So, the prestigious Europhysics News has published an article that questions the official story behind 9-11. The journal of the European Physical Society, in print since 1969, is certainly taking a risk. No one wants to be called a conspiracy theorist.
The engineers – including two professors – behind the article argue, on the 15th anniversary of those terrible events, that the collapse of the twin towers and the resulting thousands of deaths (office workers, firefighters, policemen) was likely to have been a controlled demolition. Rather than a spontaneous collapse induced by the fires ignited when jets crashed into the upper floors. The authors conclude:
“It bears repeating that fires have never caused the total collapse of a steel-framed high-rise before or since 9/11. Did we witness an unprecedented event three separate times on September 11, 2001? The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report, which attempted to support that unlikely conclusion, fail to persuade a growing number of architects, engineers, and scientists. Instead, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that all three buildings were destroyed by controlled demolition.”
The question is: who would do such a thing. Was it a subsidiary terrorist attack? (i.e, was there another terrorist group, affiliated to the first, which set about creating a planned demolition event in the towers the weeks before the implosion that would take place after the planes slammed into the towers to compound the heinousness of the original act?) Why then have the government investigators kept quiet about it? They have no interest in protecting the reputations of wicked terrorists. So…is it a conspiracy by the US government? Unbelievable. They wouldn’t do that.
For what purpose? However, millions of Americans seem to believe it. Well-made conspiracy videos such as Loose Change have circulated on the internet for years, on sites such as YouTube. This is the first serious science journal I have seen that gives credence to the theories by publicising them. However, the article does not speculate on who did it. It just raises, using the writers’ professional engineering knowledge, doubts about the official account, the technical possibilities of it. The reader must draw his own conclusions after that.
The question of whether something is a conspiracy theory or not is something I face as a journalist all the time. To me, they come in two kinds: general and therefore unprovable. For instance, the existence of a New World Order. There are academics who write on the theory and psychology of conspiracy theories: that they are the “poor man’s cognitive mapping”, a way of defiantly asserting his individuality by simplifying and intentionalising causes in a world of endless, disenfranchising social complexity. Conspiracy theory, one article in a health journal argues, is a form of coping with death. People find comfort in the thought of their inevitable demise by constructing an exciting, simple and dramatic plan of how the world functions and who runs it.
They derive pleasure from the diabolical nature of it all, and the cleverness of their insight into the truth, shared with other initiated individuals. As a kind of reality construction, it is not that different from religion, which also gives meaning amid the meaninglessness of life. So argues the health journal. Other academics interested in the meta-theory of conspiracy have argued that, if it is developed to a high enough level, conspiracy theorising is just cultural and social critique of prevailing systems. The academic John Farrell argues that Descartes and Nietzsche were paranoiacs who created rejected the materialist vision of reality and at the same time were great philosophers.
Today, maybe, instead of writing about the demon that was able to falsify all reality (Descartes’ cogito argument) they would be writing about the New World Order. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud also constructed systems that were strictly speaking unscientific and unverifiable and have countless adherents who in the latter case earn good fees telling people about it. Freud himself at least had the self-insight to note that the methods used by psychoanalysts to diagnose illness – among them paranoid disorders – resembled the methods of paranoid people when constructing the conspiratorial world view.
He writes: “The delusions of patients appear to me to be the equivalents of the constructions which we build up in the course of analytic treatment”. The psychoanalyst looks for clues in the patient’s behaviour, or extreme statements, that indicate a disorder, and then links it to the unverified scientific claims of psychoanalytic theory (ego, id and the rest of it – stuff we can’t actually measure).
The patient sees “clues” in statements from politicians, journalists and other suspect powerful people and links it to his favourite theory about the grand conspiracy running the world. What is the difference between the Freudian therapist looking for inwards psychodynamic causes that no science has verified and the paranoid looking at theories of who runs the world that can’t be verified either? Except psychotherapy is acceptable in upper middle class households and grand conspiracy theories aren’t – for the time being.
Here we get into the whole area of social critique and philosophy. These things are not strictly scientific but they are engaging and help us understand what it means to be human. So perhaps we should not criticise grand conspiracy theorists too much. I have always hated that word “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist” anyway. It is a word often used by those in power – say, mainstream journalists for powerful international newspapers – against those without power, ie the people who write comments at the bottom of Daily Mail articles or contemplate voting for Donald Trump and think the world is stacked against them.
I have just talked about the grand, systemic conspiracy theories, about who runs the world, but there are also specific, concrete, conspiratorial claims, of which the Who killed JFK is the emblematic one. I believe you can take a straightforward scientific approach to these: amass the evidence, make judgments of probability, test your hypothesis. Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian philosopher of science active in Britain whom I studied at university, talked about progressive and degenerating research programmes. A research programme consists of a core theory where the participants are dedicated to advancing the case of that core theory, and dedicated to protecting the theory from apparently contradictory evidence by making modifications to the “protective belt” of auxiliary hypotheses and initial conditions. (Also known as “ignoring the anomalous point in the graph because the temperature in the lab was too hot that day”.) If you have to make too many ad hoc adjustments, so that the theory loses its coherence and elegance, you ditch the theory.
I have to say that some of 9-11 conspiracy theories are, in the Lakatos sense, degenerating. The protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses to “save” the theory is just too ad hoc, too large.
The get out card for conspiracy theorists is that always that there is a “cover-up”, which explains away their theories’ failure to verify. Cover-ups do exist: it is in the public domain that Nixon lied about Watergate and Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident (the North Vietnamese naval attack that wasn’t, but which sparked off American involvement in Vietnam), but cover-ups on the level that some 9-11 conspiracy theorists maintain….one part of theory by which this was actually an administration plot to conquer the Middle East in retaliation is that the planes did not actually crash into the buildings but were diverted to a military airport.
All the passengers were given new identities and had to sign secrecy agreements. They are still alive and living scattered across the United States. The planes were remote controlled or actually cruise missiles (because “no one” saw that plane crashing into the Pentagon.) That sounds frankly lunatic. On the other hand, that engineering theory cannot apparently explain the rapid collapse of the skyscrapers due to fire – in a way that has never happened to steel-framed high-rises before or since – is interestingly argued. The article can be found here:
I am not going to go out on a limb and claim it is credible or not. It is by far the most read article on their website. Go Europhysics News! My own political take on the whole matter is that it is a sign of the times: the fact that this piece – totally out of the American mainstream – is published in a European journal shows growing European willingness to challenge American modes of thought.