"SHOOT for the moon”, so the saying goes, “because if you fall short, you will land amongst the stars.” Aim high, and if you only partly achieve your goal that will still be an improvement on the status quo. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

However, the logic of this positive-thinking mantra doesn’t quite apply if your equivalent of a moon landing is triumphing over coronavirus and your sojourn among the stars is creating a dangerous false sense of security and, ultimately, causing unnecessary deaths.

So where did Boris Johnson get his inspiration for Operation Moonshot, the ambitious plan to process millions of Covid-19 tests per day using technology that does not yet exist? The man who coined that “moon shot” phrase, American minister Norman Vincent Peale, preached about the power of positive thinking for five decades at his church in New York. He even joined forces with a psychoanalyst to open a psychiatric clinic for his followers in the building next door.

READ MORE: Shona Craven: Jackie Baillie’s poisonous p**h could cause real harm

No fewer than seven US presidents have sung the praises of Peale, who died in 1993, which is perhaps no wonder given his simple, optimistic slogans provide an endorsement of individual responsibility, faith in God and the power of the American dream. His book The Power Of Positive Thinking, published in 1952, remained on The New York Times bestseller list for an astonishing 186 weeks.

However, others have had less positive things to say about this approach. Theologians called him a heretic, a cult leader and borderline blasphemer, while psychologists characterised him as a con man and charlatan whose methods amounted to a form of hypnosis that could make his disciples/patients more vulnerable to mental illness. One of the founders of cognitive psychology Albert Ellis claimed he had treated Peale followers whose symptoms matched those of borderline personality disorder.

Among the congregations of aspiring space cadets who attended Peale’s church over the years was a young Donald Trump, whose parents were ardent fans of the pastor. A 2015 profile for the US political website Politico – titled “How Norman Vincent Peale taught Donald Trump to worship himself” – attributed the misplaced confidence of the then presidential hopeful to his exposure to these teachings.

Trump has referred to Peale as “the greatest guy” and some of the pastor’s most famous soundbites – such as “expect great things and great things will come” – would certainly not seem out of place among the president’s tweets today. He certainly seems to have adopted “think positive” as his approach to tackling Covid-19, despite the fresh evidence that he understood only too well how deadly and easily spread the virus was.

READ MORE: Shona Craven: University at 18 is not the only route to success

“I wanted to always play it down,” he reportedly told journalist Bob Woodward. “We want to show confidence, we want to show strength.”

Johnson, too, is keen to show confidence in his government’s ability to lead the UK through the pandemic, but it’s difficult when his opponents keep insisting the Test and Trace programme isn’t working the way it should. Part of the problem, according to Johnson and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock, is the worried well requesting tests when they don’t have any symptoms.

The solution? Test everyone! Turn a failing into a selling point! Never mind that we lack the laboratory capacity to keep up with current levels of demand. Never mind that the technology for “pregnancy-test-style” systems doesn’t yet exist. Perhaps if we all wish for it hard enough, it will exist “in the near future” just like the government is planning! Maybe instead of clapping for the NHS we could all come out of our homes every Thursday night and just send positive vibes into the atmosphere. That’s got to be better than just moping around complaining about trifling matters like false negatives.

Grant Shapps assures us that “the Prime Minister has talked about 20 minutes to 90 minutes” as a timeframe for home test results. Heck, why don’t we shoot for five minutes? Why not 90 seconds? Dream big!

Presumably instead of consulting scientists, these politicians have been reading pseudoscience self-help guide The Secret, which attests that all you must do to achieve your dreams is “ask, believe, and receive”.

READ MORE: With big names preparing to resign, is it reshuffle time?

Never mind that this nonsense has been comprehensively debunked by everyone from psychologists to quantum physicists. A 2010 essay in The New York Times described the message of this book and its spin-offs as “an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind”. Accordingly, high-profile believers such as Oprah Winfrey are super-spreaders.

When it comes to realistic solutions to the current crisis, don’t Johnson and Trump fall into the same category, spreading false hopes of quick-fix routes out of crisis? Do they actually believe their own nonsense, or is it part of a deliberate strategy to keep spirits high when the news offers little cause for optimism? If it’s the latter, what is their plan for letting us down gently when their big-money gambles fail to pay off?

Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t start writing £100 billion worth of cheques for Operation Moonshot ... because it seems likely he’ll shortly be falling back down to earth with a very big bump.