An inside job?

News hit me earlier today (because I’ve been very lazy in keeping up to date with my correspondence) about a recent article proposing that the destructions of the Twin Towers and Building 7 on September the 11th, 2001, were the result of a controlled demolition. What makes this article notable (since 9/11 Inside Job hypotheses are not notable in my line of work) is that it was published in Europhysics News, which – while not a magazine that everyone knows about – is prestigious enough to cause waves. Even the editors are aware that they are publishing something outside their usual mix of news stories and research, adding the following caveat to the article:

This feature is somewhat different from our usual purely scientific articles, in that it contains some speculation. However, given the timing and the importance of the issue, we consider that this feature is sufficiently technical and interesting to merit publication for our readers. Obviously, the content of this article is the responsibility of the authors.

And who are the authors? Well, Steven Jones (the most notable name), Robert Korol, Anthony Szamboti, and Ted Walter. Quite the collection ((Interestingly enough, Walter is the director of strategy and development for Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth; the rest of the writers have some background in engineering, whilst Walter’s background is public policy. I’m thinking he actually wrote the article (thus the by-line) or he’s been added to for citation’s sake.))

The piece itself is a fairly standard ‘The official theory about the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7 looks flakey; the best explanation is that it was a controlled demolition (something denied by the official theory)’. It certainly does not say anything particularly new or exciting; if you’ve read blogposts about the controlled demolition hypothesis, then you’ve read what the authors chose to present. What is curious or fascinating about the piece is its place of publication. Europhysics News is not a clearing house of matters conspiratorial (like, say, the Veterans Today website, or InfoWars). It’s a ‘proper’ magazine, with a circulation of 250000 actual print subscribers. Thus the noteworthiness. Thus the caveat at the beginning of the article.

Indeed, if one were to be critical, you’d accuse the authors of a few pieces of sleight of hand throughout the rather slight piece. For example, they talk about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 as being largely the result of fires, noting that no other large building has collapsed in a similar way prior or since. The way they introduce the issue in the article, you would think the fires weren’t caused by two massive airliners flying into the towers, and the idea said plane impacts both caused damaged to the fire-cladding on the affected floors, as well as causing some structural damage is really only half-hearted admitted later on in the paper.

Then there’s this:

[A] growing number of architects, engineers, and scientists are unconvinced by that explanation.

That explanation being their presentation of NIST’s conclusions (which is already a fairly suspect disingenuous portrayal). But, really, what does a ‘growing number’ mean here? Surely they do not mean ‘growing number’ in the sense that ‘More and more people have joined Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth because that’s meaningless. Unless they can show that the growing number of dissenters from the official theory outpaces the number of adherents to the orthodoxy, or that such dissenters now make up a plurality of views on the matter, the fact people keep joined some organisation tells us very little. It’s a nice rhetorical move, but little else.

Then there’s Jones’ pet theory, the presence of nano-thermite in the debris of Ground Zero. The article states:

Meanwhile, unreacted nano-thermitic material has since been discovered in multiple independent WTC dust samples.

However, that’s a really quite contentious claim, and it’s a recognised controversy within the 9/11 Truth movement. None other than James Fetzer has argued that adherents of the nano-thermite ‘charge’ might well be overstating their case.

Still, the most interesting part of the article has to be the call to arms for an(other) investigation into the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7.

Given the nature of the collapse, any investigation adhering to the scientific method should have seriously considered the controlled demolition hypothesis, if not started with it. Instead, NIST (as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which conducted a preliminary study prior to the NIST investigation) began with the predetermined conclusion that the collapse was caused by fires.

Yes, and no. There was an obvious (and I would say primary and plausible) hypothesis, which is that the destruction of the Twin Towers was likely due to the impact of the planes, and the resulting damage. The idea that widespread fires lead/contributed to the collapse came out of initial explorations of that thesis.

Now, should NIST have at least entertained the idea that the collapse was the result of demolition charges? Maybe. Perhaps you could run a line where you accept the official theory about who caused the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7, but think that the apparent cause of the collapse of the buildings – the impact of the planes – was a cover for setting off charges in the building. In this version of the story you don’t need to even suggest it was an inside job; all you have to do is say ‘The collapse of those structures looks weird, so I wonder if there was anything else going on…’

Now, I feel I must note that the authors of the Europhysics News piece do not advance any claim of conspiracy. They do not insist the destruction of the Twin Towers has been covered up. They do not make accusations about certain parties having an agenda. All they do is argue that the official theory about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 is at odds with their expert opinions. It is both a very measured piece in this regard, and somewhat odd. We all know where this argument is meant to lead us, but the authors do not seem to want to admit to it.

Still, I can see why NIST chose not to explore a controlled demolition story at all; they had a proximate cause (the impacts) which seems plausibly-related to the event in question. Why cast about for another explanation, especially if the first one bears fruit upon examination? You don’t need to think NIST were incompetent or negligent in their investigation (or that there was a conspiracy to cover something up). They simply focussed their attention on the most plausible hypothesis available to them at the time. ((A hypothesis, one should add, that was considered plausible by a lot of people at the time. ‘Growing number’ or not, the official theory has a lot of supporters.))

Still, this gets into the interesting aspect of the ethics of investigation into claims of conspiracy (my current project in Bucharest). Should there have been another committee, charged with exploring the alternatives? On some level it seems ludicrous to suggest a different conspiracy here. On another, if there are experts raising questions, surely a parallel investigation was – or is still – warranted?

I’m not going to answer that question. At least, not just yet. This post is long enough as it stands. But it’s an interesting question, and 9/11 might well be the best contemporary example (feel free to chime in with even more recent examples). Given the scale of what happened on the day, let alone what happened afterwards, surely asking ‘Was this quite what it seemed?’ is a question some people not only should be asking, but should be able to ask without public opprobrium.


Lee Basham says:

I would think alternative explanations should be fully and openly vetted. That’s the scientific model, and to restrict it to non-political realities would be rather surprising. Whether standing committees are the best way to do this is, of course, an additional question. However, I want to press a different issue: Why, without invoking the highly problematic Public Trust Approach (mainstream media and government investigation aims only, or overwhelmingly, to reveal information critical to the conduct of our democracy), do you think fire-caused collapse is the most plausible explanation? I don’t deny it is, nor assert it isn’t; the issue is instead epistemic. What justification would you give for this “most plausible” claim, as it is the key move in your defense of the NIST report contra the critics of it? What’s the epistemology here?

I would say ‘fire-supported’ collapse, if pushed; I think the full causal story is a) impact, b) structural damage, and then c) fire as a contributory cause. That’s also the NIST line, which the Europhysics News piece misrepresents by making it out as ‘fire caused’. So, I’m not committed to fire-caused collapse as the most plausible explanation, because that is only part of the explanation. The authors, however, use that as a sleight of hand description (knowingly or unknowingly, I cannot say) to get to their conclusion something fishy is going on in the official conspiracy theory of the event.

As for multiple investigations, sure (although I’d argue that’s not a feature of the scientific model at all; after all, lots of theoretical constructs don’t ever get investigated at all; rather, it’s an aspect of practice, not theory). But I think we can understand why NIST narrowed down their focus to a story of intentional damage via airliners without recourse to postulating agendas or conspiracies; it seemed an obvious candidate to explore, given the available evidence at the time. Add to that the idea no organisation or committee tends to be able to explore all options (time and money being constraints), and, as such, investigative avenues tend to get closed off…

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Interesting points. I worry you are not addressing the question I asked. Which is why you think the NIST report is the “most plausible” explanation? As opposed to an equally plausible or less plausible one relative to its competitors. If you run a Public Trust Approach (PTA) argument, things will fall apart quite quickly. I’m good at pointing this out, as you know. So again, what’s the epistemology here? The philosophical issue. That’s all I was interested in.

Well, if I didn’t answer your question, it’s because you’re attributing to me something I’m not necessarily committed to. I didn’t say I personally think the NIST conclusion is the most probable. I was just arguing that you can understand why it was they chose to focus on exploring what was an obvious and plausible hypothesis at the time. Indeed, I call it “primary” for the sheer fact it seemed like such an obvious hypothesis to explore that not doing so would have been weird.

As for the reasoning behind that; you have evidence of a proximate cause (plane impact, structural damage, ongoing fires), an anomalous event (structural failure) which needs to be explained, and numerous expert studies (it’s not as if NIST are the only experts claiming the impacts, structural damage, and ongoing fires are the most likely causes; whilst there are engineers who disagree with NIST on this, that on the face of it tells us very little, given there are significant numbers of engineers who do think the NIST report is largely right).

Once again, I don’t have to be committed to the NIST conclusions, but I can also opine quite happily that this Europhysics News article engages in some sleight of hand to make the authors’ case look better than the misrepresented NIST conclusions. That might make for great PR, but it’s bad for our business.

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Again, interesting points. You make the point that you do not personally endorse the NIST report. This is not entirely clear in your opening post. Nor would there be anything particularly amiss in endorsing it, personally. We’re here, after all, for epistemology, not history. To quote,

a) “There was an obvious (and I would say primary and plausible) hypothesis, which is that the destruction of the Twin Towers was likely due to the impact of the planes, and the resulting damage. ”

Why ought we say “primary”–as in first, one that takes precedence over others? This question is especially interesting because the NIST report was constructed long after 9/11 2001. We’re not discussing first impressions as of 9/12. These are engineers and scientists with many years to research and reflect. What is the epistemology here?


b) “You don’t need to think NIST were incompetent or negligent in their investigation (or that there was a conspiracy to cover something up). They simply focussed their attention on the most plausible hypothesis available to them at the time”

Again, why, from a purely epistemic perspective, is the NIST investigation oriented to the “most plausible hypothesis available at the time”? What made it that? There seem to be a lot of unstated background assumptions here. Would you like to state some of them?

None of this is meant to imply the NIST report is faulty. It is to use the 9/11 example to explore more basic theoretical questions.

The failure of the PTA undermines any the argument from authority (experts) filtered through a governing hierarchy or subsequent media-generated appeal to popularity (“most people think”). So should we consider the NIST explanation as equally plausible as its competitors, leaving us with agnosticism about the causes of collapse (structural/fire vs. controlled demolition hypothesis)?

A similar but distinct question: What are the probabilities, from a political perspective, that a NIST report that explored explanations other than the official Arab-attack conspiracy theory could ever be presented to the public? Very low. This turns our attention to the social and political toxicity of certain explanations and the many motives for governments and media to avoid them–one of the most crippling objections to the PTA.

I suspect your interesting and inviting challenge is to explain why, epistemically, at years removed from events, the NIST hypothesis is initially (“primary”) more plausible to them than the alternative accounts. What’s the epistemology at work that would justify them in this? You haven’t made it clear, but it is a fascinating challenge, one we both enjoy.

I would have thought what makes NIST following the hypothesis they did plausible was fairly obvious to all concerned; planes flew into the building, and then it fell down. If that’s an unstated assumption which needs to be made explicit, so be it.

‘The failure of the PTA undermines any the argument from authority (experts) filtered through a governing hierarchy or subsequent media-generated appeal to popularity (“most people think”). So should we consider the NIST explanation as equally plausible as its competitors, leaving us with agnosticism about the causes of collapse (structural/fire vs. controlled demolition hypothesis)?’

I don’t think that, even if we grant the failure of the PTA approach in this case (I don’t think the PTA skepticism argument is a slamdunk; rather, it’s an interesting rider on how we appraise appeals to authority), that this suddenly means all rivals are now equal. After all, you can be agnostic about the NIST report, and have good reason to suspect a rival report is warranted or unwarranted. Certainly, even if the NIST report is ‘up in the air’, you can poke holes in the Europhysics News article and it’s presentation of one of the rival hypotheses.

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Well put. I think, because evidential cognition is sequential, we should examine the evidential sequences. If we already have abandoned the PTA in this extremely politically charged context (9/11), which I believe we should, how do we support the NIST report as the result of engineers sincerely pursuing the “most plausible” hypothesis (fire/structural damage)? In the absence of comparatives, is it even the “only plausible”?

That looks like it might be a mistake. Even if there are not yet any competitor explanations (for whatever reason), without the PTA in the context of toxic truth concerns involved in 9/11 what makes NIST epistemically plausible at all? Why isn’t it just a story that equally may or may not be true? A coin flip. (If “plausible” means “possible”, fair enough. But that is not what we mean by “plausible”. There is usually an evidential element. So I think it is an epistemic, not just modal, characterization. But we can set this aside here, if we like.)

Doesn’t the loss of the PTA in this particular context only demand the search for competitor explanations? Once found–controlled demolition in this strange example–what makes the NIST report “the most plausible” hypothesis for them to promote at a distance of years. Aren’t we sneaking the PTA in again? That these researchers are simply engineers only motivated by a noble search for the details of the forgone conclusion of Arab attack?

It’s a difficult question. I suspect we are forced to at least agnosticism concerning the NIST’s report verses its competitors, once we lose the PTA. The problem is severe: Without the PTA the NIST report has no prior superior epistemic warrant to any others, and even if there are no others.

One would hope empirical consideration would intrude at this point. The problem is that direct observation and examination of the wreckage was, for whatever reasons, highly curtailed at “ground zero” and the results highly contested in what little literature exists. This was a grave error on the part of the US government. Or was it part of a plan? Again, we are cornered in a dilemma concerning 9/11. Was the handling of direct evidence incompetent from a democracy perspective–quite possible in the drama of the aftermath–or was it intended, manipulated, either to prevent unwanted explanations in the context of US government innocence and needed public unity, or to prevent the revelation of controlled demolition?

These are the issues we need to grapple with as epistemologists when we go near the 9/11 example. They cannot be easily swept aside with the assertion of “most plausible” to anyone, particularly concerning government actors. But as usual, they generalize very well to the problems within information hierarchies that citizens face.

So to return to our original question: How is the NIST hypothesis (fire/structural damage) the “most (or more) plausible” one for NIST to explore? You have, understandably, attributed this judgement of “most plausible” to the NIST investigators. The thought is that we should understand their actions as consequent to this judgement of their estimate of “most plausible”, and should not embrace a conspiracy theory concerning the NIST report. But isn’t it also clear that the penalties for not supporting the Arab attack conspiracy theory would have been devastating to the various researchers and their personal lives? And that a dozen other supporting considerations might intervene, to distort their judgement? I’m not sure how we can set this background problem aside, without re-invoking, in this context, the naïveté of the PTA. Which only forces us into circular reasoning; we can trust their motives because their motives are trustworthy–which is the essence of the PTA. It’s a motive argument, and fails where many relevant and active motives are ignored.

So again, what’s the epistemology of the “most plausible” claim concerning the orientation, and limitations, of the NIST report? If our conclusion is that their judgment was “most plausible”, and they were wrong to so judge, fair enough. If the answer is, their judgement was “most plausible” and they were right to so judge, do tell. Why were they right?

See, I don’t agree that:

“Without the PTA the NIST report has no prior superior epistemic warrant to any others, and even if there are no others.”

for three reasons:

  1. The NIST report is consistent with other work in the field, some of which is on the 9/11 event, some of which is on broader questions about superstructure engineering and collpase (as a lot of engineers now opine, we learnt a lot about the engineering of superstructures after what happened to the Twin Towers).
  2. Which leads to 2. The penalty for producing a report which goes against the engineering wisdom of the day is also high. Sure, NIST has a political role to play, but that doesn’t mean members of other information hierarchies aren’t going to have a field day dismantling a faulty report. Now, one could argue that advocates of the inside job hypothesis have done just this, but I guess I have the worry here that when you investigate the community of such dissenters, the number of actual working engineers there is pretty low, and the standard of scholarship is pretty lax.

There is also more than one political information hierarchy here, several of which are directly antagonistic to US interests. For example, Al-Qaeda happily took responsibility for the event, claiming it was, indeed, their planes which brought down the Twin Towers, as did many of their affiliates.

Now, you could import a claim of a larger conspiracy here to solve this issue; Al-Qaeda are a CIA creation (historically there are reasons to believe this, but given the number of times the CIA has lost control of a group they initially funded and armed, that doesn’t tell us said group is still part of the CIA today), etc. But that’s would be adding in an auxiliary hypotheses, which would need to be evaluated (especially since the fear here is that it’s self-sealing).

And, in some nations endorsing the official theory of 9/11 was itself a political risky thing for organisations and governments to do.

Which is why I think issues of hierarchy, toxicity, etc. need to also be treated as auxiliary hypotheses to the claim of conspiracy; as Charles Pigden has pointed out, these are claims which come in when assessing claims about what gets counted in or out as evidence, and, as such, have to be assessed with the claim of conspiracy. It’s not a insurmountable slamdunk, then; it’s an interesting wrinkle on how we assess appeals to authority, and expert evidence.

  1. If our interest is in ‘Why investigate this hypothesis first…’ (which is the topic I was most interested in, given the authors of the Europhysics News piece claim a controlled demolition hypothesis needed to be investigated first), then the plane impact theory seems initially more plausible because in both cases we have a “It looks like…” hypothesis, where at least in the plane impact case “It looks like the planes are causally responsible for the collapse…” we have adequate reason to say “Let’s explore that!” whilst in the case of “It looks like a controlled demolition” the fact it looks like one doesn’t tell us it is one. We saw planes impact the building, which is disputed only by a very few. Some people though the collapse of the Twin Towers looked like a controlled demolition, but looking like a controlled demolition doesn’t tell you it was. As such, the plane impacts seems like the most plausible option to investigate.

Hmm… The website is being too clever by half, and trying to make my number list look fancy with auto-formatting. The second 1 is, in fact, point 3.