911 – Pseudoscience in the Rubble

October 2001
by Robert Novella

In the wake of the September 11th disaster, the credulous grasp at metaphysical straws looking to make meaning from chaos.

It all started with an email in my inbox. Only days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, I started receiving emails with amazing stories about how Nostradamus predicted the events of September 11th and the incredible profusion and significance of the number 11 regarding these terrorist attacks. A few days later, newspapers and the primetime news shows revealed dramatic pictures of an evil visage, apparently of Satan, which could be seen in the billowing smoke from the fires. While all this was happening I kept thinking that we might be witnessing the birth of myths and legends that perhaps even our grandchildren would discuss in years to come with a combination of both awe and credulity. All the more reason to vet these phenomena now and hopefully relegate them back to the rubble where they belong.

While researching these stories, which seemed to appear with equal likelihood in The National Enquirer and the more respected media, I was surprised by their sheer preponderance and diversity. Due to this I will focus on those stories that have more of a pseudoscientific or paranormal bent and for one reason or another piqued my interest.


One of the more ubiquitous stories being passed around by email involves the apparently paranormal or at least highly unusual manifestation of the number 11. Here are some common examples:

September 11 is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4= 11
The first plane to hit the tower was flight 11
New York City, Afghanistan, and The Pentagon each contain 11 letters
The adjacent Twin Tower buildings looked like the number 11
New York was the 11th state added to the Union

The list goes on and on. At first blush it might seem that there must be some cosmic significance to the fact that the number 11 appears over and over. This numerological interpretation, however, ignores the fact that a host of numbers can be made to appear with equal frequency. For example, the number 2 can be made to appear in the following ways:

September 11 is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4= 11 = 1+1 = 2
The World Trade Center was composed of 2 towers
New York is 2 words
The building were attacked by 2 planes

When you look for manifestations of other numbers, like above, you soon realize that there’s endless ways to produce lists of almost any number you look for. When one focuses on a specific number and ignores all others, however, it can be easy to believe that there is something special about it. This “confirmation bias” continually reinforces a mystical interpretation, which will persist until you do one thing, look for other numbers.


On that tragic day on September 11th, freelance AP photographer Mark Phillips was snapping pictures of the appalling events that were unfolding before him. He is purported to have transmitted his images within forty minutes of the attack. No one noticed anything unusual about the pictures until the next day when Mark started receiving numerous calls about the unusual face that could be seen in the smoke traveling up one of the towers before its collapse. It is not difficult to see a face of sorts in the smoke. It is somewhat angular but it’s not too much of a stretch to say it looks a little like our modern western conception of the face of Satan. If you look closely you can even see a hint of horns on top of the head. Many people were amazed by the appearance of this countenance in the smoke. Some were convinced that it was absolute evidence that Satan had a hand in the attacks on September 11th. 17-year-old Brad Merrill said that “It popped right out at me… I don’t see how it could be just sheer coincidence.”1

I’m continually amazed at the inability of some to resign themselves to the fact that people are eminently capable of utterly barbaric acts. So much so that they feel compelled to ascribe these acts to supernatural agencies.

What is the most likely explanation for this face? Excluding outright photo manipulation (which has been verified for some of the more blatant smoky countenances that have also been published) it probably is the penchant of the human mind to glean from random or chaotic patterns a recognizable and meaningful image (especially that of our favorite pattern, the human face). This phenomenon, called pareidolia2, is a common occurrence and probably affects everyone most every day. If you’ve ever seen a face in the clouds or in the pattern of bumps in the ceiling then you’ve experienced pareidolia.

Both of the preceding examples I’ve discussed are essentially artifacts of a property of human cognition called pattern recognition. This is a common theme in skeptical literature and bears repeating here because it lies behind many phenomena commonly attributed to paranormal or mystical causes. Pattern recognition is the exquisitely developed faculty of the human mind that identifies key sections of random or chaotic images and teases from them elements that we consider meaningful. Early humans utilized this trait to discern meaningful patterns in nature that allowed them to avoid predators or identify edible food and today it is also crucial for sifting through the complex society and environments we have wrought. As Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, is fond of saying, “We are pattern-seeking animals.”3 We seek these patterns with an unconscious tenacity that, unfortunately, is not matched by our abilities to divine their cause. As a result we often misinterpret them or imbue them with meaning that is unjustified. They might seem very significant to us but ultimately they have no significance at all. The apparently uncanny appearance of the number 11 and faces in smoke fall into this category.


Probably one of the most ubiquitous e-mail tales being passed around after the attack involves the prophecy of Nostradamus that appears to accurately foretell the events of September 11th. There are many variations but here is a common example:

“In the city of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
…The third big war will begin when the big city is burning”

“On the 11th day of the 9 month,
Two metal birds will crash into two tall statues in the new city,
And the world will end soon after.”

Nostradamus (1503-1566) was a French physician and astrologer who had prophetic visions since childhood. As an adult he decided to document these visions in four-line poems called quatrains. He used a muddled vocabulary that included many languages such as French, Italian, Greek and Latin. To avoid persecution as a magician from the then influential Inquisition he deliberately confused the temporal sequence of his prognostications. The result is a hodge-podge of coded musings that are so vague and symbolic that they can easily be retrofitted to match many historical events. A true test of his accuracy would require a prediction of a future event based on one of his prophecies. This of course has never happened.

This is the standard yet effective skeptical response to Nostradamus’ bogus prophecies, but the attack on September 11th has added another interesting wrinkle to this phenomenon. In the 1990’s, Brock University student, Neil Marshall, created a web page4 discussing Nostradamus. In it he concocted a quatrain to prove that it was not difficult to produce impressive sounding poetry that was vague and malleable enough to fit a host of historic scenarios. It seems that someone thought that Marshall’s example was an actual Nostradamus quote and started passing it around as genuine. Even this fabrication, however, did not last long. Eventually, additions were made to make the quote even more impressive sounding. The result is the quote above, which is a double fraud—a modern quote falsely attributed to Nostradamus, then falsely retrofitted to the September 11th disaster. Unfortunately the quote has likely made more converts to the side of pseudoscience than this article can hope to remedy.

Grand Conspiracy Theories

In the wake of any momentous event with worldwide consequences, conspiracy theories are inevitable. They seem to serve two primary purposes. First, they allow us to impose a particular meaning to events (often to impugn one’s enemies) which might otherwise be random tragedies or not have the meaning we desire. Second, they effectively explain away any inconvenient evidence, or lack of evidence, that may contradict our desired meaning.

Of course, the September 11th attacks were a conspiracy. They were a coordinated attack by an insular group with a common purpose, exquisitely planned ahead of time. The evidence for this seems incontrovertible.

But grand conspiracy theories encompass a far greater scale. Of the many theories circulating after the attack the most extreme is the accusation, unquestioningly reported by the Pakistani press, that the attacks were orchestrated by Israel in an attempt to portray Arabs as terrorists and to justify their hard line against the Palestinians. Offered as evidence for this conspiracy was the “fact” that several thousand Jewish workers at the World Trade Center did not show up for work on September 11th. That the western press completely ignored this dramatic evidence is offered as proof that they are part of the conspiracy.
As Sagan wrote: “Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve…or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habit of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

“The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”5


1- “What is that Image?” The Saginaw News. Thursday, September 13th, 2001. http://sa.mlive/com/news/index.ssf?/stories/20010913ssatanface.frm
2- For a fuller discussion of pareidolia, please see The NEJS vol. 4 issue 1
3- Shermer Michael; How We Believe: the Search for God in an Age of Science, Freeman, New York, 1999
4- The following URL contains a copy of the original webpage: http://www.urbanlegends.com/ulz/xmarshall.html
5- Sagan, C. The Demon Haunted World, Random House, NY 1996, page 27.