Coyote's Law and 9/11

I am just amazed at how much bad science and ignorance gets pored into current 9/11 conspiracy theories.  For example, someone apparently did a small bit of research and found that structural steel melts at a higher temperature than aviation fuel burns.  From these two facts, each correct in the right context, comes the whole theory that the WTC towers came down in a controlled demolition rather than a collapse of fire-weakened structural members.  Of course, this is stupid. 

I did piping and boiler design for several years at a refinery.  Carbon steel, while it may not actually melt until you get it up to thousands of degrees, loses most of its structural strength between 700 and 1000 degrees(F), well below the temperatures in the WTC fires.  I lived with this frustrating fact every day, since many refinery processes crave higher temperatures.  Not only does steel's strength drop with higher temperatures, but it falls exponentially once it passes a certain threshold.  Some day soon I will post my refinery fire pictures, and show huge steel I-beam structures that collapsed from the heat of petroleum fires.  But here is a good reality check:  If skyscraper I-beams really won't fail at jet-fuel-fire temperatures, why do skyscraper builders waste millions of dollars insulating all the structural steel against building fires, which I can assure you burn much cooler than aviation fuel fires?

Beyond the basic science, most 9/11 conspiracy theories violate a couple of smell-tests.  The first and most obvious is Occam's razor.  Any theory that uses as a starting point a few small, minor uncertainties in events and explains these uncertainties with theories that have new, massive uncertainties in them is not necessarily wrong, but one has to treat it with huge dollops of skepticism.  As Jesse Walker described 9/11 cospiracy folks in Reason's Hit and Run, "They're the sort of people who will question whether a plane actually hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, but won't question a theory that can't explain just where the hijacked aircraft landed instead."

The other smell-test I use is a law I have dubbed Coyote's Law, and it goes like this:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Does anyone really believe that a Bush administration that can't keep a program involving a dozen people secret could keep the lid on a conspiracy this massive involving hundreds of people from any number of government agencies?  Isn't incompetence a more compelling answer here?

Alexander Cockburn thinks so, as quoted in Reason's Hit and Run:

One characteristic of the nuts is that they have a devout, albeit preposterous belief in American efficiency, thus many of them start with the racist premise that "Arabs in caves" weren't capable of the mission. They believe that military systems work the way Pentagon press flacks and aerospace salesmen say they should work. They believe that at 8.14 am, when AA flight 11 switched off its radio and transponder, an FAA flight controller should have called the National Military Command center and NORAD. They believe, citing reverently (this is from high priest Griffin) "the US Air Force's own website," that an F-15 could have intercepted AA flight 11 "by 8.24, and certainly no later than 8.30."

They appear to have read no military history, which is too bad because if they did they'd know that minutely planned operations -- let alone responses to an unprecedented emergency -- screw up with monotonous regularity, by reason of stupidity, cowardice, venality, weather and all the other whims of providence....

August Bebel said anti-Semitism is the socialism of the fools. These days the 9/11 conspiracy fever threatens to become the "socialism" of the left, and the passe-partout of many libertarians.

By the way, can anyone tell me why the so called "reality-based" community, that so often criticizes the Right for theocratic attacks on science, is so quick to fall for this pseudo-scientific junk?

Update:  In case anyone cares, here is the temperature curve for the strength of carbon steel.

Steel

Update 2:  I am told by email that I will now be added to the long and growing list of those who are part of the conspiracy.  Cool!  Please make sure the CIA spells my name right on my payoff check.

Update3: And don't miss James Meigs here.

In every single case, we found that the very facts used by conspiracy theorists to support their fantasies are mistaken, misunderstood or deliberately falsified.

Here's one example: Meyssan and hundreds of Web sites cite an eyewitness who said the craft that hit the Pentagon looked "like a cruise missile with wings." Here's what that witness, a Washington, D.C., broadcaster named Mike Walter, actually told CNN: "I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, 'This doesn't add up. It's really low.' And I saw it. I mean, it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon."

We talked to Walter and, like so many of the experts and witnesses widely quoted by conspiracy theorists, he told us he is heartsick to see the way his words have been twisted: "I struggle with the fact that my comments will forever be taken out of context."

 

Posted on September 12, 2006 at 09:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Two of My Favorite Topics

Tim Harford at Marginal Revolution touches on two of my favorite topics in one short post.  I have written a number of times about how frequant flyer mile holders seem to come out whole from airline bankrupcies when every other creditor has to take a major hair cut.  Even pensions are cut before frequant flyer mile obligations. Tim shares some ideas and a link to an Economist story with more on this topic.

What really caught my attention was when he discussed whether difficulties in getting any airline help in actually cashin in the miles was a stealthy way of repudiating the miles.  In his analysis, he has this nice restatement of Coyote's Law:

Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

Posted on July 27, 2005 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Coyote's Law and WMD

Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity and incompetence

Conspiracy theories have swarmed around the Internet on how the administration may have systematically lied about WMD to create the outcome (invasion) that it wanted in Iraq.  Today, however, the bipartisan presidential commission set to look into these issues unanimously confirms Coyote's Law - it was incompetence!

In a scathing report, a presidential commission said Thursday that America's spy agencies were "dead wrong" in most of their judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the war and that the United States knows "disturbingly little" about nuclear threats posed by many of its most dangerous adversaries...

The report implicitly absolves the administration of manipulating the intelligence used to launch the 2003 Iraq war, putting the blame for bad intelligence directly on the intelligence community.

"The daily intelligence briefings given to you before the Iraq war were flawed," it said. "Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs."

Hat tip to Captains Quarters for the link.  By the way, this may take Bush off the hook to some extent for past failures, but the responsibility for reform sits squarely in his lap, and so far we have seen little progress in cleaning up the mess.

Posted on March 31, 2005 at 08:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Applying Coyote's Law to King County

Professor Bainbridge posted:

it's starting to look like the folks who ran the election in King County either (1) really did emulate old man Daley's Cook County elections or (2) are among the most incompetent morons in government.

Wow, the perfect application to test Coyote's Law in real time.  Coyote's law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Applying this to King County, I will assume stupidity.  I must say that having lived in King County, this is not the first time Meyer's Law has come up.  The city has made so many colossal blunders, including having a major bridge sunk in 1990 when someone accidental left the stopcocks open (that bridge, ironically, had been named after the State Highway director on whose watch was built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which tore itself apart famously).  There have for years been rumors that the ridiculous constriction created in downtown Seattle on Interstate 5 by the building of the convention center (and which is almost impossible to fix) was made on purpose by anti-growth planners.

Posted on January 9, 2005 at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Update on Coyote's Law

Given all of the conspiracy theories bouncing around the net nowadays, I thought it would be timely to revisit Coyote's Law.  Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

To some extent, Coyote's Law is a logical extension of Occam's Razor.  However, it seems to have consistent and frequent application in modern politics.  Here are a couple of examples, but I am sure the reader can think of more:

  • There are a number of revisionist historians that make the argument that Pearl Harbor was actually an elaborate FDR plot to overcome domestic isolationism and bring the US into the war.  They point to the many missed intelligence clues, the incredible unreadiness of the defenses at Pearl Harbor, and the missing US carriers as evidence of a conspiracy.  However, most historians have concluded that Coyote's Law holds, that our failure at Pearl Harbor we the result of mistakes and incompetence, not conspiracy.
  • The mother of all conspiracy theory subjects is, of course, the JFK shooting.  Many people simply refuse to believe that a lone gunman, and a fairly unimpressive one at that, could have pulled off such a killing.  He must have had help from the Cubans, or the Mafia, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the grassy knoll, or whatever.  Despite all the millions of hours of research into these theories, Coyote's Law still holds - it is much more likely that JFK was killed due to poor protection and the vulnerability of any one man to a sufficiently dedicated gunman who is not committed to getting away after the assassination (which, by the way, is still true).

To some extent, in both these cases it is a bit unfair to use the word "stupidity".  I am reminded of a quote by Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if it was his actual words) in a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.  Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination".  To some extent, that is what happened both at Pearl Harbor and with the JFK assassination, and, essentially, with the 9/11 attacks.  What occurred was so new, so unprecedented, that no one could really make themselves believe in advance that it would happen.  But, none-the-less, it resulted in incompetence, not conspiracy.

Which brings us to the 2004 election.  Certainly, in this case, no one can claim a failure of imagination, as just about everyone half anticipated vote-tally screw-ups after Florida in 2000.  However, in their review of conspiracy charges regarding election counts, this Caltech-MIT report has a fantastic restatement of Coyote's Law:

Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes?

UPDATE

EEEK!  Frank Borman is the astronaut.  I had Martin Borman, the Nazi.  Sorry.  (and yes, this mistake was due to my STUPIDITY and INCOMPETENCE, and not a Boys From Brazil conspiracy.

Posted on November 14, 2004 at 06:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Coyote's Law at Work!

Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coodinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetance

Assume stupidity.

Protein Wisdom links to this report Caltec/MIT report debunking a lot of the recent voter fraud accusations.  Here is the money quote that is a dead-on reformulation of Coyote's Law:

Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes?

Posted on November 10, 2004 at 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)