SGU Episode 13

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SGU Episode 13
14th September 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 12                      SGU 14

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, September 14th, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella...

B: Hello everyone

S: Perry DeAngelis..

P: Good evening.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, fellow non-believers.

Science or Fiction (0:24)[edit]

S: So we are going to start off with Science or Fiction tonight.

E: Good start.

S: It's time to play Science or Fiction (echos).

S: Again, Science or Fiction—I scour the news for interesting scientific facts or news items and then I present three items, two of which are true or real, and one of which is false. The theme this week is "early man". These are all—the three things I going to give you are either abilities or technologies or things that early man was doing by approximately 30,000 years ago.

E: That's early.

S: Yes, we are talking about Homo sapiens, which is our own species. So by 30,000 years ago which one of the three things were we not yet doing. Now of course the evidence for all of this is mostly inferential, but there is reasonable compelling evidence for the two that are correct. OK, you guys ready?

B: Hmm-hmm

E: Ready.

S: The first one is footwear. So did humans 30,000 years ago wear footwear? The second one is using fire for cooking food. Not just using fire, but specifically cooking food. And the third one is the use of transporters. No, I'm kidding. The third one is domesticated horses.

P: Thirty thousand years ago?

S: Thirty thousand years.

P: OK. I'll go for—it's obviously horses, because that one is the most difficult to believe. There you have it.

S: OK, simple enough. Bob?

B: Hmmm. I don't think they had footwear. First thing that comes to mind is a lot of primitive tribes that are extant today, and I don't think they wear anything on their feet. Fire for cooking: my first thought is that they would have had it by then. Then you got domesticated horses—I mean, that seems too obvious, and maybe that's your whole plan, is to make something that is too obvious actually be the right one.

P: Always go for the most obvious—the most obvious answer. This is what we are taught by Occam's Razor.

B: Yeah, I might have to go with the domesticated horses as well.

S: All right. Evan?

E: Boy, they all sound very plausible, don't they? Something—I have a feeling it's fire—the fire one, and I don't really know why. I think obvious ...

P: Harkening back to The Flintstones?

E: Well, I'm just—to put it in that specific context of cooking their food with fire.

B: That is my second choice. It's a close tie.

E: I'll just go with that. I can't really give an explanation as to why, but I am just going to guess it.

S: It's your gut feeling.

E: Yes.

S: Well you all agree, apparently, that 30,000 years ago people were wearing footwear. That's actually only fairly recently discovered, and the evidence for that is indirect. There is direct evidence for more recent footwear going back thousands of years. The problem is that the kind of shoes that people would have wearing, I guess just basically slabs of leather on the bottom of their feet, wouldn't really fossilize or preserve very well. So the most recent published evidence for the use of footwear going back between 27 and 30 thousand years was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by a man named Trinkhouse who measured the foot bones of ancient people, and around 30,000 years ago in certain populations, the size of their little toes became smaller, which he reasons—

B: Right

S: —when you walk barefoot you use your small toes for traction, and therefore the bones would be bigger from use.

B: OK. They're superfluous if you have footwear.

S: If you have footwear you don't need them for traction, so they don't stay as big; they would be smaller. So indirect evidence for that—

B: So Steve, that would just be some sort of genetic drift toward smaller—

S: Well they just—you know muscles and bones are bigger with use and smaller without use, so it could not have been genetic, just—


S: —just a measurement—just a measure of use. The second one: using fire for cooking food—now the evidence for this is pretty compelling, and it is in fact the discovery of scorched animal bones in the fires, in the hearths or what would have been the hearths of the dwellings of primitive man. The question is how far back does that evidence go. It actually goes back all the way to Homo erectus

B: Wow!

S: —about a million and a half or more years ago.

B/E: Wow! No way!

S: So we've even been using fire to cook food for a long time.

E: Good for them.

P: Smart!

S: Domesticated horses is the correct answer. Bob and Perry both got it right.

P: Hah! Goes without saying.

S: The evidence for that mainly comes from the wear on the horses teeth from wearing a bridle.

E: Long in the tooth.

S: So yeah, the teeth would wear a certain way only if they had a bit in their mouth. Although there is some contention about whether or not the horses were truly domesticated or if they were just tamed in a way and how could we tell the difference. A tamed horse would be one that was, say, raised from a foal, but the horses would not be considered technically domesticated until they could be bred in captivity. But the evidence for this only goes back about 3,000 years; so, shorter by an order of magnitude, so it is actually fairly recent.

B: How long have primitive men and horses lived near each other? You know, maybe we haven't lived in close proximity until—you know, I don't know.

S: Horses ranged throughout Europe and Asia for a long time, so.

B: OK.

S: It wasn't that they were never present in Africa; the closest thing to a horse in Africa is a zebra. They made several migrations across the Bering Strait into North America, although they evolved in Europe and Asia.

P: Why do you suppose they didn't domesticate zebras?

B: I don't think you can. You can't.

S: Yeah, they are not domesticatable. They don't follow a herd stallion the way that horses do. So in order for an animal to be amenable to domestication, they have to have certain behavior patterns that could be exploited.

B: Yeah, an alpha male.

S: They either need to have built-in some kind of subservient or loyalty behavior to either—like, with dogs to a pack leader or with horses to a herd stallion. And some species just can't be domesticated.

P: Hmm.

S: So some people credit the rise of European civilization to the fact that we had a lot of species that we could domesticate: oxen and horses and cows and pigs, and there really are no domesticable animals in Africa, and that may have been a significant impact on the rate that at which they were able to wage war and raise civilization.

B: I would think that would be a huge factor.

S: Yeah! Imagine the military advantage of cavalry.

B: Oh, sure.

S: Can't be underestimated.

E: Good one.

Conspiracy Theories (8:15)[edit]

9/11 Conspiracies[edit]

S: OK. Since today is September 14th, just a few days after the fourth anniversary of 9/11—September 11th, 2001—I thought we would dedicate the rest of this show to discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories. Pretty much starting on September 12th of 2001 there were many conspiracy theorists claiming that the standard US government story about what happened, essentially that groups of al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked those four planes, crashing one into each of the two twin towers, the World Trade Center, and one into the Pentagon. The fourth one—the passengers hearing about the fate of the planes by people who were talking over cell phones—there was some struggle for control of the plane, and all we really know is that the plane crashed without ever reaching its target. Immediately—I think the conspiracies first took root in the Muslim world itself, and to this day I think there is still widespread belief that the entire affair was an elaborate Jewish conspiracy meant to frame the Muslim world for this act.

B: And they offer as evidence the fact that somehow Jewish people were informed the day before, whatever, not to go to work that following day.

P: "Four thousand Jews didn't show up for work", I believe, is the standard line.

S: Right.

E: I got the email.

S: Evan, you got the email to stay away from the towers?

E: I did, and it worked like a charm for me.

B: Yeah, thanks for forwarding that to me, Evan; I appreciate it.

E: I know.

S: Couldn't, Bob; it was in code.

E: It is, frankly, one of the more sickening conspiracy theories to come out and like you said, Steve, certainly one of the first to be raised and for coming from the extreme Muslim world, if it in fact did generate there, which it probably did. Unfortunately not surprising.

B: Was that based on anything, or what that just, you know, pulled right out of their butts?

P: Based on the juvenile hatred they have of Jewish people. The inability to admit error.

B: I mean was there fact that got distorted?

S: No, that was totally made up.

B: Somebody just—

S: A lot of things drive conspiracies. In this case, I think it was pure rumor, not really based on any facts.

P: Yes, but why did the rumor generate? That's what I was saying.

S: Yes, because of the historical animosity between the Muslims and the Jews because of Israel largely. Deeply held beliefs that a lot of these rumors were spread from the pulpit in the Muslim world, and people believed it because the religious leaders were telling them so. And of course, once you get into the mindset of the conspiracy, then any controverting evidence is easily dismissed. It's just part of the conspiracy. And the lack of evidence for a conspiracy is also just part of the conspiracy. There's just obviously an elaborate cover-up.

B: That's my favorite. Steve, you've got to relate that story about the show we saw about the Satanist—

S: The Satanists. Yes, this was I believe an HBO special covering a—this is bit of an aside, but it does illustrate this logical point—that in, I believe, in a town in Texas a girl was missing, essentially, and it was sort of an unexplained missing person case, and suspicion fell on a local family that were kind of outsiders. They were kind of like the weird family in town, and the investigators in the town—the local investigators were essentially taken control by a born-again who was convinced that this family was Satanists, and that they were committing Satanic ritual murder. To cut to the chase on this story, they built this elaborate sort of witch-hunt around this family. When—finally, people in town who had some sense essentially asked to have a federal investigator sent in take over the case, the federal investigator interrogating or debriefing the local investigator asked them the following question: "Now we've had people combing over the woods where these multiple brutal murders occurred, and we didn't find a single scrap of physical evidence. Now you know, normally at a murder site somebody's hacked up there's physical evidence all over the place. We didn't find a shred of physical evidence to say that anything happened there. Doesn't that bother you?" And the local born-again investigator responded to that by saying: "Now listen. These people are master Satanists. The fact that there's no evidence proves that they did it."


S: Which is astounding! Just astounding.

B: Oh my God!

E: I hope that's a logical fallacy.

S: Well that's the argument from ignorance, or saying that the lack of evidence proves that there was basically either a conspiracy to hide the evidence, or, in the case, that the people were so skilled that it just proves their skill in hiding the evidence. Well in fact, it doesn't prove anything, expect for the fact there is no evidence. So it's the same essentially logical fallacy—one of the major logical fallacy pillars of grand conspiracy theories, which is what we're talking about. A grand conspiracy basically involves multiple—

B: Grand, grandness.

S: —people over a long period of time, and involves some very, very obviously huge, huge cover-up—world domination, controlling major parts of civilization or governments. The problem with grand conspiracies is that they tend to collapse under their own weight. The believers in such conspiracies divide the world up into three types of people. There are the people who are carrying out the conspiracy. These people are enormously evil. They wield incredible resources. They are masterfully clever and yet, at the same time, incomprehensibly stupid, which is one of the key self-contradictions of these theories. The people who see the conspiracy for what it is, who are the army of light trying to save the work from the evil conspiracists. And then everyone else who are just the dupes, just the herds who don't know what's going on. Those are—that's the way they view the world. So the 9/11 conspiracy falls into that mold. Perry, I think you sent me this site—

P: Mm-hmm.

S: And just reading it is interesting. This is—

P: Which one's this? Some of the theories out there are quite...

S: There's one website—I think it's called "A Barrel of Conspiracies" is the name of this article by Noture Ganesh (sp?). So he relays the standard stories we all know. Then he writes: "taking the story apart. The official story of the US government is that hijackers belonging to the al-Qaeda controlled the planes. American Airlines Flight 11 hit the 1,300-foot north tower at the 96th floor, and Flight 175 hit the south tower at the 80th floor. There is serious flaws in this explanation. The flight—" Then he goes to talk about the fact that "the flights that were later to hit the World Trade Center buildings were flying in one of the most intensely monitored airspaces in the whole of the USA. All over these areas and elsewhere in the US, when aircraft are off-course the the Federal Aviation authority notifies the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and fighters are scrambled from the nearest airbase to speedily intercept and escort the wayward plane back to course and force it to land and even attack if the situation warrants." So, he is basically saying "why didn't NORAD dispatch fighters?"

P: Right.

B: Well the transponder was off, wasn't it?

S: Exactly. You're right. You anticipate my point. Yes. The hijackers turned off their transponders. Transponders are the little devices in airplanes that send out a signal basically saying their identity and location. These were deactivated before the planes were taken off course. Therefore, for awhile anyway, it could be seen as a simple malfunction. Transponders malfunction all the time. And in fact, F-15 fighters were dispatched, which the author does admit, but why was it a half-hour later, why were they dispatched from Massachusetts, although these planes did take off from Boston. What he's essentially doing is a process we call "anomaly hunting". You look at any complex historical event and search for apparent anomalies and without really seriously trying to provide all of the possible explanations for that anomaly, declare it unsolvable and therefore evidence that the standard story is not true. And then leap from that to say that therefore there was a conspiracy, whatever, the government actually brought down the towers, and the whole thing about the planes was a ruse. So the logical fallacy there is largely an argument from ignorance, saying that "well we can't explain the anomaly and therefore there must be some conspiracy going on." The same logic is applied to the assassination of JFK. The conspiracy theorists don't put forth any actual evidence of a specific conspiracy. They just essentially hype apparent anomalies or unexplained details of what happened and say, "well, this doesn't make any sense, therefore there was a conspiracy." Again, it's just a giant logical fallacy, the argument from ignorance.

B: Right. There is always going to be anomalies. You are never going to have all the information that you need to fully explain them. So these are never going to go away, and that's true of so many other phenomenon. You just can't have all the information you'd like. Like UFOs; you've got an incident that somebody relates, it's kind of a sketchy description, there's some unknowns, and you find some anomalies, and there, there's proof that there is UFOs and there is a conspiracy covering it up and there never going to go away.

S: Right.

P: In this case the anomalies aren't even very compelling.

B: No.

S: No.

P: They're not. They're really not. I just saw a special the other night on Discovery called "Flight 93: the Flight That Fought Back." It was very good. It was a docu-drama. Based on as much as they could on all the evidence they had. It was very interesting. But just an aside on that one: the murderers who took over the plane, they shut the transponder off. I was wondering myself—why can you shut a transponder off? Why allow the pilot to do that? Why isn't it just hard-wired into plane?

S: I think they—I don't think they flipped a switch. I think they cut the wires.

P: No, they flipped the switch. It's a switch.

S: Really?

P: It's a switch.

S: It's a switch?

P: The pilot shut it off. You can shut it on and off.

S: I don't know. I don't have an answer.

E: I can't think of any reason.

(multiple voices)

P: Why would it ever be desirable to shut off your transponder? On a commercial aircraft? I just found that very strange. I don't know what the answer is there. Very strange.

S: I don't know. Unless they think they need that option in case of times of war. I don't know what the answer is.

P: On a military aircraft, sure. But a commercial jetliner?

S: Sure.

P: Well, what have you. Just an aside.

S: Why aren't the doors to the cockpits lockable? Why was it so easy to gain access to those cockpits? Clearly the planes were not designed with that level of security in mind, and there were obvious gaps in security, and those hijackings could not have taken place if they had simply locked the cockpit. 9/11 would not have occurred. It's always easy to make those observations in hindsight.

P: True. That's true.

Government Competency and Other Anomalies[edit]

S: But you know, that kind of brings up another point. When you read a lot of conspiracy theories, like why was there a delay in scrambling jets, and why weren't they scrambled from a closer airport? There's a hundred questions like that that you can answer—that you can ask, rather. And it comes down to—again, the conspiracy theorists—the unspoken major premise of a lot of their apparent anomalies is that the government works with perfect efficiency and competence, and therefore anything that doesn't work perfectly well was deliberate and was planned and had a purpose. When—now we're only a couple of weeks after the Katrina hurricane and the flooding of New Orleans. Whereas I think history shows that the government is capable of incredible incompetence and confusion and chaos. And, in fact, in times of crisis, chaos typically rules the day. So most of these anomalies are explainable on the simple basis of incompetence, or just confusion.

P: Yeah. I don't see how it's possible to run something as complex and massive as the federal government without a constant stream of errors.

S: Right.

P: I just don't see how.

E: We've witnessed that very recently. No plan is perfect when it comes to these sudden disasters that we even do have a few days of foresight against and we do try to put, I think, our best plans into motion, and there's going to be problems. There's going to be setbacks and there's going to be outright failures along the way. I just think it's the nature of the enormous size of the task at hand that lends to that.

S: Right, these are people that we are talking about; just regular people, not these mythological men in black whose every action is deliberate.

P: With Katrina, we had days of advanced warning. Days! And still we had the endless fog. 9/11 was an inconceivable surprise. The world was a truer place before 9/11. At least as far as our security concerns go and our government's response.

S: And nobody—after the first plane hit, nobody thought that it was deliberate.

P: Right.

E: I certainly didn't.

S: The moment the second plane hit, everybody knew what it was.

E: Then you knew.

P: Everyone knew.

S: But there was that delay. It was collective denial or just inability to conceive that that was a deliberate act. But it was just—that introduced into a psychological delay as well.

P: I remember very clearly hearing on the radio that a plane—on my car radio, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and arriving at my location, going inside, looking at TV, and being shocked at how massive the damage was to the building, because I was imagining a Cessna, a small plane. I never imagined for one second that was a jumbo jetliner.

E: Passenger plane, right.

P: A passenger plane. It was astounding how much damage. My goodness! And of course, it all began to unfold very quickly.

S: Another example of the incompetency argument, using the JFK assassination conspiracy theories as another example. As I remember, a lot of the conspiracy theorists made a lot about the poor job that the pathologists did who performed the autopsy. But again, what they either ignore or failed to acknowledge the fact that the pathologists who did the autopsy on JFK were not forensic pathologists. In other words, they were not trained to do an autopsy on a gunshot victim in order to determine the details of the shooting. So they did more of a standard medical autopsy. And then one would ask: well, why did that happen? Why did people do the autopsy who were not qualified? Again that's where the chaos comes in. At that point in time the family was getting involved, and they wanted all this secrecy about the body, and they wanted all the pictures taken. They wanted the body brought to a certain hospital, not other ones, even though there weren't the right pathologists there. They didn't want anybody brought in from the outside, so again, there was just total chaos and no one really was masterminding these details. It's just the way things unfolded. So I think it's a good example of, again, just incompetence and confusion is a sufficient explanation for most of the anomalies that conspiracy theorists generate. I think the same is certainly true of most of the arguments of 9/11. Now Bob, you were going to bring up another point?

B: Yeah, one of the ones that I have come across a lot is the fact that kerosene can not burn hot enough to melt steel, and if the steel didn't melt, then how did the towers collapse? And some facts here: jet fuel burns from 800 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's true that steel melts at 2,750 degrees. So if you just look at those facts on the surface you would say, "well OK, it's got to be a conspiracy, because the facts don't add up."

S: Yeah, that's a very common point that they make, including the article that I have in front of me.

B: And there's a famous quote by a—let's see, New York deputy fire chief Vincent Dunne had a famous quote, and he said "I have never seen melted steel in a building fire." And this guy's an expert. He wrote a book called "The Collapse of Burning Buildings". And that's true, but the other part of his quote is that he's seen a lot of twisted, warped, bent, and sagging steel. So you don't need to actually have steel melt to cause a problem.

S: Right

B: What happens is, you're losing the structural integrity, and at 1,100 degrees steel loses a good chunk, about 50% of its strength at 1100 degrees.

S: Right.

B: Which is pretty significant, and at 1,800 degrees, it's like 90% of its strength, and that's all you really need.

S: Yeah!

B: And they've done some studies of what they think the fires might have—the temperatures might have reached, and they're saying that including the burning materials inside the building—

S: Right.

B: —like rugs and curtains and furniture, there could have been pockets of fire that hit 1,832 degrees. So you're dealing with steel that's at in many places less than 10% of its strength. And that's all you really need. And to me that explains it perfectly.

S: Yeah.

B: You don't need 2,700 degrees.

S: And you have to understand that the towers were built at the extreme end of our engineering capabilities. Those towers are huge, and they really were—the design was such that it was really extending the ability of steel to support a building. So it didn't take much loss of strength in those steel columns for the weight, essentially, of the upper floors to not be supported. And once one floor collapsed, then there was a domino effect. The floors below had much, much more weight suddenly dumped upon them, so they all collapsed.

B: Yeah. Another guy—another common theory that's been passed around a lot is the fact that the actual collapse of the buildings looked like a demolition.

S: Right.

B: And that's their theory—that the jet was just a ruse, and that the real thing that took down the buildings was an actual demolition of the buildings. We've all seen on the Science Channel these very cool images of buildings coming down, and people compared it to that. I think that was related to a quote somebody on the scene said that it kind of looked like that. And then, of course, that quote just totally ballooned—

S: Right.

B: —into this huge thing that people are constantly talking about, and I think he said later on—I don't have a hard quote, but I think he was pretty much saying "I was just saying that it kind of looked like it. I didn't mean to imply that that's what brought it down."

S: Yeah, well taking quotes out of context is another common ploy. What were you saying, Perry?

P: Just that a lot of people, along with what Bob's saying that it looked like a demolition—when the towers collapsed, the rubble pile was only a few stories tall.

S: Hmm-hmm.

P: And people didn't understand why that was, and I remember reading that an engineer said well because 95% of the building is air.

S: Right.

P: Only about 5% of what you see with your eye is the actual walls, is the actual structure. Most of the World Trade Center, like most skyscrapers, is just air.

S: That's how they're designed. It's mostly space, right?

P: Exactly. Because the devised space is what you can rent. That's what's profitable. Everything else is just a shelter.

S: Right. There are also ... At the World Trade Center, Building Seven also collapsed. Here's a website called "what really happened" where they talk a lot about the collapse of Building Seven. Here again, Bob gave an example of pulling a quote out of context and making it into a conspiracy. Here they quote the controller, Larry Silverstein as saying "we've had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it." And the author says "there can be little doubt as to how the word 'pull' is being used in this context." "Pulling it" meaning blow the building and deliberately demolish it and collapse it. I think there could quite a doubt. I mean, he's saying that—he said "pull the building"—that he must have been saying "let's demolish the building"; there could be no other interpretation of that. Oh, wrong. How about "let's pull our guys out of that building before it collapses." I think that's a much more straightforward interpretation of what he's saying.

P: There was an excellent documentary on Nova called "Why the Towers Fell".

S: Much maligned. Much maligned among the conspiracy theorists, of course.

P: Of course, because it's a sober, calm, really engineering perspective—engineers perspective of why the towers fell. There's an excellent companion website that's still up. You can find it through, and I would urge everyone to go take a look at that site. It's really very good.

S: And in case there is any doubt. I mean the serious scientists and engineers all know what happened. I mean no one who really knows what's going on is saying that there is any problem with the story. It's really just the nut cases that come out of the woodwork around events like this. There really isn't any serious skepticism that al-Qaeda engineered this terrorist attack. Let's shift a bit to the Pentagon, because that was also attacked on 9/11. That was the third plane to strike. The pilot of that plane flew it essentially into the base of the Pentagon. The Pentagon is a massive, massive structure, and the plane was largely disintegrated by the impact. Now again, keep in mind commercial jets are constructed as lightly as possible because they have to fly. They look like they're very, very bulky things, but in fact they are quite hollow and light. You have a plane barreling into a fortified structure at high speed. Again—

B: I think at 300 miles an hour.

S: —filled with jet fuel. And it was mostly shredded and vaporized. And yet the conspiracy theorists say "Well where's the plane? How come in all the pictures that have been publicly released we don't see basically large chunks of jet lying on the ground or lying in the building?". Well, because it was vaporized. Again, they use the kerosene, sort of temperature argument, and some other sort of hand-waving, implausible arguments to say why it shouldn't be that way. But again it is very implausible. The other thing that they do, again, is apply the sort of anomaly hunting strategy to the Pentagon. Essentially making arguments about what the debris should have looked like and the mechanics—the way things should have happened. Now when you have a very high-energy impact or high-energy event, especially something that's unique like a commercial airliner flying into the Pentagon that's never happened before or since, the bottom line is, we don't know what it is supposed to look like. It's very unpredictable. It is literally chaos, and you just can't explain why every piece ended up where it did, or what the resulting debris was supposed to look like. It's just in my opinion, a ridiculous argument. But that's the core of the conspiracy theorists' argument about this sort of lack of a plane at the Pentagon.

B: Here's something that interests me about that. OK, just extrapolate from their argument. OK, there is a lack of evidence that a plane actually crashed into the Pentagon.

S: Yeah, for the record there was an engine—there was a big piece of the engine and fuselage.

B: Right.

S: And of course those were planted. So there was—

B: It was undeniable, and of course not to mention Flight 77's black boxes and passenger remains, so just kind of ignore that stuff for now.

S: Right.

B: Right, I mean I guess you could always say that they were planted or they're just fake stories. But to ignore that—but just extrapolate that a little bit, OK. It wasn't a plane. It was something else. It was a truck with explosives. It was—maybe they planted the explosives in the Pentagon or whatever, but it wasn't a plane. But you can't deny that a plane was hijacked. I mean, there was the plane that took off and apparently never landed anywhere, so just keep going with that and what do you have? You've got a plane that was hijacked, and then as a diversionary tactic or whatever. So something happened to that plane. They dumped it in the ocean. They hid it somewhere, so that it's part of their big plan. Why would you hijack the plane in the first place and then not use it?

S: Mm-hmm.

B: You know you've got this plane. Why not use it against a target? Why would you decide "we're going to hijack it and we're not going to use it again"?

S: Well again they're saying ....

B: Why plant the black boxes and the human remains at the site?

S: Yeah.

B: Wouldn't it make a lot more sense and be a hell of a lot simpler to just use it against the Pentagon? I mean, just kind of go with that theory and extrapolate and it makes absolutely no sense.

S: Some of the theorists say that the government hijacked the plane. It was basically operatives, and that begs the question: well then what happened to the jet? If a missile or something other than a jet hit the Pentagon?

P: Unless you're talking to Arabs, then it's Mossad that did it, not the CIA.

S: One conspiracy video that I saw actually argued they landed the jet at a military airbase; they escorted all the people off the plane and they executed them. That was his solution to the missing plane problem that conspiracy theory generates.

B: Well that resolves it nicely.

E: Oh, sure.

S: It does. It also is a good example of, again, the sort of how grand conspiracies collapse under their own weight. The conspiracy generates more problems and questions, and then each one has to be answered by expanding the conspiracy to involve more people. So now we have American military essentially hijacking a plane, landing it at an Air Force base, getting rid of the plane, and murdering hundreds of people. And they're all keeping it secret.

P: Right. Conspiracy theories very often will begin spin out of control.

S: Right.

P: Sort of expanding under their own weight; can I say that?

S: Well they expand by necessity and then they collapse in on themselves. But the implausibility meter goes through the roof, and then they're talking about how implausible these little anomalies are, meanwhile the conspiracy itself is orders of magnitude more difficult to swallow.

B: Yeah. Occam is turning over in his grave as he is listening to these things.

S: There's also one interesting thing. There were many, many eyewitnesses that saw and/or heard what looked like a commercial passenger jet fly into the Pentagon. So, of course, if you are a conspiracy theorist, you don't think that that happened. Then you have to dismiss all of the eyewitness testimony. But that's like the one legitimate point they have, in that eyewitness testimony like that is really unreliable. Unfortunately, as we did with the twin towers, maybe because you are in the middle of a city, there was lots of video of the planes hitting the towers of course as everyone saw over and over again. There's no video—nobody managed to snap a picture or video of the plane, of the jet hitting the Pentagon. Probably because in a more isolated location.

B: Right. It's funny, though, that if someone did happen to get a video or a picture of it, this specific part of the conspiracy would be very different. The other things popping out about, "Well it wasn't really the plane, and it was something. It wasn't Flight 77. It was a plane that looked like—" They would just totally go off on some variation.

P: Alway engage in a selective belief. Always, as Steve said earlier, very easy to dimiss any evidence. It's simply manufactured via the conspiracy.

S: Right. And that's where you also have to grant to the conspiracists more and more power. Because every time you have to argue that that evidence was manufactured by the people enacting the conspiracy, you have to cede to them more and more power and cleverness in order for them to have been able to that. So, whoever faked the attack on the Pentagon had to have at their disposal the parts of planes to deposit there as fake evidence, and had to be able to hide all the evidence of whatever really did happen there. Some people said it was a missile or something else, or a bomb, so... but again they just sort of cede unlimited power and ability to the conspiracy theorists as needed. Whatever it is that they had to do, that's what they did. Which again, that kind of reasoning leads to the sort of unfalsifiable position. Whenever you have an open-ended sort of criteria like that, the feature of what it is that you're studying or hypothesizing has some infinitely malleable attribute or unlimited attribute, then you can always use that to explain anything. Therefore, it becomes unfalsifiable. It's kind of like, again, our favorite example, the Intelligent Design argument. "God can design nature to look like anything he wants it to. He's not constrained in any way." That's what renders it non-falsifiable and therefore not science, because you can't say "well if God designed life it should look a certain way, or it should not look a certain way." In the case of conspiracy theorists, you can say "well if this was a conspiracy then they could or could not have done this", but the conspiracy theorists say "No, they could do whatever they want. They have all the power they need to do anything it is. Whatever you see there, they did it." And therefore there is nothing you could possibly see, no evidence you could possibly bring to bear that would falsify the conspiracy theory. And then it just involves into a cult, basically. The conspiracy theorists become a very insular cult, and they're starting out with a lot of the components of a cult, namely an "us versus them" mentality, as I said earlier, they're the army of light and the rest of the world—that separates them, their ability to see the conspiracy. Is similar to, say, a more conventional religion's use of faith. They have—

P: I never understand how they're able to pierce the omniscient conspiracy.

S: Right. That's the other—

P: Their unending power.

S: The self-contradictory thing is that they have to cede the conspiracists all of this unbelievable power and influence, and yet, then how could they see through the conspiracy?

P: Right. To them it is lain bare.

S: Right, well—

P: It make no sense.

S: It's because—

B: Why aren't they taken out?

S: Right, right.

E: Ha, ha, ha.

S: Furthermore, they were really on to something and the conspiracy theorists really had that much to hide and that much power, we wouldn't be hearing from them. They would have been taken out. But also, how is it that it is so obvious to you and how do they have so much power and influence and cleverness? And yet they made all of these apparently dumb mistakes that made it obvious that there was a conspiracy. And again, they sort of used—they say, just like a cultish religion would say that you just have surrender yourself to faith, whatever the faith is. They say you just have to have an open mind toward the conspiracy. You have to be able to see it. They have this ability to see through—to see the patterns in the chaos.

B: An open mind is good, but not so open that your brains fall out.

Psychology of Conspiracies[edit]

S: Right. So, it's definitely a fascinating psychological phenomenon, and it often engenders the question of why is it that some people, if not everyone to some degree, has this predilection for conspiracies? I mean, conspiracies are—there's something very compelling about them. Even as a skeptic, there's a certain sort of romantic compelling notion about a grand conspiracy, and I think it appeals to us on a certain basic—

P: Not sure that I agree or follow with that. How so?

S: Well, I just think that—certainly a lot of fiction—a lot of movies have that as a core plot thread. The fact that there is some—that all of these seemingly random events or disconnected events all are tied together by the dark hand of an evil conspiracy, and the hero who is uncovering it because he just peeks behind the curtain and he can see what is really going on. That's one of the basic story types that people know how to tell. It think it appeals to us on a certain psychological level. I think doesn't appeal to us as skeptics because the logic is so twisted, and I think it offends our logical sensibilities, but I think on an emotional level, it's very satisfying. You don't agree with that, Perry?

P: I do. I mean, now that you have explained it, I understand it a little bit better. I was just thinking myself if I have ever found anything alluring about a particular conspiracy theory. That's all. That's my question.

S: Yeah, just as a matter of fiction, I have found it very entertaining. But even on a more of a smaller level, I think people have a tendency—and this is very well-documented in psychological literature—when evaluating our own actions, we tend to attribute what we do to external factors. "I did this because of this external thing that made me do it." "I tripped because there was a crack in the sidewalk." When we explain or attempt to explain the actions of other people, by default, we use internal explanations. "That person tripped because they are clumsy. I tripped because there was a crack in the sidewalk." That's very well established, and a conspiracy theory is kind of an extension of that where we see these disconnected events are happening because somebody intended them to happen. There's an internal explanation for it. They weren't driven by outside events or external factors. It wasn't just simply a mistake or incompetence. This person did it because of their intention to do it. Or a group of people did it because their intention. You extrapolate from that and it basically leads you down the road to sort of this conspiracy mindset. Do you see that?

P: I do. Yeah.

B: Yeah.

P: You agree with that, Bob?

B: Absolutely.

S: Think about people who get fired. Why did you get fired from your job? "These people were conspiring against me." "The boss didn't like me." "This other coworker was working against me." I mean, that's what people say. More often than "I'm just not that competent at my job, I didn't try very hard, and I really deserved to get fired."

P: We haven't mentioned paranoia yet. It seems to border on that. I find that particularly people who use drugs are always paranoid about why things are going wrong for them.

S: That brings up sort of a mental health angle to this whole thing. And I do think that extreme paranoia to the point of delusionary paranoia; say, for example, what would be manifested by decompensated schizophrenic, paranoid schizophrenic—is really an extreme end of this spectrum of a continuum from sort of an average person with a healthy mindset all the way to somebody who thinks that the CIA has implanted transmitting devices in the fillings of their teeth—who has really bizarre, very self-focused—

P: That's typical schizophrenia.

S: Yeah, that's typical, but I think people exist all along that spectrum and certainly psychologists recognize there is a spectrum of sort of paranoid tendencies. I know people in my personal life that have—I wouldn't say that they are diagnosable or that they're delusional, but they tend towards conspiracy thinking. It's much, much more appealing to them than, I would say, to the average person. I think that end of the spectrum are the people that these kind of conspiracies really appeal to. You can easily speculate about what the evolutionary advantage of this would be. I mean, being on the lookout for forces working against your own interests is a certain amount of advantage to that. If you were completely without any paranoia, I think people would characterize that as being naive. If you never could even consider that somebody might be working against your own interests, that would not be a very adaptive sort of personality to have. And like everything, the healthiest situation is a certain amount of balance. So I think that's why we all have some capability or some tendency to think about: "Gee, is there a pattern to these coincidences? Is there a conspiracy against me?"

B: Steve, isn't it—couldn't you say that is a form of pareidolia or pattern seeking?

S: Yeah, that's a good point, Bob, and I have actually likened it to that, I think. So pareidolia is a phenomenon where you perceive a visual pattern in a signal that actually does not contain any real pattern—some random noise. In fact, Bob, you had mentioned to me earlier before we were recording that there was a story circulating soon after 9/11 that the face of Satan could be seen in the black smoke rising from the tower.

B: Oh, yeah. It's a great picture.

S: It is, it is.

B: I used it in the article I wrote about it.

S: It's a good example of pareidolia. The smoke is this random pattern. You watch an hour of black smoke scrolling up the screen. At one point the shadows or whatever could be perceived by our brains as being a face.

B: Right. I'm sure if you look long enough you might see the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as well.

P: It's like watching clouds go by.

S: Or Kermit the Frog or something.

B: Here's a quote I pulled from my article that I wrote awhile back. This is a quote from Brad Merrill, seventeen-year-old, and he said looking at the picture of the smoke, he said, "It popped right out at me. I don't see how it could be just sheer coincidence."

S: Right.

B: And that just shows that people just aren't aware of these things and how yes it absolutely can be sheer coincidence and how pareidolia works and pattern recognition and things.

S: Right. And how actively our brain tries to fit a pattern to the signals that it's getting. And I agree, Bob; I think you can make a direct sort of thematic correlation between that and conspiracy thinking, because it's the same thing. Although, with pareidolia you're looking for a pattern in random visual information; with conspiracy thinking, or paranoia, you're looking for a pattern in chaotic or unrelated events. It's sort of a temporal pattern. A conceptual pattern over time. It's still pattern seeking and then it's also when you perceive a pattern and then perhaps—and I know Michael Shermer has speculated about this—I think even on our podcast where we interviewed him[1]—that perhaps human beings are really good at seeing patterns and perhaps we're not that good at telling which pattern are real and which patterns are not real. And we tend to err on the side of believing that the patterns that we perceive are real, and ignore or do not give enough credence to the possibility that the pattern we're seeing is just a coincidence or an artifact, and does not represent a real phenomenon. Of course, that's where science and skepticism comes in. Science basically is a systematic method of deciding which patterns are real and which patterns are not real. That's what it's all about.

Fake Nostradamus Quatrains[edit]

P: You know, one final word we can say about this is—I'm sure most of our audience has heard of Nostradamus. It was said, widely after 9/11—shortly after, that he predicted the attacks, like he predicted many other things. In many emails that went around, there were some of his quatrains. The two most popular were as follows:

In the city of God there will be a great thunder,

Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
The great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.

On the eleventh day of the ninth month,
two metal birds will crash into two tall statues
in the new city,

and the world will end soon after.[2]

P: That's pretty good, right? Sounds like he got 'em right on there.

B: He nailed it.

E: Right.

P: However, there is a slight problem. He never wrote that.

S: He never wrote it.

P: He never wrote either of them. The last part there just seems to be written by an anonymous prankster, but the first four lines: the city of god, the thunder, the fortress, all that stuff; they were written by a college student named Neil Marshall. He included them in an article, which he wrote to debunk Nostradamus.

S: Right. Just as an example of a vague quatrain.

P: Exactly.

B: How easy it is to make authentic-sounding quatrain.

P: Of course it was grabbed up and circulated all over the place and was total nonsense. But the people. I got that by the way from the Museum of Hoaxes website: Again, excellent website. I urge you all to take a look at it. It's maintained by a fellow named Alex Boese. He's very good, so...

S: I think that proves the college student's point. You don't have his name handy, do you?

P: The college student. I gave it. His name was Neil Marshall.

S: Oh, Neil Marshall, right. His point is actually proven by that the fact that he made some sort of a vague, prophetic-sounding statements, and not too many years later something happened that could be construed to sort of fit his prophecy. He's as good as Nostradamus, even better.

P: He's even better. Even better.

E: Right

P: His quatrain was even more believable, more convincing. Thus that's the one that was circulated.

B: And more specific.

S: And more specific, right. And the 9/11 one with two birds, that was just faked. That was rigged after the fact.

P: Just faked. That was a nice one.

S: That was retro-dicting, which is always much, much easier than predicting.

E: And Nostradamus wishes he had written that.

P: Exactly.

E: Or even anything close to it.

P: That's about the clearest quatrain I've ever seen squeezed out of Nostradamus.

S: Well it's sort of producing vague statements and letting the pattern recognition take over. The reader's doing all the work there, not the person who is writing them. The reader is making all the connections.

P: Right. Exactly.

S: Well, that hour went by quickly. It's an interesting topic. There's a lot more to talk about. So, again, these conspiracy theories tend to hover around very large events, events that have an effect on the psyche, the public psyche, like the assassination of JFK and 9/11. People want there to be big explanations for big events.

P: How you ever heard Challenger conspiracies? Interestingly, I can't say that I have.

S: I have; although, I don't have anything in front of me to give you any details.

P: But you have heard conspiracy theories regarding the shuttle.

S: Yes, they're definitely out there. Though this is a topic that we will return to. There are so many conspiracy theories out there that we are really just scratching the surface just talking mainly about 9/11.

Conclusion (57:13)[edit]

S: So that's it for this week. Bob, Perry, Evan, thanks again for joining us.

E: Thank you.

B: A pleasure

P: We'll see you all next week.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes, see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Two of the Nostradamus predictions about 9/11 are actually fakes[3]


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