Friday, March 21, 2008

A. K. Dewdney at the 9/11 Denier Evening (Part 1)

If you're reading this blog, the name A. K. Dewdney (Alexander K. Dewdney, "Kee" Dewdney to his friends) is probably well-known to you. Dewdney was for many years the editor of the mathematical recreations column in Scientific American, taking over from Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstadter. He is also the author of various books on mathematics and computing, including The Planiverse, The Tinkertoy Computer, and others in my personal library. I always regarded his columns and books with affection, because he is a good writer and his interests closely intersected with mine, and I was pleased when he briefly became a member of my own Department of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo.

Unfortunately, I can no longer read his work with the same unalloyed pleasure, because Dewdney has turned into a 9/11 denier.

His views on 9/11 are, to put it politely, outlandish and completely divorced from reality. This is particularly ironic, since in 1998 he published Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science, in which he took on Freud, the Biosphere project, cold fusion, and other episodes of bad science. If only Dewdney applied that same kind of skepticism to his own views on 9/11.

Dewdney presented at the 9/11 Denier Event held at the University of Waterloo on March 19. His presentation, I regret to say, was laced with falsehoods.

Dewdney started by discussing the cell phone calls made from the hijacked jetliners. His thesis is the following: it is impossible, or nearly so, to have made cell phone calls from the doomed planes. Therefore the "official account" of 9/11 is false, and a more plausible explanation is that the cell phone calls were faked by the government, who had access to the passenger lists before take-off. With wiretaps, the government could have listened to the passengers ahead of time and made tapes of their speech. Then, using a voice modulator, the government could imitate their speech with "trained operators". With this technology, the government would manage to fool all of the relatives and friends that were called on 9/11.

No, I am not kidding. This is really his thesis, and he finds it more plausible than the generally-accepted account.

In the past, Dewdney has provided accounts that are even more outlandish. Here you can read the original "Ghost Riders in the Sky" scenario, where Dewdney suggests that the hijacked planes were actually taken over remotely from the ground and flown into the targets (presumably by the government). He also suggests that Israel was involved in the attacks. A later version of "Ghost Riders" was published in The Revisionist, an online journal that proclaims itself "The World's largest website for Historical Revisionism!" and features on its front page "The Holocaust Controversy: A Case for open Debate". (The vast majority of the content of this "journal" is devoted to Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic content, with articles by known Holocaust deniers such as Ingrid Rimland, Germar Rudolf, and Bradley Smith. I have asked Prof. Dewdney how his work came to published in such an unsavory place, and he has not given any satisfactory response.) (Update: in private e-mail to me, Dewdney states that he was unaware that his article was published in this journal.) In this later version, Dewdney describes his experiments attempting to complete cell phone calls at various altitudes, and concluded that "cell phone calls from passenger aircraft are physically impossible above 8000 feet above ground and statistically unlikely below it." He also suggests that the pilots and passengers of the hijacked planes were actually all killed with Sarin nerve gas, as the planes were taken over remotely from the ground. Another proposed scenario is that the hijackers were fooled into becoming trained pilots for another reason, and that, again, Mossad was involved. I have asked Dewdney if he still stands by the scenarios in the various versions of Ghost Riders, but he has not answered this query.

This gives some background to Dewdney's presentation on March 19. He started by stating that his expertise is in cell phone calls, and that he has learned a lot about them since he began his investigations. (Dewdney, it appears, has no formal training in cellular communication. The theme of people speaking beyond their trained expertise is one that would repeat itself during the evening.) He claimed that there were 10 cell phone calls from UAL 93, 2 from AA 175, and 1 from UAL 77, as well as 2 Airfone calls from UAL 93.

This was the first falsehood of his presentation. According to the 9/11 Commission report, at least 22 Airfone calls were made from UAL 93 (not 2, as Dewdney claimed). His other numbers are also out of line with the 9/11 Commission Report.

As far as I can tell, no one disputes the technical feasibility of completing Airfone calls from the hijacked planes. In fact, it is from the Airfone calls that we have the most detailed picture of what took place on UAL 93. The existence of these Airfone calls casts very strong doubt on the relevance of the claimed inability to make cell phone calls from the planes. Indeed, what would be the purpose of faking cell phone calls, when Airfone was accessible? Dewdney conjures up a picture of a vast government conspiracy competent enough to fool relatives into thinking their loved ones were on the other end of the line, yet not competent enough to realize that cell phone calls were not feasible from the air. The kind of mental contortions one has to go through to find Dewdney's scenario plausible boggles the mind.

Dewdney claimed that his experiments show that a cell phone has only a 9% chance of successfully completing a call at 8000 feet; a 30% chance at 6000 feet; a 44% chance at 4000 feet, and an 89% chance at 2000 feet. But in the case of UAL 93, the two cell phone calls were made when the plane was approximately 2500 feet above the ground. (The plane was flying at about 5000 feet of altitude, but the terrain below was mountainous and hence the 2500-foot figure.) According to Dewdney's own figures, there would have been an excellent chance to complete such calls.

Dewdney sneered at the account of Mark Bingham's phone call to his mother, because Bingham reportedly said, "Mom, this is Mark Bingham." Again, the implication is that the government is smart enough to fake a call that could fool Bingham's mother, but not smart enough to realize that a son would be unlikely to tell his mother his last name. (The largely sympathetic audience chuckled.) What Dewdney and the ghouls in the audience fail to realize is that, under pressure, people do silly things. When distracted, I have picked up the phone at home and said, "Shallit", something I usually only do at work. I have also signed a Christmas card to my mother with my full name, by mistake. Anyone who has read reports of the 9/11 phone calls realizes they depict passengers under great stress, and it is foolish to read anything sinister into Bingham's faux pas. But then, this is standard fare for deniers, to examine transcripts with a magnifying glass for anything that could remotely be said to support their claims, while ignoring the big picture. Update: as a commenter has pointed out, Mark Bingham's mother says that this was an inside joke. See here for more details.

Arthur C. Clarke, who died this week, once made the following trenchant observation: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." Keep this in mind when considering Dewdney's claims about the impossibility of cell phone calls from airplanes.

More later.

19 comments:

will m said...

Knowing Truthers, he will probably just attack the credibility of Reagan, Dunbar and any other critic of the 9/11 conspiracies that you cited. Usually they just say that they were paid off without any actual evidence.

Matt said...

Another glaring fault is Dewdney's choice of location when testing if cellphone calls are able to be made while in the air. He tested them above London Ontario, NOT where UAL 92 made it's calls from. He simply assumed that cellphone reception would be homogeneous.

topologicalmusings said...

It seems like 9/11 deniers (just like the Holocaust deniers) also sound very much like people who claim man never really landed on the moon. Vast government conspiracy is the main ingredient of all their arguments!

Anonymous said...

When Dewdney first leaped head first into the rabbit hole, he started by writing in collaboration with Germar Rudolf, the holocaust denier.

If he denies this now, well, more proof of how low he has sunk.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and regarding Mark Brigham, his mother said that line was a longstanding inside joke between him and her.

Anonymous said...

Actually Mark Bingham's mother has said he used his full name in phone calls sometimes, and she wasn't surprised by that at all. See http://www.911myths.com/index.php/Mom%2C_this_is_Mark_Bingham

Colin said...

So the Black Hats got to Mark Bingham's mother?

:-)

Rick's Time On Earth said...

I have to say off the bat that I hate even posting on this argument because I hate feeding the fire of these delusional fantasies of these "Truthers". I was compelled to do so when I saw an issue with Mark's mother. I know Alice personally and Alice stated right from the start that Mark did address her with "this is Mark Bingham". She always said he's done it as a slip of the tongue so many times before that she would tease him about it. Now imagine yourself (if possible) in this situation. On a hijacked plane with terrorists threatening to blow you up. I will be the first to say you're full of BS if you say you would act normally and calm as in everyday life.
Trust me on this, Alice is a fighter and someone who doesn't sit quietly. If she thought for one second that something sinister happened to her son other than the madness of that day, she would be the first and loudest in line to find out the truth.
I stood in Shanksville on the 5th anniversary where the plane crashed and I watched one of these nuts trying to hand out fliers on how these men and women of Flight 93 were "fictional" and what I saw was a pathetic man screaming for some attention he probably never got in life and would drop to the lowest level to get it.
Mark and the other people of United Flight 93 gave their lives that day. Don't take that away from them.

Anonymous said...

you guys are a riot!v Thanks for the laugh!

jonathan said...

Jeffrey Shallit - Please get your facts straight before you prepare to rake muck. I understand how easy it is to make someone look bad when you make loose representations and paraphrase, etc... If you read the guy's studies stuff with any sort of attention span whatsoever you would realize that it's not so 'loose' as you would suggest. If you have any issues with any aspect of the study - you should post your specific grievance and write the guy...! I'm sure, being a scientist, he is VERY open to any flaw you might see with the study.

He does NOT make the insinuation that his findings vis a vis cell telephone calls being impossible to make from a commercial airliner above a certain height - prove that 9/11 was any sort of government plot - and certainly much less - that the whole event did not even HAPPEN (as you insinuate) - which is UTTERLY RIDICULOUS!!

And MATT- the cell phone call study was made directly over, if you were paying any attention, a town called METRO DETROIT. I woud like it if you would retract your comment.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Jonathan Anonymous:

My facts are straight, thank you very much. I stand by every thing I wrote, which is completely accurate. I have given Dewdney himself my summary and he has not taken issue with a single claim.

Johnny Biltong said...

I've known Kee for almost 30 years. He's both learned and sincere. He tells it as he sees it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Johnny:

Being "learned" and "sincere" doesn't prevent anyone from making extremely foolish and unsupported claims.

Anonymous said...

9/11 was an inside job. Open your eyes.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

Why, you are so convincing! And Bigfoot is real, too!

Anonymous said...

911 opened a floodgate of cognitive dissonance for individuals living in the west who call themselves muslims. Especially the converts who weren't born into the religion, but had to buy into it. It was a particularly difficult event for them. Dewdney claims to have become a muslim long before 911. He probably has no choice but to adopt the "Belief disconfirmation paradigm" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance).

Anonymous said...

Oh ... and BTW ... I tested my cell phone in Africa, on the summit of Kilimanjaro. It worked great. Called friends, sent both text and mms messages. How high is Kili? Check on wikipedia.

Faustus said...

Hi Jeffrey Shallit,

Your expositions are very nice - but You dont think that Your "wording"

####because Dewdney has turned into a 9/11 denier.###

is a little bit unfair and frivolous?

You use the word "DENIER"! But he dont denies the fact of 3 spoilt buildings and near 3000 lives!!

He just is accepting these FACTS!

What he is NOT accepting are the OFFICIAL INTERPRETATIONS of ALL the actually known facts! -

But THIS is a subject of discussion, like it is in every sience use and part of the culture!

So what Do You want now to say? - Do You mean, that every discussion is suspect and should be forbidden a free country like the US?

If Yes, so this would give me a very strange impression for Your sience culture...

Especially in front of many other events means illegal actions of US-Government or its organisations what were discovered in the time before.

And what do You mean, if a deeper discussion would give subject to another illegal action? - Would You like to be on the side of the ignorants or would You like to provide Your scientific intelligence to discover all the disastrous backgrounds for every democraty?

Thanks in advance for Your reply

the singing dance

Jeffrey Shallit said...

What he is NOT accepting are the OFFICIAL INTERPRETATIONS of ALL the actually known facts! -

No, this is a gross exaggeration. First of all, there is no particular "official interpretation". However, there is a generally-accepted scenario that accounts for most of the facts (and can be found in books like the Popular Science book and The Looming Tower). Dewdney goes far beyond denying the generally-accepted account: he created bizarre scenarios with no grounding in reality.