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.


will m said...

Any chance that a club on campus could quickly organize a rebuttal event to this thing? There's probably a freethought club or something that would be sympathetic to having an event critical of 9/11 Conspiracy theories.

Screening the history channel documentary "9/11 Conspiracies - Fact or Fiction?" or the BBC episode of "Conspiracy Files" that dealt with 9/11 would be great. Those documentaries respond to all the usual claims of Truthers (including all the ones made at the event).

James B. said...

Excellent series of articles. Thanks for standing up for reality.

justin said...

Dr. Shallit,

I just wanted to say thanks for the comprehensive coverage of the evening. I was unable to attend myself.

After seeing the posters I had also hoped it would be an actual debate, though after looking up the speakers' online realized that was unlikely to happen. Members of the UW debate society should be aghast that these cranks have been able to hijack their club and sully its name.

Anonymous said...

"I do believe in evolution -- I'm a Christian".

Erdos56 said...

Interesting quote from Chip Berlet. Is an efficient 4th Estate combined with open public dialog sufficient to guarantee a gradual emergence of truth given loud and vested interests driven by personal ambition and/or other interests?

Thus far we think we see a pattern of yes going back to McCarthyism and Nixon (in the States), but we also see the destabilization of the global warming consensus or ID as counterpoints that have sustained interest.

I keep returning to critical thinking and skepticism as essential and under-taught skills, but I'm not sure that even if that was done better, we wouldn't still end up with the same level of obsessiveness. The missing piece is purely an epistemological stance (borrowing from Dennett, a bit) that treats puzzles with limited support as just what they are--quiet puzzles--that don't point to vast conspiracies. I recommend that the 9/11 theorists find Deepthroat, get corroborating testimony and evidence, and then go public. Surely there must be all of that for this vast conspiracy to work!

Anonymous said...

I think the answers to the first question say it all.

Anonymous said...

"If they cannot, does this mean that the US government's analysis is flawed, or was their a conspiracy?"

"There", not "their".

If there were a conspiracy, wouldn't it be logical for the conspirators to pre-emptively launch a "truth" movement based on nonsensical arguments so that any true whistle-blowers would not be taken seriously? Just something to think about. :)