. Only a few are for the best.

The problem occurs when the probability of danger from an event is not absolute, or unitary, as some economists put it, but still likely to occur, and when that occurrence would be catastrophic to the human race. Over the history of homo sapiens, some hundreds of thousands of years, or millions, depending on one’s definition of exactly when our forebears became thinking human beings, this kind of situation has not occurred until the past half century. While it might be unthinkable and improbable to most, a nuclear war would be devastating to the human race. So, it appears, will runaway global warming, regardless of cause.

The “conservative” view is to wait and let things sort themselves out. After all, hasn’t this worked throughout history? Well… not always, but in terms of survival and civilization, there was always someone else to carry on. When the Mayan civilization fell because they hadn’t planned well enough for unforeseen droughts, other human civilizations carried on. The same was true of the Anasazi, and now recent satellite measurements and photographs suggest that the same occurred to the Cambodian peoples who built Angkor Wat, then a city complex of over a million people, when drought struck in the 1500s.

But what happens when we as a race face a potential climate catastrophe as devastating as global warming could be? One that affects an entire world, and not just a continent or subcontinent? Can we afford to be conservative? Or is it a situation where, in reacting, we could fall for anything?

Is global warming a fraud perpetrated by scientists, as those who deny the moon landings believe about that? Or is it a real and present danger? Or is it over-hyped, the way all the warnings about DDT appear to have been – a real danger in limited areas and to certain species, but truly not the harbinger of a universal silent spring? And how should we react, whether conservative or liberal?