Popular Beliefs

Tom Shipka

Did you know that 27% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have doubts that NASA astronauts really landed on the Moon? (1) And that 4 of 10 parents in the United States refuse to give their children one or more traditional vaccinations for fear of autism? (2) These are two of the surprising revelations in a new book by science writer, Guy P. Harrison, entitled 50 popular beliefs that people think are true. In this book Harrison examines dozens of beliefs which, despite their hold on millions, lack one important ingredient – evidence. (3)Let's focus here on beliefs about the Moon landings and vaccinations.

According to many NASA doubters, the Moon landings were a NASA hoax to embarrass the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their case consists of three points: one - photographs of the astronauts on the Moon show no stars in the background as they should; two - there should be a crater under the lunar landing module caused by its descent but photos show none; and three - the flag placed on the Moon by the astronauts should not have been waving, as it did for a time, because there is no wind on the Moon. Harrison rebuts each:

  • The stars in the sky behind the astronauts were absent for a reason that any experienced photographer understands, he says. When the camera's exposure was set to highlight the astronauts, it lost the faint light of stars in the sky behind them. (4)
  • The reason that there was no crater under the lunar landing module, he explains, is that the module's powerful engine was "throttled back, way back, on descent..." to ensure a safe landing. (5)
  • Next, the reason that the flag waved, he points out, is due to "vibrations and twisting" caused when the astronauts drove the flag pole into the Moon surface. (6)

Beyond this, Harrison makes two further points: if the Apollo program were a hoax to embarrass the Soviets, their extensive intelligence apparatus surely would have discovered and publicized it, and given the fact that thousands of people were involved in the Apollo program, at least one participant would have confessed by now but none has. (7)

Next, do vaccinations for measles, whooping cough, and other health threats pose a risk of autism for children, as many believe? Harrison's answer is a decisive "No!" He points out that extensive, continuing research shows no link between vaccinations and autism (8) and he complains that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children put them and others at needless risk because "vaccinations have probably saved more lives than any other form of medicine in history." (9)

Fear of vaccinations began, Harrison explains, with publication of an article in 1998 in the Lancet, a British medical journal,by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor, which claimed that the measles vaccination causes autism. Despite the fact that:

  • Wakefield's research was subsequently discredited by research teams around the world,
  • the Lancet later retracted his article, and
  • Wakefield lost his medical license,

the fear that his article triggered remains. (10)

Harrison's 50 popular beliefs that people think are true reminds all of us that we are susceptible to speculation and myth, (11) and that the only responsible basis of our beliefs is evidence. I hope that it gets the huge, multi-national audience that it deserves.


  1. See Guy P. Harrison, 50 popular beliefs that people think are true, Prometheus Books, 2012, pp. 97-98. Future references to this book are by page number. Harrison points out that many doubters have been influenced by a "pseudo-documentary" entitled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? which first aired on the Fox network in 2001.
  2. P. 235.
  3. Among the beliefs that Harrison evaluates in his book are: there is an afterlife; psychics can read our minds; intelligence is innate and fixed; a Bible code reveals the future; all humans live many times (reincarnation); some people have extrasensory perception; psychic detectives solve crimes; Nostradamus predicted many current events centuries ago; there are miracles; space travelers visited Earth thousands of years ago; UFOs are visitors from other worlds; a flying saucer crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947; aliens have abducted humans; the position of the planets at the time of one's birth determines one's personality (astrology); the Holocaust never happened; global warming is a myth; TV news gives us an accurate picture of the world; biological races are real; alternative medicine works; faith healers cure the sick; my religion is the only true one; the Biblical account of creation is true; Biblical prophecies have come to pass; prayer works; archaeologists have discovered Noah's Ark; holy relics possess supernatural powers; there are ghosts; bigfoot lives; there are angels; there are witches who can harm us; a lost city of Atlantis is buried in an ocean; there is a heaven and a hell; the Bermuda Triangle is an especially dangerous area for planes, ships, and boats; the U.S. Government keeps aliens in Area 51 in Nevada; the end of the world will occur on December 21, 2012; and the Rapture will occur soon.
  4. Pp. 85-86. Harrison, by the way, is an award-winning photographer.
  5. P. 96.
  6. P. 97.
  7. Pp. 92-93.
  8. P. 237, p. 240.
  9. P. 235.
  10. Harrison also explains that many governments have taken steps to placate fearful parents. For instance, some have removed or reduced to trace amounts in vaccines a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal and some have replaced the so-called "vaccine cocktail" with single vaccines. Despite this, the incidence of autism continues to climb, as does that of measles and other diseases, especially among the unvaccinated. (pp. 236-237, p. 240)
  11. Harrison points out that all of us, including "intelligent and educated people," are tempted to believe without proof. For instance, renowned scientist, Jane Goodall, is a Bigfoot believer. (p. 24)

© 2012 Tom Shipka