And I thought my grandmother would never lie to me.

I was with my Granny Talley the day humanity first set foot on the moon. It happened 50 years ago yesterday (if you are reading these words in Sunday’s newspaper). Grandpa Talley had passed away the autumn before and Dad had dropped me off to spend part of a summer’s day with this fun, energetic, honest-to-the-core, and innately intelligent lady.

As we watched the lunar landing coverage, Granny suddenly blurted out, “Benny, you know them men ain’t really walkin’ on the moon. I think they went out somewhere in the Arizoney desert at night and set it all up. They want us to think we’re beatin’ the Russians.”

Of course, being my beloved and trusted grandmother … I believed every word she said as fact. My grandmother would never lie to me. And that’s a fact. Oh, but being human; how wrong she could be about the facts.

Indeed, how wrong untold millions of us can be when faced with accepting scientific evidence as fact.

Ask the next few people you come across if they realize that all things eventually change. Even the most uninformed and uneducated folk among us will surely agree with you. But, wait. Just don’t call it evolution. Give it that name and many an otherwise reasonable soul will proceed to spout words coated with hellfire and brimstone your way.

Ask the next few people you meet if they’ve noticed there’s less snow in winter nowadays than when they were a child. They will virtually all resound with, “Yes.” But don’t you dare call it global warming … or fossil fuel-induced climate change … or be prepared for an emotionally entrenched speech that will roast your eardrums.

So why do so many people in America neither respect nor understand science? Why do so many of us appear to worship superstition and hearsay, instead? It’s obvious that many of us are prone to believe conspiracy theories and pure fantasy over real science. Think of the people who actually “believe” aliens landed at Area 51, or that Bigfoot roams the forests of the Northwest. You may even number among them.

And if we’ve been “taught” to believe something (anything) by those in whom we place great trust (religiously or politically), it is even tougher for us to ever “unbelieve” it. Anyone who purports to shed the light of truth on our deeply ingrained political or religious beliefs is in for a battle. The more emotionally attached we are to those long-cherished beliefs, the harder we are inclined to fight against changing them … even in the face of overwhelming facts.

Now back to my beloved Granny.

The next day, a bunch of us neighborhood kids went out in the backyard to play baseball. Everyone was talking about the astronauts walking on the moon. So I piped up to defend my Granny, “My grandmother said they didn’t really walk on the moon. She said they went out in the Arizona desert at night to film all that stuff. They want to make us think we’re beatin’ the Russians.”

There was dead silence for a moment. Then a sudden burst of laughter emanated from all my friends, all at once. Derisive, taunting, humiliating laughter; the kind that sears your soul and stings forever. One of the boys said, “Ben, your grandmother must be a fool.” I’ve always been nonviolent, even as a child, but it was the closest I ever came to punching a friend in the mouth.

It took me a while, perhaps many years, to fully realize that good, honest, intelligent people can be completely wrong regarding what they believe to be true. Eventually I learned not to accept anything as “truth” just because someone (anyone) I deeply loved or respected told me that it was true.

No, my grandmother would never lie to me. But like all of us, she was constantly susceptible to being wrong … even when (and maybe especially when) she was absolutely sure that she was right.

Which is exactly what an open mind, the scientific method, and a good education do for us all; they help steer us away from our constant capacity for self-delusion … and point us toward the truth. Now that fact may be even more wondrous than men walking on the moon.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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