An entrepreneur named Paul Salo has launched a crowdfunding project which he claims will prove once and for all whether the conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are true. However, for a number of reasons, the plan won't work.
On his Indiegogo campaign Salo writes:
"Many people want to know more about 9-11. We are like a Mythbusters for September 11th. It's an important project for many reasons. Many people doubt various details of 9-11. As the world has changed our trust in government and media has declined significantly. We want to see for ourselves. We don't need people to guide our thinking. In this project we will recreate 9-11 to the best of our ability given the funds raised. Our ultimate goal is a fully loaded 767 and a similar structure to the WTC. We will crash the fully loaded (with fuel) plane (complete with black box) into the building using autopilot at 500 MPH."
Salo aims to test the widely challenged (in conspiracy circles anyway) claim that jet fuel can burn hot enough to sufficiently weaken a building's steel structure that it collapses -- instead of, for example, the Twin Towers coming down due to hidden explosives. Some people believe the project to be in bad taste, while others see it as a legitimate grassroots effort to get at a truth long covered up by the government.
Science and Anomaly Hunting Conspiracy theorists thrive on what is known as anomaly hunting: Looking for any evidence that doesn't fit the "official story." For example: In the confusion after a mass shooting, if police or eyewitnesses report details incorrectly -- perhaps mistaking a car backfire for a gunshot -- this provides grist for the conspiracy mill, "evidence" that a cover up is in effect.
To see the problem that anomaly hunting poses, consider the following example. A college student reads that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Being a naturally inquisitive person, he decides to try it for himself. The student fills a cup with water and puts it, along with a thermometer, in a freezer and sets the freezer's temperature. The next day he opens the freezer door and finds that the water is very cold but not frozen. This information -- this anomaly -- contradicts widely accepted knowledge about the freezing temperature of water. The thermometer reads below 32 degrees, yet the water is not frozen.
What the student perceives as an anomaly is in fact nothing of the sort. The error is not with accepted science, but with his procedures or understanding of the phenomenon.
But before he concludes that "the official story" is wrong and he's disproven basic physics, he should read the fine print for a better understanding of what he was looking for. Pure water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. If the water was not pure, or if the thermometer was not exact enough for scientific purposes, or if he's not at sea level, or if there was a bit of oil or another contaminant in the cup -- or any number of other factors he didn't think of -- then he will not necessarily get an accurate reading or the expected result.
Replication Investigation The idea of replicating a controversial event or project to test its validity sounds simple in theory. For example some people claim that the Egyptian pyramids were made -- or designed -- by aliens or ancient astronauts. The (ahistorical) assumption is that people at the time didn't have the intelligence or technology to move the stones and build a pyramid shape.
Since the pyramids were built around 2560 B.C. there are no photographs or depictions of them being created, though in 2015 papyrus records were found of pyramid construction tools.
Egyptologists have a pretty good idea of where the rocks were quarried and how they were cut and moved, but doubters are fond of noting that scientists have never actually replicated the pyramids. They claim that skeptics or scientists must build an entire pyramid to prove how it could have been done, using materials and tools of that era.
This seems like a reasonable challenge until you realize that such an effort would never be done -- not because it can't be done but because it would be impractical. Duplicating the great Ghiza pyramid would take many years and cost tens of millions of dollars. Who's going to pay for it? It would also be pointless, since such a replication experiment would not be valid unless you used tens of thousands of workers -- estimates range from 15,000 to 40,000 -- and spent a decade or more building it, as the original did.
If some eccentric billionaire wants to fund it he or she should feel free, but scientists recognize it as an enormous cost and effort just to disprove some wild theories about aliens.
Thus while Salo's scheme to duplicate the Twin Towers attack has a simple and populist appeal, actually pulling it off as a valid scientific experiment would be incredibly difficult and expensive, if not impossible. For a real science experiment you need to control for variables that could affect the results; in this case there are many variables including size and weight of the plane, the building type, and so on.
Salo writes that "You will be able to see for yourself what happens under these extreme circumstances. I'm not sure (from) which country we will purchase the aircraft and building but it doesn't really matter much." Actually Salo will find when talking to engineers that it matters greatly where the building is, since building codes vary wildly by country and region.
Buildings in earthquake-prone regions are built differently -- and able to sustain greater structural damage without collapsing -- than those built elsewhere. Variations in construction materials will also complicate comparisons.
Salo has another problem: Each building's architecture is different, and will not necessarily react the same way to the same structural damage. In order for the experiment to be valid, he would need to build an exact replica of the Twin Towers; not just any tall building will do, since the load-bearing structures vary from building to building.
Despite his enthusiasm, Salo, like the public generally, greatly underestimates the rigor needed to conduct a valid scientific experiment. He says he plans to "recreate as best as we can" the circumstances of the World Trade Center attacks.
The problem is that "as best as we can" will leave an enormous margin of error, one so big as to make any results invalid and pointless. His results, should he pull it off, will be dramatic and sensational but hold no evidentiary value at all. He wouldn't be comparing apples to apples -- or even apples to oranges -- but apples to astronauts.
The bigger problem is that the experiment will be inconclusive no matter its outcome. Despite Salo's claim that "we will prove 9-11 to be true or false once and for all," the fact is that if the building collapses exactly as happened on Sept. 11, conspiracy theorists will argue, correctly, that the conditions weren't exactly the same as in the original building collapse. If the building collapses differently, that won't prove anything either, and for the same reason. Neither anyone questioning or defending the "official story" will accept his conclusions and admit they were wrong.
Salo is asking for $1.5 million and as of this writing has $431; whether he comes up with the rest of the funds in the next two months remains to be seen, but people can learn a lesson about science no matter what happens.