Canadian Consulting Engineer

Discerning between fiction and fact

Engineers like certainty; their work depends on the ability to rely on the laws of physics and mathematics....

June 1, 2006   By Bronwen Parsons

Engineers like certainty; their work depends on the ability to rely on the laws of physics and mathematics.

But in the general culture it’s becoming difficult to trust what you read. The explosion of spurious information on the internet, combined with a cavalier post-modern approach to “truth” in publishing, is making the line between fact and fiction dangerously blurred.

On the literary front, Canadian author James Frey has earned more than $5 million from his supposed autobiography A Million Little Pieces about his days as a drug addict. Too bad that his harrowing memories have been exposed as mostly fairytales. Then there are the 40 million-plus copies sold of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and the movie that followed. The story purports to be based on an “accurate” description of documents, architecture and art. On closer inspection and reference to trustworthy academics, Brown’s foundation crumbles into dust.

One of the most startling examples of misinformation being spread around recently has implications for engineering. When I first heard someone express doubt that two planes really hit New York’s World Trade Center I could hardly believe my ears. Now I hear there are all kinds of web sites propagating conspiracy theories about the terrorist attack. There is even a conference in Chicago as I write held by a group calling itself “Scholars for 9/11 Truth.” They hold that the twin towers were pre-stacked with explosives by U.S. agents and the whole fiasco was a plot by the Bush administration to destabilize the American people and open the way to invading oil-rich Iraq.

Reasonably intelligent people actually believe this stuff. Never mind that scores of engineers and experts with the highest credentials combed Ground Zero and have spent years examining the evidence. Their reports are available on the internet for all to see (http://wtc.nist.gov; www.fema.gov).

Often it’s by focusing on details and consulting knowledgeable experts that we can expose the fallacies and penetrate to the truth. Take for example the claims of a conspiracy theorist quoted in Maclean’s May 15 issue. In “Hijacking the truth on 9/11,” a Steven Jones argues that the fires at the World Trade Center couldn’t have caused the buildings to collapse because “the melting point of steel is about 1480C while the maximum temperature of a jet fuel fire is about 980C.”

Now to the casual reader this sounds convincing. Here are numbers to compare. But ask an expert in steel structures and fire, and Jones’ argument tumbles faster than the towers. Dr. Venkatesh Kodur, P.Eng. was at Ground Zero as part of the ASCE/FEMA investigating team. He was also with Canada’s National Research Council’s Institute for Research in Construction. On the phone Dr. Kodur explains that while it’s true steel melts at 1480C, it loses its carrying capacity at 538C — hence the structural collapse.

We need to be on our guard. With the rise of internet blogs and “citizen journalism” it is easy for anyone with a devious mind to lead the public madly off in any direction. The internet has opened up worlds of resources for us. But the need for authoritative experts and trustworthy publishers to help us filter through the mass of information and misinformation has never been so great.


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