One requirement for arguing with 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that you have to like the discussion process. Most people, myself included, believe conspiracy theories like the 9/11 conspiracy are ridiculous. But if they are ridiculous, why isn’t it easy to prove it? If one knew what the problems were in proving it, perhaps more plausible suppositions could be easily disproved. Here are some ground rules for arguing what people consider as far-fetched contentions.

Beyond the broad methods of argumentation, the 9/11 Conspiracy theory has a great variety of arguments, with many of them based on science or engineering. Scientists and engineers rarely have the patience to sort through them, but I think that doing so is interesting.

Some say that it is pointless to argue conspiracy theories because you can’t win. But how many arguments of any kind are winnable? You may get an immediate victory in a discussion of where to have lunch, but that is only because there is time pressure involved. On anything substantial, the chances of a debate opponent conceding on the spot are slim. You can, however, accomplish four things: you can plant a seed of doubt that may ultimately flower, you can convince silent spectators, you can sharpen you understanding of logical processes, and you can learn interesting facts related to the subject.

There is no better way to fully understand a subject than to argue it. It’s better than teaching. Arguing extreme claims of any type forces you to examine the fundamental issues about how theories are formed, tested, and sustained. I have learned a great deal by arguing against holocaust denial, “scientific” racism, world Jewish conspiracy, Creationism, and, especially, 9/11 Conspiracy.

Here I present some rules of the road for arguing extreme claims. Trust me, I’ve learned these first hand.

Rule 1. Don’t call the theory ridiculous.

Never call a ridiculous theory ridiculous. Doing so adds nothing to the debate, and it generates fluff that obscures the issues at hand. The response will be that you are blind, stupid, and a pawn of the conspiracy. The charges and counter-changes go nowhere. Being ridiculous is a conclusion, and it is wrong to present it as a premise. In general, some ridiculous theories ultimately prove correct, and then where would you be? Nothing is more ridiculous on the face of it than quantum theory, but it turned out to be true. Start on a level playing field. If you are unable to clear your mind of your own prejudice against the theory you will never be able to debate it well.

Rule 2. Don’t casually accept factual premises that are offered.

For example, “The World Trade Center Tower collapsed in ten seconds. A Ph.D. physicist wrote a paper showing that is the speed of free fall, with no resistance at all from the building structure. You can’t tell me that happened without explosives removing all the strength from the structure.” or “Not a single shred of debris was ever found from the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania. No one ever saw the actual plane, just the explosion and smoke. That couldn’t happen if there were actually an airplane there.” In fact, it took over 40 seconds for the WTC tower to collapse. Flight 93 hit soft earth vertically at nearly the speed of sound, so it was mostly buried, but 95% of the wreckage was recovered and ultimately returned to United Airlines. Many people saw Flight 93 descend before the crash.

This sort of thing happens repeatedly. The conspiracy theorists are not lying, they believe what they are saying. They go off half-cocked. A piece of the WTC facade fell free after the collision, causing a first impact in ten seconds, but the tower as a whole took much longer to collapse. The Flight 93 crash was not immediately visible, but it was recovered. Early reports or confused information are accepted as fact and never checked. Bad information lives forever on the Internet, ready to be discovered anew despite it having been proven false.

Rule 3. Consider the relevance of the expertise of a claimed expert

Pilots are experts at flying aircraft, but they are not experts at aerodynamics or what happens in crashes. A trained photo interpreter is an expert at judging the size of a hole in a wall, but has no expertise in how large a hole ought to be made by an aircraft or explosion. Pilots should not be expected to know how difficult it is to fly a plane at 500 mph close to the ground, because they don’t do that. Trained journalists report what appears in front of them, but they have no expertise in identifying controlled demolitions.

Rule 4. Consider Claims One-by-One

Zealous proponents of theories like to raise 50 issues at once, under the notion that even if most of them are explained, what remains either proves their case or justifies “an independent investigation.” Keep the discussion organized and make lists of the issues, going through them systematically. Pick the top five. I predict that if you know your stuff your opponent will decline further discussion after you have argued those. He will pronounce you hopeless and leave the room.

Rule 5. Keep a Running Tally of the Number of Conspirators

To accomplish the alleged controlled demolition of the WTC towers as claimed by conspirators, each floor must have been packed with explosives. How many people would that take, and how long? How many of the occupants and visitors would have to participate in the cover-up to prevent that effort from becoming known beforehand? Don’t let it go at “It wouldn’t take many.” Do some research and break in down into the subtasks, like removing wallboard to expose the beams, hauling in the explosives, wiring them up, restoring the building appearance to cover up the work, and preventing anyone from inadvertently discovering what was done. The numbers of conspirators soars, so eventually you can ask how it is possible to keep every person involved from ever spilling the beans.

Rule 6. Acknowledge Valid Points

Quickly acknowledge that conspiracies have existed in history, because they have. There were all sorts of conspiracies to assassinate rulers and overthrow governments. That is granted. Get on to the specifics of the present allegations. Do not, however, accept the premise that historical events happen either by chance or by conspiracy. Sunrise occurs every day with neither chance nor conspiracy involved. History happens by the flow of interacting events which is neither chance nor random.

If you argue by denying each and every element of an argument, you may well make a good debater or a good lawyer, but your credibility as a sincere analyst drops precipitously, and you will spend most of your time on the wrong side of specific points. Arguing that the sky is not always blue, or other such debaters points, is a waste of time. Get on with matters of substance. The thing to watch for is what the stipulated possibilities imply. It’s true that some fish are sharks, but that doesn’t say much about the little goldfish in your fish bowl. In general there are conspiracies, but that implies nothing about the truth of the present accusations of conspiracy.

Rule 7. Ask for Direct Evidence of Conspiracy

Conspiracies, alien invaders from outer space, and temperamental deities all can provide perfect explanations of anything that is otherwise puzzling. Aliens and deities are even better explanations than conspirators, because they are not bound by the limitations of current technology or even the laws of nature — the aliens could be from another dimension. Ask for memos, photographs, plans, tape recordings, video, or eye-witness testimony of participating conspirators. The mafia is really good at keeping secrets, but the evidence of their conspiracies gets out. Defectors wish to clear their conscience, to express remorse, to to save their souls, and, let us not forget, to get fabulous book deals. Conspiracy theorists point to innocent dupes tricked into participating in the conspiracy under some guise. After the events unfolded, many such people would be eager to provide testimony.

Those seven rules set the stage for arguing the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory. Think of other theories and how the rules may apply to those cases as well.

A final caution: many good people hold strange beliefs. The degree to which people compartmentalize their thinking is a wonder to behold. The guy who is nuts about one thing or another may simultaneously make a fine friend, a trusted colleague, a responsible civic leader, or a genuine authority on a different subject. It all depends on what the particular odd belief implies. It usually implies less than one supposes. Nobel chemist Linus Pauling had the erroneous belief that vitamin C would cure nearly anything; transistor-inventor William Shockley was a racist. They were nonetheless experts in their fields. Most of us have had crazy uncles who managed to be very good people, and in fact had valuable insights on other things.

The world would be better off with more honest debate, even on difficult subjects.