Blinded by science

“I think a lot of pseudo-sciency topics, they just catch some archetype in our minds, something that we find just more viscerally interesting,” says Trinity University assistant professor of physics and astronomy Dennis Ugolini. In this age of Intelligent Design and Global Warming denial, Ugolini’s January 9 Food for Thought lecture, Science vs. Pseudoscience, sounds like just the meal we need. But in keeping with his observation, our conversation kept gravitating toward conspiracy theories, which not so coincidentally is how Ugolini’s topic was inspired, right after he was invited to teach a required first-year seminar on critical thinking and writing ...

“ ... that very night as I’m reading, my wife comes into the room and says, you gotta talk to my mother. She’s on the phone, and she just saw a television program that says the Apollo moon landings never occurred, they were filmed on a soundstage, and now she believes it and you gotta talk her off the ledge. And as I’m talking to her I was thinking, this is absolutely perfect, because given all these evidences that on the surface you say, that’s really persuasive, but if you teach yourself to ask yourself questions extending what you see — like one of the first things in the program was, in all of the photographs taken on the moon, there are no stars in the background. And clearly there should be stars in the background, so they just neglected to paint them onto the backdrop when they filmed it on the soundstage.”

Maybe they ran out of that glow-in-the-dark paint.

Right. Now, on the surface that sounds pretty good, but then what you need to teach yourself to do is to start asking yourself questions. Not just questions like why would they make such a stupid oversight, but more importantly, when I look up at the sky, do I see stars? Yes, but when I look up at the moon do you see stars near the moon? And the answer is you don’t — not because they’re not there, but because the iris of your eye adjusts to the level of light coming from the moon, which is extremely bright, at which point the stars are so comparatively dim that they don’t show up. With a camera it’s even worse, because a camera has the shutter open for a finite amount of time, and so all these pictures of the moon, either the surface of the moon itself or the earth off in the distance, are always in the shot — those are very bright images, so the shutter of the camera is set to let in the right amount of light so you can make out details on those objects, in which case the amount of light coming from distant stars in that amount of time is so little they just don’t show up.

Where do you come down on the JFK shooting?

You know, I’ve only looked at that in terms of the magic bullet. I had a student once who wanted to work on that as a topic. I’m only 34, I was born 10 years after the assassination, so that’s not as ingrained for me and it’s completely distant to the students. ... If I remember correctly, the bullet comes into Kennedy’s back, it comes out near his throat, and then it hits the base of Governor Connolly’s chair sitting in front of him. So there’s two very sharp angles in that path, but I remember thinking it all becomes one very straight path if he’s bending over when the shot occurs, because then it comes in his back, goes straight forward and out his throat, which is all basically level if he’s already bending forward. Now, I’ve never gone back and looked at a tape of the Zapruder film to see if he’s actually bending over at some point, but I do seem to remember people diving on the car.

The nice thing about the class is I learn so much because I make the students pick a topic ... The idea of talking about 9-11 came from a student and opened up a lot of things to me. We spent an entire week of the course analyzing Loose Change almost frame by frame at one point, and that was fantastic, because it’s so chock-full of information and it’s so wrong. It’s great for the students because I make them watch the movie first, and they come in and they’re pretty shaken, because no one person can dismiss everything in that film, there’s just too much. So they come in going, Wow, I never really thought about this. I’m worried now that the wool has been pulled over my eyes. Then we go through it in detail and then they swing in exactly the opposite direction: They say, Wow, I can’t believe how easily this movie convinced me. I need to start asking more questions.

Out of the Loose Change film, what do you think can you pick out one item that seems so compelling to people and pick it apart real quick?

And this will be in the talk, because it’s one of my favorite images. But one of the contentions is that the Pentagon was not struck by a plane, but instead struck by a missile. And on all of the conspiracy websites, and also in Loose Change, they will show an image of the section of the Pentagon that was struck and they will say, where is the damage from the wings of the airplane? Where are the wings of the airplane? Because if you look, it’s a fairly narrow region of the Pentagon that is damaged; there’s like one section that collapsed and the section to either side looks relatively undamaged, and there’s no debris outside. So they will show this image and say this is not consistent with an airplane. It’s more consistent with a very narrow object that penetrates deep into the bulding, like a missile. And the Loose Change people go so far as to superimpose a picture of an airplane on the section of wall so you can see it just doesn’t make any sense. And that is their undoing, because if you look at it carefully, you say to yorself, is there aything here I can use for a sense of scale, because the Pentagon is so big, and very few people have seen it for real that it’s hard to get any sense of scale. Well, well off in the far right are emergency workers, poeple in hard hats respondong to the scene, and they’re about the same size as the engine on this super-imposed Boeing 747. So clearly the plane is too small; they’ve shrunken the image down and you say to yourself, why? Can I find a wider shot of the side of the Pentagon? And if you flip through Loose Change there is about a three-second helicopter flyover image that’s really nothing but background for the narration at the time, but if you freeze-frame it and look carefully, if you go yet one section farther of the bulding to either side, you will see two huge blackened circles where the engines hit. The thing is, wings are where the fuel is, and so when the plane hits, those explode. The debris from the wings is spread over a very wide area. The only thing dense enough to leave any significant impact are the engines, and they leave those burned circles. But on all the conspiracy-theory websites you will always see a narrower shot of the building to leave those burned areas out. And it always makes me wonder: Are they knowingly cropping this image to defend their argument? Or are they so convinced of their argument that they try to dismiss anything that doesn’t seem to perfectly fit. The psychology of that fascinates me. But that’s my favorite image because it is perfectly presented to include all the information that supports their argument, and delete the information that weakens it, and unless you ask yourself why did they pick this image and only this one, it’s easy to get carried away.

Professor Ugolini finds more Loose Change at For more info on Trinity’s Food for Thought lectures, visit

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