Here’s an interesting thought about argumentation. To place your faith in something – that is, in order to believe it – you have to answer the question, “Why?” Simply put, reasons validate arguments. If you cannot explain why something occurred, your arguments possess little credibility. Neither are they interesting.
Let’s start with the popular parlor game, Clue. You use process of elimination to solve a crime: identify the murderer, the murder weapon, and where the murderer dispatched the victim. It’s a puzzle solving game. For forty-five years, answers to the puzzle of Kennedy’s murder did not go far beyond puzzle solutions. It was Oswald with the Carcano in the book depository. It was a Cuban, or the Mafia, with a much better rifle from the grassy knoll. It was the Secret Service with a handgun from the motorcade. To reach your favored solution, you had to eliminate the other ones.
These puzzle solutions were not explanations. A sound explanation must tie all parts of the story together. Solving a Clue puzzle does not involve telling a story at all. Successful trial lawyers tell stories in the courtroom. If they do not, they lose to attorneys who do. We spent forty-five years trying to solve the Kennedy puzzle, because we waited that long before James Douglass published JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. If you have not read this book, read it. No other book about Kennedy’s murder explains why he died, narratively. Douglass’s account draws in a lot of evidence, evidence that explains the crime, and attributes motives to the murderers, only if you tell a story with it. Douglass explains why Kennedy’s enemies wanted to kill him.
Here is a simpler example. I bring it up not because I want to make a case for or against NASA, but because it illustrates how believable reasons affect our analysis when we evaluate an argument. I mention NASA first, rather than refer to moon landings, because I don’t want you to dismiss this example as a crackpot argument before you even read it. So stay with me just long enough.
Speculation about how the moon landing, or landings, were staged supplies apparently effective comebacks for people dismissive of conspiracy theories generally. If you express skepticism about the Warren Commission’s official findings, for instance, you might hear someone say, “Oh, and I’ll bet you think the moon landings were faked, too.” How do you respond to an argument like that? It suggests all arguments that deviate from the official account are equally crackpotic.
I first encountered skepticism about the moon landings as I read about Kennedy’s murder. Since I was interested in how people form valid or invalid beliefs about conspiracies and related government misbehavior, the moon controversy drew my attention, if only momentarily. I pretty quickly placed the subject with less important questions: no sidetracking when you have a lot of other reading to do. It’s not an uninteresting question, but it is not related to Kennedy’s assassination.
A key problem, initially, with the moon landing skepticism is that a motive for NASA’s behavior is not immediately apparent. At least, it was not immediately apparent to me. Then someone argued that NASA staged the landings as a standard public relations effort. If you don’t have a successful program going, you don’t get your funds for the next fiscal year. That did not seem so realistic either. NASA had six missions to the moon between 1969 to 1972. It doesn’t seem that it would fake that many landings just to show what a good job it’s doing. It wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
Then I saw an argument that NASA staged the first landing only, because it could not make the end-of-decade target that Kennedy laid out in his challenge before he died. Because of the assassination, the whole country wanted to honor its leader. NASA wanted to succeed on the country’s behalf. When it saw that it could not make the December 31 deadline, it might have conceived an alternate plan, knowing that it would fulfill its promise to Kennedy’s memory in 1970. Knowing how bureaucracies work, and how complicated engineering projects fall behind schedule, NASA could have staged one landing on July 20 rather than admit failure before the whole country.
That’s a more reasonable, and therefore more believable argument than one that says the United States never went to the moon. It places a staged landing in a motivational context, one that makes sense, given what we know about how U. S. government agencies respond to well known incentives, pressures, and setbacks. Saying NASA faked all of the moon landings leaves you thinking, “Why would they do something like that?” Suggesting NASA faked the July 20 landing in 1969 because it was behind schedule makes you think, “I can see why they might do something like that.”
Interestingly, I have not seen systematic comparisons between photographs from the first landing, and photographs from subsequent landings. Given the evidence skeptics have used, comparisons like that would go quite a distance to resolve their questions. You do not have to take a position on either side of this issue, to see how telling a story makes a difference here. I have not studied this issue enough to draw conclusions of my own. Nevertheless it is a good illustration of how an argument that looks unreasonable at first, appears more credible when you give a reasonable response to the query, “Why would they do that?”