50 years today – 20th July 1969 – we landed on the Moon. Or, did we?

Popular conspiracy theories propose the moon landing was a hoax and the footage recorded in a Hollywood studio. An explanation for why could be that at the time, the Americans had not yet developed a safe way to get a person on the moon – as promised – so they faked it! On the approach to the 50th anniversary, I have been invited to speak about this conspiracy theory, so I thought I’d pen a short blog post on the topic.

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Conspiracy theories are popular, with 12% of British people believing that the moon landing was faked.  But, why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

The moon landing conspiracy theories showcase a tale of mistrust of information; a mistrust towards those with power – whether this is the government or NASA. This mistrust can increase the credibility of conspiracy theory accounts, as these accounts support a persons’ worldview. Indeed, conspiracy theories breed when the conspiracy account fits with the prior held beliefs or the way that a person sees the world (often referred to as motivated reasoning) – simply if a person believes powerful groups act in secret, where they are involved in plots and schemes, this will likely breed conspiratorial thinking to a range of events, including the moon landing.

However, simple exposure can also increase people’s belief in conspiracy theories. Researchers found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and reminded heightened two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video). It is plausible that the influence will be stronger if the conspiracy fits your prior belief; but nonetheless, this research demonstrates the potential impact of simple exposure to conspiracy theories.

People also have a desire to search for knowledge and find the truth – however, research has shown that people who are low in analytical thinking (and instead rely on intuitive thinking) are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories. In other words, people may have the desire to be rationale and seek knowledge, however, they may rely more on intuition rather than critical evaluation (see here for a discussion). This process could also be clouded by how they see the world; their motivated reasoning as uncovered earlier.

In insolation, believing that the moon landing conspiracy theory is a hoax may have limited consequences; however, we know that people who believe in one conspiracy are very likely to subscribe to multiple conspiracy theories. The belief in the moon landing conspiracy may go on to promote the belief that other events have been faked – such as the Sandy hook shooting in America as discussed by Peter Knight. This could become worrying because conspiracy theories have been linked to violent tendencies – for example, a link has been demonstrated between people endorsing conspiracy beliefs and accepting violence towards the government.

Did we land on the moon? Our beliefs about the world and ability to think analytically (rather than rely on our intuition) will likely play a role in our response to that question.

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You can listen to recent interviews I have given to BBC Radio Sussex and Stoke. Other scholars have written and commented as part of an excellent series on the moon landings in the Conversation.

I’m also part of a panel discussing moon landing conspiracy theorists at the Science Museum at the end of July 2019 (£).

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