Sunday, April 26, 2009

Refuting Another "Open-Source Journal" (read: Blog) post

So I found a couple of pretty thorough refutations of the Jones et al. Blog post (er, "open-source journal post") about "thermite" in the ruins of 9/11. This has been fairly trounced here. Here we'll touch on some of the basic statistical errors their post made, and the basic flaws with their analysis. The rest I leave to the chemical engineering majors.

It's already been well established that the sample data Jones et al. borrow don't contain thermite. They contain kaolinite. In fact, because the data they used in the paper is open-source, you can do the analysis yourself, as one gentleman over at JREF did.

I'll make this refutation quick. The first thing I noticed is that Jones et al. didn't actually collect any samples - "private citizens of New York" mailed them chunks of anonymous material that they simply trusted to be part of a representative scatter-sample of ruins of the buildings not collected from one concentrated area, which would introduce systematic error into their analysis. This is improbable - due to the cordoning off of sections of the site immediately after the attacks, it is probable that these samples are all from one small un-closed-off area and are hence useless for analytical purposes.

They offer a map purporting to demonstrate where the samples were found, but they have no way of ascertaining this. In fact, they actually lie about this in the content of the article - they say that, in "his videotaped testimony," one of the donors reports their precise location at the time the sample was collected. This is false - they say where they were when the tower fell. The second sample is even worse - they found "dust" "on a stack of folded laundry near a window." So they deliver a sample that is more than what may have been dust from the WTC site, and is possibly contaminated by cleaning agents, which linger in clothing after being washed. They can't even identify where the third sample came from - the best they have is the address of the envelope that the sample came on. Number four had been pieces of someone's apartment that she presumed were mostly-WTC building materials, and wouldn't enclose an affidavit testifying to the integrity of the sample. And what do they benchmark against? "Paint." Their control group isn't, say, a similar or target compound (that would require work, or academic rigor, or intellectual honesty, I suppose). It's paint.

So we don't actually have any evidence to work with. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and excuse them this minor fraud - something you're good at when it's someone you've trained yourself to believe in already.

They then go on to contaminate their sample, as they themselves concede. After failing to get any interesting findings through a handful of methods, they go on to apply separating solvents to try to cull something useful to their religion from the material. As they say:

"Prior to soaking the chip in MEK an XEDS spectrum was acquired from an area of the red-layer surface. The resulting spectrum, shown in Fig. (14), produced the expected peaks for Fe, Si, Al, O, and C. Other peaks included calcium, sulfur, zinc, chromium and potassium. The occurrence of these elements could be attributed to surface contamination due to the fact that the analysis was performed on the as-collected surface of the red layer. The large Ca and S peaks may be due to contamination with gypsum from the pulverized wallboard material in the buildings."

And then they decide that aluminum, iron and oxygen can only exist if they're dealing with thermite:

"To check the quantification method, tests were performed with the known chemical, iron (III) oxide, and the elemental quantification was found to yield consistent and repeatable results for iron and oxygen. In particular we made eight 50-second measurements on Fe2O3 samples and found consistency for iron (± 6.2%, 1 sigma) and for oxygen (± 3.4%, 1 sigma) with the O/Fe ratio consistently near 1.5 as expected. The existence of elemental aluminum and iron oxide leads to the obvious hypothesis that the material may contain thermite."

No word yet on if Jones knows what heat does to metal.

Particularly baffling language is used in explaining how they went about estimating how much of what kind of element they could see in each of their pictures:

"A conventional quantitative analysis routine was used to estimate the elemental contents."

Nothing else. Nothing else! How did they decide how suspicious they should be of their own data? Why, "A conventional quantitative analysis routine," of course. Nothing to be suspicious of there.

The key point of their analysis is simply, um, wrong:

"That thermitic reactions from the red/gray chips have indeed occurred in the DSC (rising temperature method of ignition) is confirmed by the combined observation of 1) highly energetic reactions occurring at approximately 430 °C, 2) iron-rich sphere formation so that the product
must have been sufficiently hot to be molten (over 1400 °C for iron and iron oxide), 3) spheres, spheroids and nonspheroidal residues in which the iron content exceeds the oxygen content. Significant elemental iron is now present as expected from the thermitic reduction-oxidation reaction of aluminum and iron oxide."

This is simply not true. What the presence of such material necessitates is that this (small, non-representative) sample was previously subjected to temperatures that would produce that compound, not that the temperatures required to "set off" such a compound existed. No where in their study do they actually find that the elements they found were ever actually "compounded" into a thermitic configuration - they found the elements, then take some pictures of circular clumps in the debris, and use a nonexistent "quantitative method" to arrive at their pre-chosen conclusion.

Now that's science, folks.

And then we can just watch their conclusions devolve into further silliness from there:

"Could the Red Material Be Unreacted “Super-
We have noted that ordinary thermite acts as an incendiary when ignited. However, when the ingredients are ultrafine-grain and are intimately mixed, the mixture reacts very rapidly, even explosively. Thus, there is a highly energetic form of thermite known as an energetic nanocomposite or “super-thermite,” composed of aluminum and iron oxide with at least one component being approximately 100 nm or less, often along with silicon and carbon."

See, they used a very, very tiny sample, therefore they're dealing with a "super-thermite" compound. After reading the high number of credulous cultists who willingly swallowed their article, I'm hoping that we'll get some responses from them just checking their understanding: Do you know that a <100nm sample does not mean you're dealing with a <100nm compound component? I.e., are you a better scientist than Steve Jones?

This thing is just a joke from front to back. Frankly, I don't understand what all the hullabaloo is about. How many 9/11 deniers have actually read this thing and can honestly say they find it convincing?