Last week I received an e-mail from The Skeptic. Two things were unusual about this:
- This is an e-mail list I deliberately joined.
- They had something optimistic to say that didn't look like it was so forced that it could have pushed cement through a thimble.
The blurb discussed the 9/11 "Truther" movement, and how in the end, it appears that for once sane people were actually part of the majority opinion:
Skeptics today bemoan the overwhelming proportion of people who claim to believe in all manner of conspiracy theories from the JFK assassination to the origins of HIV-AIDS. For that reason, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to stop and celebrate one area in which skeptical advocacy has been overwhelming successful: the world of 9/11 conspiracies. Through the work of scholars like Michael Shermer and James Meigs, along with everyday skeptics on the grassroots level, critical inquiry has been overwhelmingly successful in calling these conspiracy theorists to task.
How Skeptics Confronted 9/11 Denialism
They went on to mention the work of debunking911.com and Thinking Blogger awardees Screw Loose Change as being among the blogs that helped set the record straight. It then goes on to describe the special role a Popular Mechanics article played in setting the record straight:
What should go down as a knockout blow to the 9/11 denier movement, what Michael Shermer called “just about one of the best things ever done in the history of skepticism,” is the now-famous Popular Mechanics article turned into a best-selling book that debunked many of the top points the conspiracy theorists relied on. Joining a chorus of mainstream publications including Skeptic and taking the central claims head on, the Popular Mechanics article became a cornerstone for the 9/11 denier movement’s undoing.
The Popular Mechanics article was published in its March 2005 issue and became an Internet hit after the live debate hosted by Democracy Now! between Popular Mechanics editors Jim Meigs and David Dunbar and Loose Change creators Dylan Avery and Jason Bermas. In the aftermath of that debate — if this is any indicator of which side presented the better case — that article became the most popularly searched item pertaining to 9/11 conspiracies and, from that point on, the skeptical perspective became the dominant voice pertaining to the movement. The conversation was brought to the mainstream, and the mainstream made its decision.
How Skeptics Confronted 9/11 Denialism
The 9/11 conspiracy theories started out as nonsense, and then became progressively worse. They started with some physics professor who didn't seem to know that steel softens at temperatures well below its melting point. If it didn't, you'd have to think that we'd still be cutting our cheese with bronze flatware, and we'd still be riding horses to work. At least, I can't imagine all those blacksmiths and swordmakers making a living if they had to melt steel to change its shape. If I had ten dollars for every time some clown tried to tell me that the "physics just didn't add up" I'd be able to retire by now.
The theories just got wilder from there. It was suggested that there was some secret government program with the purpose of flying aircraft into buildings so that it could assume more powers, or get us involved in a war with Iraq. Quite clearly, that wasn't necessary. Bush was well on his way to lying us into that war even before the Towers fell. One could perhaps speculate that they were willing to ignore warnings about terrorism with that in mind, but given how compliant the press in this country has been, the excuses they already had would have been enough. It was also seizing powers that it shouldn't have before the attacks. Once again, no attack was necessary, because neither the press nor the Congress were going to get in the way.
Eventually, we were expected to believe that trained professionals, who already had more work than they could handle, would have rushed into burning, collapsing buildings to set explosives. Or, we were expected to believe that they set all those explosives in occupied buildings without anyone knowing about it. Anyone who spent even a little time finding out how controlled demolitions experts work would have known just how preposterous an idea that was. As I mentioned before, someone produced a terrific video explaining all that.
Of course, there will always be a few people who believe this nonsense. It's inevitable, I think, given how much some people have invested emotionally in the idea that this could have happened. All the facts and knowledge in the world won't convince them. It's nice to know, though, that if outlandish ideas are confronted, sanity can prevail.
After you've lived long enough, you can observe this same pattern repeating itself over and over again - first wide-eyed acceptance, followed by poorly researched coverage by the "news", or downright pandering. Then serious people start looking at the issue, and most people move on to new fantasies, or in some cases, a greater appreciation of reality. In the end, only a stubborn few believers remain. I've seen this happen with the Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Astronauts, and the UFO movement. While the latter certainly still has adherents, for the most part I think they're made up of people who just can't quite believe that we're alone in the Universe, but just don't realize how rare and fleeting intelligence in a species can be. It's hard to blame them, I suppose, until you realize how rare and fleeting intelligence is in our own species.
I think part of the reason this keeps happening relates to what Brian Greene was referring to last week - science education is so bad, and so pointless, that people can't be expected to know any better. I think, if nothing else, the time and effort spent on arguing about nonsense could be better spent confronting our real problems.
That alone should justify the added effort.
UPDATE (Jun. 16): I finally realized I hadn't provided a link to the Popular Mechanics article. I've now fixed that oversight.
UPDATE (July 25): Changed the sentence about the physics professor's distressing lack of awareness of the properties of steel. It is now more precise.