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.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conspiracy theories and the fall of the Twin Towers

Christen Simensen, a materials scientist with Norwegian research firm SINTEF, has provided a scientific explanation of how collision with jets brought down the Twin Towers.  [Source]

In a recent paper in the journal Aluminum International Today, Simensen describes how the jet fuel alone could have heated up the aluminum in the fuselage to its melting point.  The molten aluminum would have reacted with water from the sprinkler system, generating hydrogen gas, an explosion, and a rapid heating to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit -- sufficient to melt the steel girders, resulting in the building's collapse.

This, Simensen claims, should put to rest all of the claims by conspiracy theorists that 9/11 was an "inside job," as it convincingly explains all of the observed data, including the explosions that preceded the collapse of the building.  These explosions are some of the main points in arguments made by people who think that someone -- variously claimed to be the Bush administration, the Bilderburg Group, the Illuminati, the Jews, and probably a whole host of others -- planted bombs in the Twin Towers, prior to the airplane collisions, to assure that the buildings would fall.

To which I say: Mr. Simensen, you are an optimist.

Conspiracy theorists have no respect for data, logic, and science.  I would not hesitate to guess that the conspiracy theorists you think will be silenced by your paper will now only squawk the louder, and claim that you were paid to write what you did.  That's the trouble with folks who believe in conspiracies; if you argue with them, they merely shake their heads and add you to the list of Conspirators.

Coincidentally, last Thursday Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is in New York City for a meeting of the UN General Assembly, met with reporters from the Associated Press, and stated that "as an engineer," he thinks it is impossible for two planes to have brought down the Twin Towers.  He stopped short of claiming the the US government was complicit in the catastrophe, but that was clearly what he was implying.  I seriously doubt that Ahmadinejad would be at all convinced by Simensen's paper -- given that he considers the Holocaust a "mythical claim" that the Jews fabricated in order to facilitate the creation of Israel.  Believe me, if you can discount tens of thousands of photographs, records, and first-hand accounts of a catastrophe that killed six million, you can certainly ignore an argument in Aluminum International Today.

Conspiracy theories are kind of like taking the idea of confirmation bias and running off the cliff with it.  Confirmation bias, you may remember from yesterday's post, is when you already have decided what you believe, so you exaggerate the importance of tiny bits of evidence in favor of your claim, and ignore mountains of evidence against it.  Proponents of conspiracy theories take it a step further; they look on a complete lack of evidence as a point in their favor.  "Of course there's no hard evidence," they say.  "They're a wily bunch, those conspirators.  They wouldn't just leave evidence hanging around."

The whole thing reminds me of the story of the man whose friend, every time he came for a visit, would stop in the doorway, put his hands together as if in prayer, and intone, "May this house be safe from tigers."  After this had happened several times, the man said to his friend, "Why do you keep doing that?  It's pointless.  I've never seen any tigers.  There's probably not a tiger within a thousand miles of here."

The friend smiled.  "It works well, doesn't it?"

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