Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

  1. Defenders of the official account of 9/11 would have you believe there are no credible critics of the official account. However, consider the following:

    – Raymond McGovern, PhD, former Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) and 27-year CIA veteran. “I think at simplest terms, there’s a cover-up. The 9/11 Report is a joke.” (According to the CIA, NIE’s are “the most authoritative written judgments concerning national security issues.”)

    – William Christison, former Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, overseeing 250 CIA analysts. 29-year CIA veteran. “I now think there is persuasive evidence that the events of September did not unfold as the Bush administration and the 9/11 Commission would have us believe. … An airliner almost certainly did not hit The Pentagon. … The North and South Towers of the World Trade Center almost certainly did not collapse and fall to earth because hijacked aircraft hit them.”

    – Melvin Goodman, PhD, former Division Chief of the CIA’s Office of Soviet Affairs and Senior Analyst from 1966 – 1990. “The final [9/11 Commission] report is ultimately a coverup. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

    – General Albert Stubblebine, former commanding general of U.S. Army Intelligence. 32-year U.S. Army veteran. “I look at the hole in the Pentagon and I look at the size of an airplane that was supposed to have hit the Pentagon. And I said, ‘The plane does not fit in that hole.’ So what did hit the Pentagon? What hit it? Where is it? What’s going on?”

    For decades, we relied on these individuals to collect information essential to our national security and provide critical analysis during which time the U.S. faced far more real and much more serious threats than anything today. We cannot now ignore their stunning condemnation of the official account of 9/11.

    Information about 1,000 other credible critics of the official account of 9/11 is available at http://PatriotsQuestion911.com/

  2. Dear Mr. Miller,

    First, logicians call this an appeal to authority. However, the four individuals you cite (the authority) don’t possess any special knowledge in structural engineering, physics, or fire safety so any comments they make about the impact of the World Trade Center attacks on buildings aren’t particularly credible.

    Christison speaks with certainty about what didn’t happen on 9/11; I’d like to hear what he thinks did happen and how the WTC buildings were destroyed. Particle beam weapons? Holographic jetliners? Or the old fallback, controlled demolition?

    Albert Stubblebine based his comments about the Pentagon attack on reviewing photographs. He doesn’t address the eyewitnesses, the wreckage of the jetliner in the Pentagon, the explanations provided by airplane crash experts for the shape of the damage and the passengers on American Airlines 77.

    For the record, it should be noted that both McGovern and Christison are hostile to Israel, oppose the “War on Terror,” and see 9/11 in geo-political terms.

    Finally, based on the CIA’s failing record on intelligence analysis over the past several decades (the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Al Qaeda, the existence of WMD), it’s surprising that you would cite veterans of this dysfunctional agency as expert witnesses.

    Jefferson Flanders

  3. In the long-awaited report of the investigation of the collapse of the 47-story building World Trade Center 7 (WTC 7) on September 11, 2001, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) only pretended to tell us why the building collapsed the way it did. Actually they failed at the task, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

    NIST set out to explain the collapse of WTC 7 by reconstructing the collapse as a theoretical computer model. Instead they constructed an altogether different collapse — not the one that needed explaining, but one that did not occur.

    In videos of the actual collapse, such as at the start of http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/releases/wtc_videos/wtc_videos.html, walls and edges of the building remain fairly straight and vertical as the building descends. In the NIST computer model the exterior severely buckles before the building descends. (Pages 107-108 in document NCSTAR 1-9A). The top of the building was not observed collapsing in on itself as NIST claims. See for yourself on the NIST web page http://wtc.nist.gov.

    This is not a minor quibble, but a major contradiction. The NIST theory does not fit the facts. This should be a major scandal.

  4. Dear Phillipok,

    The NIST report addressed this question. Here is the investigators’ explanation (from the WTC7 FAQs):

    “WTC 7’s collapse, viewed from the exterior (most videos were taken from the north), did appear to fall almost uniformly as a single unit. This occurred because the interior failures that took place did not cause the exterior framing to fail until the final stages of the building collapse. The interior floor framing and columns collapsed downward and pulled away from the exterior frame. There were clues that internal damage was taking place, prior to the downward movement of the exterior frame, such as when the east penthouse fell downward into the building and windows broke out on the north face at the ends of the building core. The symmetric appearance of the downward fall of the WTC 7 was primarily due to the greater stiffness and strength of its exterior frame relative to the interior framing.”

    JF

  5. Hello.

    I am trying to find that newsday article where quientero (or whatever his name is) is disagreeing with NIST while debunking truthers.

    I have had several try to show that he is another in a “string” of credible witnesses.

    I have already destroyed them repeatedly about the bentham and environmentalist articles… but they keep popping up.

    the link in the blog does not work. Can you help me find that story?

    Thanks.

  6. Dear Mr. Jones,

    Newsday has moved the article into their archive and so you must pay for access now (or try through Nexis-Lexis, which is available at most public libraries).

    James Quintiere was also quoted in the Los Angeles Times as rejecting the idea that explosives brought down WTC7 (“Quintiere stressed, however, that he had never believed explosives played a role.”)
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/22/nation/na-wtc22

    Quintiere’s criticism of NIST’s reports on WTC 1, WTC 2, and WTC 7, and his call for a new inquiry have NOT been because he thinks there was controlled demolition, but rather because he disputes aspects of the technical analysis performed by NIST and has a different theory on how fire damaged the buildings.

    Jefferson

  7. Let’s just face some simple facts.

    Skyscrapers MUST hold themselves up. They must also sway in the wind. The people who design skyscrapers MUST figure out how much steel and how much concrete they are going to put on every level before they even dig the hole for the foundation.

    After EIGHT YEARS why don’t we have a table specifying the TONS of STEEL and TONS of CONCRETE that were on every level of the WTC? The NIST report does not even specify the TOTAL for the concrete. The total for the steel is in three places. So even if the planes did it that 10,000 page report is CRAP!

    Conspiracies are irrelevant. The Truth Movement should be marching on all of the engineering schools in the country.

    Watch that Purdue simulation. If a 150 ton airliner crashes near the top of a skyscraper at 440 mph isn’t the building going to sway? Didn’t the survivors report the building “moving like a wave”? So why do the core columns in the Purdue video remain perfectly still as the plane comes in?

    That is the trouble with computer simulations. If they are good, they are very good. But if they have a defect either accidental or deliberate they can be REALLY STUPID once you figure out the flaws.

    The distribution of steel and concrete is going to affect the sway of a skyscraper whether it is from the wind or an airliner.

    ROFL

  8. Who would enter into a conspiracy in which the simplest explanation of the crime pointed at them?

    If your point was that Occam’s razor could be made cynically sharp enough to lobotomize, your point was well made.

  9. {{{ Who would enter into a conspiracy in which the simplest explanation of the crime pointed at them? }}}

    It has been EIGHT YEARS and the experts haven’t provided something as simple as a table specifying the TONS of STEEL and TONS of CONCRETE on every level of WTC 1 & 2.

    Obviously the social-psychology of the 9/11 Psychosis is far more complicated than the Newtonian physics.

    It is absurd to talk about conspiracies until after the physics is straightened out. THAT IS THE PROBLEM! People think muddling around in psychology instead of physics is intelligent.

Comments are closed.