911 Conspiracy Theories Essay

There are many conspiracy theories that attribute the planning and execution of the September 11 attacks against the United States to parties other than, or in addition to, al-Qaeda[1] including that there was advance knowledge of the attacks among high-level government officials. Government investigations and independent reviews have rejected these theories.[2][3] Proponents of these theories claim there are inconsistencies in the commonly accepted version, or evidence that was either ignored or overlooked.[4]

The most prominent conspiracy theory is that the collapse of the Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center were the result of a controlled demolition rather than structural failure due to impact and fire.[5][6] Another prominent belief is that the Pentagon was hit by a missile launched by elements from inside the U.S. government[7][8] or that a commercial airliner was allowed to do so via an effective stand-down of the American military. Possible motives claimed by conspiracy theorists for such actions include justifying the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (even though the U.S. government concluded Iraq was not involved in the attacks)[9] to advance their geostrategic interests, such as plans to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan.[10] Other conspiracy theories revolve around authorities having advance knowledge of the attacks and deliberately ignoring or assisting the attackers.[4][11][12]

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the technology magazine Popular Mechanics have investigated and rejected the claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists.[13][14] The 9/11 Commission and most of the civil engineering community accept that the impacts of jet aircraft at high speeds in combination with subsequent fires, not controlled demolition, led to the collapse of the Twin Towers, but some groups disagree with the arguments made by NIST and Popular Mechanics, including Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth.[15][16][17]


9/11 conspiracy theorists reject some or all of the following facts about the 9/11 attacks:

  • Al-Qaeda suicide operatives hijacked and crashed United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The impact and resulting fires caused the collapse of the Twin Towers and the destruction and damage of other buildings in the World Trade Center complex. The Pentagon was severely damaged by the impact of the airliner and the resulting fire. The hijackers also crashed a fourth plane into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers and flight crew attempted to regain control of the aircraft.[20]
  • Pre-attack warnings of varying detail of the planned attacks against the United States by al-Qaeda were ignored due to a lack of communication between various law enforcement and intelligence personnel. For the lack of interagency communication, the 9/11 report cited bureaucratic inertia and laws passed in the 1970s to prevent abuses that caused scandals during that era, most notably the Watergate scandal. The report faulted both the Clinton and the Bush administrations with "failure of imagination."[21]

This consensus view is backed by various sources, including:

  • The reports from government investigations – the 9/11 Commission Report (that incorporated intelligence information from the earlier FBI investigation (PENTTBOM) and the Joint Inquiry of 2002), and the studies into building performance carried out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency[22] (FEMA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Investigations by non-government organizations that support the accepted account – such as those by scientists at Purdue University.[3][23]
  • Articles supporting these facts and theories appearing in magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and Time.[24]
  • Similar articles in news media throughout the World, including The Times of India,[25] the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC),[26] the BBC,[27]Le Monde,[28]Deutsche Welle,[29] the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),[30] and The Chosun Ilbo of South Korea.[31]


Since the attacks, a variety of conspiracy theories have been put forward in Web sites, books, and films. Many groups and individuals advocating 9/11 conspiracy theories identify as part of the 9/11 Truth movement.[32][33][34] Within six hours of the attack, a suggestion appeared on an Internet chat room suggesting that the collapse of the towers looked like an act of controlled demolition. "If, in a few days, not one official has mentioned anything about the controlled demolition part," the author wrote, "I think we have a REALLY serious problem."[35] The first theories that emerged focused primarily on various perceived anomalies in the publicly available evidence, and proponents later developed more specific theories about an alleged plot.[10] One false allegation that was widely circulated by e-mail and on the Web is that not a single Jew had been killed in the attack and that therefore the attacks must have been the work of the Mossad, not Islamic terrorists.[10]

The first elaborated theories appeared in Europe. One week after the attacks, the "inside job" theory was the subject of a thesis by a researcher from the French National Centre for Scientific Research published in Le Monde. Other theories sprang from the far corners of the globe within weeks.[36] Six months after the attacks, Thierry Meyssan's piece on 9/11, L'Effroyable Imposture, topped the French bestseller list. Its publication in English (as 9/11: The Big Lie) received little attention, but it remains one of the principal sources for "trutherism".[37] 2003 saw the publication of The CIA and September 11 by former German state minister Andreas von Bülow and Operation 9/11 by the German journalist Gerhard Wisnewski; both books are published by Mathias Bröckers, who was at the time an editor at the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung.[10]

While these theories were popular in Europe, they were treated by the U.S. media with either bafflement or amusement, and they were dismissed by the U.S. government as the product of anti-Americanism.[38][39] In an address to the United Nations on November 10, 2001, United States PresidentGeorge W. Bush denounced the emergence of "outrageous conspiracy theories [...] that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty."[40]

The 9/11 conspiracy theories started out mostly in the political left but have broadened into what New York Magazine describes as "terra incognita where left and right meet, fusing sixties countercultural distrust with the don’t-tread-on-me variety".[41]

By 2004, conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks began to gain ground in the United States. One explanation is that the rise in popularity stemmed more from growing criticism of the Iraq War and the newly re-elected President George W. Bush than from any discovery of new or more compelling evidence or an improvement in the technical quality of the presentation of the theories.[10]Knight Ridder news theorized that revelations that weapons of mass destruction did not exist in Iraq, the belated release of the President's Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, and reports that NORAD had lied to the 9/11 Commission, may have fueled the conspiracy theories.[10]

Between 2004 and the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2006, mainstream coverage of the conspiracy theories increased.[10] The U.S. government issued a formal analysis by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the collapse of the World Trade Center.[42] To address the growing publicity of the theories, the State Department revised a webpage in 2006 to debunk them.[43] A 2006 national security strategy paper declared that terrorism springs from "subcultures of conspiracy and misinformation," and that "terrorists recruit more effectively from populations whose information about the world is contaminated by falsehoods and corrupted by conspiracy theories. The distortions keep alive grievances and filter out facts that would challenge popular prejudices and self-serving propaganda."[44] Al-Qaeda has repeatedly claimed responsibility for the attacks, with chief deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri accusing ShiaIran and Hezbollah of denigrating Sunni successes in hurting America by intentionally starting rumors that Israel carried out the attacks.[45][46][47][48][49][50]

Some of the conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks do not involve representational strategies typical of many conspiracy theories that establish a clear dichotomy between good and evil, or guilty and innocent; instead, they call up gradations of negligence and complicity. Matthias Bröckers, an early proponent of such theories, dismisses the commonly accepted account of the September 11 attacks as being itself a conspiracy theory that seeks "to reduce complexity, disentangle what is confusing," and "explain the inexplicable".[10]

Just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks, mainstream news outlets released a flurry of articles on the growth of 9/11 conspiracy theories,[51] with an article in Time stating that "[t]his is not a fringe phenomenon. It is a mainstream political reality."[11][52] Several surveys have included questions about beliefs related to the September 11 attacks. In 2008, 9/11 conspiracy theories topped a "greatest conspiracy theory" list compiled by The Daily Telegraph. The list was ranked by following and traction.[53][54]

In 2010, the "International Center for 9/11 Studies," a private organization that is said to be sympathetic to conspiracy theories,[55] successfully sued for the release of videos collected by NIST of the attacks and aftermath.[55][56][57] According to the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the videos that were published shortly before the ninth anniversary of the attacks provide "new food for conspiracy theorists." Many of the videos show images of 7 World Trade Center, a skyscraper in the vicinity of the WTC towers that also collapsed on September 11, 2001.[56] Eyewitnesses have repeatedly reported explosions happening before the collapse of both of the towers, while experts consider these theories to be unreasonable.[55]

9/11 truth figures Steven E. Jones and Mike Berger have further added that the death of Osama bin Laden[58] did not change their questions about the attacks, nor provide closure.[59]

According to writer Jeremy Stahl, since Bush left office, the overall number of believers in 9/11 conspiracy theories has dipped, while the number of people who believe in the most "radical" theories has held fairly steady.[60]


The most prominent conspiracy theories can be broadly divided into three main forms:

  • LIHOP ("Let it happen on purpose") – suggests that key individuals within the government had at least some foreknowledge of the attacks and deliberately ignored it or actively weakened United States' defenses to ensure the hijacked flights were not intercepted.[4][11][12]Similar allegations were made about Pearl Harbor.
  • MIHOP ("Make/Made it happen on purpose") – that key individuals within the government planned the attacks and collaborated with, or framed, al-Qaeda in carrying them out. There is a range of opinions about how this might have been achieved.[4][11][12]
  • Others – who reject the accepted account of the September 11 attacks are not proposing specific theories, but try to demonstrate that the U.S. government's account of the events is wrong. This, according to them, would lead to a general call for a new official investigation into the events of September 11, 2001. According to Jonathan Kay, managing editor for comment at the Canadian newspaper National Post[61] and author of the Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground,[62] "They feel their job is to show everybody that the official theory of 9/11 is wrong. And then, when everybody is convinced, then the population will rise up and demand a new investigation with government resources, and that investigation will tell us what actually happened."[63]



See also: U.S. military response during the September 11 attacks and United States government operations and exercises on September 11, 2001

Conspiracy theorists claim that action or inaction by U.S. officials with foreknowledge was intended to ensure that the attacks took place successfully. For example, Michael Meacher, former British environment minister and member of Tony Blair's Cabinet said that the United States knowingly failed to prevent the attacks.[64][65]

Some conspiracy theorists maintain that just before 9/11, an "extraordinary" amount of put options were placed on United Airlines and American Airlines stocks and speculate that insiders may have known in advance of the coming events of 9/11 and placed their bets accordingly. An analysis into the possibility of insider trading on 9/11 concludes that:

A measure of abnormal long put volume was also examined and seen to be at abnormally high levels in the days leading up to the attacks. Consequently, the paper concludes that there is evidence of unusual option market activity in the days leading up to September 11 that is consistent with investors trading on advance knowledge of the attacks.[66] —Allen M. Poteshman, The Journal of Business

This study was intended to address the "great deal of speculation about whether option market activity indicated that the terrorists or their associates had traded in the days leading up to September 11 on advance knowledge of the impending attacks."[67]

In the days leading up to 9/11, analysis shows a rise in the put to call ratio for United Airlines and American Airlines, the two airlines from which planes were hijacked on 9/11. Between September 6 and 7, the Chicago Board Options Exchange recorded purchases of 4,744 "put" option contracts in UAL and 396 call options. On September 10, more trading in Chicago saw the purchase of 4,516 put options in American Airlines, the other airline involved in the hijackings, with a mere 748 call options in American purchased that day. No other airline companies has unusual put to call ratio in the days leading up to the attacks.[68] The 9/11 Commission concluded that all these abnormal patterns in trading were coincidental.[69]

Insurance companies saw anomalous trading activities as well. Citigroup Inc., which has estimated that its Travelers Insurance unit may pay $500 million in claims from the World Trade Center attack, had about 45 times the normal volume during three trading days before the attack for options that profit, if the stock falls below $40. Citigroup shares fell $1.25 in late trading to $38.09. Morgan Stanley, which occupied 22 floors at the World Trade Center, experienced bigger-than-normal pre-attack trading of options that profited when stock prices fell. Other companies directly affected by the tragedy had similar jumps.[70]

Raytheon, a defense contractor, had an anomalously high number of call options trading on September 10. A Raytheon option that makes money, if shares are more than $25 each had 232 options contracts traded on the day before the attacks, almost six times the total number of trades that had occurred before that day.[citation needed]

The initial options were bought through at least two brokerage firms, including NFS, a subsidiary of Fidelity Investments, and TD Waterhouse. It was estimated that the trader or traders would have realized a five million dollar profit. The Securities and Exchange Commission launched an insider trading investigation in which Osama bin Laden was a suspect after receiving information from at least one Wall Street Firm.[71]

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that "Exhaustive investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, FBI, and other agencies have uncovered no evidence that anyone with advance knowledge of the attacks profited through securities transactions."[72] The report further stated:

Highly publicized allegations of insider trading in advance of 9/11 generally rest on reports of unusual pre-9/11 trading activity in companies whose stock plummeted after the attacks. Some unusual trading did in fact occur, but each such trade proved to have an innocuous explanation. For example, the volume of put options — investments that pay off only when a stock drops in price — surged in the parent companies of United Airlines on September 6 and American Airlines on September 10 — highly suspicious trading on its face. Yet, further investigation has revealed that the trading had no connection with 9/11. A single U.S.-based institutional investor with no conceivable ties to al Qaeda purchased 95 percent of the UAL puts on September 6 as part of a trading strategy that also included buying 115,000 shares of American on September 10. Similarly, much of the seemingly suspicious trading in American on September 10 was traced to a specific U.S.-based options trading newsletter, faxed to its subscribers on Sunday, September 9, which recommended these trades. These examples typify the evidence examined by the investigation. The SEC and the FBI, aided by other agencies and the securities industry, devoted enormous resources to investigating this issue, including securing the cooperation of many foreign governments. These investigators have found that the apparently suspicious consistently proved innocuous.[73]

Air defense stand down theory

A common claim among conspiracy theorists is that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) issued a stand down order or deliberately scrambled fighters late to allow the hijacked airplanes to reach their targets without interference. According to this theory, NORAD had the capability of locating and intercepting planes on 9/11, and its failure to do so indicates a government conspiracy to allow the attacks to occur. Conspiracy theorist Mark R. Elsis says: "There is only one explanation for this ... Our Air Force was ordered to Stand Down on 9/11."[2][75]

One of the first actions taken by the hijackers on 9/11 was to turn off or disable each of the four aircraft's on board transponders. Without these transponder signals to identify the airplane's tail number, altitude, and speed, the hijacked airplanes would have been only blips among 4,500 other blips on NORAD’s radar screens, making them very difficult to track.

On 9/11, only 14 fighter jets were on alert in the contiguous 48 states. There was no automated method for the civilian air traffic controllers to alert NORAD. A passenger airline had not been hijacked in the U.S. since 1979.[78] "They had to pick up the phone and literally dial us," says Maj. Douglas Martin, public affairs officer for NORAD. Only one civilian plane—a chartered Learjet 35 with golfer Payne Stewart and five others on board—was intercepted by NORAD over North America in the decade prior to 9/11, which took one hour and 19 minutes.

Rules in effect at that time, and on 9/11, barred supersonic flight on intercepts. Before 9/11, all other NORAD interceptions were limited to offshore Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). "Until 9/11 there was no domestic ADIZ," says FAA spokesman Bill Schumann. After 9/11, the FAA and NORAD increased cooperation. They set up hotlines between command centers while NORAD increased its fighter coverage and installed radar to watch airspace over the continent.[2]

The longest warning NORAD received of the hijackings was some eight minutes for American Airlines Flight 11, the first flight hijacked. The FAA alerted NORAD to the hijacked Flight 175 at just about the same time it was crashing into the World Trade Center's South Tower. The FAA notified NORAD of the missing – not hijacked – Flight 77 three minutes before it struck the Pentagon. NORAD received no warning of the hijack of United Flight 93 until three minutes after it had crashed in Pennsylvania.[80]

Israeli agents

See also: September 11 attacks advance-knowledge conspiracy theories: Israel

It has been claimed that Israeli agents may have had foreknowledge of the attacks. Four hours after the attack, the FBI arrested five Israelis who had been filming the smoking skyline from the roof of a white van in the parking lot of an apartment building, for "puzzling behavior." The Israelis were videotaping the events, and one bystander said they acted in a suspicious manner: "They were like happy, you know ... They didn't look shocked to me. I thought it was very strange."[81][82][83] While The Forward, a New York Jewish news magazine, reported that the FBI concluded that two of the men were Israeli intelligence operatives, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in the United States said that they had not been involved in any intelligence operation in the United States.[81] The FBI eventually concluded that the five Israelis had no foreknowledge of the attacks.[84]

World Trade Center

See also: World Trade Center controlled demolition conspiracy theories

The plane crashes and resulting fires caused the collapse of the World Trade Center. Controlled demolition conspiracy theories say the collapse of the North Tower, South Tower, or of 7 World Trade Center was caused by explosives installed in the buildings in advance.

Demolition theory proponents, such as Brigham Young University physicist Steven E. Jones, architect Richard Gage, software engineer Jim Hoffman, and theologian David Ray Griffin, argue that the aircraft impacts and resulting fires could not have weakened the buildings sufficiently to initiate a catastrophic collapse, and that the buildings would not have collapsed completely, nor at the speeds that they did, without additional factors weakening the structures.

In the article "Active Thermotic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe", which appeared in the Open Chemical Physics Journal, authors Niels Harrit of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry, Jeffrey Farrer of Brigham Young University's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Steven E. Jones, and others state that thermite and nano-thermite composites in the dust and debris were found following the collapse of the three buildings, which they conclude to be proof that explosives brought down the buildings. The article contained no scientific rebuttal and the editor in chief of the publication subsequently resigned.[85][86][87]

Jones has not explained how the amount of explosive needed to do this could have been positioned in the two buildings without drawing attention, but mentioned efforts to research the buildings' maintenance activity in the weeks prior to the event. Federal investigators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology state that enormous quantities of thermite would have to be applied to the structural columns to damage them, but Jones disputed this, saying that he and others were investigating "superthermite".[85] Brent Blanchard, author of "A History of Explosive Demolition in America",[88] who corresponded with Jones, states that questions about the viability of Jones' theories remain unanswered, such as the fact that no demolition personnel noticed any telltale signs of thermite during the eight months of debris removal following the towers' collapse. Blanchard also said that a verifiable chain of possession needs to be established for the tested beams, which did not occur with the beams Jones tested, raising questions of whether the metal pieces tested could have been cut away from the debris pile with acetylene torches, shears, or other potentially contaminated equipment while on site, or exposed to trace amounts of thermite or other compounds while being handled, while in storage, or while being transferred from Ground Zero to memorial sites.

Jones also said that molten steel found in the rubble was evidence of explosives, as an ordinary airplane fire would not generate enough heat to produce this, citing photographs of red debris being removed by construction equipment, but Blanchard said that if there had been any molten steel in the rubble any excavation equipment encountering it would have been immediately damaged.[85] Other sampling of the pulverized dust by United States Geological Survey and RJ Lee did not report any evidence of thermite or explosives. It has been theorized the "thermite material" found was primer paint.[89] Dave Thomas of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, noting that the residue in question was claimed to be thermotic because of its iron oxide and aluminum composition, pointed out that these substances are found in many items common to the towers. Thomas said that in order to cut through a vertical steel beam, special high-temperature containment must be added to prevent the molten iron from dropping down, and that the thermite reaction is too slow for it to be practically used in building demolition. Thomas pointed out that when Jesse Ventura hired New Mexico Tech to conduct a demonstration showing nanothermite slicing through a large steel beam, the nanothermite produced copious flame and smoke but no damage to the beam, even though it was in a horizontal, and therefore optimal position.[90]

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) concluded the accepted version was more than sufficient to explain the collapse of the buildings. NIST and many scientists refuse to debate conspiracy theorists because they feel it would give those theories unwarranted credibility.[91] Specialists in structural mechanics and structural engineering accept the model of a fire-induced, gravity-driven collapse of the World Trade Center buildings without the use of explosives.[92][93][94] As a result, NIST said that it did not perform any test for the residue of explosive compounds of any kind in the debris.[42]

Soon after the day of the attacks, major media sources published that the towers had collapsed due to heat melting the steel.[95][96] Knowledge that the burning temperatures of jet fuel would not melt the steel support structure of the WTC contributed to the belief among skeptics that the towers would not have collapsed without external interference (something other than the planes). NIST does not claim that the steel was melted, but rather that the weakened steel, together with the damage caused by the planes' impacts, caused the collapses.[42] NIST reported that a simulation model based on the assumption that combustible vapors burned immediately upon mixing with the incoming oxygen showed that "at any given location, the duration of [gas] temperatures near 1,000 °C was about 15 to 20 [minutes]. The rest of the time, the calculated temperatures were 500 °C or below."[97]

The ability of an uncontrolled blaze to cause the collapse of a steel-framed high-rise building was demonstrated by the destruction of the Plasco Building in Tehran, Iran on January 19, 2017.[98][original research?]

The Pentagon

Political activist Thierry Meyssan and filmmaker Dylan Avery claim that American Airlines Flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon. Instead, they argue that the Pentagon was hit by a missile launched by elements from inside the U.S. government. Some claim that the holes in the Pentagon walls were far too small to have been made by a Boeing 757: "How does a plane 125 ft. wide and 155 ft. long fit into a hole which is only 60 ft. across?" Meyssan’s book, L’Effroyable Imposture (published in English as 9/11: The Big Lie) became available in more than a dozen languages. When released, the book was heavily criticized by both the mainstream French and American press, and later, from within the 9/11 Truth movement. The French newspaper Liberation called the book "a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation."[99][100][101]

In response to the conspiracy theorists' claim of a missile hitting the Pentagon, Mete Sozen, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University argues that: "A crashing jet doesn't punch a cartoon-like outline of itself into a reinforced concrete building. When Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, one wing hit the ground and the other was sheared off by the Pentagon's load-bearing columns."[99][102] According to ArchitectureWeek, the reason the Pentagon took relatively little damage from the impact was because Wedge One had recently been renovated.[103] (This was part of a renovation program which had been begun in the 1980s, and Wedge One was the first of five to be renovated.[104])

Evidence contradicting some conspiracy theorists' claim of a missile hitting the Pentagon have been described by researchers within the 9/11 Truth Movement, such as Jim Hoffman, in his essay "The Pentagon Attack: What the Physical Evidence Shows", and by others broadly refuting the role of other conspiracies in the attacks. The evidence refuting missile claims includes airplane debris including Flight 77's black boxes,[105] the nose cone, landing gear,[106] an airplane tire,[107] and an intact cockpit seat[108] were observed at the crash site. The remains of passengers from Flight 77 were indeed found at the Pentagon crash site and their identities confirmed by DNA analysis.[109] Many eyewitnesses saw the plane strike the Pentagon. Further, Flight 77 passengers made phone calls reporting that their airplane had been hijacked. For example, passenger Renee May called her mother to tell her that the plane had been hijacked and that the passengers had been herded to the back of the plane. Another passenger named Barbara Olson called her husband (U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson) and said that the flight had been hijacked, and that the hijackers had knives and box cutters.[8][99][110][111] Some conspiracy theories say the phone calls the passengers made were fabricated by voice morphing, the passengers' bodies disposed of, and a missile fired at the Pentagon.[112][113][114]

The pressure group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request on December 15, 2004, to force the government to release video recordings from the Sheraton National Hotel, the Nexcomm/Citgo gas station, Pentagon security cameras and the Virginia Department of Transportation. On May 16, 2006, the government released the Pentagon security camera videos to Judicial Watch.[115] The image of American Airlines Flight 77 which appears in the videos has been described as "[a] white blob" and "a white streak" (by the BBC),[116] "a thin white blur" (by The Associated Press),[117] and "a silver speck low to the ground" (in The Washington Post).[118] A sequence of five frames from one of the videos already appeared in the media in 2002.[119] Some conspiracy theorists believe the new video does not answer their questions.[120]

Flight 93

The fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in an open field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers revolted. Out of the four planes hijacked on that day, Flight 93 was the only one not to reach its target.[121]

One of the popular conspiracy theories surrounding this event is that Flight 93 was actually shot down by a U.S. fighter jet. David Ray Griffin and Alex Jones say that large parts of the plane including the main body of the engine landed miles away from the main wreckage site, too far away for an ordinary plane crash. Jones says that planes usually leave a small debris field when they crash, and that this is not compatible with reports of wreckage found farther away from the main crash site. One person claimed that the main body of the engine was found miles away from the main wreckage site with damage comparable to that which a heat-seeking missile would do to an airliner.[99][121]

According to some theories, the plane had to be shot down by the government because passengers had found out about the alleged plot.[75]

According to Phil Molé of Skeptic magazine, "[this] claim rests largely on unsupported assertions that the main body of the engine and other large parts of the plane turned up miles from the main wreckage site, too far away to have resulted from an ordinary crash. This claim is incorrect, because the engine was found only 300 yards from the main crash site, and its location was consistent with the direction in which the plane had been traveling."[122] Michael K. Hynes, an airline accident expert who investigated the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, says that, at very high velocities of 500 mph or more, it would only take a few seconds to move or tumble across the ground for 300 yards.[99][122]

Reports of wreckage discovered at Indian Lake by local residents are accurate. CNN reported that investigators found debris from the crash at least eight miles away from the crash site, including in New Baltimore.[123] However, according to CNN, this debris was all very light material that the wind would have easily blown away, and a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from September 14, 2001, describes the material as "mostly papers", "strands of charred insulation", and an "endorsed paycheck". The same article quotes FBI agent Bill Crowley that, "Lighter, smaller debris probably shot into the air on the heat of a fireball that witnesses said shot several hundred feet into the air after the jetliner crashed. Then, it probably rode a wind that was blowing southeast at about 9 m.p.h."[124] Also, the distance between the crash site and Indian Lake was misreported in some accounts. According to the BBC, "In a straight line, Indian Lake is just over a mile from the crash site. The road between the two locations takes a roundabout route of 6.9 miles—accounting for the erroneous reports."[121]

Some conspiracy theorists believe a small white jet seen flying over the crash area may have fired a missile to shoot down Flight 93.[125][dubious– discuss] However, government agencies such as the FBI assert this small plane was a Dassault Falcon business jet asked to descend to an altitude of around 1,500 ft to survey the impact.[126] Ben Sliney, who was the FAA operation manager on September 11, 2001, says no military aircraft were near Flight 93.[127]

Some internet videos, such as Loose Change, speculate that Flight 93 safely landed in Ohio, and a substituted plane was involved in the crash in Pennsylvania. Often cited is a preliminary news report that Flight 93 landed at a Cleveland airport;[128] it was later learned that Delta Flight 1989 was the plane confused with Flight 93, and the report was retracted as inaccurate. Several websites within the 9/11 Truth Movement dispute this claim, citing the wreckage at the scene, eyewitness testimony, and the difficulty of secretly substituting one plane for another, and claim that such "hoax theories ... appear calculated to alienate victims' survivors and the larger public from the 9/11 truth movement". The editor of the article has since written a rebuttal to the claims.[129]

Valencia McClatchey, a local woman who took the only photograph of the mushroom cloud from the impact of Flight 93 seconds after it hit the ground, says she has been harassed over the telephone and in person by conspiracy theorists, who claim she faked the photo. The FBI, the Somerset County authorities, the Smithsonian, and the National Park Service’s Flight 93 National Memorial staff have all individually examined the photograph as well as the film negatives and all four agencies consider the photo to be authentic.[130]

While some conspiracy theorists have claimed that passengers of Flight 93 and/or Flight 77, were murdered or that they were relocated, with the intent that they never be found,[75] others within the 9/11 Truth Movement, such as Jim Hoffman and Scholars for 9/11 Truth & Justice, repudiate such claims.


See also: Hijackers in the September 11 attacks and Blocked al-Qaeda investigations

During the initial confusion surrounding the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the BBC published the names and identities of what they believed to be some of the hijackers.[131] Some of the people named were later discovered to be alive, a fact that was seized upon by 9/11 conspiracy theorists as proof that the hijackings were faked.[131][132][133] The BBC explained that the initial confusion may have arisen because the names they reported back in 2001 were common Arabic and Islamic names.[131] In response to a request from the BBC, the FBI said that it was confident to have identified all nineteen hijackers, and that none of the other inquiries had raised the issue of doubt about their identities.[131]The New York Times also acknowledged these as cases of mistaken identity.[134]

According to John Bradley, the former managing editor of Arab News in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the only public information about the hijackers was a list of names issued by the FBI on September 14, 2001. When the FBI released photographs four days after the cited reports on September 27, the mistaken identities were quickly resolved. According to Bradley, "all of this is attributable to the chaos that prevailed during the first few days following the attack. What we're dealing with are coincidentally identical names." In Saudi Arabia, says Bradley, the names of two of the allegedly surviving attackers, Said al-Ghamdi and Walid al-Shari, are "as common as John Smith in the United States or Great Britain."[132]

According to Thomas Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission, "Sixteen of the nineteen shouldn't have gotten into the United States in any way at all because there was something wrong with their visas, something wrong with their passports. They should simply have been stopped at the border. That was sixteen of the nineteen. Obviously, if even half of those people had been stopped, there never would have been a plot."[135]

Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi had both been identified as al-Qaeda agents by the CIA, but that information was not shared with the FBI or U.S. Immigration, so both men were able to legally enter the U.S. to prepare for the 9/11 attacks.[136]

Foreign governments

See also: Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda link allegations and Foreign government foreknowledge

There are allegations that individuals within the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may have played an important role in financing the attacks. There are also claims that other foreign intelligence agencies, such as the Israeli Mossad, had foreknowledge of the attacks, and that Saudi Arabia may have played a role in financing the attacks. General Hamid Gul, a former head of ISI, believes the attacks were an "inside job" originating in the United States, perpetrated by Israel or neo-conservatives.[137]Francesco Cossiga, former President of Italy from 1985 until his 1992 resignation over Operation Gladio, said that it is common knowledge among the Italian center-left that the 9/11 attacks were a joint operation of the CIA and the Mossad.[138] Subsequent reports indicated that he did not actually believe this.[139][140]


See also: September 11 attacks advance-knowledge conspiracy theories: Israel

A conspiracy theory documented by the Anti-Defamation League, Thom Burnett and others is that the state of Israel was involved in the attacks, and may have planned them. A variety of motives are suggested, including: to cause the United States to attack enemies of Israel; to divert public attention away from Israel's treatment of Palestinians; to help Zionists take control of world affairs; and to persuade Americans to support Israel. Variants of the theory contend that the attack was organized by Ariel Sharon, Mossad, or the government of Israel.[141][142] Kevin Barrett, a former lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, is a leading advocate for the theory that Mossad orchestrated the attacks.[143]

Some proponents of this believe that Jewish employees were forewarned by Israeli intelligence to skip work on September 11, resulting in no Jewish deaths at the World Trade Center. According to Cinnamon Stillwell, some 9/11 conspiracy theorists put this number as high as 4,000 Jewish people skipping work.[144] This was first reported on September 17 by the LebaneseHezbollah-owned satellite television channel Al-Manar and is believed to be based on the September 12 edition of The Jerusalem Post that said "The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has so far received the names of 4,000 Israelis believed to have been in the areas of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at the time of the attacks."[145]

The number of Jews who died in the attacks is variously estimated at between 270 and 400.[145][146][147][148] The lower figure tracks closely with the percentage of Jews living in the New York area and partial surveys of the victims' listed religion. The U.S. State Department has published a partial list of 76 in response to claims that fewer Jews/Israelis died in the WTC attacks than should have been present at the time.[145][149] Five Israeli citizens died in the attack.[150]

Antisemitism in conspiracy theories

In 2003, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report attacking "hateful conspiracy theories" that the 9/11 attacks were carried about by Israelis and Jews, saying they had the potential to "rationalize and fuel global anti-Semitism." It found that such theories were widely accepted in the Arab and Muslim world, as well as in Europe and the United States.

The ADL's report found that "The Big Lie has united American far-right extremists and white supremacists and elements within the Arab and Muslim world". It asserted that many of the theories were modern manifestation of the 19th century Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to map out a Jewish conspiracy for world domination.[142][151] The ADL has characterized the Jeff Rense website as carrying anti-Semitic materials, such as "American Jews staged the 9/11 terrorist attacks for their own financial gain and to induce the American people to endorse wars of aggression and genocide on the nations of the Middle East and the theft of their resources for the benefit of Israel".[152]

Pedro A. Sanjuan, a former United Nations diplomat, alleged that antisemitic 9/11 conspiracy theories were quite common at high levels of the organization following the attacks.[153]

Saudi Arabia

British investigative journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan claimed in their 2011 book The Eleventh Hour that the Saudi Royal Family provided material and financial support to the hijackers and that the Bush Administration covered this up as well as their own alleged incompetence. The authors claim the 9/11 Truth movement helped this coverup by deflecting attention away from these actions.[154] In September 2011 a "Lloyd's insurance syndicate" began legal action against Saudi Arabia demanding the repayment of £136m it paid out to victims of the 9/11 attacks. A number of prominent Saudi charities and banks as well as a leading member of the al-Saud royal family were accused of being "agents and alter egos" for the Saudi state that "knowingly" provided funding to al-Qaeda and encouraged anti Western sentiment.[155]

Such theories revolve around the putative content of the 28 pages of the 2002 report of the U.S. Congress Joint Inquiry that are withheld from publication.[156][157]

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chairman of the Joint Inquiry, as well as other former officials who did read the entire version of the Joint Inquiry's report, still partly classified, believe there is a U.S. government's coverup on the Saudi government officials' substantial aid provided to the perpetrators of the 9/11 act,[156] notably the role of Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.[158]

No-planes theory

Nico Haupt and former chief economist within the Labor Department under the Bush administration, Morgan Reynolds, argue that no planes were used in the attacks. Reynolds claims it is physically impossible that the Boeing planes of Flights 11 and 175 could have penetrated the steel frames of the Towers, and that digital compositing was used to depict the plane crashes in both news reports and subsequent amateur video. "There were no planes, there were no hijackers", Reynolds insists. "I know, I know, I'm out of the mainstream, but that's the way it is". According to David Shayler, 'the only explanation is that they were missiles surrounded by holograms made to look like planes', he says, which would be well beyond the capabilities of contemporaneous hologram technology. "Watch footage frame by frame and you will see a cigar-shaped missile hitting the World Trade Center". Most no-planes researchers including Thierry Meyssan and Reynolds assert that either CGI of a passenger plane was overlaid onto a winged cruise missile or military aircraft, or that computer-generated images of a passenger plane were inserted into the video footage and plane-shaped explosive cut-outs were planted in the buildings in order to create the impression of plane impact.[159][160][161] Some truth movement veterans have repeatedly refuted the "no-plane" claims.[75][162] In fact, discussion of no-plane theories has been banned from certain conspiracy theory websites and advocates have sometimes been threatened with violence by posters at other conspiracy theory websites.[163]

Cover-up allegations

Paul Zarembka, in his book, The Hidden History of 9/11, states that the debris from ground zero was removed without a proper forensic investigation.[164][165]

Cockpit recorders

The nature of the collapse of the two World Trade Center towers and the nearby WTC7 (in this photo, the brown building to the left of the towers) is a major focus of 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Criticism of the reports published by NIST on the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings plays a central role in theories about an alleged controlled demolition. The picture shows the simulated exterior buckling of 7 WTC during the collapse.
Excavating equipment was cooled by water spray due to concerns about melting from underground fires.
Security camera footage of Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon (at 1:26 in the video)
The Pentagon, after collapse of the damaged section
Airplane debris scattered near the Pentagon on the day of the attack
The "no-plane theory", promoted via Internet videos, claims that this shot of the second impact, taken from a news helicopter, depicts a video composite of a Boeing 767 accidentally appearing from behind a Layer Mask.

Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. They are in fact vivid illustrations of a striking truth about human beings: however intelligent and knowledgeable we might be in other ways, many of us still believe the strangest things. You can find people who believe they were abducted by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that cancer can be cured by positive thinking. A 2009 Harris Poll found that between one‑fifth and one‑quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, astrology and the existence of witches. You name it, and there is probably someone out there who believes it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things? The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.

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I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

Usually, when philosophers try to explain why someone believes things (weird or otherwise), they focus on that person’s reasons rather than their character traits. On this view, the way to explain why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job is to identify his reasons for believing this, and the person who is in the best position to tell you his reasons is Oliver. When you explain Oliver’s belief by giving his reasons, you are giving a ‘rationalising explanation’ of his belief.

The problem with this is that rationalising explanations take you only so far. If you ask Oliver why he believes 9/11 was an inside job he will, of course, be only too pleased to give you his reasons: it had to be an inside job, he insists, because aircraft impacts couldn’t have brought down the towers. He is wrong about that, but at any rate that’s his story and he is sticking to it. What he has done, in effect, is to explain one of his questionable beliefs by reference to another no less questionable belief. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us why he has any of these beliefs. There is a clear sense in which we still don’t know what is really going on with him.

Now let’s flesh out Oliver’s story a little: suppose it turns out that he believes lots of other conspiracy theories apart from the one about 9/11. He believes the Moon landings were faked, that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered by MI6, and that the Ebola virus is an escaped bioweapon. Those who know him well say that he is easily duped, and you have independent evidence that he is careless in his thinking, with little understanding of the difference between genuine evidence and unsubstantiated speculation. Suddenly it all begins to make sense, but only because the focus has shifted from Oliver’s reasons to his character. You can now see his views about 9/11 in the context of his intellectual conduct generally, and this opens up the possibility of a different and deeper explanation of his belief than the one he gives: he thinks that 9/11 was an inside job because he is gullible in a certain way. He has what social psychologists call a ‘conspiracy mentality’.

The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded

Notice that the proposed character explanation isn’t a rationalising explanation. After all, being gullible isn’t a reason for believing anything, though it might still be why Oliver believes 9/11 was an inside job. And while Oliver might be expected to know his reasons for believing that 9/11 was an inside job, he is the last person to recognise that he believes what he believes about 9/11 because he is gullible. It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realise you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness are examples of what the US philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind (1996), has called ‘intellectual vices’. Others include negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking. To describe Oliver as gullible or careless is to say something about his intellectual style or mind-set – for example, about how he goes about trying to find out things about events such as 9/11. Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues Oliver plainly lacks, and that is why his attempts to get to the bottom of 9/11 are so flawed.

Oliver is fictional, but real-world examples of intellectual vices in action are not hard to find. Consider the case of the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. Abdulmutallab was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to affluent and educated parents, and graduated from University College London with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was radicalised by the online sermons of the Islamic militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was subsequently killed by an American drone strike. It’s hard not to see the fact that Abdulmutallab was taken in by Awlaki’s sermons as at least partly a reflection of his intellectual character. If Abdulmutallab had the intellectual character not to be duped by Awlaki, then perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up on a transatlantic airliner with explosives in his underpants.

Intellectual character explanations of questionable beliefs are more controversial than one might imagine. For example, it has been suggested that explaining peoples’ bad behaviour or weird beliefs by reference to their character makes us more intolerant of them and less empathetic. Yet such explanations might still be correct, even if they have deleterious consequences. In any case, it’s not obvious that character explanations should make us less tolerant of other peoples’ foibles. Suppose that Oliver can’t help being the kind of person who falls for conspiracy theories. Shouldn’t that make us more rather than less tolerant of him and his weird beliefs?

A different objection to character-based explanations is that it’s just not true that people have questionable beliefs because they are stupid or gullible. In How We Know What Isn’t So (1991), the US social psychologist Thomas Gilovich argues that many such beliefs have ‘purely cognitive origins’, by which he means that they are caused by imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. Yet the example he gives of a cognitive explanation takes us right back to character explanations. His example is the ‘hot hand’ in basketball. The idea is that when a player makes a couple of shots he is more likely to make subsequent shots. Success breeds success.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.

And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation. The dismissive reaction manifested a range of vices, including closed-mindedness and prejudice. It’s hard not to conclude that the coach reacted as he did because he was closed-minded or prejudiced. In such cases as this, as with the case of Oliver, it’s just not credible that character traits aren’t doing significant explanatory work. A less closed-minded coach might well have reacted completely differently to evidence that the hot hand doesn’t exist.

Could we explain the dismissiveness of the coach without referring to his personality in general? ‘Situationists’, as they are called, argue that our behaviour is generally better explained by situational factors than by our supposed character traits. Some see this as a good reason to be skeptical about the existence of character. In one experiment, students at a theological seminary were asked to give a talk elsewhere on campus. One group was asked to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan, while the rest were assigned a different topic. Some were told they had plenty to time to reach the venue for the lecture, while others were told to hurry. On their way to the venue, all the students came across a person (an actor) apparently in need of help. In the event, the only variable that made a difference to whether they stopped to help was how much of a hurry they were in; students who thought they were running late were much less likely to stop and help than those who thought they had time. According to the Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman, the lesson of such experiments is that ‘we need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop trying to explain things in terms of character traits’.

You say that Oliver is gullible for believing his 9/11 conspiracy theory; he retorts that you are gullible for believing the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission

The character traits that Harman had in mind are moral virtues such as kindness and generosity, but some situationists also object to the idea of intellectual virtues and vices. For example, they point to evidence that people perform much better in problem-solving tasks when they are in a good mood. If trivial situational factors such as mood or hunger are better at explaining your intellectual conduct than your so-called intellectual character, then what is the justification for believing in the existence of intellectual character traits? If such traits exist, then shouldn’t they explain one’s intellectual conduct? Absolutely, but examples such as Oliver and Gilovich’s basketball coach suggest that intellectual character traits do explain a person’s intellectual conduct in an important range of cases. People don’t believe weird things because they are hungry or in a bad (or good) mood. The view that people don’t have character traits such as gullibility, carelessness or prejudice, or that people don’t differ in intellectual character, deprives us of seemingly compelling explanations of the intellectual conduct of both Oliver and the basketball coach.

Suppose it turns out that Oliver lives in a region where conspiracy theories are rife or that he is under the influence of friends who are committed conspiracy theorists. Wouldn’t these be perfectly viable situational, non-character explanations of his beliefs about 9/11? Only up to a point. The fact that Oliver is easily influenced by his friends itself tells us something about his intellectual character. Where Oliver lives might help to explain his beliefs, but even if conspiracy theories are widespread in his neck of the woods we still need to understand why some people in his region believe them, while others don’t.

Differences in intellectual character help to explain why people in the same situation end up believing such different things. In order to think that intellectual character traits are relevant to a person’s intellectual conduct, you don’t have to think that other factors, including situational factors, are irrelevant. Intellectual character explains intellectual conduct only in conjunction with a lot of other things, including your situation and the way your brain processes information. Situationism certainly would be a problem for the view that character traits explain our conduct regardless of situational factors, but that is not a view of character anyone has ever wanted to defend.

In practical terms, one of the hardest things about dealing with people such as Oliver is that they are more than likely to accuse you of the same intellectual vices that you detect in them. You say that Oliver is gullible for believing his 9/11 conspiracy theory; he retorts that you are gullible for believing the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission. You say that he dismisses the official account of 9/11 because he is closed-minded; he accuses you of closed-mindedness for refusing to take conspiracy theories seriously. If we are often blind to our own intellectual vices then who are we to accuse Oliver of failing to realise that he believes his theories only because he is gullible?

These are all legitimate questions, but it’s important not to be too disconcerted by this attempt to turn the tables on you. True, no one is immune to self-ignorance. That doesn’t excuse Oliver. The fact is that his theory is no good, whereas there is every reason to believe that aircraft impacts did bring down the Twin Towers. Just because you believe the official account of what happened in 9/11 doesn’t make you gullible if there are good reasons to believe that account. Equally, being skeptical about the wilder claims of 9/11 conspiracy theorists doesn’t make you closed-minded if there are good reasons to be skeptical. Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

the aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices

Once you get past the idea that Oliver has somehow managed to turn the tables on you, there remains the problem of what to do about such people as him. If he is genuinely closed-minded then his mind will presumably be closed to the idea that he is closed-minded. Closed-mindedness is one of the toughest intellectual vices to tackle because it is in its nature to be concealed from those who have it. And even if you somehow get the Olivers of this world to acknowledge their own vices, that won’t necessarily make things any better. Tackling one’s intellectual vices requires more than self-knowledge. You also need to be motivated to do something about them, and actually be able to do something about them.

Should Oliver be condemned for his weaknesses? Philosophers like to think of virtues as having good motives and vices as having bad motives but Oliver’s motives needn’t be bad. He might have exactly the same motivation for knowledge as the intellectually virtuous person, yet be led astray by his gullibility and conspiracy mentality. So, both in respect of his motives and his responsibility for his intellectual vices, Oliver might not be strictly blameworthy. That doesn’t mean that nothing should be done about them or about him. If we care about the truth then we should care about equipping people with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood.

Education is the best way of doing that. Intellectual vices are only tendencies to think in certain ways, and tendencies can be countered. Our intellectual vices are balanced by our intellectual virtues, by intellectual character traits such as open-mindedness, curiosity and rigour. The intellectual character is a mixture of intellectual virtues and vices, and the aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices. The philosopher Jason Baehr talks about ‘educating for intellectual virtues’, and that is in principle the best way to deal with people such as Oliver. A 2010 report to the University College London Council about the Abdulmutallab case came to a similar conclusion. It recommended the ‘development of academic training for students to encourage and equip them not only to think critically but to challenge unacceptable views’. The challenge is to work out how to do that.

What if Oliver is too far gone and can’t change his ways even if he wanted to? Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. This means living with their consequences. Trying to reason with people who are obstinately closed-minded, dogmatic or prejudiced is unlikely to be effective. The only remedy in such cases is to try to mitigate the harm their vices do to themselves and to others.

Meanwhile, those who have the gall to deliver homilies about other peoples’ intellectual vices – that includes me – need to accept that they too are likely very far from perfect. In this context, as in most others, a little bit of humility goes a long way. It’s one thing not to cave in to Oliver’s attempt to turn the tables on you, but he has a point at least to this extent: none of us can deny that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play in at least some of our thinking. Being alive to this possibility is the mark of a healthy mind.

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Quassim Cassam

is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry. His latest books are Berkeley’s Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us? (2014) and Self-Knowledge for Humans (2014).


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