Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The BBC Propaganda Files: 11 Years On (Still Abusing Science)

There is nothing more guaranteed to arouse my anger than the abuse of science by the media, especially when that media takes £145 of my money every year, without my consent, whilst pretending to be vaguely accountable to me through my government. Fortunately, they use some of this money to produce cracking good comedy and drama programmes for my entertainment and delight; programmes like The Thick of It or Spooks. Unfortunately, they also use some of it to produce unmitigated, pure propaganda drivel and pump it into my home like so much silage. Most of the time, this nauseating brain-poop is disguised as 'current affairs' - sometimes ending up on Newsnight - or a 'factual' documentary. Sadly, last night I had the misfortune to witness one of these again, as it was the anniversary of 9/11.

The programme was The Conspiracy Files: 9/11 Ten Years On, which first aired last year but which has now migrated to the Yesterday channel. The version I've linked to here is on Vimeo and is slightly different to the one I saw last night, as it seems to have been somewhat re-edited, perhaps to remove some of the more laughable factual errors. Nevertheless, it is still full of astonishingly brazen deceptions. It would be incredibly tedious to go through every single one of these, so instead I shall focus on just one segment of the programme which deals with the forensic evidence of explosives found in dust from the 9/11 debris, from about 30 minutes until 38 minutes in the version to which I linked above. This should be sufficient to illustrate why this programme is nothing but propaganda. It also illustrates some uncomfortable truths about the academic establishment, of which I was once a member.

The programme introduces now-retired Professor Niels Harrit, formerly of Copenhagen University, who co-authored a paper published in 2009 by the science publisher, Bentham, in their Open Chemical Physics Journal, called Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe. I've linked to the original paper, which is fairly accessible if you want to read it, but there is also a more concise summary for non-specialists here. The programme gives the strong impression that this is just the pet armchair theory of one eccentric retired chemistry professor. At no point does it mention that the paper was a collaborative effort by 9 authors; all accredited professional scientists, including chemists, physicists and engineers, most of them still practising professionals. 

The BBC make a lot of play out of the fact that the paper studies only 4 independent dust samples, where as the US Geological Survey and the forensics lab, RJ Lee, apparently studied many more. Of course, it is very difficult to get hold of uncontaminated dust samples from 9/11 these days, so 4 is quite good going. What the documentary fails to mention is that none of the previous studies attempted to look for explosives, as they were conducted for other purposes. Indeed, the RJ Lee report is totally consistent with Harrit's paper and lends further support to its conclusions by confirming the extremely high abundance (6% by particle count) of microscopic elemental iron spheres in the 9/11 dust. The only satisfactory explanation for this abundance of iron-rich microspheres is that they are the residue of a thermitic reaction and Harrit's paper demonstrates the formation of such spheres upon ignition of the thermitic material. Once again, this is not mentioned in the documentary.

At least the documentary does not resort to the kind of puerile ad-hominem garbage which is commonly found on so-called 'debunking' websites, such as the JREF forums. There it is common to find people referring to Bentham Open Chemical Physics as a 'vanity publication' or claiming (without any evidence) that Harrit's paper was somehow not peer-reviewed. The claims stem from the fact that most critics don't understand how scientific publishing works (because they are not scientists) or what open journals are for. Harrit's team published in an open journal so that the paper could be downloaded for free by members of the general public. Had they published anywhere else, you and I would have had to pay a hefty fee (often £20 or more) just to read their work. Instead, open journals charge the authors' institution directly for each paper they publish, but only after it has been through the same peer-review process as any other journal. Open journals are therefore the ideal medium for work of wide public interest such as Harrit's.

So, thankfully the BBC weren't so stupid as to make baseless and easily refuted claims about the reputation of the journal or directly about the reputation of the papers' nine authors (despite only mentioning one of them). However, it did present the opinions of a couple of experts of its own to try to refute the findings of Harrit's paper: Professors Richard Fruehan and Chris Pistorius of Carnegie Mellon University. They are specialists in metallurgy, whose jobs and careers are entirely dependent on grants from the US government, of course. They ought to be sufficiently qualified to have a valid opinion on Harrit's paper, although their independence must be considered questionable, at the very least. Was it not possible for the BBC to interview some non-US-based academics, preferably including a specialist in nano-particle chemistry? Apparently not.

At one point, Pistorius betrays the fact that he almost certainly hasn't even read Harrit's paper, as he suggests that what they found may simply have been red primer paint, as painted onto the steel columns of the WTC. This possibility was explicitly considered in the paper and comprehensively rejected for several reasons (see section 7 p. 27-28), not least being the fact that paint does not undergo a very fast and highly energetic exothermic reaction when heated to 430 deg C. Paint also dissolves in industrial solvent, where as Harrit's thermitic material does not. If the BBC had bothered to ask Professor Harrit about the primer paint hypothesis, he would no doubt have laughed, before calmly explaining why it's a total nonsense.

At another point, Prof Fruehan claims that he can find "almost anything" in any sample of dust. Really? What an extraordinarily stupid remark. If that were so, there would never be any point examining any dust sample for anything, since we know we will find literally everything in it, including nano-thermite explosives, presumably. I'm sure Prof Fruehan is not an idiot, so I can only conclude that his remark was designed to mislead, to shrug off the findings of Prof Harrit's team as somehow irrelevant and not worthy of discussion, despite the fact that they cannot be refuted. 

Fruehan also makes the highly disingenuous remark that Harrit's thermitic material contains less energy per kilogram than ordinary paper. Wow! This point seems like a clincher and is seized upon with glee by the BBC film-makers as they cut to a shot of a pile of paper, burning away tamely. It seems impressive and if you're not a scientist you will immediately get the idea that whatever it is Harrit found in the dust can't possibly have been capable of blowing up the twin towers. (The great irony here is that the official explanation actually does claim that the towers fell as a result of ordinary fires, fuelled by stuff like wood, paper and plastic, long after the jet fuel had burned off, but never mind). For a moment, I was flummoxed too, until I remembered that energy is not the same thing as power, and certainly not the same as temperature. Power is energy per unit of time. Of course, paper (like wood) is quite energy dense but it burns slowly, releasing its energy over a relatively long time (i.e. with low power). That's why wood is a fairly effective fuel which can keep a fire going for hours. Fortunately, wood fires do not explode with great force, but some less energy-dense materials can, and do. The actual power density of Harrit's thermitic material is shown below (blue line), compared to a known sample of commercially available nano-thermite (red line). The x-axis is the input temperature to a differential scanning calorimeter, which rises linearly over time:

Fig (29) from Harrit's paper comparing power density of thermitic material found in 9/11 dust (blue line) with commercially available nano-thermite (red line).
The graph above shows that Harrit's thermitic material ignites at a lower temperature and burns with more power, over a shorter time, than a sample of highly engineered, commercially available nano-thermite. Both are capable of generating much higher output temperatures, in excess of 3000 deg C, easily capable of slicing through steel (melting point 1540 deg C), and both can also generate high pressures, comparable to a conventional high-explosive. Both are less energy-dense than paper, but that is a completely irrelevant and specious fact, calculated to mislead viewers. 

Nano-thermite has many times the power density of ordinary thermate, because the particle size is so much smaller, but the output temperature and pressure depend on many other factors, including the exact volume and geometry of the space in which the ignition occurs, as well as the ignition method. However, if you want a very good demonstration that even ordinary thermate is more than capable of slicing easily and cleanly through a steel beam, the professional engineer Jonathan Cole (from Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth) has made this excellent video. Nano-thermite/thermate is simply much more efficient and creates explosive pressure in addition to very high temperatures.

Clearly, Prof Fruehan must know the difference between energy and power, so why does he make that specious remark about paper? The only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that he is deliberately trying to misdirect the audience, with all the skill of a practised liar. But perhaps I'm being harsh. What can he do? Does he really have the option to admit the truth? Only a very brave or a very foolish academic would rock the boat by calling into question the lies of his or her own paymasters in the government.

The physicist, Prof Steven Jones was one of the co-authors of the Harrit paper. He found out to his cost what happens when you assert your academic freedom against the establishment. He was a well-respected professor at  Brigham Young University, until 2006 when he started to raise questions about the official explanations for the collapses of the twin towers. His only crime was independent thought, for which he was sacked from his post, possibly as an example to any other academics who might get ideas about expressing their views. There is no such thing as academic freedom. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and these days the piper is paid either by the military-industrial-security complex or by the government - which in turn is paid by big business, including the military-industrial-security complex. I know this because I was an academic (at one of the 'top 5' science universities in the world, supposedly) and I kept my eyes and ears open.

My message to the BBC is this: Stop abusing science. Stop abusing scientists. Stop pumping propaganda into my home, at my expense. Make more good comedies and drama instead. Thank you.