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A Giant Leap for Conspiracy Theorists

Just when you thought it was safe to consider the moon landing a fact, a skeptic flies in its face by confronting Buzz Aldrin.

September 11, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between TV psychics talking to dead people and living pets, and movies about crop circles, it's been a busy summer for skeptics. It just got busier.

The decades-old conspiracy theory that America staged its moon landings resurfaced this week after a man confronted Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin with that accusation at a Beverly Hills Hotel. Bart Sibrel, 37, who describes himself as a video producer and investigative journalist on his Web site, says he was struck in the face by the 72-year-old astronaut after asking Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he'd been to the moon, according to Beverly Hills police.

Apparently, this is at least the second time Sibrel has confronted Aldrin about setting foot on the moon. A couple years ago, Aldrin was on a book tour when Sibrel "started ranting and raving," according to Aldrin's wife, Lois.

"He attacked Buzz about going to the moon. He said things I can't repeat," she said. "He was not a nice man, and it really upset Buzz a lot."

Aldrin was at a meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Skeptics wish that those who assert the 1969 Apollo moon mission was faked would apply a little more research to their ideas. "The claim that the moon landing is a hoax is completely crackpot," said Kevin Christopher, a spokesman for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine based in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's just crazy. The scientific evidence is overwhelming."

Aldrin's widely reported run-in hasn't generated many calls related to the space program--yet. Instead, Christopher said, he's spent a good part of his summer debunking the equally persistent belief that crop circles are symbols made by aliens, thanks to the hit movie "Signs," which explores the phenomenon of geometric circles made in fields.

"There's no mystery to be explained here. I went out twice with some wooden boards and made crop circles," said Christopher. "If it is aliens, they are very low-tech."

Conspiracy theories are a staple of any society, according to psychologists. Often borne of intense political disaffection and a deep-seated need for order, such wild theories offer believers neat explanations for complex events with the assurance their assertions can't be disproved. After all, how can anyone prove a "hidden hand" isn't behind the event?

"The Internet makes this sound even more credible," said Terence Sandbek, a psychologist in private practice in Sacramento who deals with issues of faith, doubt and belief. "We tend to seek out people with similar biases, and on the Internet there are so many of them. So it seems it has to be true."

Naturally, the conspiratorial ideas about the moon landing have found expression in movies and television as well. In 1978, the movie "Capricorn One," which had stars Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson staging a landing on Mars, fueled cries that the moon landing was a hoax. Within the last couple of years, Fox television has repeated broadcasts of its special, "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"

"We always get calls even from teachers after the Fox program airs," said Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman in Washington, D.C. "It's ridiculous. We don't want to debate it because it lessens one of the greatest achievements of human history."

Aldrin's sudden and unexpected confrontation this week demonstrates a familiar tactic to gain publicity among such theorists, said Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptics Society in Altadena.

"You see a lot of this among the Holocaust deniers too," said Linse. "They provoke people into anger and then they crow, 'We were cool and rational, while the other side was not.'

"This guy is getting a terrific amount of attention and it has worked beautifully," she added. "His arguments [about the moon landing] weren't good enough to get attention, but the fact he seemed to provoke an elderly man did get him attention."

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