“Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?

Donald Protheroby Donald Prothero via Skepticblog

For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored this garbage on the internet, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve run into people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well. chemtrails scare meNow the chemtrail community circulates their photos and videos among themselves, put hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But the way the internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it’s getting impossible to ignore them any more, and it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails”, my reaction was “You can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some big government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And the fastest rebuttal I give when I run into one of these nuts is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Anything released at 30,000  feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below, and be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes must fly barely 30 feet off the ground so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!”

As Kyle Hill describes it:

If the chemtrail conspiracy were true, millions of pilots would be needed to crop dust the American population. A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

The entire chemtrail conspiracy idea is a relatively recent one, and an idea that would not have become so popular without the ability of the internet to spread lies. As this site shows, it was an ideas that was simmering among conspiracy theorists in the 1990s when one person in particular, William Thomas, made it popular back in 1996.chemtrail cat_225px By 1997-1999, he was trying to spread his ideas through interviews and media coverage and early conspiracy internet sites, and gotten many believers to buy in to his bizarre fantasy. Then in 1999, he was featured on Paranormal Central, Art Bell’s show on Coast to Coast radio. If there is any fast way to reach the mob of UFO nuts, paranormal fanatics,  and conspiracy theorists besides the internet, Art Bell’s show is the place. Soon the phenomenon exploded far beyond William Thomas or Art Bell, and became a widely accepted idea among the people who tune in to the paranormal or the conspiracy mindset.

So what are “chemtrails”? Allegedly, they are different from normal contrails produced by aircraft, and allegedly they contain some sort of evil chemical that the government conspiracy is trying to poison us with. Normal contrails are  .  .  .

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