Conspiracy Theories

Chemtrails, Chemtrails, Everywhere!

In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.

I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.

However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?

Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?

Contrails: What Even Are They?

Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.

Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.

Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.

For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.

Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics

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Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.

Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.

The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.

The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.

Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.

As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.

The “Evidence” for Chemtrails

In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.

Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.

I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.

One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.

People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail - much easier viewing!

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!

So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.

What’s the Harm to Society?

Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.

The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.

Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.

What’s the Harm to Believers?

Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?

Aaaaaaaaargh!

Aaaaaaaaargh!

I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.

Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.

That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.

This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.

There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.

Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.

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Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”

Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.

Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.

This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast. It was featured in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 35 no 1, March 2015. 

Exploiting Tragedy to Push Conspiracy Theories

My sadness over the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday is still incredibly raw and I don’t have a great deal to say on the topic beyond expressing my despair at the loss of life and innocence, my sorrow for those affected and my hope that President Obama will push for some long overdue reform to firearm legislation in the USA.

What galls me though, and what I would like to discuss here, is that some people see tragedies such as the events at Sandy Hook Elementary as opportunities to push their pet conspiracy theories.

Before the dust had settled at the World Trade Center, before the bodies were retrieved, while the brave folk who risked their lives searched through the rubble, conspiracy nuts were penning missives claiming 9-11 to be an inside job.

I do understand that in trying to make sense of what has occurred people can find comfort in believing that the horrors of the world are by design rather than awful circumstance. However, I find myself with little tolerance for those pushing their conspiracy theories in the wake of real grief and while others are searching for evidence-based approaches to prevent similar circumstances arising again.

One conspiracy theory I’ve witnessed getting an airing over the past few days is the belief that medications prescribed for psychiatric conditions are the cause of psychiatric illness. Certainly, no medication is without potential side effects and any person taking medication should be aware of its possible impact on their mental state, but the anti-psych-meds conspiracy theorists claim that psychiatric medication is of no benefit to individuals experiencing mental illness and is causing great harm to peoples’ mental states. In short, they want people with mental illness to cease the treatment that gives them an opportunity to improve their functionality and lessen their suffering.

As with anti-vaccination groups, the anti-psych-med believers feel that their information and views are superior to the evidence-based findings of the scientific community and the expertise of medical professionals.

Unsurprisingly, there is a crossover between anti-vaccinationists and the anti-psych-med movement. Even less surprisingly, given the subject I find myself returning to again and again on this blog (I do have other things to talk about, I promise), the Australian Vaccination Network appear to be anti-psych-med as well as anti-vaccination, as is evidenced by the CCHR* DVDs that they stock in their online shop (and their general disdain for pharmaceutical companies, mainstream medicine and evidence based health advice).

Two days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, presumably pseudonymous “Nancy Novax”, a long time friend of the AVN, posted a link on the AVN’s Facebook page purporting to provide evidence that “SSRIs” (nb: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, a family of antidepressant medications which can also be effective in treating generalised anxiety disorder) “and other psychotropic medications are the true causes of the mass murders and massacres that have been occurring in the US”.

An AVN admin (presumably Meryl Dorey herself, as the post was not initialled for identification), decided it appropriate to share this with the AVN’s followers, with the caption “Is anyone is deluded by thinking the mass shootings in the US r because of the availability of guns? Index 2 SSRI Stories”

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(Link to original post)

To their credit, several of the AVN’s supporters have responded with disgust.. and some of those responses have been allowed to remain on the AVN’s Facebook page. I won’t republish them here and discuss them, but if the thread is deleted by the AVN, I will upload screenshots and link to them here.

The AVN admin also shared this anti-psychiatry diatribe with gross speculation about the shooter in the comments of the post above.

Then there’s this repugnant rant by Mike Adams “The Health Ranger” over on naturalnews.com, titled “Gun control? We need medication control! Newton elementary school shooter Adam Lanza likely on meds; labeled as having ‘personality disorder’

Here’s Sherri Tenpenny hijacking this tragedy to go on an anti-vaccination conspiracy rant:

A comment worth reposting…thanks Arlene:
“We hear how a gun kills children — which is horrible and I will not take anything away from that — but we don’t hear about how our government is killing our children…Yea, now we’re all going to hear how we must have gun control… But doctors who vaccinate kill [and maim] more than all the guns put together.”

And here, the National Vaccine Information Center shares an article from “activist-musicians” The Refusers blatantly attempting to claim that the shootings were the result of “vaccine injury”:

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I’m willing to bet that there are dozens more examples of similar statements and agendas. I’ve seen quite a few more over the past couple of days. I’m not going to go looking for them though…frankly, I’m tired.

I’m tired of charlatans attempting to push people away from considering medical treatment that is in their best interest.

I’m tired of wondering why some people seem to be so very prone to believing that their theories are correct, despite the fact that the rationale to keep them afloat in the face of contradictory evidence increases in absurdity to the extent that they truly believe that mainstream medicine, the scientific community and governments are all colluding to suppress the truth that they and a small handful of their associates are privy to.

And right now, I’m incredibly tired of people trying to piggyback their nutbag lies on to the senseless deaths of innocent people.

* The CCHR are the ambiguously named Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology front group who campaign against psychiatry and psychiatric medicine. As loathe as I am to give them any traffic, I think that their site speaks for itself.

Further Reading (and Viewing)

Penn & Teller beautifully sum up my disdain for conspiracy theories in this episode of Bullshit, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Unless you’re not comfortable with some very strong language from a good humored and angry man (and emphatic gestures from another)… then steer clear.

What’s The Harm? Conspiracy Theories – In fact, I recommend the entire site. It can be terribly sad, but if you ever find yourself shrugging and thinking that woo is not worth challenging, What’s The Harm? provides strong reinforcement that it’s worth maintaining opposition.

Scientology, anti-psychiatry quackery and Mike Adams: It all becomes clear now – post by Orac over on Respectful Insolence, examining Mike Adams’ similar anti-psych-med rant in reaction to the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona last year.

Tenpenny blames vaccines for Newtown shooting – SkewedDistribution on Sherri Tenpenny’s further diatribe on the shootings.

I have contributed some money to assist the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre with funeral costs, via the group We Are Atheism. Here is their collection page.

[Edit] 12:00pm 19/12/2012: Added the NVIC screenshot and put a link to SkewedDistribution’s post in to Further Reading.