The Case for Preemptive Debunking

Mick West

Staff member
Skeptics and debunkers often take a reactive role. When something crops up that's got some bunk in it then they take some time to explain what the problem is, pointing out where the believers are in error. The amount of effort put in by the skeptical community is proportional to the amount of exposure a topic gets. High profile topics like 9/11, homeopathy, and UFOs get a lot of attention from skeptics, but low profile topics like chemtrails and FEMA coffins get far less attention.

Coffins4-300.jpgThis is partly because the topics seem such obvious bunk. Chemtrails are just persistent contrails, and FEMA coffins are just stored grave liners. However the people who believe in these various theories seem to take them very seriously, and are going to quite considerable lengths to promote the theories.

Such topics are easy to dismiss when they exist outside of the mainstream, when nobody has heard of them. But if they make the leap out of obscurity, and suddenly acquire a mass of mainstream coverage, then they grab their claws into the minds of millions more people. And once those millions of people start to suspect a theory, it's very difficult to turn around.

Simply debunking for debunking's sake is fun. If the ideas get more widespread then there will be more people you can argue with, more people to debunk, one at a time. But I'm not here just for fun. I actually want to decrease the net amount of bunk in the world in some significant manner. I don't want to play whack-a-mole with a million ditto-heads. I want to stop the bunk before it starts. The best debunking stops the bunk from spreading by debunking it before it starts. We need to preemptively debunk.

I've run two single-issue debunking sites, just as part of my general debunking hobby. The first was on Morgellons Disease (a supposed new disease characterized by a laundry list of symptoms, and the belief in fibers emerging from the skin), and chemtrails (jet contrails supposedly being deliberately sprayed for some reason). Both of these have acted as preemptive debunks.

Morgellons Watch

Not_Morgellons_-_Morgellons_-_Picasa_Web_Albums-20101231-095348.jpgMorgellons was heavily promoted by a small group of believers at the Morgellons Research Foundation. One member was previously employed in TV, and he managed to get a large amount of media coverage in a small span of time. This led to a sudden explosion of coverage on Morgellons. There was very little to counter this, except for my web site, The media picked up on this and I got many offers for interviews, which I only accepted via email. But I was quoted in several places, and the site was mentioned. I think this helped the press from simply accepting the position put forward by the MRF.

Still, the MRF carried on, and the next step was to get the CDC to launch an investigation, which they did via a concentrated campaign of letter writing, faxing and calling Senator's offices. It's quite surprising how easy it is for a vocal minority to get a senator to do something, providing they persist long enough, and have some media coverage for respectability. Several senators, including Barbara Boxer and Hilary CLinton, wrote (via their office, who knows how much they were personally involved) to the CDC, asking them to look into the matter. The CDC launched an investigation in 2007.

This was an unprecedented step. Every single investigation the CDC had undertaken in the past had been on the basis of doctors reporting to the CDC, and the CDC noticing some unusual flare up in signs and symptoms. In this case all there was was a letter writing campaign to a few senators, and a media campaign that made it all the way to the top of the food chain. There was no scientific justification for the study.

But they announced it anyway, which got more media coverage, and more traffic for my site, and more interview requests. Of course now Morgellons had credibility, as the CDC was investigating. The CDC was particularly slow, and have still not reported back, and meanwhile the MRF has faded into obscurity, with no communication from them since July 2009.

The debunking had been done, explanations had been given for all the evidence presented by the believers. The evidence was clearly and truthfully laid out so anyone who did enough reading would be able to discern what the situation was. If it were not for their one bold move of pressuring some senators into pressuring the CDC, then Morgellons would register much much lower on the scale of popular theories.

Contrail Science

below-600.jpgThe next site I set up was Contrail Science, about a topic (chemtrails) which had a considerable overlap with Morgellons. In fact it started as a similar health scare, with the trails apparently being some noxious mixture of chemical that you needed to buy specific sets of vitamins (conveniently also sold by the chief promoter of the theory). Both theories pray upon hypochondria. Many people even think that Morgellons is spread (or caused or amplified) by chemtrails.

Chemtrails also got some media coverage, although with no one body promoting the theory, the coverage was sporadic, and mixed in message. I was late to the party, and most of the media coverage already existed by the time I put up my blog. I was left with debunking it well after the fact. I did this with some success, and now contrail science it routinely brought up to rebut chemtrail arguments in online discussions. I have thousands of incoming links, mostly from discussion board, and many of them from conspiracy-oriented boards. Some of the top linked boards are, and - sites which you perhaps expect to have more believers, but here they are using my site to debunk contrails.

Being the go-to site is pre-emptive debunking, to a degree. I write an article once to explain that contrails actually have always persisted and spread, then that article gets re-used by tens or hundreds of other people, vastly magnifying my original effort. Had I just used all that effort in laying out the evidence in a variety of posts on some forum, then the effort would have been diluted, and lost.

Where the power of preemptive debunking really takes off exponentially is when you manage to debunk a story before the media gets a hold of it. This is kind of hard to measure, as it's unlikely that you would know if someone researched a subject for an article or tv piece, and decided to present it in a different way because of something you wrote. However I have seen this happen several times with Morgellons, most specifically when Nature magazine (a highly regarded scientific journal) used a photo composition of mine to show the similarities between Morgellons (in one particular patient) and Neurotic Excoriations.

Mystery Missile

_DSC6529-20101114-121937.jpgBut the most striking example was when the story was debunked right on the cusp, as the wave of media attention was in full flow, blasting out the message that a mystery missile had been fired off the coast of Los Angeles, and nobody knew what it was. The nation was gripped by fear, or at least puzzlement and uncertainty.

The story broke locally, and then quickly nationally, after sunset on November 8th 2010, when a local CBS affiliate in Los Angeles shot some footage of a Jet Contrail arcing over the horizon towards Long Beach. They mistook it for a missile launch, showed it to an old retired defense secretary who agreed, and then went with that story.

I'd effectively debunked it before it had started. There was a similar contrail from the previous year that also looked like a missile. I'd already written an article on it, so I just updated it with the new information, bumped it to the front page of my web site, and posted two or three links in comments to a couple of the news stories.

The next day I was on CBS Evening news, CNN, KPCC, and the Discovery Channel, explaining what happened. had half a million unique visitors in three days.

The bunk should have stopped there. It didn't, it kept going. In a quite astonishing display of the media's disregard of actual facts, and insistence on pushing a message, we got people continuing to insist it was a missile. Glen Beck said as much to Sarah Palin, and she did not disagree.

The initial article should really have been enough, but the missile was a strong optical illusion, and people had a hard time wrapping their heads around it - they continued to think that it was going straight up when it was going horizontal. Eventually, with the help of others, I got together a 3D simulation in Google Earth that show unequivocally that the images matched the path of flight UPS902 exactly, in a way that was impossible to refute. There are still some "true believers" who refuse to accept anything other than the evidence of their own eyes interpreted by Glenn Beck, but from the mainstream perspective, it's essentially debunked.

Chemtrails Approaches the Arizona Senate

The Mystery Missile story wasn't even about chemtrails though. Contrailscience covers all kinds of misconceptions about contrails, and the mystery missile was just one small part of it. The real meat of the site is in debunking the chemtrail theory, which never really got the kind of concentrated coverage that Morgellons did. Until, perhaps, now.

Legislators confronted with chemtrail concerns

PHOENIX - She might be retired from political life, but former state senator Karen Johnson is not retired from being an activist. After serving in the House of Representatives for eight years and the senate for four, Johnson retired in 2008 to her home in Linden where she now has time to garden and become more active in issues that concern her.

One of these issues took her on a recent trip back to the state capital to try to bring the subject of chemtrails and geoengineering to her former colleagues, including Governor Jan Brewer and Senator Sylvia Allen who is from Snowflake
Though it was moving day and most legislators were not in their offices, the group met with Senator Allen for a few moments in her office. Senator Allen stated that she has been getting calls from her constituents on the issue and is interested in taking a look at the packet.
Other members of Johnson's group included friends Dinah Lundell and Doug and Judy Staab. A reporter from the Capitol Times newspaper was also there to do a short interview with Johnson.
Johnson managed to find a few other officials including Kevin Kinsall who works for Brewer in Environmental Quality. He took the packet and said he would review it and get back to Johnson.
Senator Cecil Ash from District 18 also promised to look into the issue. He is Chairman of the Health and Human Services committee.
Governor Brewer was not in her office, but staff members were handed the packets and asked to pass them on to their legislators. Johnson hopes that enough of them will become interested in the information to start a public dialogue on the issue. She also would like to see Arizona declare the state a "no-fly zone" for chemtrail spraying.
"The data found from the producers shows that one of the chemicals being sprayed is aluminum oxide which is toxic to all life," said an angry Johnson. "Alzheimer's has increased rapidly since they started spraying in the late 1990s."
This kind of thing is not new to former State Senator Johnson, she's previously been quite active in the 9/11 truther movement, giving speeches and statements that parroted versions of the truther theories, not particularly well.
Think back to that day: Those towers didn't just fall down. If they had, we would have had huge chunks of concrete breaking apart and falling into a massive pile of rubble. The buildings likely would have toppled erratically sideways and left a much larger pile of debris. But that's not what we witnessed. The towers didn't collapse - they disintegrated. We watched them explode into dust, not knowing exactly what we were seeing. Very little intact concrete was found in the rubble. The sheer energy required to pulverize that much concrete into dust can only come from an explosive process. Reputable scientists, engineers, architects and firemen with no political angle dispute the 9/11 Commission report and say that the evidence indicates the Twin Towers and Building 7 came down due to controlled-demolition explosions. Tests corroborate the presence of thermite, an explosive used in building demolitions, at the site of the Twin Towers and Building 7. Thermite also explains the pools of molten steel in the basement, which no one has been able to otherwise explain and which the National Institute of Standards and Technology simply denies.
The 9/11 conspiracy theory has been very robustly debunked, and very few people outside of the hardcore true-believers want to go there anymore, leaving it to entertainers like Jesse Ventura to roll out the theory again and again to have it knocked down just like before.

So Johnson is stepping into new territory. She's bought into the "chemtrail" theory, and is attempting to promote it. It does not seem particularly likely she will succeed, given her previous extreme positions. But the American media seems primed for stories like this. Segments of the media like Fox News thrive primarily on promoting fear as a form of entertainment. Such a story, if it can be given sufficient credibility, is something they would love to push. Remember Fox News was pushing the Mystery Missile theory for days (or weeks for Beck) after more traditional outlets had simply said what it obviously was, and moved on.

So the risk here is that something happens to allow the story to gather weight, and get some critical momentum going that allows it to break through into the mainstream. Something like a documentary film being released, with tests showing the chemtrails are real, and a former state senator convincing the governor to look into it.

That's why you've got to preemptively debunk (prebunk?) these things either way ahead of time for the slower moving theories, or as quickly as possible for the sudden sneak attack theories. That's why I tried to debunk "What in the World are they Spraying" as soon, and as comprehensively, as possible. I watched the film, checked the facts, explained them all, and put this in an easily understandable web page (which could probably be a better, and probably misses a few points).

So now, when a journalist want to see if they should cover this story, they will hopefully find my site, and hopefully understand that really there's no science in the film. The tests don't actually show anything. The connections are specious. There's no real story, other than another conspiracy theory.

A debunk in time saves nine, or maybe a million. Preemptive debunking is the most effective form of debunking possible, inoculating and and shielding the vulnerable en mass, rather than having to treat them one at a time after they are fully infected by bunk.


Senior Member.
So, what is the next story to debunk ? Are there any on the rise ?

In Germany, the fight about homeopathy just entered the main stage, with well-established newspapers and magazines issuing skeptical articles, but an overwhelming part of the population (and silent support from some politicians) on the other side. I think the case looks pretty much hopeless - which rather supports your point of view here, since this "idea" has a history of roughly 200 years and should have been taken on seriously in the seventies already, when it began to make a rebound after a ditch following WW II.

Mick West

Staff member
Homeopathy really has been debunked, in the sense that all the science is there to show that it does not work. Unfortunately the bunk is so widespread (there are homeopathic hospitals), that what is needed is really something different from simple debunking, it's certainly too late for preemptive debunking.

Mick West

Staff member
I suppose you could divide pre-epmtive debunking into several types

  • Debunking things before they happen - things like sun-lit contrails. Provide a detailed and accessible explanation so that next time it happens, people can figure out what it is.
  • Debunking things while still in the fringe - new conspiracy theories pop up first on conspiracy sites. Debunk them before they get into the local media, or spread too far on YouTube.
  • Debunking things before they hit the mainstream media - Like, once the Mystery Missile got on Fox News, a whole load of true believers were born. You want to stop Fox from going with the believers.
  • Debunking things before they LEAVE the mainstream media - attention can be good if you are ready for it, and you can use the media attention to also promote access to the skeptical point of view. Once the attention fades, you have lost your chance to reach people.
  • Debunking established topics - Like Homeopathy - here again, you want as much attention on the topic as possible. I think 80% of homeopathy users think they are herbal. If the media focusses attention on the subject, then people will find out that it's just water, and they might think twice about relying on it.


Senior Member.
Homeopathy - due to its history - is probably the worst example when it comes to pre-emptive debunking.

But I think there is a new type of bunk that skips stages One and Two because it is fueled - if not created - by the main stream media (well, a certain fraction of it).

We have the "Millennium Winter" hoax in Europe now, maybe you heard about it. First there was the idea of the broken Gulf stream. A good wrap-up is here:

Obviously, a thing like this has the potential to resonate in all people who watched "The Day After Tomorrow" (BTW: the role of disaster movies in the conspiracy phenomenon may be worth scrutinizing).
Anyway, this (proven wrong) statement became a building block for existing and new conspiracy ideas revolving about global warming or NWO, but still on an obscure level.

What made it explode was the early and cold winter weather. When a certain part of the MSM felt urged to do winter weather pieces, they thankfully made use of the "stall alarm" they found in the course of their "research". Add the statement of a Polish climatologist who answered a purely hypothetical question, and even some of the more careful media outlets raised their eyebrows.

It's hard to see where pre-emptive debunking could have applied here because it was made big by the media (and a coincidental harsh winter).

Mick West

Staff member
That type of sudden story calls for Just-In-Time debunking, which that eartheasy piece seems to do pretty well. I like that they advise people to "write a polite letter to the to editors asking for a correction". Action is required.

Interesting point about the role of movies. I've heard that a lot of bunk got magnified by the popularity of the X-Files, and similarly themed shoes and movies continue to fuel the fire. In some ways it's worse now with pseudo-reality shows like Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory.


Senior Member.
Since many viral falsehoods are born out of the media, particularly television, it would be nice to see a TV series on debunking.

(There is Mythbusters, which is very popular. But they refuse to tackle the bigger reason is they cannot preform explosive tests on say...the NWO, or Area 51. :cool:)

I'd like to see a weekly TV show that looks at the previous week's headlines and other sensational stories that have just begun to go bunk, and debunk them, and correct them, setting the record straight with facts, interviews, etc.

I don't think the vast majority of the public realizes some of the wild bunk that is out could be quite entertaining to expose bits and parts of ideas that you'd find in forums such as PrisonPlanet or Icke.

Another segment could be on long-standing beliefs such as chemtrails, orbs, mind control, etc....

Mr. Suntour

New Member
I'd love to see a 3 hour television special that appears once every few months, which would involve true conspiracy theorists/believers in each field (chemtrails/haarp/911/homeopathy etc) to present an unbiased by anyone point of view.

For example, "chemtrails" - Load up an airplane with testing equipment, all ok'd by both the skeptic and the conspiracy (CS) theorists. Find a location and time determined by the CS theorists and unknown by anyone but the few people involved in the testing. That way they can't say "the government knew we'd be testing this area, so they didn't use the tainted fuel". Take off and fly behind hundreds of different airliners (with the FAA's blessing of course) allowing the CS theorists to dictate which trails to test, hopefully there would be plenty of "grid" and "X" formations to test. The CS theorists would be there every step of the way to make sure nothing was "fixed" in favor of the debunkers.

Eh, just a pipe dream I guess.

Mick West

Staff member
Unfortunately a show with mostly negative results would be much less interesting that sensationalism, like Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory.

Mythbusters did handle the Moon Landing Hoax quite well. And they do like blowing things up.


Senior Member.
What shouldn't happen, is Popular Mechanics going on Glen Beck (idiot) to air their debunking.
What was that about ?


Closed Account
Dunno - could you provide a summary for those of us who live in places where the show is not shown?

David Katz

New Member
Hello Mick,

I want to thank you for what you do. It blows my mind how many people I know who believe in such things as chemtrails. Just today I heard a guy saying he was out in his yard and had to go inside because of all the chemtrails, and wished someone would knock all those spray planes out of the sky. I get tired of the usually fruitless task of replying to such people, so I often just refer them to your excellent site. You might think this would convince them of the error of their ways, but I am afraid that this rarely happens. But keep up the good work.



David Katz;41647 said:
Hello Mick,

I want to thank you for what you do. It blows my mind how many people I know who believe in such things as chemtrails. Just today I heard a guy saying he was out in his yard and had to go inside because of all the chemtrails, and wished someone would knock all those spray planes out of the sky. I get tired of the usually fruitless task of replying to such people, so I often just refer them to your excellent site. You might think this would convince them of the error of their ways, but I am afraid that this rarely happens. But keep up the good work.

David is this you David ?
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