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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Chemtrails? Nope.

By Phil Plait

I’ve spent a lot of time debunking silly conspiracy claims in my time. NASA faked the Moon landings, the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world in 2012, a mysterious planet named Nibiru would wipe out life on Earth in 2003, the government created fake snow in Atlanta that wouldn’t melt and scorched when burned … I’ve even debunked government officials who claim other government officials are covering up conspiracies.

So when I say I haven’t bothered debunking chemtrails because they’re too goofy even for me, you can glean how I really feel about them.

Still, a handful of people are extremely devoted to the idea that the government is spraying us with chemicals from airplanes, and what you think are simple contrails are actually high doses of mind-altering (or climate-altering) chemical compounds meant to keep us under control, I mean, come on, wake up, sheeple!


In fact, when you see clouds coming from airplanes they really are just the product of condensation of water vapor. But why let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy?

Still, it’s worth trying. That’s why scientists from the University of California–Irvine and the Carnegie Institute got together and researched the topic. They knew they wouldn’t convince the conspiracy theorists, but having a solid source of objective science might help inform the public discourse.

They surveyed hundreds of experts in contrails as well as those who study atmospheric deposition (how various chemicals fall to the ground from the air), presenting them with the evidence provided on various chemtrail websites (mostly in the form of photos of airplane trails and analyses of water and soil samples), asking them to evaluate it.

In the end 77 scientists reported back, and the results were not terribly surprising. Ninety-eight point seven percent (76 out of 77) of the scientists said they had encountered no evidence of a secret large-scale atmospheric program, or SLAP. Everything they saw on the conspiracy websites showed that what they were seeing was the natural consequence of airplanes flying around all on their own without government nefariousness.

Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is the one scientist who dissented. In that case, it’s hardly a smoking gun:

The one participant who answered yes said the evidence s/he had come across was “high levels of atm[ospheric] barium in a remote area with standard ‘low’ soil barium.”

In other words, they found some unusually high amounts of barium, which hardly supports the idea of widespread cover-ups of mind control techniques—and it sounds like the scientist in question was simply saying he or she can’t rule SLAP out, which is a far different thing than saying it’s real. When I can’t find my keys in the morning I can’t rule out that dinosaur ghosts hid them from me. It just seems a tad unlikely.

The research is actually rather interesting, and I encourage you to read it. But as the authors note, it won’t make a dent in the conspiracy theories. The first thing you’ll find out when you deal with people like that is that any evidence against them is part of the cover-up. This is what I call a philosophical cul-de-sac; they’ve removed themselves from any possible evidence and criticism, and at that point I’ve learned to walk away. At least to walk away from them specifically; in some cases it’s worth pursuing the discussion with the public because they’re liable to hear about it, and a place to find actual facts and debunking is a handy thing to make available.

don't panic!

So I’m glad these scientists went to the effort, even though it may seem silly. Conspiracy theorists usually don’t make a big splash in real life, but if they get the ear of a politician, time, money, and effort can indeed be wasted, sometimes on a big scale. Given how anti-science so many members of Congress can be, I don’t think there’s any idea too silly for them to not take seriously.

If Congress critters think the Earth is cooling, that it’s only 6,000 years old, that vaccines are dangerous, and that the existence of snow disproves global warming, then chemtrails don’t seem like that much of a stretch.

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