Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fly the toxic skies

I remember when I was a kid, looking up at jet contrails, white against the deep blue sky.  Where were the planes going?  What would it be like to be up there in a jet, flying at hundreds of miles per hour?  The contrails would widen and fade, drift, and finally dissipate, only to be replaced by another, tracking a different direction.

Little did I realize that I should have been wearing a gas mask and protective eyewear.

One of the more bizarre conspiracy theories out there is the "chemtrail" idea, which nevertheless finds broad appeal amongst people whose sole hobby is picking at the straps of their straitjackets with their teeth.  The idea is that the government adds stuff to jet fuel, so that when the jet fuel passes through the engine the stuff is vaporized, to waft downwards and be inhaled by unsuspecting people.  The stuff can include:
  • mind-altering drugs
  • chemicals that can affect the weather
  • chemicals that cause allergies, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses
  • cancer-causing agents
People who buy this particular conspiracy theory cite the rise in allergies and asthma as "proof."  Evidence to the contrary is just part of the government's cunning plan for hoodwinking the people.  Take a look at this site, from, amusingly titled "How Jet Trails Block Out the Sunshine."  My favorite part is the paragraph informing readers, "This is a chemtrail thread for believers but other are welcomed. Please only post positive comment towards posters and do not discredit them. No need to be negative."

In other words:  You can disagree with our conspiracy theory, as long as you (1) keep your mouth shut, and (2) don't mind being a deluded, credulous sheep.

The thing I've never understood about the chemtrail idea is, do these people really think that putting LSD in jet fuel would work?  Besides the fact that a lot of the chemicals that they think are being spread around this way are complex organics that would break down during the combustion process, even if you assume that some of the chemicals made their way through the engine and out the exhaust, how could anyone actually inhale enough of the stuff to accomplish anything?  Between wind currents and just general dilution in the atmosphere, it's not like it's the most efficient chemical distribution method I can think of.

And then, of course, there's the rather painful lack of actual results.  No one I know seems to act any odder than usual when a jet flies over; the weather is still as messy and unpredictable as ever; I don't get the sniffles when I'm near an airport; and cancer rates aren't any higher than they ever have been.  But the conspiracy theorists, of course, have a quick response to those criticisms:
  • the mind-altering chemicals act to make you submissive and unsuspicious;
  • the weather-influencing chemicals are why the weather is messy and unpredictable;
  • the government is suppressing information about rises in the incidence of allergies, asthma, and cancer;
  • and Skeptophilia is clearly a tool of The Shadow Government's Disinformation Strategy.
Which, I must admit, is a pretty powerful argument.

Interestingly, the whole thing seems to have gotten off the ground (rimshot) because of a guy named Bill Nichols, from my home state of Louisiana, back in 2007.  Nichols, a Shreveport resident, suddenly noticed one day that there seemed to be an unusual number of contrails in the sky.  "It seemed like some mornings it was just criss-crossing the whole sky.  It was just like a giant checkerboard," he told reporters, adding that he had observed "unusual clouds" that began as ordinary jet contrails, but unlike normal contrails, "did not fade away."  He said that the vapor from the contrail "would drop to the ground in a haze" and collect on the ground and in water he had sitting in bowls.  Myself, I've never seen a contrail "drop to the ground" in sufficient quantities to "collect in a bowl" -- but even so, KSLA News of Shreveport took him seriously enough to sample the water at a lab and initially reported a high level of barium, 6.8 parts per million, more than three times the toxic level set by the EPA.

This caused an uproar, as you might imagine.  A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that the KSLA reporter had misread the reading, which was actually 68 parts per billion, well within expected ranges, and the station retracted the story.  But conspiracy theorists are never going to be dissuaded by numbers being off by a factor of a thousand, or, in fact, actual data in any form, and so the whole chemtrail idea was off and running.

Anyhow, I'd better wind this up.  For one thing, you can see where this is going: the usual "no data + no logic = my theory" pattern that is typical of conspiracy theorists.  Also, because we have a thunderstorm coming in, probably due to weather-altering chemicals, and I need to shut the computer down.

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