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

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WTC 7 report: end of the line for 9/11 conspiracy theories?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology just-released final report on the collapse of World Trade Center 7 in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attack concludes that fire, not controlled demolition, was the cause of 47-story building’s destruction.

At an August 21st news conference, Shyam Sunder, the lead investigator for the federal building and fire safety investigation of the WTC disaster, explained: “Our take-home message today is that the reason for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is no longer a mystery. WTC 7 collapsed because of fires fueled by office furnishings. It did not collapse from explosives or from diesel fuel fires. It collapsed because fires—similar to those experienced in other tall buildings—burned in the absence of water supply to operate the sprinklers, and burned beyond the ability of firefighters to control fires. It fell because thermal expansion, a phenomenon not considered in current building design practice, caused a fire-induced progressive collapse.”

Sunder directly addressed the question of whether controlled demolition had brought down WTC 7, a favorite theory of the “9/11 Truth Movement” and its celebrity hanger-ons, like Jesse Ventura, Charlie Sheen, and Rosie O’Donnell, noting that the investigative team had considered that possibility and rejected it. NIST concluded that “blast events inside the building did not occur” and “found no evidence supporting the existence of a blast event.” A NIST WTC 7 fact sheet summarized the case against controlled demolition:

In addition, no blast sounds were heard on the audio tracks of video recordings during the collapse of WTC 7 or reported by witnesses. According to calculations by the investigation team, the smallest blast capable of failing the building’s critical column would have resulted in a sound level of 130 decibels (dB) to 140 dB at a distance of at least half a mile, if unobstructed by surrounding buildings. This sound level is consistent with a gunshot blast, standing next to a jet plane engine, and more than 10 times louder than being in front of the speakers at a rock concert.

For the building to have been prepared for intentional demolition, walls and/or column enclosures and fireproofing would have to be removed and replaced without being detected. Preparing a column includes steps such as cutting sections with torches, which produces noxious and odorous fumes. Intentional demolition usually requires applying explosive charges to most, if not all, interior columns, not just one or a limited set of columns in a building.

The NIST WTC 7 team also found another popular 9/11 conspiracy theory, that thermite/thermate was used to sever columns was highly unlikely: “To apply thermite to a large steel column, approximately 0.13 lb of thermite would be needed to heat and melt each pound of steel. For a steel column that weighs approximately 1,000 lbs. per foot, at least 100 lbs. of thermite would need to be placed around the column, ignited, and remain in contact with the vertical steel surface as the thermite reaction took place. This is for one column … presumably, more than one column would have been prepared with thermite, if this approach were to be used.” NIST concluded that it was “unlikely that 100 lbs. of thermite, or more, could have been carried into WTC 7 and placed around columns without being detected, either prior to Sept. 11 or during that day.”

A blow to the 9/11 conspiracy theorists

The final NIST WTC 7 report represents a major blow to the promoters of 9/11 conspiracy theories. They began by claiming that the Twin Towers (WTC 1 and 2) had been felled by controlled demolition as part of a government “false flag operation.” Their argument had obvious flaws—it wasn’t hard to imagine that two large airliners loaded with jet fuel smashing into skyscrapers could inflict massive damage—and that was what the first NIST report concluded.

Their focus then turned to WTC 7, with many conspiracy theorists seizing on the fact that the building was not hit directly by the planes and “mysteriously” collapsed hours later. Again, they argued for controlled demolition, forcefully enough that NIST included explosions as a possible cause for the collapse in its investigation.

With the demolition theory for WTC 7 having been considered and rejected, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are in a bind. The final NIST report offers what Sunder called a “simple and straightforward and elegant” explanation for the collapse of the building. The simplicity of the theory—that unchecked fires led to a chain of failures and then progressive collapse—and the extensive computer modeling of the hypothesis place it squarely in the best traditions of the scientific method.

The alternative theory advanced by the so-called 9/11 Truthers is far-fetched and requires a complete suspension of disbelief. Professional demolition experts have repeatedly explained that it takes weeks of work to prepare a building for a controlled demolition. And how could such a massive conspiracy, involving hundreds if not thousands of people, be kept silent? And what of the lack of any evidence of an explosion, as pointed out by the NIST team?

Despite the “on-the-record” scientific studies now explaining the WTC disaster, it’s unlikely that all members of the “9/11 Truth Movement” will go away quietly. Some make considerable amounts of money hawking 9/11 conspiracy DVDs and books. Others cling to the notion for deep-seated psychological reasons. Some are deluded. Yet the weight of the evidence is clear: the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings was directly caused by the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. To believe otherwise is to not only embrace an alternative theory, but to accept an alternative reality.


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