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How I Debated a 9/11 Truther and Survived

Dave Thomas

Skeptical Briefs Volume 19.4, December 2009

Every October, New Mexico Tech (located in Socorro, New Mexico) puts on an alumni reunion called “49ers.” As a Tech alumnus myself, my part of 49ers usually involves playing bass at a three-night gig with our alumni bluegrass band, the Vigilantes, at local watering hole the Capitol Bar. In 2009, however, a little something new was added to my 49ers mix. Alumna Kathy McGrade from California attended this year and requested in advance an opportunity to address other alumni on the topic of the causes of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. Soon, McGrade was asking that California architect Richard Gage be allowed to make the bulk of the proposed presentation, which was said to provide convincing evidence that controlled demolitions, not structural failures caused by burning jet fuel, toppled the towers. Gage has produced a voluminous Web site, “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth”, which calls for examination of “the 3 WTC high-rise ‘collapses,’” and demands of Congress a “truly independent investigation.”

Having developed a reputation for my investigations of the Bible Code, the Roswell UFO incident, and other fringe beliefs, Tech officials asked me to present an opposing view at the upcoming event. The debate was on. I started reviewing numerous articles on Gage’s Web site and scoured many other sources for more information. Soon, a picture emerged of a massive pseudoscientific movement based on faulty physics, cherry-picked data, and demonization of opponents as complicit in the “conspiracy.” I’d long been dubious of 9/11 “controlled demolition” claims, and my perusal of Gage’s site left me even more skeptical of “Truth Movement” arguments.

On October 24, about thirty people assembled in the student union building for the debate. Before things got started, Gage asked for a show of hands on these three questions: “Believe fires brought down buildings” (seventeen raised their hands), “Unsure” (eight), and “Believe in explosive controlled demolition” (six). Then, alumna McGrade made a short presentation that mentioned only things agreed upon by both points of view, such as the width of the Towers, timing between the jet impacts and the collapses, and so forth. Gage followed with his thirty-minute presentation, which focused primarily on World Trade Center building 7 (WTC 7), which collapsed at approximately 5:20 pm on the afternoon of September 11. Gage argued that there are ten reasons WTC 7, which was not hit by an airplane, was intentionally demolished:

  1. Rapid onset of ‘collapse’
  2. Sounds of explosions at ground floor—a full second prior to collapse
  3. Symmetrical ‘collapse’—through the path of greatest resistance—at free-fall acceleration
  4. Imploded, collapsing completely, and landed mostly in its own footprint
  5. Massive volume of expanding pyroclastic dust clouds
  6. Several tons of molten metal reported by numerous highly-qualified witnesses
  7. Chemical signature of Thermite (high tech incendiary) found in solidified molten metal, and dust samples by physics professor Steven Jones, PhD
  8. FEMA finds rapid oxidation and intergranular melting on structural steel samples
  9. Expert corroboration from the top European Controlled Demolition professional
  10. Foreknowledge of ‘collapse’ by media, NYPD, and FDNY

After Gage’s presentation, he asked for another show of hands. This time, the results were: “Fires brought down buildings” (seven hands), “Unsure” (twelve), and “Explosive controlled demolition” (nine). Then I spoke for about half an hour. I began by giving a Big Picture of the differences between science and pseudoscience with several examples that I’ve studied (Bible Codes, UFO conspiracies, Chemtrails, etc.).

None of the 9/11 “Truth” claims really hold up under scrutiny. For example, regarding the Twin Towers’ collapse “through the path of greatest resistance—at free-fall acceleration,” Gage often uses a demonstration using three cardboard boxes to make his point. He holds two small boxes in either hand, representing the topmost floors of either Twin Tower. He then drops both boxes; one is dropped on top of a thirty-inch-high strong cardboard box that represents the base of the towers (below where the planes struck), and the other is dropped onto empty air, whence it falls the thirty inches to the table top. In his online videos with this demonstration, Gage announces that “The one that had no resistance under it falls at freefall speed…. The one that has 80,000 tons of structural steel on it —it doesn’t even give. It resists. As met by an equal and opposite reaction known as the conservation of momentum. It doesn’t fall.” Gage then cites the supposed “freefall” speed as evidence that the towers were demolished with explosives. I mentioned this demonstration, citing it as an excellent example of pseudoscience. What’s actually relevant here is load vs. structure: the fact that dynamic loads are not the same as static loads. A plate can easily support the weight of a hammer carefully placed on it, but if the hammer is dropped on the plate, the dynamic load is more than it can bear, and it can crack. Once the top floors of the towers fell even one floor’s height, the horrifying “piledriver” collapse became inevitable.

I also showed simulations of why the towers fell, focusing on the interlocking structural components that reinforced the towers. I showed how WTC 7 had been severely damaged by debris from Tower 1 and showed evidence (routinely ignored by “Truthers”) of the severe fires that burned for many hours in Tower 7. I discussed the claims that thermite was used and showed a test filmed at Tech in which a large quantity of thermite failed to cut a large steel beam.

A twenty-minute question and answer period followed my talk. As the meeting was adjourned and everyone was poised to leave, I asked for one more show of hands. This time, the results were almost the same as when the afternoon began: “Fires brought down buildings” (sixteen hands), “Unsure” (eight), and “Explosive controlled demolition” (six).

A few days after the talks, Gage posted only the first two votes on his Web site, misreporting the second vote severely (making his 56–44 percent margin of victory into an 86–14 percent landslide). After I protested, Gage corrected his numbers and even included the third vote, while dismissing it as “useless” because of the brevity of the presentations and the fact that some audience members arrived late.

Gage wants to debate me again, on Denver public television station KBDI. While I normally prefer not to provide platforms for conspiracy theorists to push their cases, in this instance KBDI has already been running Gage’s 9/11 “Truth” documentaries during fundraising specials. No counter-programming has been offered during these showings (the NOVA episode on why the towers fell would have been an excellent antidote). Negotiations for a debate in the spring of 2010 are underway.

Finally, I offer this caution for readers: don’t smugly assume this conspiracy is confined to the lunatic fringe. After years of polishing and refinement, 9/11 “Truth” efforts have persuaded many citizens, including some of my relatives and close friends, to consider the attacks of 9/11 an “inside job.”

Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, a physicist and mathematician, is president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is currently a scientist/programmer at IRIS/PASSCAL in Socorro, New Mexico, and also teaches classes in physics, psychology, and critical thinking at New Mexico Tech.