Jul 07 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part IV

This is the final installment of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. My first response is here. Michael’s rebuttal is here.


Part IV: Rebuttal to Michael Fullerton

by Steven Novella

I was disappointed to read Michael’s rebuttal last week, as we had agreed to a respectful exchange, but Michael apparently felt the need for juvenile insults of not only me but my readers. I also found it difficult to follow his logic, and specifically to understand what his position actually is.

In this rebuttal I must speculate to some extent about what it is, exactly, that Michael claims happened to the WTC 1 and 2 on 9/11. Other than that controlled demolition was used, he has not presented a coherent narrative for what took place.

He has also completely failed to address my actual position. Instead he has relied upon trumped up fallacies and attacking straw men of his own imaginings.

I will first lay out again my position and the supporting evidence. I will then address what I infer to be Michael’s position, or address his possible positions. He is welcome to correct any errors in the comments by clarifying what it is he claims occurred.

There are two components to the collapse of the towers that we can discuss: the first is the initiation of each collapse, and the second is the subsequent complete collapse of the towers down to the ground. At no point does Michael directly address the initiation of collapse, but neither does he explicitly concede my position. What is incontestable is that commercial jets fully loaded with fuel struck each of the towers in a deliberate act of terrorism. The jets damaged outer supports at the site of impact, the jet fuel exploded, and the buildings caught fire.

There is compelling evidence that the initial damage combined with weakening of the steel columns from the heat of the fires caused the floors at that level to sag, pulling in the outer walls until they were no longer able to bear the load, initiating collapse. It is most obvious in the South Tower that the outer columns failed on one side, causing the top portion of the building to fall to that side, distributing extra load to the remaining columns until they failed, resulting in the collapse of that level.

The only point of this that Michael contests is the evidence for the South Tower falling to one side. He writes:

“Also, the upper portion looks more like it is involved in a roll at its initiation rather than a fall to one side. A fall to one side would have the upper portion falling off the building not rolling within the building’s footprint.”

This is where Michael consistently gets into trouble – he is making analogies to much smaller buildings. The fact is, there is no precedent for a building as large as the towers coming down, by deliberate controlled demolition or by damage similar to the crash of the commercial jets. He naively states that if the outer columns failed on one side of the tower the top portion would have fallen off to the side, rather than falling down into the lower portion of the building. He cites nothing to support this statement. He ignores two factors – that the other walls quickly failed because of the extra load, and that the building lacked the strength to support the lateral forces necessary for the top portion to fall off one side.

In my first response I cited a reference (Bazant and Zhou) that addressed this exact question. They wrote:

Since the top part of the South Tower tilted, many people wonder: Why didn’t the upper part of the tower fall to the side like a tree, pivoting about the center of the critical floor? To demonstrate why, and thus to justify our previous neglect of tilting, is an elementary exercise in dynamics.

They followed with calculations showing that the structure of the towers could not support the horizontal forces necessary for the top portion to fall to the side. Michael does not address this careful analysis, and instead relies on his gut feelings guided, apparently, by motivated reasoning.

The evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the collapses initiated due to structural failure from damaged and weakened columns, not from sudden and controlled demolition. Let’s move on to the next component, the subsequent collapse of the towers below the point of collapse initiation. Michael maintains that there is no evidence for the NIST version of events and that I am committing simply the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

This is one of Michael’s many fallacy fallacies. I am not simply assuming cause and effect because one event follows another. As Spock famously said,

“If I let go of a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see it fall to know that it has in fact fallen.”

In other words – if it can be demonstrated using principles of physics and engineering that the lower part of each tower must collapse following the failure and collapse of one level, then it is not a fallacy to conclude that this is the likely cause. Bazant and Zhou nicely demonstrated, using such principles, that the fall of each upper portion of the towers not only would have collapsed the entire tower below that level, but the cushioning effect of the lower floors would have been minimal – slowing the free fall of the tower by only around 6%.

The reason collapse is inevitable is due to the difference between static load and dynamic load. The towers were constructed so that each floor could hold the weight of all the floors above them, as long as the whole structure was holding together. This is static load. The falling upper part of each tower impacting the next level below would produce dynamic load, which is a much greater load on the lower floors. Bazant and Zhou calculate this dynamic load would be 90 times greater than the static load, vastly exceeding the load bearing ability of the level below (even assuming all the columns were cold). This is why the cushioning effect was so minimal.

Michael does not address these calculations, except to say that the Bazant and Zhou paper has been criticized. Of course it has, by 9/11 truthers. But the physics and engineering community generally accepts their conclusions, even if you can quibble about some details. They would have to be off by two orders of magnitude in order for the towers to not have fully collapsed, and no one has successfully demonstrated that they were off by that much.  Michael keeps claiming that there is no evidence for the manner of the lower tower collapse, but he does not say what form that evidence should take. Just as with the falling hammer, physics makes the fall of the towers unavoidable.

Michael does bring up a series of specific claims that he says are evidence for demolition. The big one is the manner of the collapse of the towers. As he mentioned in his initial post, the symmetrical and rapid manner in which the towers fell he feels are evidence for controlled demolition. He now also adds the lack of a “jolt” – why did the upper tower not visibly slow when it impacted the lower tower? I already addressed this above, the cushioning of the lower towers would have been minimal, far too small to cause a visible jolt. Michael here is substituting his gut feelings for specific calculations and physics.

The same is true of the symmetrical and rapid fall of the towers. Bazant and Zhou also demonstrated, as I mention above, that the towers were far too weak to handle horizontal forces. In other words – they could collapse in no other way except straight down. That rapid collapse also results from the minimal cushioning.

In place of actually examining the physics of the situation, Michael continues to make the argument that the symmetry and speed of the collapse is evidence for controlled demolition. He never addressed my criticism of this logic, however – that these features are not specific. Essentially Michael is relying upon his naive sense of what the tower collapse should look like, and also on the precedent of how buildings behave during controlled demolition. However, no building the size of the towers has ever collapsed before, by controlled demolition, deliberate terrorism, raging fires, or whatever. How smaller and differently constructed buildings look when they collapse may not accurately inform our sense of what should happen with such large structures.

Very large buildings push the limits of engineering. Dropping an ant from the relative equivalent of 1000 ft. does not predict how a human will react to being dropped from 1000 ft. Scale matters.

The physics clearly predicts that the towers should have collapsed from the dynamic load of the upper portions, they should have fallen at near free fall, and they should have collapsed straight down (lacking the strength to fall to the side). Michael simply dismisses this argument by saying it’s not “evidence,” but he is making a category mistake. Physics predicts that this is the way the towers should have fallen.

My other major criticism of Michael’s position, that of controlled demolition, is that there is no specific evidence of controlled demolition. This is where Michael gets the most squirrelly – he does not explicitly state a specific narrative for what type and how the controlled demolition was used, nor cite any evidence to support that specific narrative. Instead he anomaly hunts, and uses transparent special pleading.

The most damning evidence against a controlled demolition is the lack of explosions. Demolitions using explosives are easy to detect, there is a characteristic loud and obvious explosion at one or more levels just prior to collapse. We have copious video, audio, and seismic recordings of the collapse of the towers, and no recorded evidence indicated explosions. Michael does a bit of the kettle defense, arguing that explosions are not necessary, but some witnesses heard explosions. The eyewitness testimony is clearly trumped by the recorded evidence, and it is easy to see how many people would use the word “explosion” to describe the loud noise of the towers collapsing. Yet Michael is bizarrely arguing that using unreliable and vague eyewitness testimony trumps recorded evidence, and that this is more “scientific.”

To wiggle out of this damning lack of evidence for his controlled demolition position Michael invokes, as do many 9/11 truthers, the mysterious nanothermite. He writes:

Other technologies like energetic nanocomposites could also have been used for example. Even if some of these thermitic devices did ignite, their reactions would go largely unnoticed as such reactions produce only heat, white smoke and molten iron. The documented presence of such thick white smoke and molten metal the color of molten iron is further evidence of CD.

This position is not tenable, however. Michael is arguing that the towers were rigged with theoretical nanothermitic devices capable of cutting through the support columns. No evidence of such devices was found in the rubble of the towers. These devices would have to be large and shielded. The amount of thermite necessary to bring down each tower would have been huge. Michael does not even address the fatal flaw of how the towers were rigged without anyone noticing.

There is another fatal flaw in the thermite hypothesis – Michael is essentially arguing that the columns in the lower part of the tower were destroyed in careful synchrony with the tower collapse. This would require split second timing. However, such timing is simply not possible with any similar method. The only method of controlled demolition that allows for such timing is explosives, which clearly were not used.

To summarize, Michael is arguing that controlled demolition was used to bring down the towers, and that such demolition was silent, invisible, installed without anyone noticing, using devices not found in the rubble, and with timing that is simply not possible. Readers of Carl Sagan will recognize the invisible, floating, heatless dragon of special pleading when they see it.

Michael uses other anomalies as alleged evidence, specifically video showing what appears to be molten metal flowing from one of the towers. This, he says, is evidence of thermite melting. He also begs the question by stating that it was the color of molten iron, and later simply assumes the metal was iron. However, that could have been another type of metal, such as aluminum. Any metal at the same temperature would glow the same color. Also, what we don’t see are multiple such streams of molten metal just prior to or during the collapse.


Therefore, the evidence all points in the direction of one conclusion – the collapse of the towers was initiated by structural failure, and proceeded in accordance to what physics and engineering principals would predict. There is no evidence for controlled demolition, and there is no plausible scenario in which controlled demolition could have been used.

Because Michael has no actual evidence to present in favor of his unlikely hypothesis, he spends much of his time tying himself up in logical knots and insulting those who disagree with him. His logical shell game is hard to follow at times, and a thorough deconstruction would put me over the word limit we agreed upon for these exchanges. Let me give a couple examples, however. He writes:

An adequate operational definition is already implied: any building that comes down as fast (sic) the slowest CD collapse and as symmetrically as the most asymmetrical straight-down CD is a CD. All Novella needs to refute this definition is any example of a total natural collapse that was as fast and as symmetrical as any known successful straight-down CD collapse.

First, he clearly does not understand what an operational definition is. I invoked this concept to criticize his statement that the collapse of the towers was symmetrical. My point was that he needs to define how symmetrical. Now he gives us, sort of, a parameter – as symmetrical as the most asymmetrical controlled demolition. This is an odd definition, though. What if a controlled demolition was slightly off in its execution and was asymmetrical as a result?

Many commenters pointed out that Michael is committing a formal logical fallacy here, affirming the consequent – because CD collapses are symmetrical, all symmetrical collapses are CD. This is simply not valid. It also does not make sense from the point of view of physics. The towers collapsed essentially straight down because of the physics involved, which Michael did not even address. 

Michael also gives us gems such as this:

Note also that Novella claims that I said the Towers did not descend at free fall. I did not say this. What I said is that I did not say that they descended in free fall. Simply not stating something is not the same thing as stating the inverse!

Why go out of your way to indicate that you are not saying the towers fell at free fall if it is not your position that they didn’t fall at free fall (sorry for the multiple negatives)?  This is behavior typical, in my experience, of the conspiracy theorist – don’t let yourself get nailed down to one position you might have to defend. Simply throw up as much doubt about the official version of events as possible.

I would like, for example, for Michael to state explicitly what he thinks happened on 9/11. What I infer is that he thinks the towers were rigged with massive amounts of explosives, or perhaps thermite, without anyone noticing. Then, on 9/11, agents flew commercial jets into the towers, either into predetermined floors or at random, meaning that the entire towers were rigged for CD to accommodate wherever the towers were struck. Then, just as the tower collapses initiated due to structural failure, the controlled demolition was set off in a precisely timed and coordinated way (using theoretical technology), without producing any visible evidence, to ensure that the towers fell in a manner consistent with controlled demolition. Otherwise, of course, they might have fallen in a manner consistent with structural failure (a manner Michael never bothers to define or defend). Michael might also believe the controlled demolition was used to ensure the towers did fall, which means whoever engineered the event predicted the initiation of collapse but couldn’t do the calculations to know that full tower collapse was inevitable.

When you lay it all out it becomes obvious why Michael doesn’t.

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