Twelve years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, conspiracy theorists are still searching for evidence that confirms their suspicions that what really happened on 9/11 was not what appeared in the 9/11 Commission Report. I haven’t looked at 9/11 conspiracy theories in a while. The last time I looked at the theory at any length was in 2011, when I went to an Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911Truth) event in Atlanta and then went out drinking with the people who attended. I wrote it up for Skeptical Inquirer, and a long version of that report is on the CSICOP website. My sense at the time was that the political usefulness of the 9/11 conspiracy theory on the left had expired following the election of Obama and what remained was constituted principally of hardcore believers who probably would have subscribed to a conspiracy theory anyway.
On September 9, 2013, I got an email from a new 9/11 Truth awareness campaign called, ReThink911, which is sponsored principally by AE911Truth. The idea is to...uh, unthink what was originally thunk about 9/11 and then make a new thinking thing. On the anniversary of the attacks, the campaign toured New York. They started the day the World Trade Center site, went to City Hall to lobby for a new investigation, and then made the rounds at a number of news outlets, including MSNBC, the New York Times, and Democracy Now. They ended the day with a rally at Times Square underneath a sign that they had erected in Times Square.
I had been vaguely aware that AE911Truth was raising money for a new media push around 9/11, and that they had raised enough to put the sign up in Times Square, just under a quarter of a million dollars. It’s the centerpiece of their international awareness campaign about 9/11, and signs went up in cities around the English speaking world, including Toronto, London and Sydney. The campaign was preceded by the release of a national poll sponsored by the group. The email I received was the first time I had heard of it.
The email I received looked like this:
These claims set my skeptical spidey sense a-tingling. When you look at the press release that the email linked to, the sponsors emphasized the following findings:
I was most intrigued by the qualifier in the third bullet point: “After seeing footage of Building 7’s collapse,” because this seems to be the focal point of the argument, the basis for suggesting that it is not such a far-out claim to believe that 9/11 needs to be reinvestigated. Much of the value of the poll, at least as far as ReThink911 is concerned, then hinges on the quality of the video they showed; if the video is of high quality and reliability, then responses to the video perhaps become meaningful.
Before we look at the video that accompanied the poll, however, I’d like to show what I consider high quality video of Building 7’s collapse. The key to understanding this collapse is the roof. At the beginning of the clip, you will see two structures on top of the building, and the important one is the taller of the two, the east penthouse (left). At the beginning of the collapse (at ten seconds) you will see the penthouse collapse as the infrastructure beneath it gives way. You can actually see the glass facade buckling directly underneath where the penthouse was before the global collapse takes place several seconds later.
So, what we have is a collapse in two stages: first, the structures beneath the penthouse followed by the collapse of the rest of the building.
The subspecies of 9/11 Truthers who focus on the collapse of WTC 7, however, repeat as a mantra that the building collapsed “at freefall speed into its own footprint” (see my 92,600 Google references) like a controlled demolition. That’s only partially true. For a segment of the second, global stage of the collapse, the building does seem to plummet about as fast as it can. From the first (external) indication of the collapse to the end of the event seems to me to take about fifteen seconds, while the Truther timeline suggests a seven-second collapse. What they fail to realize is that the first collapse, under the east penthouse damaged and weakened the structure throughout, shifted the total load of the building in ways it was not design to withstand and made a rapid collapse possible. “But why does it look like all supports columns were cut simultaneously?” ask the Truthers. “Because,” replies the skeptic, “they were damaged in the first part of the collapse.” I believe physicist Dave Thomas illustrated the mechanism of this part of the collapse at CSICon 2011 with a drinking straw. When you press down at the ends of an intact plastic straw, it actually resists a good deal of force despite its flimsiness. If you put a kink or crack in it, however, the straw buckles with almost no resistance. This effect scales up: the first part of the collapse damaged the support columns of Building 7, and when those columns failed nothing stopped a rapid global collapse.1
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the video that was shown to those people who took ReThink911’s poll:
Four angles of the collapse of Building 7, not one of which shows the entire collapse. (Actually, at the very beginning of the video, you can see sunlight coming out of the windows beneath where the east penthouse used to be.) It seems to me that when the sensational part of your earth-shattering revelations depends on a video of a collapse of Building 7, you should show the whole collapse. Anything else is bound to be misleading. And even then, you’d have to make the significance of that crucial first collapse crystal clear to the poll respondent before their response is meaningful or at all illuminating (and even then…).
So, how did this misleading video make it into the poll? I contacted the polling company to inquire about how the poll as put together. I spoke to Ray Martin, Senior VP at YouGov, the polling company. He said that the poll was designed in cooperation with the client and that the questions passed through the hands of several employees independently to minimize possible bias. I followed up on this conversation with YouGov’s Research Manager Anne Gammon via email. Explaining my concerns about the poll, I asked:
Was the omission of the first part of the collapse (more precisely, the decision to show that particular video) a decision by YouGov or of the sponsors of the survey? Do you think that omitting that type of info had an effect on the results of the survey?
After confirming what Ray said about YouGov’s question vetting process, Gammon said:
Any factual material for the survey in the questionnaire design is taken from as neutral a news source as possible (in this case BBC News was used).
The video shown was developed in conjunction with ReThink. We are restricted in the length of video we show to our respondents and it was decided that 30 seconds should be around the time to aim for. Unfortunately this meant not showing the entire falling of the building. [emphasis added]
So the collapse was edited for time, however, it seems that in that process crucial information that might lead people to a more meaningful response was omitted. I never found out who made the final decision about the video, but really it doesn’t matter. The footage is admittedly incomplete, and it’s difficult to see how the poll could possibly support the weight the Truthers are putting on it without collapsing, as it were, at free-fall speed into its own footprint. While there are myriad other problems with the survey’s framing of questions (I imagine “a group of 2000 architects and engineers [...] have disputed the conclusions of the governments’ report” is more persuasive than “less than 1/10 of one percent of American engineers would sign our petition”), the poll does nothing to suggest that 9/11 should be reinvestigated. If the poll reveals anything at all, it’s that when people are fed misleading or selectively incomplete information, they draw incorrect conclusions.