Recently I attended the type of event that I wouldn’t usually go to – but I heard about it from a friend of a friend, and it sounded interesting (more on this shortly), and it got me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon.  I’m not really sure how to best describe it, as it wasn’t a debate in the sense that I am used to, in which there is a statement that the house does or does not believe and then two sides to argue for or against it.  The format of this event was a short presentation followed by what began as a Q&A and then proceeded into a heavily-moderated discussion.  Apologies if this post is a bit rambling, but it follows the format of the debate, which was equally disjointed.

I went to this event because I am acutely aware that I do surround myself with people who think like me and have similar political leanings, and I wanted to leave the echo-chamber.  Going to this talk faced me with someone whose opinions are far removed from mine, and we would normally never choose to associate in ordinary life.  And while neither the presentation, nor the arguments brought forward, convinced me that any of the official evidence was wrong, I did learn a lot of things about opinions, beliefs, and other humans.  That’s what made it so interesting – understanding why people form opinions that seem to be so obviously wrong to many people, and to understand what sort of reactions these opinions generate.  Maybe it was a bit of a spectacle, but I have no qualms about that.

I also want to emphasise that I do have respect for the person who has worked on this project.  I do not respect the opinions put forward, for logical reasons, but they probably knew full well that they were going to be met with a strong opposition – and they handled it well.  Just because someone can be mistaken or misguided, it does not mean that the individual is not worthy of respect.  While 90% of people in the room did not agree with the host, 100% of them were respectful and questioned them appropriately.  It’s the first rule of debating for me, and one that can be applied to everyday life: once you resort to ad hominem attacks, you’ve lost the argument.

To discuss such a controversial subject, knowing that you’re on the side that the majority see as wrong, is a pretty brave thing to do.

It still doesn’t make you any less wrong, though.The person who was doing the presenting does believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and they discussed the reasons why they think this. Much of the information they presented was old arguments that have been debunked several times over, which was pretty tiresome (at this point I was wondering if it was actually a good idea to engage with the event and its host, as I don’t think that going over the same ground over and over gets us anywhere). There were a few times when I was watching the videos in the presentation and listening to descriptions of conditions within the buildings, and I thought “oh, that’s because of [this or that obvious thing]”, which was kinda cool and engaging, until I heard the presenter explain why they thought it was explosives, or why the building couldn’t possibly have deformed or collapsed in the way it did. Then it was madly infuriating, and I did bring up a number of these points in the Q&A.

I am wondering if the speaker twigged that I am an engineer – it’s not like I concealed the fact.  And beginning sentences with “When we design buildings…” may have been a giveaway.

There was a lot of focus on WTC7, which was an adjacent building that was not hit by a plane, but did collapse.  Why?  Excessive Fire Load (yeah, that link’s from the Daily Mail – they’re not wrong all the time).  The building’s structure came under a level of strain that caused it to fail.  I find this one especially ridiculous – the speaker claimed this fell due to a controlled demolition, yet those responsible just randomly set the building on fire 6 hours prior to detonation.  Because, like, 6 hours of continual burning wouldn’t maybe cause a bit of structural damage?  Yeah, seems totally legit. <headdesk>

But this is only part of the dispute.  A number of other (cherry-picked) issues were raised, namely:

The freefall thing, and why did it collapse in on itself, explained neatly in this video.

There was a man in a basement level, far from the initial impact, who got burnt in an explosion – probably caused by immense heat and pressure in the structure building up and firing out of confined spaces into circulation areas – maybe fire spreading through service voids and travelling from one part of the building to another, in seemingly unpredictable ways – which not only explains why WTC7 fell without any external impact, but also why fires and explosions were occurring in parts of the other buildings remote from the planes’ impact.  Or it could have been as simple as burning jet fuel descending through the building.  There’s no reason to not go for the most obvious explanation – but that seemed to be the way a lot of the conversations went.  I’ve heard a lot about disenfranchised people clinging onto conspiracy theories because they “know” the secret that the rest of the “sheeple” just can’t see.  It makes them feel superior & special.  And I did see that on this occasion.  It made me feel quite sad, as this person had deluded themselves and chose to remain ignorant; they seemed to have invested so much into their project that there was no backing down now.

The “explosions” further down the towers from the impact.  One of the truthers’ theories is that these were planned detonations, but a basic understanding of engineering will tell you that these are the result of heat and deformation generated by fire spreading to the levels below.

And there were plenty of seemingly obvious responses to these and other topics, like:

If it was actually a controlled demolition, why did no-one in, or around, these enormous, 24-hour buildings notice explosives and charges being brought in and installed in the structure?  This would actually be a massive undertaking,and you’d need to pay off all the security team, everyone who worked in the buildings or in the neighbourhood who might have seen it, anyone working for the government or air traffic control (who would have been “in on it”), huge sectors of the media, and anyone with any connections at all to any of these institutions.  If you take six degrees of separation into account, that’s roughly the whole world’s population.  If you had a secret as huge as this, the amount of expenditure and connections necessary to maintain it would be astronomical.  The concept is nicely illustrated by the Mitchell and Webb sketch about the reality of faking the Moon landings.

We were told that approximately 2200 architects and engineers dispute the accepted version of events, and based on an extremely conservative estimate, in 2005 there are about 1,086,498 architects globally.  The number of building engineers is more difficult to quantify (seriously, it’s really difficult to find data on this!), but lets just say that we are only considering structural engineers – that would be about 27,000 registered structural engineers with the IStructE.  So if we add these two numbers together (which are from different time periods and incomplete – so it’s likely the figure is an underestimate), and add on a margin to include practitioners who are registered through alternative professional bodies, or in a country not included in the stats, we could call it 1.2 million.  Compared to other estimates of up to 2.5 million+, this is still a very low figure.  But divide the little number by the big number, and you get 2200 / 1200000 = 0.18%.  That’s considerably lower than the number of scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming, and most who do disagree are less well-respected and credible scientists (and we can even demonstrate that scientifically).

Consensus within the scientific community is an important tenet of how the scientific method works.  Data is produced, peer-reviewed, adjusted based on criticism, refined, republished, and all in the name of accuracy and better understanding.  When a large number of scientists agree, it’s not based on opinion, it’s based on an assessment of the facts.  So it’s not an appeal to popularity by any means, consensus is based on scientific findings, not individual preferences.  An important point about scientific consensus is that it can change.  Usually over time, and not in large leaps, seeing as the way that we develop our understanding these days is by people contributing one study at a time to the whole.  Most of the big ideas have already been discovered.  Maybe there are big ideas that we haven’t yet uncovered, and perhaps one person will make a mind-blowing discovery in their field, but this is the exception.

A common argument in favour of the “inside job theory” is that melted steel was found at the site, which was criticised from two angles: steel structures do not need to melt in order for them to collapse, they just need to weaken enough to become unsupportable – which happens at increased temperatures that still fall below the melting point. Secondly, many people believe that the molten material is actually aluminium, which would melt at the high temperatures of the fire (its melting point is 660.3C), especially if it came from, say, a burning aircraft…. (wonder where we could find one of those?)

An interesting point raised was that structural engineers over-design buildings so they never fall down. Well, that’s not quite true. When buildings are designed there is a margin of “error” built in, so that a building is unlikely to fall down unexpectedly. This is a safety margin to ensure that our buildings are fit for purpose and that engineers don’t get sued for producing under-specified buildings. But it doesn’t mean that we design all (or even any) buildings to withstand every possible condition. If that was true, demolition would be impossible. Which kinda conflicts with the idea that it was a controlled demolition. Oops.

Another one that I’d not heard before: Fire is unpredictable so a collapse by fire shouldn’t look similar to a controlled demolition – false. We know how fire is likely to behave (there’s a whole industry devoted to modelling the effects of fire within buildings, and I’m pretty sure they’re not just making shit up). Additionally, demolition by fire is a recognised method that was used in the UK until very recently – check out some of Fred Dibnah’s old stuff.

The people who know all this aren’t wasting their time on petty squabbles about the  minutiae of the truthers’ arguments because they know that their own evidence is so strong and there’s nothing more to be said.  That was an interesting thing to note about the presentation, and many of the truther arguments generally – that they concentrate on tiny details, rather than looking at the obvious – hellooooo – buildings do not perform very well when planes fly into the side of them.

I guess that was a kind of strange thing for me to hear – I am one of those who knows what they are talking about, and yet I decided to engage with the host’s odd viewpoint. It really reinforced a lot of what I already knew about arguing with idiots, and I guess I’ve learnt all I need to about this type of “debate” – it’s only going to go in one direction, and none of the participants will benefit from it.  If the authorities did get involved with this sort of thing they’d look foolish. And so they don’t. There’s nothing more to add. As I noted above, the 9/11 truthers have no new arguments, and they just reproduce all those that have already been debunked – as if repeating the same old tripe over and over will make it somehow more believable.

But aside from listening to the actual arguments, be they truth or “truth”, the best part of the afternoon was engaging in the discussion.  I would classify many of the people in attendance as skeptics (this kind, not this kind), but there were also some people who probably wouldn’t align with that definition, and they seemed to have a very diverse set of views.  Some of them might have been convinced by the speaker’s arguments, but they were also listening to reason and asking plenty of intelligent questions – although not all thinking entirely critically.  But it does show that the people who lie in the  middle of two polarised views are often an astute bunch, even if they don’t play by the rules of formal science or debate.

It was interesting to hear the speaker’s responses to the arguments put forward by even the toughest skeptic.  They maintained their composure at all times, even if they didn’t give satisfactory answers.  But they did have an answer for everything – this was surely a lesson in the internal machinations of a 9/11 truther.

There were a couple of things that bothered me, aside from the glaringly obvious fact that they were just plain wrong.  The speaker claimed to disagree with the scientific method, yet cherry-picked papers that supported their theory.  So the scientific method is ok if it backs up your own viewpoint but not when it supports the 99.8% of experts who disagree. Hmmmmm.

More worrying than this was that when asked what evidence would make them change their mind, they said that nothing would.  While I’m often analysing my thoughts, beliefs and actions, not everyone is as skeptically-minded as me.  And yet – that’s a pretty bold statement to make.  That literally nothing would make you change your mind – no amount of evidence, no wavering in your beliefs, no concept of doubt.  That’s about dogma, not the truth.

I also objected to the chair criticising a group member for saying the presenter’s ideas were “bullshit”.  They focused on the use of ‘bad language’ as a means to quell dissent – which totally did not work.  The person who said it kindly clarified by saying that they respected the speaker, and the were treating the idea with exactly the amount of respect it deserved.

Something that the speaker did have right is that the Internet is an incredibly effective communication tool.  They use it to spread what they see as the truth.  This is why it’s so important to engage at some level with this type of discussion to refute it for the benefit of those not really on one ‘side’ of the argument, but who are interested in curiosities like this, for whatever reason.  If a bad idea is presented, it will proliferate if left unchallenged.  Or the whole thing will backfire and their belief will become stronger.  But either way, I do feel there’s a moral obligation to publicly to rail against bad ideas, policies, and institutions – but that we need to make sure we do it properly and effectively.

On the whole, it’s got to be one of the oddest Sunday afternoons I have ever enjoyed.  It was a great day out, meeting a bunch of strangers who actually wanted to have a conversation, and to spend time in an engaging activity with my partner and friends.  And it’s all thanks to my marvellous friends who I can always trust to get me into the most bizarre and exciting scrapes.  Well done, chaps!  But if I was looking to change minds or educate, well, it was something of a pointless exercise.  The speaker themselves acknowledged that this was nothing to do with facts or evidence.  Their work on this theory is all to do with bolstering their pre-existing beliefs.  Their ideas are testable – but they’re not interested in the results.

ASIDE: I think it’s really important to talk about something that often gets forgotten in discussions of the World Trade Centre attacks.  Those buildings were designed to 1960s codes, which fall below more modern standards.  Someone else in the group noted that the buildings had failed a fire safety check in the 1990s.  And yet – despite this, those buildings remained standing for 90 minutes after a plane flew into the side of them.  The skill and ingenuity of those who designed and built those structures is recognised in the thousands of lives that WERE saved by the integrity of those structures.  Even built with technology from 50 years ago, those buildings were still tough enough to have prevented an even greater tragedy.  We should recognise their contribution and not tarnish it by asking ludicrous questions about whether it was an inside job, or if it was some conspiracy related to the Bush family or insurance fraud (no, really!) or any of the other peculiarities I’ve encountered.

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