By Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D., Wake Forest University
Conspiracy theorists are often prone to using logical fallacies while attempting to justify their ideas. In particular, groups of theorists that spread conspiracies involving the September 11th tragedy tend to employ the “false analogy” fallacy in their arguments. Let’s take a look at how to recognize this argumentative misstep, and how to effectively dismantle it.
September 11 Conspiracy Theories Examined
Conspiracy theories about September 11 are chock-full of some of the most egregious argument fallacies. We’ll explore false analogy, the first article in a series on argument fallacies, including straw person fallacies and ad hominem attacks. Learn to spot these errors in an argument to shape discourse and debate if you are confronted with one of these conspiracy stories.
This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Debate. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Analogy vs. False Analogy
An analogy is a comparison between two things. The stronger the comparison, the more likely it is that an argument is persuasive. What makes establishing the fallacy difficult is that all analogies require some comparison, which requires a bit of analytic creativity to establish a clear linkage. No analogy is perfect and not everything will fit precisely.
Learn more: Fallacies in Your Opponents Arguments
That being said, a false analogy is when the speaker attempts to create a connection between two things to support a larger argument and there is no connection. In the context of the September 11 conspiracy, there are at least three areas where false analogies happen.
A false analogy is when the speaker attempts to create a connection between two things to support a larger argument and there is no connection.
George W. Bush Compared to Adolph Hitler
First, the motivation that is asserted by the conspiracy rests almost entirely on false analogies. Whether you’re watching one of the various conspiracy theory videos or reading a conspiracy web page, conspiracy theorists allege that United States President George W. Bush orchestrated an attack that cost thousands of American lives intending to consolidate power and make vast sums of money in a dictatorial fashion. To substantiate this claim, the false analogies are compared to other moments in history when leaders have used false flags to rally a population in support of their consolidation of power.
Of course, if you are in a basic debate with a person over the conspiracy theories of September 11, you might ask: is there a single shred of evidence to suggest that this motivation is correct, such as an email, a witness, or anything else that suggests the president was part of planning the attacks? The common response is “No, but …”. The “but” is almost always the beginning of a false analogy. Conspiracy theorists point to Adolph Hitler’s rise in Germany as an example of a domestic attack that served as a precursor to his consolidation of power.
The common response is “No, but …”. The “but” is almost always the beginning of a false analogy.
This false analogy is particularly frustrating because it assumes a US president could achieve a level of power relative to Hitler’s. Conspiracy theorists struggle to explain why President George W. Bush stepped down at the end of his presidency or why he submitted himself to an election cycle. It is difficult for them to explain why, if analogous to the Nazi rise to power in Germany, President Bush did not declare himself chancellor of the United States of America.
There is zero evidence to suggest President Bush had any connection to the events involved or is even a relevant comparison for this historical analogy. Just because other people have used domestic terrorism as a ploy to consolidate power, does not mean that every domestic terror event is an example of another leader doing the same thing.
Learn more about using evidence in debate
The Crash of Flight 93
Another false analogy seen in the September 11 conspiracy theories surrounds the evidence used to deny the crash of United Airlines Flight 93. Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers decided to risk a crash and death rather than to permit the terrorists to fly the plane into a third Washington, D.C. site.
On the one hand, we have a group of pilots trying to save as many souls as possible. On the other, we have terrorists who pointed the nose of the plane straight down and accelerated to their certain death.
Conspiracy theorists argue that the crash site for Flight 93 does not look like the crash sites of other major airline crashes. The argument is there was not a commercial plane involved in the crash in Shanksville. The difficulty with this particular argument is that they dismiss the forensic evidence, the DNA evidence, the eyewitness testimony, and the audio recordings of what occurred inside the plane. Instead, they rely almost exclusively on photographs of other major plane crashes to argue the plane couldn’t have crashed in that Pennsylvania cornfield. They point out that the debris field is much smaller than other major airline crashes and that there are less intact pieces to indicate it was a plane. They ask, where are the wings or the engines?
The crash site from Flight 93 is much different from other major plane crash sites for one powerful reason: the terrorists piloting the plane were not attempting evasive maneuvers. In the vast majority of airline crashes, pilots attempt to avoid crashing. In an emergency, they dump their fuel, slow down as much as possible, and, when they can, try to land in a place where they can reduce the total damage done to the people and the plane.
This recalls the incident involving United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed near Sioux City, Iowa. The crew lost all flight controls and worked together to land the plane despite the loss of their instruments. Of the 296 people on board, 112 died in the accident, but 184 survived thanks to the incredible efforts of the crew. To look at that plane crash site and then compare it to Flight 93 is a prime example of a false analogy.
On the one hand, we have a group of pilots trying to save as many souls as possible. On the other, we have terrorists who pointed the nose of the plane straight down and accelerated to their certain death. The chilling sounds of the terrorists intentionally crashing Flight 93 were recorded. You cannot look at the crash site of one situation where pilots are attempting to save passengers and say it proves that the small debris field surrounding Flight 93 means a plane was never there. It’s one of the more offensive arguments conspiracy theorists make.
Learn more about cross-examination
The Twin Towers Collapse
The third false analogy example in September 11 conspiracy theories relates to how the World Trade Center fell. The conspiracy theorists struggle to prove that the Twin Towers collapsed as a result of bombs and not because of the structural damage caused by the airplanes slamming into the buildings. In their arguments, they try to use footage of other buildings being demolished to prove that the Twin Towers were brought down by bombs rather than airplanes.
The argument emphasizes the speed at which the towers fell. Video evidence shows windows being blown out of the floors below as the towers fell. Then, videos of the Twin Towers falling are compared to footage of other major buildings brought down by demolition. The analogy asserts the Twin Towers must have been brought down by bombs planted in advance, which would have required intervention of a higher power like the government. The argument presented is persuasive because it invites the audience to compare the two videos and see for themselves what appears to be a similar situation. To the untrained eye, the falling World Trade Center buildings look very similar to the videos of demolished buildings .
Structural engineers and scientists across the country have helped educate the American public to understand exactly what is happening during the video of the Twin Towers collapse. Two explanations help explain the event. The first theory is a structural collapse called pancaking. Pancaking occurred when the pressure from the upper floors of a collapsing building was exerted on the floors below as the mass came tumbling down.
In the case of the Twin Towers, the steel eventually lost its ability to sustain the weight of the upper floors, giving way to a tremendous amount of mass that started to fall from the top of both towers. As that mass accelerated, it pushed down through the elevator columns and the stairwells, generating a huge amount of pressure from floor to floor. That pressure exerted a force on everything below that blew out the floors and windows. The result is it appears like bombs are going off because the windows are being blown out from the floors below. What we see is a tragic example of a physics phenomenon in action.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology report provides the second explanation. The three arguments provided by the NIST report are: one, the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns, dislodged the fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, and widely dispersed jet fuel over multiple floors; two, the subsequent unusually large number of jet fuel-ignited, multi-floor fires, which reached temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, significantly weakened the floors and columns with the dislodged fireproofing to the point where floors sagged and pulled inward on the perimeter columns. This led to the inward bowing of the perimeter columns and the failure of the south face of World Trade Center 1 and the east face of World Trade Center 2, initiating the collapse of each of the towers.
The conspiracy theorists create a false analogy with compelling evidence by using videos of real events to support the false analogy that the towers were destroyed in the same way as demolished buildings, and suggest the World Trade Center was felled by bombs rather than by airplanes guided into them by terrorists.
Scientific opinion—the empirical scientific evidence discussed earlier—helps us to understand there is a different explanation for the collapse of the World Trade Center. You are not watching bombs going off inside the towers; you’re watching the steel building supports fail after sustaining the direct impact of the plane, exposure to the intense heat of the jet fuel, and the subsequent fires of all the other combustible materials.
Conspiracy theorists also suggest in their arguments that the fires in the Twin Towers could not have been hot enough to melt the steel. Those involved in any form of engineering likely cringe at that statement. The key question is not whether or not the temperature was hot enough to melt the steel, but was it hot enough for the steel to lose its structural integrity. More empirical scientific evidence, however, has demonstrated that the combination of the impact of the planes plus the heat from the fires, which were a result of both the jet fuel and the combustible items in the buildings, caused the buildings to fall.
Learn more about line-by-line refutation
Flawed Analogies Lead to Different Conclusion
In all three of these cases, the conspiracy theorists attempt to appeal to the audience’s reasoning by drawing analogies between events. In all three instances, however, there is a significant difference between the events being compared that renders the analogy inadequate and flawed. The result is that we cannot draw the conclusions the conspiracy theorists want based on the analogies presented.
False analogies can be very frustrating to argue against because their persuasive appeal frequently relies upon the audience’s ignorance or inability to adequately evaluate the evidence presented to them.
Common Questions About False Analogies
Weak analogy fallacy is attempting to make a connection between two ideas, events, or objects, but the connection falls apart upon closer inspection.
An example of a false analogy would be a student saying that since it is acceptable for a person to look up a question on the Internet if he doesn’t know the answer, students shouldn’t have to memorize facts for tests.
A good analogy takes a complex idea and expresses it in familiar, relatable terms.
Analogies rely on similarities, but in a false analogy, such similarities only occur on the surface. To spot a false analogy, you can look closer and identify differences between the things being compared.