Why do people believe 9/11 conspiracies?

I’ve tended to fall into the habit of saying something regarding 9/11 when the anniversary comes around. It is imprinted upon my memory and I can still recall where I was when I was first told what was happening.

The Conspiracy

There are specific things we do know. The events are well documented, I need not rehash them. The motives of those that carried out the attack are also well documented. It was a conspiracy by the radicalised fanatics.

What is also popular, but not factual are the claims promoted by Richard Gage’s 9/11 Truth Movement. This is also wholly familiar to most and need not be rehashed in great detail. It is popular amongst conspiracy theorists but has negligible support from professionals in relevant fields, such as civil and aerospace engineering.

This is perhaps a cue for a true believer to pop up with a link to “Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth” or similar, and to reject the official NIST report as flawed. Mr Gage and others might indeed dismiss it, but the argument is not with you or me, but rather is with the community of subject matter experts. This wider community of experts in structural mechanics and structural engineering generally supports the explanation of the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings provided by the investigation conducted by NIST and don’t support Mr Gage.

Previous analysis of progressive collapse showed that gravity alone suffices to explain the overall collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. However, it remains to be determined whether the recent allegations of controlled demolition have any scientific merit. The present analysis proves that they do not. – Journal of Engineering Mechanics – Technical Paper

The Information Deficit Model

It is at times tempting to engage.

When faced with somebody who is quite sure, and asserts that you are being stupid for not believing what is to them obvious, you might be tempted to remedy it all by giving them the information they lack so that they can then understand that they have made an honest mistake.

What you will quickly discover is that you have embarked upon a game of whack-a-mole. As you debunk each claim, another and them another will be rapidly pop up to replace the previous one. Round and round you go until they eventually wear you down. Once you decide “enough” and simply move on, you leave behind somebody who is quite sure that they have won the argument.

The flaw with this form of engagement is the idea that there is just a bit of information missing or a misunderstanding, and by filling that gap all will be sorted. Unfortunately, that is not what is going on at all.

Is there something odd about people who believe this stuff?

The short answer is no. We humans are awash with many cognitive biases and so we are all at risk of buying into a belief in something that is not actually true at all. We all do that at some point to one degree or another.

I have covered this before in previous postings, but it is worth repeating. If you are going to have a meaningful discussion, then it is perhaps wise to first appreciate the following …

  • Sincerity prevails: Generally conspiracy theorists are quite sincere in their beliefs.
  • It is not about stupidity: The degree of human intelligence plays no part, there is no correlation between a conspiracy belief and how smart people are. The smarter somebody is, the better they are at dreaming up rationalizations for utterly absurd notions.
  • It is not “them”: Such ideas are not specific to a particular demography, they are not all white nerdy guys living in their moms basement.
  • It is not an information deficit: OK, I’ve already covered this, but for the completeness of this list, here it is again. It is not about a lack of some information and misinformation. Generally no quantity of rebuttal to the justifications for the conspiracy belief changes the minds of true believers.
  • Degrees of confidence: Not everybody who articulates a conspiracy idea is wholly buying into the belief, instead there are some who are simply carried by the tide of popularity for an idea. If presented with a well-reasoned fact-based verifiable arguments, then they tend to be persuaded. Others however, when faced with such arguments, do tend to demonstrate an immunity to any rebuttal because they are too deeply invested emotionally.

It has perhaps always been like this with humans. What is different about 9/11, and other more recent conspiracy ideas, is that since about the mid 2000’s the Internet has acted as an amplifier for such beliefs. That is perhaps well illustrated by Trump and the rise of alternative facts. There is a hard core that are too deeply invested and so have been rendered utterly immune to reason or basic empathy.

Why do conspiracy beliefs take root and flourish within human minds?

University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent have a 2014 book on the topic titled “American Conspiracy Theories“. The basis for the book is the empirical data they gathered looking for patterns …

Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent draw on three sources of original data: 120,000 letters to the editor of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune from between 1890 and 2010; a two-wave survey from before and after the 2012 presidential election; and discussions of conspiracy theories culled from online news sources, blogs, and other Web sites, also from before and after the election. Through these sources, they are able to address crucial questions, such as similarities and differences in the nature of conspiracy theories over time, the role of the Internet and communications technologies in spreading modern conspiracy theories, and whether politics, economics, media, war, or other factors are most important in popularizing conspiratorial beliefs

Of immediate interest is this (from Page 11) …

“inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations”

… and also this …

“there is evidence that disasters (e.g., earthquakes) and other high-stress situations (e.g., job uncertainty) prompt people to concoct, embrace, and repeat conspiracy theories.”

In other words, when faced with a high-stress event such as 9/11, some people embrace beliefs, perhaps religious or perhaps simply a conspiracy, as an attempt to explain it, and so gain some degree of control over the emotional trauma. Because it is embraced at an emotional level, any debunking of the idea at an intellectual level will be ineffective.

I do find it fascinating that the 9/11 belief is akin to many religious beliefs and operates in a similar manner. Take for example the Catholic shrine of Lourdes where various miracles have supposedly occurred. As a skeptic you might think, “oh that’s very interesting, let’s take a look”. When you investigate what you discover is that the evidence is not quite as portrayed. Often it is vague, but has been endorsed by various “experts” who assure you of its reliability and yet nothing truly robust or compelling emerges. Instead a balance is struck such that it is just sufficiently compelling enough to convince those that already believe, but is not sufficient to convince any independent skeptical minded person seeking robust evidence.

It is perhaps part of our humanity that we are like this. The pattern seeking engine between our ears jumps to rapid conclusions as an attempt to explain what we encounter and we grasp that emotionally. Being able to do that gave us as a species a distinct survival advantage, hence that attribute has been naturally selected. If we are really going to address it and overcome it, especially now in the era of alternative facts, then we need to start thinking things through, not just at an emotional level which often leads to incorrect conclusions, but to also think things through analytically.

You really can’t tell people what is and is not actually true, but becoming conscious that we can all slip is perhaps the beginning of a road that enables us as individuals to seriously question things that we have previously accepted. In other words, don’t make statements, but instead ask questions, not just to others but to ourselves and work through things at an analytical level. We truly do need to equip ourselves to be able to rise to the challenge of myth-information and work out what is really true.

Questions to Ask yourself?

When faced with specific ideas, and it need not be just 9/11 claims, then here a few questions that might help.

  • Doubt is your friend: Is this really true?
  • What actually convinces me that this is true?
  • What would change my mind about this? [If everything you list for the previous question has a solid rebuttal, and yet you still believe, then you need to seriously work out what is going on and why you actually believe]
  • Am I simply embracing this at an emotional level or do I have good solid robust facts that convince most rational reasonable people?
  • Have I simply invested so much time and effort into this that it would leave me feeling empty if I came to terms with it not being true?
  • Have I simply taken a public stance, and so now I feel compelled to maintain that position for those around me, and not because it is really true?
  • What is the full conversation here, am I inside a bubble listening to just one side? What do those that do not agree with this idea actually say, and why do they hold that position?

If indeed you do truly believe and wish to label me an “idiot” for not believing what is apparently obvious to you, then you should seriously pause and ask yourself why not only I don’t, but why the vast majority of subject matter experts don’t.


Somebody just might pop up in the comments below to assure you that I’m quite wrong about all of this and just might perhaps cite the “journal of 9/11 studies” and/or YouTube clips to “prove” that NIST got it all wrong, that the commercial aircraft crashing into the towers had nothing to do with the collapse of the towers, and that it was really explosives.

For the record, the “journal of 9/11 studies” is not a credible peer-reviewed journal, it is crank reviewed.

Further Reading

Popular Mechanics: 10 Sep 2018: Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report – The World Trade Center – They examine the evidence and consult the experts to refute the most persistent conspiracy theories of September 11.

5 thoughts on “Why do people believe 9/11 conspiracies?”

  1. A convenient dodge, Dave. It would not be such a bad excuse for not addressing what you have never in any of your 9/11 posts been willing or able to address if not for the insults you rely on to make your point. For instance calling the career physicists, structural engineers, architects and other professional reviewers of the postings on the Journal of 9/11 Studies website “cranks.”

    Most of these people have in their respective professional lives have had long, successful careers. To so casually insult them as cranks says a great deal more about you and how you intend to win an argument than it does about them. Some of these people have engaged in the academic review of scientific papers on topics completely unrelated to 9/11. For you to insult them as cranks with no regard or respect for their life’s work in service to your “argument” what they have to say isn’t worth hearing is of the lowest form of argument. I’ll wager you aren’t even cognizant in most cases as to who the reviewers are, what their career accomplishments have been, or the sorts of papers they’ve written themselves or the types of reviews they have been involved in on topics in their respective areas of expertise. To you because they disagree with your biased and poorly supported opinion they are “cranks.” Classic example of shooting the messenger while failing to even come close to addressing the message with a cogent, intelligent rebuttal.

    Which brings me to the second insult, which is an insult to your readers’ intelligence: under Further Reading, Popular Mechanics and it’s military cheerleading. I’ll take this comparison I gave you in a comment on another of your posts as an example of how low the bar is that you set for this “further reading” advice:

    “Dave further casts unscientific aspersions on Europhysics News vis a vis Popular Mechanics, as if PM is more reliable, more scientific a publication than Europhysics News. The European Physical Society’s publication is sent out to its membership, as it were, to 42 national physical societies. Popular Mechanics, which certainly has it place in the popular science magazine market, is designed and written for a very different audience than what is published and written for the physics communities that are served by Europhysics News.

    Let’s compare some recent headlines between Europhysics News and Popular Mechanics:

    Europhysics News:

    Properties of nuclei probed by laser light;
    Ion Coulomb crystals: from quantum technology to chemistry close to the absolute zero point;
    Pattern Formation Induced by Fixed Boundary Condition;
    Novel plasma jet offshoot phenomenon explains blue atmospheric jets;
    Fluctuational electrodynamics for nonlinear media.

    Popular Mechanics:

    Why the C-130 Is Such a Badass Plane;
    7 of the World’s Most Crucial Ports;
    Everything You Want to Know About North Korean Nukes (But Were Afraid to Ask);
    The 50 Best New Board Games;
    Russian Bombers Sighted off Alaska for Second Straight Day.

    The militaristic nature of the content of Popular Mechanics says something about how and of what they seek to inform their audience.”

    Your tact when the 9/11 article appeared in the Europhysics News was to disparage the publication, not address the article… Yet, Popular Mechanics can do no wrong in the editorializing of their particular bias…

    In your climate postings you rely on articles that address the science that is being conducted and reported on by professionals in academia and scientific institutes, and the major science publications. The professionals you call 9/11 cranks are the same sorts of people: academics, structural engineers, physicists with long careers and publishing records, some of them very significant, David Griscom, for instance. But for support for the illogical and nonsensical official conclusions you rely on a biased popular magazine, and fail to see objectively either your own bias or theirs. I suspect you fall into this trap because you can’t grasp the physical concepts involved in spite of obvious clues in the visual record or in the empirical data that the official explanation can’t hold up. Quite simply a small, dislodged mass on top of a much larger intact mass cannot crush down through the path of greatest resistance without addition agency disrupting the large intact mass below it.

    I would not be taking this time myself to address this most recent post of yours on 9/11 except for the insulting way you direct your posts toward people like me. You reveal a thuggish side of your personality that relies solely on unsupported prejudices and cheap personal shots at others. You refuse to engage with the subject in a intelligent and meaningful way. You seem to believe you understand the physics but thoroughly reject the physical and observational evidence when confronted with it. I don’t so much care whether you engage or not, but when you insult folks with much more impressive credentials than your own as cranks and lift up biased ideologues as experts, or make nonsensical claims of attribution of support for your bias — the “broader community” — you show very little scientific integrity. You would be much better off, if you refuse to be convinced by facts and reason, to completely leave off commenting on a subject you show yourself uninformed about and so stubborn as to refuse to be instructed as to why. That’s your choice, but so long as you post things such as what you posted above, I expect I will have something to say about it. It might be just you and I struggling with this (though you probably know the stats as to your readership better than I) but so be it…

    Truth will out because there is too much evidence to sustain the illusion that fire and gravity alone were the agents involved forever.

  2. Actually, Dave, the “wider community” doesn’t express an opinion so you claiming they do isn’t accurate. You are using a logical fallacy to make that claim. You base that opinion on your own biases and assumptions.

    The physics of the destruction of those three buildings simply cannot be explained by the official conspiracy theory that fires weakened structural components and then gravity did the rest. The “wider community” of structural engineers, architects, physicists have studied neither the official claims contained in the NIST NCSTAR 1 reports nor the alternative, empirically-based studies by structural engineers, architects and physicists who have been highly skeptical of the official conspiracy theory and the incomplete official scientific studies. You trying to leverage those who have spoken in favor of the official account but have not refuted the major claims of the alternative are engaging in, as I said, promoting a logical fallacy with such handwaving.

    You continue to make nonsensical arguments that do not address the gaping holes in the official account nor refute the claims that do address those gaping holes.

    I expected to hear from you today and you didn’t disappoint except for the disappointment of your continuing to fail to see where your arguments fall completely apart. Until you are ready to address the physical science you claim to respect but make no effort to address yourself I guess we’ll have this annual exchange.

    I will continue to praise the effort you put toward addressing climate change. I read just about every posting you put up and applaud your highlighting the work others are doing. I wish you could get over the hurdle you stumble on when you rely on hack science by popular publications like Popular Science and actually take a good hard look at the work of the physicists, structural engineers, architects that don’t have a vested interest in misrepresenting the physical science of the World Trade Center destruction.

    When your skepticism, objectivity, and understanding of the fundamental physics attains a level to ignore the politics and focus solely on the empirical facts you might come to understand what a growing number in the wider community are realizing, the official explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    I’d be happy to take this conversation private if you’d like. sdemetri@gmail.com

    • Hi Steve,

      While on this topic we don’t agree, there is much else we do agree upon, namely Climate Change. That’s where I tend to primarily focus my energies. Tempting as it might be to delve into this in detail, I fear doing so would soak up too much time that I really wish to spend on a topic that, if not addressed in a meaningful way, will have profoundly negative consequences.

      If I’m ever in town then I should drop you a note. It would be cool to have a chat over a beer,


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