Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sometimes, Sanity Prevails

Image credit: National Park Service

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 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 spike in 2006, prompted by the live debate between the editors of Popular Mechanics and the producers of the documentary Loose Change, shows that not only was the skeptical perspective more well-accepted than the conspiracy perspective, it began to dictate the conversation. (Graph produced using Google Trends by the author.)

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.


One Fly said...

Cujo- have two engineer friends who have serious concerns as to how the towers came down and myself feel a lot does not add up.

Tell me if accept the Warren Commission report on JFK.

Did you make that call? Last couple days have been perfect-hope yours were too. tb

next time will proof read

Cujo359 said...

I don't know what their problem might be, other than just an unwillingness to believe that something so seemingly solid can come down. Have a look at that video about how controlled demolitions are done. There's no way that could have happened to something the size of those buildings without lots of people being aware of it.

Then go to Controlled Demolitions, Inc.'s site. They're the acknowledged leaders in this field. Here's a quote from this page on their emergency demolitions services:

[begin quote]
Half of the 17-story Sheikh A. Alakl Apartment Building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia collapsed when portions of the new reinforced concrete facility were overloaded during final stages of construction. At the request of Bechtel, Controlled Demolition Incorporated’s team mobilized to the site in less than 24 hours, prepared the central-core, flat slab, reinforced concrete structure in another 27 hours and put the balance of the building on the ground with absolute safety just 96 hours after the start of demolition preparations.
[end quote]

It took them four days to demolish a building that was a fraction the size of any of the WTC buildings. Plus, that building wasn't on fire when they arrived.

I have yet to encounter an event of anywhere near this magnitude that didn't produce lingering questions. Why was Adm. Kimmel so unconcerned about a sneak attack a year after Taranto? Why didn't anyone think to check the ductility of the steel in the Titanic? There are always "what ifs" and "whys". None of that leads me to believe that things don't "add up". Human judgment fails. Metal fails. It's just how things are.

As for the Warren Commission, it happened a long time ago (I was seven when it happened) and I haven't researched the official report enough to say whether peoples' characterization of it is even true. I find it hard to believe that a single round could so much damage from such a distance, but that's about the only positive conclusion I've come to.

If there's a common thread in this, it's that I look at what's known to be possible, how things usually work, and then go from there. Any explanation that's outside of those boundaries needs to have some serious evidence on its side. In that respect, the "Truthers" have nothing.

Cujo359 said...

P.S., Yes, I did make that call. My father's in his 80's and still doing great. I should be that healthy in my dotage. Hell, I should be that healthy now.

One Fly said...

I was 13 when JFK happened and took the report at face value but wondered about the one bullet. Of course when the Zapruder film was released that all changed and the eye witness interviews were accurate and proved to me there was another shooter on the grassy knoll.

I have seen some very compelling stuff on 911 but do not dwell on it at all. The reason is if the citizens of this country are unable to get even a little bit pissed off about invading another country on lies what will it take and it sure as hell isn't 911.

Maybe in the future we and others can have a discussion an these and other issues. That would be a blast.
Giv'em hell. tb

Cujo359 said...

I suspect if you take a look at the links I've provided you won't find that evidence nearly as compelling. The PM article is a good compendium of articles on the technical aspects, as does debunking911. SLC concentrates on the people involved. The latter two also have extensive lists of links to other articles and related resources.

I finally realized that I hadn't provided a link to the PM article until now, but even without it there was a formidable amount of information no more than two clicks away, including the PM article.

There's an amazing amount of information there. Check out the list of peer reviewed papers at debunking911. Those are the papers written by the experts in the fields of construction, engineering, and fire forensics.

Woozle said...

And if you'd like a site where you can argue back, Issuepedia has 9/11 anomalies and 9/11 conclusions pages. (I just created the latter and it needs to have links to evidence, but it's there if you want a quick snapshot of the conclusions I've drawn from the evidence on the other pages.)

george.w said...

This is good news. Sometimes I get discouraged by the prevalence of nonsense - the candle flickering to paraphrase Sagan. Victories deserve a toast. Salud!

Dana Hunter said...

This kind of thing just makes me want to vomit. I think it's the same mentality that leads people to believe in the supernatural - they need some big Purpose behind it all. They can't believe the universe is the way it is for no pre-planned reason; they can't believe one yahoo with a rifle can take down a popular president; and they can't believe that a bunch of yahoos with boxcutters and hijacked jets can knock down skyscrapers.

Reality says otherwise.

You've done an excellent job pointing folks to the resources that *should* convince them that the 9/11 Truthers are blowing nothing but smoke. The fact that so many will cling to their conspiracy theories with even more grim determination is depressing, but only to be expected.

Just please let reality get the upper hand just this once. I write fantasy. That doesn't mean I want to live in it.

Cujo359 said...

Hi Woozle - I looked at that site, and it looks like the "reasonable" questions are only marginally more reasonable than the other ones, on average. Don't know what I can do about that, but if I think of something I will.

You're right, George W., it's worth celebrating.

Dana, I think you're right about that. In one of his books, Micheal Shermer wrote that he believed that as a species we developed the ability to recognize cause and effect, and that ability tends to assert itself even when there isn't any cause. That something dark and mysterious must have caused 9/11 seems a reasonable assumption, but I think the truth is that "official story" features forces dark and capable enough to do the deed. Hatred, particularly when it's fueled by religion, is a powerful force.

So while scepticism and being open to alternative hypotheses is a good thing, I see no reason to posit any other explanation. It fits the facts, and isn't disproved by any.

HopeSpringsATurtle said...

Well Cujo I certainly support your right to believe what you believe. The Popular Mechanics article has been debunked and regardless of what side of the debate one falls on, it cannot be denied that there are scores of unanswered questions and inconsistencies in the "official" story. We do not have to agree on this topic to agree that the Bush administration has fucked this country. I know we will both continue working on changing our country. Thanks for the linkys.

Cujo359 said...

The Popular Mechanics article has been debunked? Not bloody likely. The people doing the "debunking" of the PM article are people who can't be bothered to research the nonsense they publish, much less what other people do.

MarcLord said...


I dunno man, you've got a couple of carefully thoughtful people here advising a closer look.

I didn't want to believe. When the evening news released pictures of all the hijackers that same day, I asked, "How'd they do that?" When Newsweek had the cover shot of the Pentagon, I asked, "Where's the airliner?" When the acrid, metallic tang kept stretching up past the Village weeks later, my wife asked, "What is that stench, anyway?"

You don't forget smell. Aluminum oxide, iron, heat. Thermite. For me the process was not of conversion by Loosers or Proofers. It was of difficulty accepting of something simple common sense and my nose already knew to be true.

Cujo359 said...

A building the size of a small town is burned to the ground and you're talking about how it smells afterward? That building contained vast quantities of so many funny-smelling combustibles that I wouldn't have been surprised at any smell you detected. It also was built over a subway station, which was at least partially destroyed. Electrical parts, machinery, and human remains were all destroyed there in quantities that were unprecedented in that region.

You can do a whole lot of thinking and be spectacularly wrong. All it takes is neglecting to validate your assumptions.

schiffer said...

It seems that you suffer from the same unwillingness to believe that which doesn't fit your reality. That is why it's impossible to discuss specifics... You're not listening!
What I don't understand is how someone who can cut through the bull to see the Machiavellian machinations of his government so easily accepts that same government's explanation for this "new pearl harbor". Oh, right. It does not fit into your reality!
It is the "official" explanation of this convenient disaster that has the most holes in it. Until proven otherwise I will continue to entertain the possibility that this was an inside job or that there was advance knowledge of an attack that was not acted upon. That last part is almost certainly true.
It is beyond my ken why so many people are incapable of accepting the depths of our government's treachery or, conversely, that not everything is a plot of the Illuminati.
As one commenter already noted this is really a secondary issue at this point. If we were, however, to look into some of the other crimes of the (now previous) administration the whole shebang might unravel and we could at last put this question to bed. Not likely to happen.
Excuse my tardy participation. I had been in a coma throughout the election season.

Cujo359 said...

You were literally in a coma? If so, I hope things are going well for you now.

Anyway, yes, things that don't fit into reality are things I don't believe in. The problem with all the alternative explanations of the demise of the WTC is that they don't make sense physically, and the "official" explanation does. Until that changes, count me as a willing dupe of the conspiracy.