Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Talk at Guelph

I'll be speaking at the University of Guelph, at the invitation of the Guelph Skeptics, on Wednesday, March 26, at 7 PM in Thornborough 1200. The title of my talk is "Misinformation Theory: How Creationists Abuse Mathematics". There's a little more info here. If you read Recursivity, stop by and say hello.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Note to "9/11 Truth" Advocates

No, it is not appropriate to use the comments section of my blog to arrange "meetups" for your loony conspiracy theories.

(Yes, believe it or not, somebody tried to do this. For friggin' St. Louis.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Question-and-Answer Period at the 9/11 Deniers Evening

After the introduction by Richard B. Lee, the presentation by A. K. Dewdney, and the presentation by Graeme MacQueen, there was a brief intermission, followed by a question-and-answer period.

After the deniers spoke for about two hours, the organizers allowed only about 30 minutes for questions. The question period was moderated by Michael Keefer, a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. Keefer is the author of this criticism of Alexander Cockburn for not buying the theories of 9/11 deniers, and as such, is placed firmly in the "9/11 Truth" camp. (For Cockburn's columns, go here and here; for more "9/11" material by Keefer, go here.)

The first question was, "What evidence would be required to disprove the theories presented here tonight?" The responses ranged from "We are not at a position to say" (paraphrased) to Graeme MacQueen's claim that he read 9/11 firefighters' testimonies looking for evidence for and against his hypothesis of an explosion.

The next question was, "Popular Mechanics says cell phone calls can be made from planes. If they cannot, does this mean that the US government's analysis is flawed, or was their a conspiracy?" (paraphrased). In response, Dewdney says it's up to people who claim the calls can be made to explain them, not up to him.

The third question asked, "Do you think the initial 9/11 Commission report was a deliberate attempt to mislead people, or was it just mistaken conclusions due to time pressure?" Graeme MacQueen thinks it was deliberate, and as evidence, said that Philip Zelikow (executive director of the 9/11 commission) was a friend of Condoleezza Rice, so the 9/11 Commission wasn't independent.

The fourth question asked, "Who benefits?" The response was that the US benefits by seizing Iraqi oil supplies. The Iraqi people will never regain control of their own oil. The reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan are similar, and the goal is complete hegemony by the US empire.

The fifth question asked, "Was there any attempt by NIST to model the airplane crashes?" Answer: no, there was not. The University of Waterloo should model these events. Dewdney agreed.

Finally, I had a chance to ask a question. Earlier in the evening, I had argued with the moderator Michael Keefer, and he was doing his best to avoid seeing my raised hand. In the classiest event of the evening, A. K. Dewdney intervened and said, "Can we have a question from my friend?" I think he deserves a lot of credit for this gesture, particularly because he knows I am a fierce critic of his position. I listed 3 falsehoods in Dewdney's presentation (Keefer tried to cut me off after 2) and asked for their reply: the wrong number of Airfone calls from UAL 93, the use of the word "pull" does not mean controlled demolition, and the debris in Shanksville. Dewdney acknowledged that there was debris, but again used the opportunity to cast doubt on the crash by saying that inflight magazines were found 15 miles away, suggesting that UAL 93 was shot down.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to chat briefly with some of the attendees. One person thanked me for offering the only rational voice of the night, but others thought I was misguided. I made the analogy of 9/11 denial to creationism, to which one attendee responded, "I don't believe in evolution -- I'm a Christian".

Conclusion: the speakers presented a case for conspiracy that was superficially persuasive, but only if one has not read any rebuttals to their bogus claims. In general, the speakers did not have the professional qualifications to comment on the events, and as academics, behaved irresponsibly in so doing. They also failed to acknowledge that experts who do have the relevant qualifications take issue with their theories. The U of W Debate Club should be ashamed of its role in the event, allowing the deniers to speak so long and unopposed, and allowing a "moderator" and question-taker that were not neutral.

At the beginning, "moderator" Richard B. Lee asked, "Why have the floodgates not opened? Why is the media not filled with page after page of penetrating investigative journalism?" The answer is clear: because the claims of the "9/11 Truth" movement are sheer crackpottery, no matter how many scholars subscribe to them.

If the organizers of this event think they will make political hay out of it, I think they are sorely mistaken. As Chip Berlet has pointed out, no successful political movement in North America has ever been based on allegations of conspiracy. By focussing on bogus claims of controlled demolition, we lose focus on what really matters: how the US was led to war by a dishonest administration, and how the US can now repair the damage it has wrought and its reputation in the world. And how the civilized world can best counter the genuine threat posed by fundamentalist religions of all stripes, including the violent and radical Islam that caused 19 young men to take the lives of thousands of others on September 11, 2001.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Phony Ex-Terrorists Paid By US Air Force Academy?

According to this article in the New York Times, the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs recently paid $13,000 to 3 self-proclaimed "ex-terrorist" speakers who are now evangelical Christians. Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem, and Zachariah Anani are accused of being frauds. (For more about Anani, see this article in the Windsor Star.)

This is yet more disturbing news about how the US military academies are functioning as evanglical indoctrination enters.

Graeme MacQueen at the 9/11 Denier Evening

For other parts of this series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

The last speaker of the evening was Graeme MacQueen, who was introduced as a retired professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His specialties include Buddhist studies. Like the other speakers, MacQueen has no professional background to discuss the physics and engineering aspects of the World Trade towers' collapse, but that didn't stop him from pontificating on the subject.

He started by thanking Adnan Zuberi and Adam Parrott for organizing the evening. (As an aside, I note that when I asked a member of the UW Debate Club who Adam Parrott was, he had no idea. I find it strange that an organizer of the evening's events would be unknown to members of the club that sponsored the presentation. Both Parrott and Zuberi are listed on this page as "grassroots organizers" for the misnamed "9/11 Truth" movement.)

He started by saying, "I have two modest aims: why a reasonable person might have serious doubts about the official explanation about why the two World Trade Centre towers came down the way they did... why a reasonable person might want to explore another theory: controlled demolition." This indeed, sounds very modest. But soon the veneer of reasonableness was stripped away, as he described the generally-accepted model of the Towers' collapse and then said, "A rather obvious fraud, in my view." This kind of behavior is typical of the "9/11 Truth" movement. Their claims are outlandish and unsupported; yet if you do not agree, you are in league with fraud. By using the word "fraud", MacQueen denigrates the dozens of structural engineers, fire engineers, and civil engineers who have looked into the buildings' collapse and have paintstakingly devised the generally-accepted theory. There is no legitimate reason to believe that all these researchers have engaged in fraudulent activity, and it is a gross calumny to say so.

Much of MacQueen's argument was devoted to the principle that since, if you looked at the video of the World Trade towers' collapse, you would describe what happened as an "explosion", therefore there must have been an explosion that caused the collapse. He consistently denigrated the idea that to understand exactly what happened, you would need to understand anything substantial about physics, civil engineering, or building construction: "You don't need a Ph. D. to look at these photographs".

He plotted the position of the top of one tower through time, and was astonished to discover that the resulting graph formed a parabola similar to free fall. (I imagine professors of religious studies don't have much time to study equations based on gravity.) This "grade-school physics" exercise, he claims, is enough to rebut the thousands of hours of study by civil engineers on the World Trade Center collapse, and the report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The only alternative to the NIST theory, according to MacQueen, is controlled demolition, brought about by explosives, incendiaries, or both, through a covert operation.

"Controlled demolition" of the WTC, of course, is one of the favorite assertions of 9/11 deniers. But they offer no plausible rationale why anyone would want to carry out both a plane attack and a controlled demolition. Why not just the demolition? Wouldn't it be much more sensible to plant bombs in the WTC and then blame those on terrorists? After all, terrorists already bombed the WTC back in 1993. 9/11 deniers consistently fail to address this.

Further, if the government carried out the plane attack, why would they bother with setting bombs, too? The destruction wrought by the planes alone seriously damaged the buildings, and repairs would have cost hundreds of millions, if not more. Why wouldn't that be enough as a pretext for war, if that were the government's plan? 9/11 deniers have no answer.

Furthermore, seismic data offer no support at all for the contention that there was an explosion before the collapse of the buildings. How do 9/11 deniers explain this? Silence.

During his presentation, MacQueen referred several times to the Journal of 9/11 Studies for support for his claims. The editors of this "journal" are Kevin Ryan, Frank Legge, and Steven Jones -- three men heavily involved in the "9/11 Truth" movement. No one taking issue with "9/11 Truth" claims is involved. This is not a scholarly journal in any sense of the word; it is a propaganda outfit for deniers.

The latter part of MacQueen's presentation was devoted to his analysis of the testimony of firefighters. He said, "I decided to read it and look for evidence of explosions". Sounds to me like looking for evidence to support one's preconceptions (although later he backtracked and said he also looked for evidence against the idea of explosions). MacQueen seems to think that one can get at the truth of whether or not there were bombs planted in the building by analyzing the testimony of people who were there.

The problem is that the WTC collapse involved fire, structural damage, and probably small explosions as pockets of fire encountered volatile chemicals. Furthermore, we lack the vocabulary to describe what happens when a building collapses from the top down; it is not a phenomenon we encounter very often. Lacking such a vocabulary, anyone might have called what happened an "explosion" without meaning that a bomb was involved.

To illustrate this, consider the 1945 crash of a military plane into the Empire State Building. Witnesses described the sounds of gunshots (but were in fact the sound of elevator cables snapping). By the MacQueen principle of witness reliability, if witnesses heard gunshots, then there must have been gunshots inside the Empire State Building.

In summary, I heard a discussion of building collapse by a man not professionally qualified to do so, a foolish reliance on the use of the word "explosion" to imply the existence of a bomb, and a lack of any explanation why both a plane crash and a bomb would be used by the government to bring down the World Trade towers.

A. K. Dewdney at the 9/11 Denier Evening (Part 2)

For part 1, go here. For the intro to this series, go here.

After discussing the cell phone calls, Dewdney moved on to another area far from his expertise: the collapse of the World Trade towers.

He showed a picture of one of the towers with an arrow pointing to part of it, with a caption reading "Molton [sic] steel pours from side of WTC 1". The resolution of the picture didn't allow me to conclude that anything molten at all was pouring out, certainly not molten steel. If anything was pouring out, why couldn't it have been molten aluminum? Aluminum melts at 660° C, while steel melts at 1370-1550° C.

Dewdney went on to discuss the collapse of WTC 7. He repeated the long-debunked falsehood that Larry Silverstein, who leased WTC 7 from the Port Authority, admitted that WTC 7 was brought down by controlled demolition. Silverstein used the word "pull" and Dewdney repeated the falsehood that "pull" is demolition slang for "bring down a building by controlled demolition". As Debunking 9/11 Myths explains in detail, this is not the case. The word "pull" was referring to the decision to remove firefighters from the building. Dewdney claimed that Silverstein "changed his story", when in fact Silverstein simply clarified what he meant.

If the expressions "pull" and "pull it" (not, I emphasize, "pull it down") are slang for controlled demolition, then the 9/11 deniers should have no problem providing a citation to a book, newspaper, or magazine article where this expression is used as the 9/11 deniers claim. I have searched myself, using the New York Times index, and Lexis/Nexis, but so far have failed to produce a single citation supporting the deniers' claim. On the other hand, "pull" can and has been used in the context of removing firefighters from a building. See here, for example, where accounts from 9/11 firefighters both use this word.

As an academic, Dewdney had a professional responsibility to provide his audience with the alternative (and widely-accepted) explanation for Silverstein's remarks, and not to repeat falsehoods about the meaning of "pull" without supporting evidence. (I'll also point out that Graeme MacQueen, a self-described expert on the analysis of texts, spoke after Dewdney and did not see fit to mention that there was any controversy about the textual analysis of "pull".)

Dewdney went on to discuss the Shanksville and Pentagon crash sites. He claimed that every other plane crash has produced large amounts of debris, but these crashes did not produce any. This is a falsehood in two ways. First, there have been plane crashes without large amounts of easily-visible debris, namely, this 1997 crash in Indonesia. (See the comments for a picture of some of the debris.) Secondly, the Shanksville crash certainly did produce debris, and some of it can be seen here.

Dewdney thinks that Flight 93 did not crash, but was shot down by an A-3 Thunderbolt. As evidence, he points to a "mysterious white twin engine jet aircraft" seen around the crash site. But this "mysterious" plane has already been identified, as Dewdney should know: it was a "Dassault Falcon 20 business jet owned by the VF Corporation" and it had been contacted by the FAA to examine the UAL 93 crash site and mark its position.

To conclude: Dewdney's performance was extremely disappointing to me. His presentation was filled with falsehoods, and his alternative scenarios ludicrous. Apparently I am not the only one to think so; even some 9/11 skeptics have effectively disowned Dewdney's claims. When people on your own side think you've gone too far, it's time for some serious self-analysis.

Yet Dewdney's presentation was praised by the other presenters, including Richard B. Lee and Graeme MacQueen. Why do they think this farrago of falsehoods deserves praise?

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes." (often attributed to Mark Twain, but may really be due to Charles Haddon Spurgeon).

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.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

An Open Letter to Richard Borshay Lee

Richard Borshay Lee is an anthropologist of some renown who is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is sympathetic with the misnamed "9/11 Truth" movement, having authored a paper entitled "The Elephant in the Living Room: What really happened on 9-11?" (scroll down on that link). Last night, he was the "moderator" (as described on flyers for the event) for the debate-that-was-not-a-debate hosted at the University of Waterloo.

The role of a moderator is not to take sides. Lee didn't observe this rule, however, as he launched an attack against the "official version" of 9/11 in his introduction.

Lee claimed that "Serious scholarship will be presented to you tonight". In fact, what we heard were the standard falsehoods of the 9/11 Truth movement, and discussion of the fine points of building collapse by a man not even remotely qualified to discuss the issue. Lee claimed that he would present "a forum in an atmosphere of open-minded scholarly challenge". But there was no challenge, since no one from the opposing side was permitted to speak. The question period was extremely limited.

Here is my open letter to Prof. Lee. If he responds, and agrees to let me post his response, I will post it below.

Dear Prof. Lee:

Last night, I witnessed your performance as "moderator" of the event "A Forensic Analysis of September 11, 2001: Questioning the Official Theory" that took place at the University of Waterloo.

The role of a "moderator" is not to take sides, and yet you did. In your opening, you repeated several falsehoods of the misnamed "9/11 Truth" movement. You sneered at the idea that the 9/11 hijackers could "expertly" pilot the planes and crash them into their targets.

However, your objections are not based on any rational evidence. The hardest part of flying a plane is taking off and landing, and the hijackers didn't have to do either one. In each plane, one hijacker received significant flight training; all 4 were certified pilots. Hanjour, for example, had extensive simulator training on small commercial jets. The others "had all logged a minimum of 250 cumulative flight hours" (Dunbar and Reagan, 2006). Hanjour and Jarrah had "training flights down the Hudson Corridor, a busy low-altitude path along the Hudson River that passes by the World Trade Center" (Dunbar and Reagan). Furthermore, there is good evidence that the hijackers didn't "expertly" pilot their planes. "The planes made sharp turns of up to 330 degrees and at times dropped precipitously. Passengers and flight attendants on all four planes reported erratic flying." (Dunbar and Reagan)

You also claimed that "No steel frame building in history ever collapsed before." This is not true. I would advise you to look into the 1967 collapse of the McCormick Center in Chicago, a steel-frame building that was left in rubble after a fire. The New York Times article of January 17, 1967 said "Heat from the blaze twisted and curled massive steel girders."

I see that you have had a distinguished career as an anthropologist at the University of Toronto. When you repeat falsehoods that are so easily refuted, you sully your own reputation, and you bring ridicule to your institution. You should be ashamed.

Should you choose to reply, please let me know if I can post your reply on my blog, recursed.blogspot.com.

Citation: Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts, Dunbar and Reagan, eds., Hearst Books, 2006.

The Questionnaire at the 9/11 Denier Event

Here is the text of the questionnaire passed out at last night's 9/11 denier event. You were supposed to check either "agree", "disagree", or "no opinion" at the beginning of the presentation, and then again at the end.

Exercise for the reader: in what ways, exactly, are the statements slanted to get the desired answers?

1) The U. S. government's official theory of 9/11 is complete and correct.

2) The Canadian government should launch a federal inquiry into 9/11.

3) The media is covering 9/11 in a fair manner.

4) The truth about 9/11 is important to the public interest.

An Evening with 9-11 Deniers

Last night I attended a presentation hosted by the University of Waterloo Debate Society entitled "A Forensic Analysis of September 11, 2001: Questioning the Official Theory". It was a truly shameful event, and there was plenty of shame to go around.

Let's allocate the shame:

A large portion of the shame goes to the Debate Society, which plastered the campus with misleading flyers that suggested to many that a genuine debate would take place. I met students in the hall who expected to hear both sides presented, and were surprised when I told them that the presentation would be completely one-sided. The student organizer of the debate, Adnan Zuberi, refused to answer my e-mail questions about why there would not be a speaker presenting the other side; when I asked him again at the debate, he claimed he never received my e-mail (although I sent it multiple times to two different addresses, including the one on the event flyer). I asked Mr. Zuberi if he was part of a "9/11 Truth Group", and he refused to answer. (I was told by other members of the Debate Society that Mr. Zuberi is, indeed, a member of a "9/11 Truth" group.) Casting even more shame on the Debate Society, everybody involved in the public presentation, including Richard B. Lee, the "moderator", and Michael Keefer, the man who selected questioners at the end, was part of the "9/11 Truth" movement.

Why didn't the Debate Society present someone on the other side? I was told they tried, but couldn't find anyone. But they are a "debate society", not a "one-sided presentation" society, and they had an obligation to find someone to respond to the falsehoods that were presented.

Next, there's an ample portion of shame to be allocated to the four academics who participated in this event. As academics, they should have ensured that contentious issues are treated fairly and that valid opposing views are noted. As academics, they had an obligation not to speak outside their areas of expertise (at least, not while relying on their credentials as professors, which were prominently featured on the flyers and in the introductions). Instead, what did we get?

At the opening, we got an admonition by Richard B. Lee (a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto) about how his views deserve respect, an admonition that included long-debunked false claims about the piloting abilities of the 9/11 hijackers.

We got a presentation by Alexander Dewdney, my former colleague in the Computer Science department at Waterloo, filled with distortions, non sequiturs, and falsehoods (more later).

We got another presentation by Graeme MacQueen, a retired professor of Religious Studies at McMaster, that prominently featured an analysis of the physics of 9/11 building collapse (although MacQueen has no formal training in the subject).

And we got questions chosen by Michael Keefer, who was a professor of English and Theatre at the University of Guelph.

To my knowledge, none of the four men had any formal training in civil engineering, telephone networks, or building contruction; yet these subjects featured prominently in the presentation.

I'll have more to say about the arguments presented and the psychology of denialism in future posts.

And here are some of them:

Dewdney, Part 1

Dewdney, Part 2

Graeme Macqueen

Questions and answers

Saturday, March 15, 2008


From my perspective, it seems that there is an increasing number of cases of innumeracy in books and newspaper articles. Many of these articles are written by educated people -- people you would think should have no problem calculating a percentage or dividing one number by another. But you'd be wrong.

Here are two cases I recently noticed.

In Jeffrey Toobin's recent examination of the current Supreme Court, The Nine, he writes

On Wednesday, November 8, the first complete election figures in Florida showed Bush ahead of Gore by 2,909,135 to 2,907,351, or a margin of 1,784 votes.... The new results, announced on Thursday, November 9, cut Bush's margin to 327 votes --- or .00000056 percent.

Actually, 327 votes divided by 5.8 million is about .000056, or .0056 percent. Toobin evidently divided by 100 instead of multiplying, and hence obtained a result off by a factor of 10,000.

Here's another case: in a recent article in the Peterborough Examiner about my friend Mark Stanley, the reporter writes

"...an online mineral store called the Mineralogical Research Co. sells fulgerite for $6 a gram. That means an 18-kilogram fulgurite would be worth about $3,000."

Here the author apparently divided 18,000 grams by $6 to get the figure of $3,000. The correct amount, of course, is 18,000 grams multiplied by $6/gram, for a total of $108,000. She was only off by a factor of 36, better than Toobin. (I won't comment about her misspelling of "fulgurite".)

Update: Jeffrey Toobin sent me a nice note, acknowledging the error.

Local Bookstores Fined for Opening on Holiday

The downtown core of the small city where I live (Kitchener, Ontario) has seen many businesses fold in recent years. The city has attempted to revitalize the core in various ways, with mixed success.

Now Waterloo regional police have fined two mainstays of the core, Casablanca Books and the K-W Book Store, both on King Street. These are excellent used bookstores just 5 minutes away from where I live. And their "crime"? Opening for business on Monday, February 18, the new provincial holiday called "Family Day". Luckily, the police later dropped the charges, because the law has an exception for small bookstores.

If store owners want to open on a holiday, that's their business, and the government shouldn't meddle with it. This kind of nonsense is going to further drive businesses out of the core.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fractal Wrongness

My son pointed out the following image to me.

Funny Pictures

Doesn't that perfectly describe your experience arguing with creationists, intelligent design proponents, crystal healers, holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, and 9/11-truthers?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Disgraceful Decision to Cancel York University Debate

According to an article in the National Post, a York University student officer cancelled a debate on abortion to be held in the student centre, between Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform in Calgary and Michael Payton, a member of the York University student group, Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists.

The debate was cancelled by Kelly Holloway, president of the York University Graduate Students Association, because "This debate, over whether or not women should be able to have an abortion, is not acceptable in the student centre" and "People in this country have had the debate over abortion. The Supreme Court made a decision, and that's good enough for me…. I think we should accept that the debate is over."

But simply because the Supreme Court has decided one way doesn't end the debate. Courts sometimes overturn their own decisions, and people have the right to debate whether they should. The university, above all places in our society, should be a place where controversial subjects can be examined. Although I'm definitely pro-choice, this was a bad decision by Holloway and York.