Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How Stuff Doesn't Work

Jeez, our buddy Sword of Truth pointed this one out over at JREF, and it's certainly worth a gander. The website, How Stuff Works, is generally considered reliable for science and hardware explanations. How Stuff Work's homepage has a page rank of eight, which is huge (Ford Motor Company's homepage is a seven, for example). It is the 30th most commonly cited webpage on the blogs according to Technorati. But...

When it comes to explaining how conspiracy theories work, Marshall Brain, who founded the site apparently buys this completely unscientific nonsense. Get this:

In the 21st century, one event reigns supreme in the catalog of conspiracy theories: the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. This event is seared into the nation's consciousness and significantly affected the entire planet. It seems inevitable that people would cry "conspiracy" about any event with this much impact. However, the conspiracy theories around 9/11 have been strong and consistent.

There's a good compound word for that, and the first half is bull. Conspiracy theories around 9/11 have been marginal, easily debunked, and incredibly inconsistent.

The U.S. government has offered the terrorist explanation, and that is the story that many people believe. A large number of people, however, refuse to believe this "official story." They believe conspiracy theorists when they say that the U.S. government actually masterminded and executed the attack.

We could spend a great deal of time arguing one side or the other. Instead, we'll focus on the process. Isn't it fascinating that there can be two credible explanations for such a complex event, and that both explanations can be so diametrically opposed to one another?

But, as we shall see, Marshall's Brain really finds one explanation more credible than the other.

Brain provides a timeline, of which I thought these three datapoints were illustrative:

# 9:43 a.m. - Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
# 10:05 a.m. - The South Tower falls.
# 10:10 a.m. - Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania.

As our buddy Gravy would say, they got that 100% wrong. Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 and Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 (or 10:06 according to some claims).

So for a conspiracy theory to get started, there has to be something that a conspiracy theorist can use, something that doesn't make sense. In some conspiracy theories, it's something very small. But in the case of 9/11, there are four big things that do not make much sense in the official story. These things include:

# Three skyscrapers collapsed. Never has a skyscraper ever collapsed because of fire. When the North and South Towers collapsed, that might have seemed believable because of the giant airplanes that crashed into them. But when WTC 7 collapsed, that was completely unprecedented.

# The way the President and his handlers acted when the second plane crashed into the South Tower. The reaction was strange. When the first plane crashed into the North Tower, it might be possible to excuse the behavior of the President's team because maybe nobody really knew what happened. However, by the time the second jet hit, everyone knew what was happening, so the fact that the President and his handlers did not respond immediately is certainly odd.

# The Pentagon could be hit by a big, lumbering passenger jet. On the face of it, that seems completely impossible. The Pentagon, after all, is the nerve center for the largest and most sophisticated military organization that the world has ever known. So it is reasonable to assume that there would be a defensive system in place, making the building invulnerable. Surely buildings like the Pentagon would be protected by surface-to-air missiles, wouldn't they? The attack on the Pentagon happened 58 minutes after the first plane crashed into the North Tower, which was plenty of time to scramble jets and protect Washington, D.C. even if there were no missiles on the ground.

# Not one of the four hijacked planes was shot down by fighters, even though fighter interception is fairly standard. This is also strange, especially in the case of the Pentagon. For example, when Payne Steward's Lear jet went off course in 1999, more than 10 planes intercepted it over the course of its flight, with the first interception happening within 20 minutes of flight controllers noticing a problem [ref]. So why was there an apparent lack of response to these four hijacked jets?

That is jam-packed with 9-11 Denial nonsense. The steel portion of the Windsor Towers did collapse, and like all Deniers, Marshall wants us to ignore the fact that WTC 1 and 2 were not solely on fire, but had also suffered serious structural damage from the impact of the planes, and that WTC 7 had suffered serious structural damage from the collapse of WTC 1. The bit about the President and his staff is clearly lame conjecture. As for the big, lumbering commercial jet, it crashed into the Pentagon at over 500 miles per hour. No, there are no surface-to-air missiles on the Pentagon, for the simple reason that there's an airport less than two miles away. It's not 58 minutes, but 55 minutes later, and oh, by the way Payne Stewart's plane was intercepted in 80 minutes, not 20.

It does not get any better.

By concluding that, however, the theorist has to explain everything else that happened on September 11. If WTC 7's demolition was pre-planned, then all of September 11 was pre-planned. The repercussions of that realization impact every part of the "official story." For example:

* There were no terrorists. Or if there were, their actions were coordinated by the government rather than Al Queda.
* Terrorists did not spontaneously fly the planes into the buildings -- the government did.
* The North and South Towers were also rigged with explosives ahead of time, like WTC 7, and their collapses were staged events that killed thousands of innocent people.
* The crash at the Pentagon was staged as well. Or, possibly, no passenger jet was involved at all. A missile may have struck the Pentagon instead of a jetliner.
* Flight 93 may have never actually happened as described in the official story. It might have been completely staged as well, or it may have been shot by a missile.

This conspiracy story is radically different from the official story. But is it believable?

If you are willing to move past the revulsion that this story elicits, this new story is not too difficult to believe. Secretly rigging three buildings for demolition is not hard to imagine. The government has known teams of people trained to do things like this (such as Navy SEALS), and it is logical to assume that there are secret teams as well. It is easy to imagine the government taking over, or even substituting, the jets that crashed into the North and South Towers. It is easy to imagine a cruise missile being fired at the Pentagon and hitting it in exactly the way that the building was hit.

Note that along the way that the site never gives any clue that this is complete nuttery; indeed, with the use of phrases like "not too difficult to believe", and "it is logical to assume" and "It is easy to imagine", Marshall guides the reader towards belief in this crackpottery.

The article does briefly mention debunkers, but in the "Lots More Information", there are 26 links, with exactly ONE going to a debunking site and 25 going to 9-11 Denial sites.

Phryngula, a science blog, caught onto How Stuff Doesn't Work awhile ago.

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At 27 March, 2007 23:47, Blogger Richard said...

Has anyone considered sending an email or speaking with them in order to revise their bogus claims?

At 28 March, 2007 10:09, Blogger CHF said...

Secretly rigging three buildings for demolition is not hard to imagine.

Yeah man - I could do it on my lunchhour.

At 28 March, 2007 10:42, Blogger Triterope said...

No, he's right -- it's not hard to imagine. It's just hard to actually do.

At 28 March, 2007 15:42, Blogger shawn said...

and oh, by the way Payne Stewart's plane was intercepted in 80 minutes, not 20.

I always love how the conspiracy theorists don't understand those new fangled "time zones".

At 28 March, 2007 16:44, Blogger Swing Dangler said...

I pointed that site out on this blog a long time ago.

Shawn, NORAD has intercepted many flights that have gone off course prior to 9/11. Not only that, a spokesman for NORAD said it was routinely practiced prior to 9/11 during war game exercises.

At 28 March, 2007 17:10, Blogger shawn said...

So sorry, there was one intercept in the decade before 9/11.

At 28 March, 2007 17:17, Blogger MarkyX said...

Shawn, NORAD has intercepted many flights that have gone off course prior to 9/11.

How many of them were within the United States airspace?

At 28 March, 2007 18:34, Blogger ConsDemo said...

If you register for the site, this message appears. It looks a bit like Wikipedia.

Get More Out of HowStuffWorks... Become a HowStuffWorks Insider!

Exchange ideas with people who are reading the same stuff you are.
Insiders can contribute their thoughts and share their brilliance with the millions of people that come to HowStuffWorks every month.

As far as I can tell, Wikipedia at least doesn't lend credence to the dishonesty and stupidity of the conspiratiods. To bad one can't say the same about HowStuffWorks.

At 28 March, 2007 18:53, Blogger CHF said...


Good to see you again. I take it you contacted some engineers at long last.

How'd it go?

At 29 March, 2007 06:21, Blogger Stevew said...

Too bad he does not know how NORAD worked prior to 911

At 29 March, 2007 09:05, Blogger Der Bruno Stroszek said...

Wikipedia works pretty well because it runs by consensus - they can't go all-out on the debunking front like we do, but they can't print any of the conspirators' allegations as unchallenged facts either. The problem is that sometimes people edit obscure pages in a POV way and it stays there for ages before anyone notices. I've seen articles by Uri Dowbenko* reprinted on Wikipedia as if they were clod hard fact.

*If you don't know who Uri Dowbenko is, I'd hate to deny you the pleasure of Googling some of his, er, articles.

At 29 March, 2007 20:06, Blogger Swing Dangler said...

In response to the leaked email, Norad said in a written statement yesterday: "Before September 11, Norad regularly exercised its response to possible hijacks, but never with the intent of lethal engagement, because planes were normally landed safely by their pilots and the hijackers would begin negotiations.

"Before September 11, Norad conducted four exercises a year, normally to include hijacks."

Also, NORAD's own spokesperson who was tape recorded on the phone mentioned numerous intercepts prior to 9/11. Listen to the audio recording over at Pilots. Of course she wouldn't give the exact number or be more specific because it was classified information.
But I doubt you will listen to the phone call...

At 30 March, 2007 07:08, Blogger Stevew said...


One of the imagined targets was the World Trade Center. In another exercise, jets performed a mock shootdown over the Atlantic Ocean of a jet supposedly laden with chemical poisons headed toward a target in the United States. In a third scenario, the target was the Pentagon - but that drill was not run after Defense officials said it was unrealistic, NORAD and Defense officials say. The exercises differed from the Sept. 11 attacks in one important respect: The planes in the simulation were coming from a foreign country. Until Sept. 11, NORAD was expected to defend the United States and Canada from aircraft based elsewhere. After the attacks, that responsibility broadened to include flights that originated in the two countries.
But there were exceptions in the early drills, including one operation, planned in July 2001 and conducted later, that involved planes from airports in Utah and Washington state that were "hijacked." Those planes were escorted by U.S. and Canadian aircraft to airfields in British Columbia and Alaska. NORAD officials have acknowledged that "scriptwriters" for the drills included the idea of hijacked aircraft being used as weapons.


"Threats of killing hostages or crashing were left to the scriptwriters to invoke creativity and broaden the required response," Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley, a NORAD official, told the 9/11 commission. No exercise matched the specific events of Sept. 11, NORAD said.
"We have planned and executed numerous scenarios over the years to include aircraft originating from foreign airports penetrating our sovereign airspace," Gen. Ralph Eberhart, NORAD commander, told USA TODAY. "Regrettably, the tragic events of 9/11 were never anticipated or exercised."


At 30 March, 2007 13:13, Blogger Alex said...

In hindsight it's such an obvious flaw that it's truly mind-numbing. Like most countries which haven't had to worry about being attacked for a long time, the US grew complacent.


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