Sunday, July 30, 2006

9/11 Conspiracy Theorists and Their Debunkers

I really need to take the TV out of my bedroom. Because I just can't keep myself from doing a bit of channel surfing before going to sleep, and, before you know it, I'm hooked into a Law and Order episode or something on one of the C-SPAN channels.

Last night, it was C-SPAN. Several times this weekend, C-SPAN has broadcast a panel discussion held by "Scholars for 9/11 Truth." The program can be watched by going to the C-SPAN home page and clicking on the link for "Theories About 9/11." The "Scholars" believe that the WTC buildings collapsed as the result of a secret, expertly planned and executed controlled demolition, and that some element of the U.S. government, perhaps a rogue element, was behind this. Other conspiracy theorists believe there was a third plane, that it was actually government planes which collided with the WTC towers and the Pentagon, or that no plane hit the Pentagon at all, etc.

I am not one for conspiracy theories--especially government conspiracy theories. First, our government just isn't competent enough to pull off a conspiracy. And there's the Occam's Razor
principle, commonly understood as the simplest explanation is the best one. In this case, the planes were hijacked, hit the towers, and the resulting fire caused structural elements to fail and the buildings collapsed.

But these guys got to me. They were so passionate and seemed to have their science lined up well. I had heard about these demolition/conspiracy theories before. And I've always been curious about the collapse of the towers. I remember the morning of 9/11 and a student telling me what had just happened (the first plane hitting a tower). I told her not to worry, that these sorts of buildings were designed to withstand being hit by an airliner. And when I watched the towers collapse, I was struck by how similar it looked to videos of planned demolitions of large buildings. And when you think about it, it seems like a miracle in a way that they collapsed to perfectly into their own footprint, and didn't fall to the side and topple other buildings.

So in a late-night fit of curiosity I started Googling away and visited the "Journal of 9/11 Studies," "Prison," "" (where you can watch an hour-long video online) and several others, including the paper by Brigham Young physics professor Steven Jones, "Why Indeed Did the WTC Buildings Collapse?" (Jones is a founding father and the leading intellectual light of the demolition-theory movement.)

Today, I did some more Googling around. I wanted to find some sort of intelligent response to the demolition theories (which were sounding rather convincing but also left me uneasy, since there didn't appear to be endorsement by civil engineers). There can be a problem sometimes that mainstream people simply dismiss without answer what appears to be a fringe group, and so that group develops more and more members and legitimacy. (Much of the success of the Religious Right has been a result of moderates and liberals not taking seriosuly the potential power of what they perceive as, well, nut cases like Pat Robertson.)

But in this case there is some good answering information to be found. The Wkipedia article on the "Collapse of the World Trade Center" gives what appears to be a good (if poorly documented in its text) overview, and, more importantly, some excellent links.

I found the Journal of Debunking 911 Conspiracy Theories quite helpful. Like the Jornal of 9/11 Studies, which it has been set up to answer, it is not a real journal as much as a group of like-minded people "peer reviewing" their own papers. The debunkers are quite upfront about this, and it's part of their point: how easy it is to set up a website and call it a journal. Debunking's first issue contains a point-by-point analysis and refutation of the main claims made by the adherents of the controlled-detonation theorists. Both sites refer readers to the October 2005 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which found no evidence for detonations and concluded that the combination of the fires not just from the jet fuel but of the contents of the floors hit by the planes and design elements of the buildings led to the collapse.

The conspiracy/detonation folks seem well-intentioned, passionate, and full of righteous indignation at a government coverup. (Some are clearly on enormous ego trips and relishing a quasi-messainic, prophetic role.) They look at the extensive video evidence, their own scientific and quasi-scientific analyses, and the simplest explanation, the Occam's Razor, is, to them, that the buildings fell as the result of controlled detonations.

Having read summaries of the NIST report and the "debunking" articles, the Razor seems to me to slice in the other direction. It's true, though, tha Jones's paper and his his very long PDF reply to critics raises a lot of questions, especially regarding what he says is evidence of thermite, a substance used in detonations. I have not yet read the final NIST report, so I don't know if it discusses this thermite hypothesis, or otherwise explains the phenomena from which Jones has developed his argument.

Part of my point in writing about this here is to make the point to all who may visit (thanks to Technocrati and similar blog search engines) is that it is important to read as much material on BOTH SIDES of a controversey as possible, to evaluate the credentials and scholarship of speakers and authors, and also the reliability of the sources each side relies on. Are you reading junk science, pseudo-science, or selective use of out-of-context evidence? Or is it reliable, well-referenced, and well-supported by mainstream scientists?

And what are the other (possible) agendas? Self-aggrandizement, a need for attention, compensation for low self-esteem by recreating one's self as a prophet, selling website memberships, making money from books and videos? All these can be powerful factors in shaping one's views and actions.

I just a cello player. I'm not competent to judge the scientific arguments--and very few others are, either. I find it hard to believe that there's been a massive conspiracy and coverup that has lasted 5 years, one involving not just many levels and branches of government, but the news media as well. As I said above, there's the competence issue. And the keeping people quiet issue.

Nearly 5 years later, it's still still nearly impossible to accept what happened that day. A secret demolition of the buildings is nearly impossible to believe--but so is the idea that the crash of a single jetliner on the upper folors of each of the twin towers could cause them to collapse so quickly and perfectly, and that consequent fires alone could cause the WTC Buliding 7 to collapse just as perfectly without having been struck by an airplane.

Whatever happened, it was a tragedy.

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