2010-01-29 Rebutting (Again!) the 9/11 Truthers/woozle

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Very Brief Intro

Adjectives are inadequate to express the degree of intellectual dishonesty in this piece – which might be understandable if it came from a Republican, but the author (Michael Shermer) is supposedly a skeptic and fierce advocate of skepticism. He even founded an international society dedicated to skepticism, called The Skeptics Society, and is editor of its magazine, called Skeptic. (But of course Wikipedia is just a "crowdsourced" wiki that anyone can edit and clearly can't be trusted, so maybe I'm making this all up.)

I'm going to take Shermer's article paragraph by paragraph to make sure I don't miss any valid points which might be buried in the rhetoric, and try to ignore the snide tone (I agree with PZ Myers that a hostile tone does not invalidate an argument even if it can be extremely irritating).

The Fisking

Like unsinkable rubber duckies, everytime you push down the fatuous arguments of the 9/11 "truthers," who believe that the U.S. government was complicit in the attacks on that fateful day in September, they just pop back up.

This consists of two claims:

  • Shermer has previously refuted 9-11 Truth arguments.
    • False: He has responded to them in the past, but his previous responses looked every bit as irrational as this one.
  • Truthers believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
    • Distortion: Many truthers do believe this, but they are aware that the evidence is (so far) weak -- and it is not the core position of the 9/11 Truth movement, which is basically that the official story is substantially incorrect and there needs to be a proper investigation to determine the truth.

Shermer continues:

In response to my blog here, 9/11 Truthers Foiled by 12/25 Attack, the "truthers" have fired back with a series of questions for me, not about Al Qaeda and bin Laden taking credit for the Xmas day underwear bomber, or for 7/7, or Lisbon, or the attack on the World Trade Center buildings in the early 1990s, but on specific "anomalies" in the collapse of the WTC buildings...

Shorter Shermer: Instead of asking me about irrelevant stuff, they kept focusing on their main point.

Shermer goes on to explain why he sees this as a problem:

...in the mistaken belief that if I cannot address each and every anomaly they believe they have found, then this is proof positive that Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld, and company are guilty.

This is a total straw man. The truther position is that if each and every significant anomaly in the official story cannot be addressed, then the official story is in need of revision.

Additionally, Shermer -- much like Zelikow -- is here attempting to insinuate the belief that a larger number of objections implies excessive zeal from the objectors, rather than greater error in the material under discussion. I should think that a vast number of discrepancies in one's reasoning -- especially when they call into question one's major conclusions -- is a more powerful indictment against those conclusions, not less.

The "more is less" insinuation only holds up if he can show that the objections are generally trivial in nature, oddities which might happen in any unusual event.

  • Shermer does not attempt to do so, nor to give examples of objections he would find reasonable if proven.
  • Indeed, many of the objections are quite major, of which the largest is probably the inconsistency between the obviously explosive nature of the twin tower collapses and the various gravity-collapse models proposed within the official story.

Note also the double bind: a common denialist argument is that you need to have a believable alternative theory before you can question the existing one -- with which Shermer himself opens his next paragraph (see below). The fact that truthers have suggested alternative theories -- often just as speculation on how things might have happened -- is here being used as an argument against questioning the official story, when it should be largely irrelevant.

There is sufficient public evidence to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the official story, but insufficient public evidence to prove an alternative; alternative "theories" will remain the realm of speculation so long as the necessary evidence is unavailable for examination, but this in no way diminishes the validity of objecting to the current one.

Shermer is essentially taking speculation about what the investigation will find, and using it to discredit the idea of a new investigation -- because that speculation is simply too unbelievable.

The only way out of the bind would appear to require solving the mystery -- providing solid evidence of an alternative hypothesis -- but in order to do that, truthers need access to all known evidence and the ability to subpoena witnesses; in order gain this access, a new investigation is needed -- which is the central premise of the "truth" movement.

Shermer continues:

Here is their challenge to me: http://911debunkers.blogspot.com/2010/01/response-to-michael-shermer.html

On February 2, 2010 – 3 days after Shermer's piece was published – the page pointed to by this link is 404 Not Found. However, that link appears to have been a reprint, while the original is here (additional comments here). Rather than respond to any of the questions posed in the challenge, Shermer opens a new paragraph with platitudes:

The belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking...

Problems with this:

This man calls himself a skeptic?

...(that includes, in addition to Holocaust denial, creationism and crank theories of physics)

More guilt by association -- this time explicitly lumping "truthers" in with Holocaust deniers, creationists, and other anti-science groups -- while himself supporting an extremely unscientific conclusion and undermining efforts to bring science to bear on it.


This includes another straw man: he implies that "truthers" are basing their case on "single facts alone"; this is incorrect. The claim that the towers were demolished, for example, does indeed rest "on convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry".

He also re-implies the distortion that truthers are advancing a "theory", when they are primarily advancing the idea that the facts need re-investigation.

Finally, Shermer begins to get into some matters of fact (reformatted slightly for readability):

For example, on the issue of the melting temperature of steel, according to 911research.wtc7.net, steel melts at a temperature of 2,777 degrees Fahrenheit, but jet fuel burns at only 1,517 degrees Fahrenheit. No melted steel, no collapsed towers. (This claim is made by Jim Hoffman,in his book Waking Up From Our Nightmare and on his web page http://911research.wtc7.net/talks/towers/text/index.html.)

Wrong. In an article in the Journal of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society, M.I.T. engineering professor Dr. Thomas Eager explains why: steel loses 50 percent of its strength at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit; 90,000 liters of jet fuel ignited other combustible materials such as rugs, curtains, furniture, and paper, which continued burning after the jet fuel was exhausted, raising temperatures above 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and spreading the fire throughout the building; temperature differentials of hundreds of degrees across single steel horizontal trusses caused them to sag, straining and then breaking the angle clips that held them to the vertical columns; once one truss failed, others failed, and when one floor collapsed (along with the ten stories above it) onto the next floor below, that floor then gave way, creating a pancaking effect that triggered the 500,000-ton building to collapse.

(Shermer does not link to the article; it is catalogued here.)

This is the "truss failure" theory, and was refuted by 911Research (911R) in 2005. Apparently Shermer made the same claim, almost verbatim, in a Scientific American article 5 years previous to the article currently under discussion, and 911R responded that very same year:

In the transcript mentioned above, the paragraph immediately following the source of Shermer's 2,777°F debunks the column failure theory. Subsequent paragraphs debunk the truss failure theory. Thus it is difficult to imagine that Shermer's false attribution of the melted steel straw man argument to 911Research was accidental.

Here is 911R's position on the temperatures present in the WTC fires:

The melting point of steel is slightly below that of iron, which is 1535 Celsius. The highest temperature you can achieve by burning hydrocarbons in the atmosphere without pressurization or preheating of the air is around 825 Celsius, and that's when you have pre-mixed fuel and air -- the kind of blue flame you get with a gas stove. Diffuse flames of the type you have in building fires are far cooler than that, and oxygen-starved diffuse flames are far cooler still. Note that the the dark smoke, especially in the South Tower, indicate that those fires were oxygen starved; they were probably only a few hundred degrees Celsius.

The next paragraph addresses the "column failure" theory:

A more sophisticated theory that was presented within days of the attack, is the "column failure" theory, or as we call it, the "wet noodle" theory, in which the heat from the fires supposedly causes the columns, not to melt, but to lose most of their strength by softening because steel starts to soften long before it melts at high temperatures.

The column failure theory is unfortunately inapplicable because the temperatures were nowhere near hot enough for that scenario. It assumes that the columns on an entire floor were raised to around 800 degrees Celsius, but note that the fires didn't even cover a single floor of either tower.

None of the features of 700-degrees-plus-Celsius fires were observed, which are [that] the steel would glow red-hot, there would be extensive window breakage, bright emergent flames would be visible, and light smoke, not the black smoke that we saw, at least as time progressed, would have been evident.

Moreover, fires have never caused a column failure in any steel structure, because steel has a high thermal conductivity, which means you pour heat onto it, and it soaks it away -- the heat conducts very rapidly.

Corus Construction Corporation performed extensive tests in multiple countries in which they subjected steel-framed carparks, which were uninsulated, to prolonged hydrocarbon fueled fires, and the highest temperatures they recorded in any of the steel beams or columns was a mere 360 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, structural steel loses only about 1 percent of its strength.

911R then adds one more piece of evidence against this theory (emphasis added):

Now even if somehow those fires could have been as hot as Bazant and Zhou would like for their column failure theory, they still could not level the towers, because the towers had 287 columns which would all have to be weakened to the point of collapse at the same instant to cause the vertical telescoping that we saw in the North Tower or even the South Tower. Asymmetric damage doesn't produce such a symmetric result. Some of the columns would get hotter before others and the tower would topple; it wouldn't collapse into itself. Earthquakes are the only natural cause, so to speak, that can cause that kind of simultaneous damage.

911R then addresses the truss-failure theory, as advocated by Eagar and others, by pointing out that:

  • Eagar viewed the fires as being no hotter than a trashcan fire; the catastrophic damage came because the fires were so widespread
  • The animation commonly used to explain the theory shows trusses running in only one direction; there were in fact perpendicular trusses interwoven with the trusses that you see, requiring much more extensive truss failure before an entire floor could collapse
  • That same animation also "implies that the floors merely rested on the trusses when in fact these trusses were bolted into the pans underlaying the floor slabs every few inches" -- it would take more than a little sagging to cause the trusses to pull loose.
  • Truss failure does not explain why the core, in both buildings, was also utterly demolished.

To those points, I would add these:

  • Truss failure does not explain why the outer shell collapsed. The trusses hung between the outer shell and inner core.
    • If several floors collapsed at once, you might expect to see a punch-out on one side of the building where they slid into the outer shell due to their combined momentum (plus hard obstacles distributed unevenly on the lower floors) -- and perhaps this would even have caused the shell above this punch-out to collapse, possibly bringing down much of the rest of the building in a pile... but this is not at all what we see in the collapse videos.
      • ...and the huge, sudden punch-outs caused by the planes did not cause any such collapse. Why would the much slower impact of a few floors -- sagging and (according to the theory) eventually tearing loose -- cause such a sudden, explosive, and thorough disintegration of the entire building?
    • In the absence of such punch-outs due to truss collapse -- and again, the videos show no evidence of this happening -- one would expect the exterior to remain essentially intact.
  • The floors were not stacked on top of each other; one floor falling due to truss failure should not have caused the floors above to collapse as well. So what formed the necessary huge mass which caused the "pile-driver effect" so often cited? Maybe 6 floors of trusses -- is that enough to bring the whole building down?

I can certainly understand Mr. Shermer being unaware of the latter points, but he has clearly had some time to research his answers to the points raised by 911R in 2005. Where are they?

This is a distortion. The actual arguments:

  • If the buildings had collapsed due to the mechanical energy of the impact, they would have done it within seconds of the actual impacts -- not an hour later, suddenly, without any prior signs of structural failure.
  • If the buildings had collapsed due to mechanical failure caused by fire plus mechanical damage, the collapses would have been asymmetrical and incomplete -- as seen in every other non-deliberate building collapse known.
    • And yes, tall buildings actually can fall on their sides almost intact -- so Shermer's argument from incredulity itself falls a bit flat, although nobody in the truth movement is claiming that this would have happened in the case of such enormous buildings as the Twin Towers. We would, however, expect to see large chunks of recognizable building, as commonly seen with earthquake-induced collapses -- not the pulverised concrete and bare steel found at Ground Zero.

Shermer continues:

Conspiracy theory buffs – in direct contradiction of the above claim – also believe that the buildings fell straight down into their own footprint, which, they say, could only have happened if they had been deliberately brought down by explosive charges carefully and deliberately set ahead of time.

Logic error: how is it contradictory to say both (a) that the buildings should have collapsed asymmetrically (or even "fallen over onto their sides" and (b) that they didn't, and in fact fell essentially straight down?

Not true. The buildings did not fall down perfectly straight. Their collapse began on the side where the planes impacted, and so were tilted slightly toward that weakened collapse point.

  • Distortion: Nobody used the word "perfectly". The point is that they fell down rather than over -- through the path of most resistance, into the intact lower floors, which had not been structurally damaged (according to official theory).
    • Further, both the intact lower floors and the "pile-driver" upper floors which supposedly pulverized them were completely destroyed -- how is this even possible?
  • Error: In WTC1, the collapse did not appear to begin on any particular side; the explosion was more or less uniform all around.
  • Distortion: In WTC2, the collapse did begin on one side, and the upper floors began to topple to one side as one would expect -- but then they stopped toppling and, again, fell through the path of greatest resistance. What gave way, simultaneously in all of the remaining undamaged lower floors, to cause that?


  • Distortion: again, nobody except Shermer said "precisely".
  • Omission: ...except in the case of WTC7, which some major demolitions experts have agreed does look pretty exactly like controlled demolition (CD) -- whether or not they agree that this is what happened.
  • Distortion: Why should we expect a faked collapse to use standard CD techniques? Wouldn't it make sense, if someone was trying to make it look like the buildings had collapsed because of the impact, that they would demolish the buildings from the impact point on down?

For our special 9/11 issue of Skeptic (https://www.skeptic.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Session_ID=c87b04f1741b6411293eee53ccfedc39&Screen=PROD&Store_Code=SS&Product_Code=magv12n4&Category_Code=BI) we consulted a demolition expert named Brent Blanchard, who is Director of Field Operations for Protec Documentation Services, a company that documents the work of building demolition contractors. Since the rise in popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories, he too has been inundated with requests to explain why the buildings appeared to have "collapsed as if by a controlled demolition."

Poor guy, being asked to explain stuff in his field of expertise -- to which nobody else in the field seems to be willing to give a straight answer. Those skeptics can be soooo pesky sometimes, eh, Dr. Shermer?

Maybe Protec should give Blanchard a raise and some cookies, especially if he can manage to brush those annoying skeptics off one more time. Shall we see if he earns his cookies?


Umm, yeah, I'm sure it's there somewhere... oh, here, it's still linked from the front page... (click)... well, sort of... (click)... ahh, here we go... at least, I assume that's the one Shermer is talking about.

Distortion: These are not anywhere near the nine best arguments put forth by 9/11 truth advocates. Maybe they're just the best ones Shermer is aware of -- though I note in some cases he has taken a good argument and salted it with a weak one, then primarily addressed the weak one... I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and call this a distortion rather than an error.

A brief aside: The whole thing with Brent Blanchard, Protec, and ImplosionWorld is a bit peculiar. Ignoring the obvious ties between the three of them, what we do have is

  • A company claiming to be internationally prominent in the field of explosive demolition
  • An online magazine widely cited by 9-11 debunkers and often referenced on Wikipedia (in relation to 9/11 and other things)

...yet no major source, including Wikipedia and SourceWatch, seems to know anything about them. Wikipedia's article on building implosion references Blanchard as a source, but says nothing about his standing in the field.

But okay, Blanchard is an industry expert, so we'll see what he has to say, and if he gets cookies for successfully evading the evil Truthites.

Claim #1: The collapse of the towers looked exactly like controlled demolitions.

Protec: No they did not. The key to any demolition investigation is in finding out the "where" – the actual point at which the building failed. All photographic evidence shows World Trade Center buildings 1 and 2 failed at the point of impact. Actual implosion demolitions always start with the bottom floors. Photo evidence shows the lower floors of WTC 1 and 2 were intact until destroyed from above.

This is yet another a straw man. (Blanchard gets a cookie.) Nobody is denying that the collapses started at the point of impact. This has no significance whatsoever. If someone wanted to fake a collapse-by-plane-impact, of course they would start the collapse at that point.

Protec also doesn't mention that the WTC collapses were a lot sloppier than a properly-done controlled demolition -- but that might have called unwanted attention to the multi-ton steel girders which were thrown hundreds of feet horizontally... supposedly just from the sheer energy of the collapsing interior floors.

Claim #2: But they fell right down into their own footprint.

It's true that "into its own footprint" is a phrase often seen in truther literature, and it's a bit of an over-reach. The point is that rather than falling to one side, through empty air, they collapsed down through otherwise-intact, undamaged floors -- which would have to be the hardest possible path to follow, unless those intact floors were somehow taken out of the way just in time.

Protec: They did not. They followed the path of least resistance and there was a lot of resistance.

Falling through intact, essentially undamaged lower floors is the path of least resistance? (Blanchard gets a big cookie, with chocolate chips.)

Buildings of 20 stories or more do not topple over like trees or reinforced towers or smokestacks.

This building was only 13 stories. Maybe if it had had 7 more stories, then it would have disintegrated into pulverized concrete and bare, twisted girders.

Looking at other steel-frame building collapses, there isn't anything remotely like what happened with the Twin Towers. Even other buildings in the complex (buildings 3, 4, 5, and 6) which were heavily damaged by debris from the Twin Towers, did not collapse -- except, of course, for WTC7, which was unmistakably a controlled demolition.

(I'll give Blanchard half a cookie for implying that buildings turn to pulverized concrete when they fall over if they're over 20 stories, and the other half for completely ignoring WTC7, which did fall "into its own footprint" as well as any controlled demolition does.)

Imploding demolitions fall into a footprint because lower stories are removed first. WTC debris was forced out away from the building as the falling mass encountered intact floors.

Ahh, here we have mention of the sloppy scattering of debris. This part of Protec's response is at least somewhat reasonable -- but it still ignores the fact that the vast bulk of collapse was seen to proceed straight down, and the parts which didn't go down were thrown outwards at velocities which can't be explained by mass and gravity. (Half a cookie, I guess.)

Claim #3: Explosive charges are seen shooting from several floors just prior to collapse.


Protec is just blowing smoke here. When has this phenomenon ever been observed anywhere but in cases of controlled demolition? (Blanchard gets a cookie with frosting for making a claim without evidence, thus helping to train people not to expect any.)

Claim #4: Witnesses heard explosions.

Protec: All Seismic evidence from many independent sources on 9/11 showed none of the sudden vibration spikes that result from explosive detonations.

  • Changing the subject: Explosions might not register on seismic instruments; the point is that people heard them.
  • Error: There is seismic evidence which has been interpreted as indicating explosions prior to the collapse. They need to address this evidence and explain why their interpretation is correct.

Two cookies for Blanchard.

Claim #5: A heat generating explosive (thermite?) melted steel at ground Zero.

Protec: To a man, demolition workers do not report encountering molten steel, cut beams or any evidence of explosions. Claims of detected traces of thermite are at this time inconclusive.

Severe error: Molten steel was reported by James Fallows writing in the Atlantic. There are multiple photographs of steel girders with one end red-hot as they are pulled out of the rubble, at least one photo of diagonal cuts in the steel at ground zero, and multiple reports of puddles of molten steel. Videos even show molten steel pouring out of one corner of WTC2 shortly before it fell.

As HistoryCommons observes, Protec does not identify with whom they spoke, so that this claim can be checked. Perhaps they simply didn't ask very many workers, or only spoke with workers who didn't happen to report seeing molten steel.

(Blanchard get a frickin' angel food cake for this one... and another large cookie for making an uncheckable claim.)

Claim #6: Ground Zero debris – particularly the large steel columns from towers 1 and 2 – were quickly shipped overseas to prevent scrutiny.

Protec: Not according to those who handled the steel. The chain of procession is clearly documented, first at ground Zero by Protec and later at the Fresh Kills site by Yannuzzi Demolition. The time frame (months) before it was shipped to China was normal.

In what sense is it "normal" for 130,000 tons of WTC steel to be hauled off to China for recycling off in two weeks? This is hardly enough time to even begin cataloging it, much less doing proper forensics. Where are the lists of items recovered from ground zero? How was each piece inspected before being hauled off? Who signed off on each piece, declaring that it was no longer needed for investigation?

(Cookie with antennae on it, for having a funny idea of "normal".)


Protec: Building owners do not have authority over emergency personal at a disaster scene. We have never heard "pull it" used to refer to an explosive demolition. Demolition explosive experts anticipated the collapse of WTC7, and also witnessed it from a few hundred feet away and no one heard detonations.

This response is so completely hollow. First, the substantial allegation is that WTC7 was taken down by controlled demolition; Protec does not address that question at all, instead focusing on the allegation (helpfully included by Shermer) that building owner Larry Silverstein said on camera that "we made the decision to pull". While Silverstein's choice of words is rather peculiar and opens many questions, the essential question of how to explain WTC7's collapse remains -- regardless of Silverstein's intent or involvement.

(Blanchard gets a donut, for his successfully hollow straw-man demolition.)

Claim #8: Steel-frame buildings do not collapse due to fire.

Protec: Many steel-framed buildings have collapsed due to fire.

They have? Name one steel-framed high-rise that collapsed primarily because of fire.

(This one gets another cake.)

Claim #9: Anyone who denies that explosives were used is ignoring evidence.

Protec: Most of our comments apply to the differences between what people actually saw on 9/11 and what they should have seen had explosives been present. The hundreds of men and women who worked to remove debris from ground zero were some of the countries most experienced and respected demolition veterans. They of all people processed the experience and expertise to recognize evidence of controlled demolition if it existed. None of these people has come forward with suspicions that explosives were used.

This is a pretty weak claim, taken by itself, but Protec's response is not only irrelevant but substantially wrong. No, I don't feel like digging up the dozens of interviews with witnesses who said they saw or heard explosives (maybe I'll add it later), because the point is irrelevant: whether or not the clean-up crew saw any evidence of explosives, such evidence does exist in abundance.

(Blanchard earns his final cookie)


Shermer makes at least 6 false claims, 8 distortions, 5 straw man attacks, and commits 15 other rhetorical deceptions and abuses of logic (red herring, claim-smuggling, double bind, argument from incredulity (2), antiskepsis, guilt by association (2), denialism, 2 logical errors, 1 omission, changing the subject, and 3 Highly Questionable Statements). I didn't have time to count carefully or list/label each item, so these numbers are approximate -- but I tried to err on the side of caution. Some of them could probably be better classified, too.

The point is, though, for someone claiming to be a supporter of skeptical inquiry, Shermer seems to be using the dark arts to the best of his ability when it comes to squashing skepticism on this one subject.

Also, Blanchard gets 91/2 cookies, 2 cakes, and a donut for his work in driving off the Skeptic Hordes. Heaven knows if it weren't for trusted professionals like him, civilization might topple over on its side and promptly turn to fine powder. (Blanchard could then enhance his reputation explaining why this was not at all unusual and totally something you would expect a civilization to do if hordes of skeptics got their way.)