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How Conspiracy Theories Work

Building a Case

Here is the interesting thing about a conspiracy theory. The theory does have to start with some sort of discrepancy, but from that point the theorist has to explain everything that happened in a believable way. If the theorist cannot do that, then the theory is not going to hold up and no one will believe it. So he has to do a lot of work gathering evidence and looking for alternative explanations.

Let's look at an example of how this might work. Assume that the conspiracy theorist looks at the fall of WTC 7. The theorist notes that the building did not partially collapse or crumple -- it fell exactly like a building would if the building were being demolished. So the theorist hypothesizes that the fall of WTC 7 was a pre-planned demolition rather than an actual, natural collapse of the building. The first thing that the theorist must do is to show that WTC 7 could credibly be conceived as a demolition. How might he make that determination? He might consider facts like these:

  1. No skyscraper has ever fallen because of a fire. WTC 7 was not hit by an airplane, and while it did have a fire burning when it collapsed, the fire was not "out of control," or widespread. Therefore, to have the building collapse is highly unusual.

  2. When looking at videos of the collapse, the building falls in a completely uniform way, just like a demolition. See videos on this page for three examples. If the fall of WTC 7 had been a natural collapse, it seems highly unusual for the collapse to be so uniform.

    WTC 7
    AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz, Pool
    Firefighters hose down the smoldering remains of 7 World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001.

  3. It would be impossible, on the day of September 11, given all the turmoil, destruction and difficulty of that day, for New York City to recognize that WTC 7 is having a problem, contact and contract with a demolition team, obtain all of the explosives, transport the team and the explosives to the site, and then plant a whole building full of explosives so that an unplanned demolition could take place.

In other words, the theorist concludes, by looking at the evidence, that it is impossible that WTC 7 fell down naturally, and that it is impossible that it fell as part of a demolition arranged within a few hours on September 11. Having done that, it is reasonable to conclude that the fall of WTC 7 must have been a pre-planned demolition. Weeks before September 11, people had to get into WTC 7 to plant the demolition explosives.

By concluding that, however, the theorist has to explain everything else that happened on September 11. If WTC 7's demolition was pre-planned, then all of September 11 was pre-planned. The repercussions of that realization impact every part of the "official story." For example:

  • There were no terrorists. Or if there were, their actions were coordinated by the government rather than Al Queda.
  • Terrorists did not spontaneously fly the planes into the buildings -- the government did.
  • The North and South Towers were also rigged with explosives ahead of time, like WTC 7, and their collapses were staged events that killed thousands of innocent people.
  • The crash at the Pentagon was staged as well. Or, possibly, no passenger jet was involved at all. A missile may have struck the Pentagon instead of a jetliner.
  • Flight 93 may have never actually happened as described in the official story. It might have been completely staged as well, or it may have been shot by a missile.
This conspiracy story is radically different from the official story. But is it believable?

If you are willing to move past the revulsion that this story elicits, this new story is not too difficult to believe. Secretly rigging three buildings for demolition is not hard to imagine. The government has known teams of people trained to do things like this (such as Navy SEALS), and it is logical to assume that there are secret teams as well. It is easy to imagine the government taking over, or even substituting, the jets that crashed into the North and South Towers. It is easy to imagine a cruise missile being fired at the Pentagon and hitting it in exactly the way that the building was hit.

Now, the conspiracy theorist has to build a "conspiracy story" to explain everything that happened on September 11, and show evidence that the conspiracy story might actually have happened. Also, it would be helpful if the conspiracy story were more believable than the official story.

Creating the Theory
In order to create a complete conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theorist has to create a set of story elements that explain everything that happened in the event. He must then find evidence to support the story elements. Here is an example of how this process might work. We will use the collapse of the Twin Towers as a demonstration.

According to the official story, both the North and South Towers spontaneously collapsed because of the heat of the fires spawned by thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The fires weakened the structural steel in the buildings, which then sagged and collapsed. The buildings then pancaked floor-by-floor all the way to the ground.

A conspiracy theorist must show evidence for an alternative story. In this case, the theorist must demonstrate explicit evidence for a controlled demolition. So the theorist might point to evidence like the following:

  • Jet fuel does not burn hot enough to actually liquefy steel (nor do any of the other materials found in the towers) . You need a special chemical like thermite to do that (see this video for a demonstration of how thermite behaves). But there is video evidence of molten metal escaping from the buildings just prior to the collapse:

    Thermite reaction
    Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License
    This thermite reaction melted a cast iron skillet.

  • There is audible evidence of demolition explosions
  • There is visible evidence showing evenly-spaced explosions occurring in the towers as they collapsed
  • There is also direct evidence that demolition was planned on the site:
    I remember getting a call from the, er, fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were gonna be able to contain the fire, and I said, "We've had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it." And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse.
    -- Larry Silverstein, the controller of Building 7, in an interview reproduced in the PBS documentary "America Rebuilds"
Theorists then start to assemble this evidence into a theory for that part of the story. In this case, the theory is that the WTC towers and WTC 7 collapsed because of demolition rather than structural failure. The theorist may broadcast this small part of the full "conspiracy story" in the hope of receiving more information, and certainly to get feedback. Here are some examples: The same process must occur on every part of the 9/11 story, creating a complete alternative explanation for what caused the events of 9/11:
  • Where did the airplanes that hit the towers come from? Were they the actual passenger jets, or something else?
  • If it wasn't terrorists flying those jets, then who or what flew them?
  • What happened to the passengers? did they actually exist, or did the government murder them, or some hybrid?
  • Who planted the demolition charges? When? How?
For all of these questions, the theorist needs to find evidence and weave it together. We'll look at how theorists test and promote their theories next.