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.


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."



  1. Anna:

    Your Coyote's Law reminds me of one I read a long time ago and use as a guide:

    Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

    I am pretty dismayed that people actually believe these conspiracy theories. I listened to the NPR debate between the makers of Loose Change and the editors of Popular Mechanics, and it's easy enough to discern which side did not have a logical leg to stand on. On the one hand, I think the media should not be validating these theories (and the media tends to be very uncritical of anything that can potentially harm our government), but on the other hand, I do believe in freedom of speech, and more speech means more debate. In the ideal world, this should lead to the "right" conclusion.

    Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, and I'll have to live with the blathering of idiots of who like to drop the word "science" in their arguments to gain any semblance of credibility. I think of all the offenses, that is the one that annoys me the most.

  2. John:

    In regard to the strength of steel at various temperatures. Your reference to temperatures and refineries may be outside the experience of most people. Perhaps more people have seen a blacksmith working hot steel. If I remember correctly red hot starts around 600-700F degrees and runs up to orange at maybe 1200F... If my memory isn't failing me (and a quick googling indicates it probably isn't) When you see a blacksmith twisting a railing or bending a horsehoe when it's cherry red, you're getting a pretty good indication of how soft that stuff gets around 900-1000F. From experience I can tell you it stops feeling like steel and starts feeling like lead, then like modelling clay, and finally if there's air present, it burns before it melts. fwiw.

  3. Major "King" Kong:

    I like it.
    " 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."

    It is my experience the great and most modern conspiracies are neither hidden nor secretive. They are out in the wide open for all to see AND definitely adhere to rule number 2.

    Thanks for your labours and the good job.

  4. Max:

    Well, also an alternative to why the beams could have gone done is that while the heat may not be high enough, it could be high enough to start Yielding (even faster at higher temperatures!) and such weaken the beams, which can be seen (ideally) as a weakend Euler's buckling beam.

    Also, the impact might have been led to weaken important parts of the steel structure (something those types always neglect) and therefore brought the steel well below the usual heat-resistance value.

    Conspiracy theories are mostly the work of amateur-players in a science field, who understand things partly and jump to conclusions without considering the whole thing with most likely causes.
    Especially when it comes to engineering and hard science, such amateurish attempts are often misleading and result in misinformation, which obviously has a tendency to spread (perhaps to console once political views, or to snipe at the "experts" in the field).

  5. Roadrunner:

    In the over 100 year history of steel high-rises and skyscrapers there has never been a single one which has collapsed due to fire, yet on September 11, 2001 three skyscrapers crumbled to the ground and turned into dust. Fire was able to bring down the North Tower in 57 minutes, the South Tower in 102 minutes and WTC 7.

    Below is a list of several other large building fires. None of the fires mentioned caused any of these buildings to collapse from top to bottom, not even two prior fires that took place in the North Tower of the WTC one of which included a 1,300 pound bomb and the other which reached temperatures of over 1,200 degrees (F).

    My first question for you is, why did these other buildings not collapse completely from top to bottom if their temperatures, duration and intensity were great enough to cause the factors you described to have affected the WTC (and please don’t forget to include mention of WTC 7 in your explanation)? My second question is since history has shown it unlikely for buildings to react as the WTC did to fires, would you be open minded enough to consider any other possible explanation aside from the official story (i.e. thermite, bombs aboard the planes, etc.)?

    Location: Philadelphia, PA
    Date of Fire: February 23, 1991
    Duration of Fire: 18 hours
    Summary: The fire started on the 22nd floor and gutted eight floors. Despite the severity and duration of the fire no part of the building collapsed.

    Location: Los Angeles, CA
    Date of Fire: May 4, 1988
    Duration of Fire: 3.5 hours
    Summary: The fire gutted offices from the 12th to the 16th floor and caused extensive smoke damage to floors above. In spite of the total burnout of four and a half floors, there was no damage to the main structural members and only minor damage to one secondary beam and a small number of floor pans.

    Location: Caracas, Venezuela
    Date of Fire: October 17, 2004.
    Duration of Fire: 6 hours
    Summary: The blaze began before midnight on the 34th floor, spread to more than 26 floors, and burned for more than 17 hours. Heat from the fires prevented firefighters from reaching the upper floors and smoke injured 40 firefighters. The building did not collapse.

    Location: Madrid, Spain
    Date of Fire: February 12, 2005
    Duration of Fire: 24 hours
    Summary: Fire was detected on the 21st floor which spread quickly throughout the entire building, leading to the collapse of the outermost parts of the upper floors. The main structure, however, stayed intact.

    WTC FIRE #1
    Location: North Tower
    Date of Fire: February 13, 1975
    Duration of Fire: 3 hours
    Summary: The WTC North Tower was beset by a fire, which burned at temperatures in excess of 700°C (1,292°F) for over three hours and spread to over 65 percent of the 11th floor, including the core. The fire caused no serious structural damage to the steel structure. In particular, no trusses needed to be replaced.

    WTC FIRE #2
    Location: North Tower
    Date of Fire: February 26, 1993
    Duration of Fire: ?
    Summary: A Ryder truck filled with explosives was planted by Ramzi Yousef and detonated in the underground garage of the North Tower, opening a 100 foot hole through 4 sublevels of concrete.

    Information taken from Wikipedia and


  6. Roadrunner:

    Oops...I somehow cut off the last sentences of the WTC Fire #2 summary, so here it is in its entirety:

    Summary: A Ryder truck filled with explosives was planted by Ramzi Yousef and detonated in the underground garage of the North Tower, opening a 100 foot hole through 4 sublevels of concrete. The building did not collapse, and the surrounding steel beams were still intact (see picture


  7. Sol:

    You know, I know squat about the strength of steel or the history of skyscraper fires.

    But I do have some basic reasoning abilties. So when I hear a theory like "two buildings got hit by planes (or something), but three buildings collapsed in controlled demolitions" I think, what kind of moronic brilliant conspiracy theory is that? Did they forget a plane? Did they accidentally blow up too many buildings?

    Likewise, in the NPR(?) video debate, those Loose Change guys azgued that 1) obviously a plane didn't hit the Pentagon and 2) one of Bush's cronies forced the Air Force to stand down so the plane could hit the Pentagon.

    It's like they combined every conspiracy theory they could find, without bothering to check and see if they made any sense next to each other....

  8. Rob:

    Let's not forget, that in addition to fires weakening the steel in the upper floors of the WTC towers, there were steel beams bent, broken, loosened from the impact of the airplane. This would mean that load balancing forces would be spread to other beams. So, we have beams with extra load being weakened by a fire and think about the extra torque being applied.

    According to the graph, steel strengthens to a certain temperature. The optimistic approach would be to say that if not for the fires ignited by the jet fuel, the steal would not have held out as long (giving hundreds more time to escape). As, the fires were burning out (as so notably pointed out by the conspiracists), the steel's temperature cooled and returned to normal strength, with normal strength no longer able to support the overbearing torque forces. Once it reaches a tipping point, there's a catastrophic failure, not slow failure.