The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theories

In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Jonathan Pageau has an interesting video about the symbolism of conspiracy theories:

It’s a very interesting video and very much worth watching. He talks about how conspiracy theories have a tendency to be symbolically true (at least from the vantage point of the conspiracy theorists) even though they tend to be factually wacko.

For example, consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Actually executing such a conspiracy in a way that would usefully fool the Russians (who were the primary audience for the moon landing) would be absurdly difficult. This Mitchell & Webb sketch isn’t terribly accurate, but it will suffice for my present purpose, and as a bonus it’s funny:

The idea that the moon landing was faked on a sound stage is ridiculous if you try to think it through, but it’s interesting what it means if you take it symbolically. Doing the moon landing on a sound stage symbolizes that going to the moon was not a real capability. Not in the literal sense that we couldn’t do it, but that we couldn’t keep it up. And, indeed, we couldn’t. Going to the moon was a cold-war flex on the Russians designed to try to win that war without resorting to nuclear weapons. If you want to know why, in 48 years, we haven’t been back to the moon, the real reason is obvious if you just look at a picture of NASA’s budget over time (moon landings took place from 1969-1972):

Going to the moon is extremely expensive. Absent dunking on the Russians, it’s really hard to justify spending a ton of money on it. Following the few years where we did it to dunk on the Russians, we in fact haven’t spent a ton of money on it. So, was the whole “We can go to the moon! We can do anything!” thing a lie? Yes. In a sense, it was.

There are an awful lot of things that we, as a society, could do if we decide to allocate a large fraction of our national resources to it. We could bell every cat to protect the song birds. We could build high speed trains connecting every city with at least ten thousand people in the country. We could give every person their own pet robot elephant, if we wanted to. However, none of these things—and many others—are worth the trouble. There is some technical sense in which we could do these things, but we can’t do them in the very practical sense that we won’t do them. We don’t want to do them. We might airily daydream that they would be nice. Especially the robot elephants. But when it comes to the actual things rather than merely a passing thought about them—we don’t want them if we’d have to actually do them in order to get them.

And so it is with going to the moon. It is possible that in another decade or two SpaceX and its competitors will have brought down the cost of massive rockets enough that someone will consider the few hundred million dollars it will probably cost worth it. If so, it will not really change things; going to the moon was supposed to usher in the space age. Instead, we’ve stayed firmly on the ground because, quite literally, there’s nothing in space and therefore no reason to go there.

In short, there were people who hoped that the moon missions meant that we’d soon be building these:

The conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked basically means that we aren’t. And that part—the practical part—is right. We’re not building a Stanford torus anytime soon.

There’s no earthly reason to.

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