I recently had an exchange on Twitter with people who believe in the conspiracy theory of chemtrails. What are chemtrails? Before we answer this question, let’s look at the phenomena of “contrails”. Contrails are a contraction of “condensation trails”. These are the line-shaped clouds that are seen to form behind jet aircrafts. If you look up at the sky, you are very likely to spot some of these contrails being produced by jets flying high over you. Contrails are created when the water in the exhaust of the jet engines condenses to form ice crystals. If the humidity of the environment is high and the temperatures are low enough, these crystals will take up more water, grow, and the contrails will persist for hours. On the other hand, if the humidity is low or if temperatures are not cool enough, contrails will dissipate quickly.
So what’s the conspiracy?
The chemtrail crowd claims that these contrails are really the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude. Thus they call them chemtrails. Why the government does this depends on which conspiracy you believe. There are those who claim that the government is engaged in these activities for the purpose of making people sick or controlling our minds, but the most common argument is that the government is engaged in weather modification to, for example, ward off global warming, and is doing so in a secretive way. These people put forward several arguments. Among them are that the trails last too long to be normal contrails, that long-lasting contrails are only a relatively recent phenomenon, that you can see contrails form even from the tip of the wing of airplanes away from the engines, that barrels of substances claimed to be part of the spraying equipment have been photographed inside airplanes, that many patents have been issued for geoengineering (climate modification), that there are secret climate modification programs going on worldwide, and that the government has lied before in the case of other conspiracies that were exposed. About 10% of the public in the United States believes in this conspiracy, and a higher percentage believes that it’s “somewhat true”.
I did a quick search on the chemtrail issue, and as I suspected, their arguments have been conclusively rebutted dozens of times. If you are in the mood for it, you can check the following sampling of references: Environmental Research Letters, Contrail Science, Metode, Skeptical Inquirer, EPA, and Air Force.
In brief: long-lasting contrails go back to the very beginning of jet aviation way before the conspiracy even got started; contrails forming on the tips of the wings are caused by cavitation of air in humid conditions; the pictures of barrels are interconnected ballast tanks used to simulate passenger motion when testing new airplane designs; the patents for geoengineering are not proof of a conspiracy; there are ongoing programs for specific local weather modification such as cloud seeding to produce rain, and in the US these programs are out in the open and approved by laws. Finally, yes, there have been government conspiracies in the past, but that proves nothing. If you claim there is a chemtrail government conspiracy (claimed by some to span the whole globe and involving many countries), you have to prove it with evidence, and such evidence has not been found even by individuals and organizations that are not exactly pro-government.
It seemed to me that the chemtrail conspiracy proponents belong to that group of people that I call “irrational skeptics”, and my exchange with them further suggested this is the case.
When I brought up the above evidence, some chemtrail conspiracy proponents asked who was paying me. This is a very common response of irrational skeptics. I cannot be in honest disagreement with them. There must be some ulterior motive. Somebody must be “paying me” to contest their arguments. Any challenge to the conspiracy is viewed as proof of the reality of the conspiracy.
The chemtrail conspiracy proponents also wrote things like “watch the skies” or posted selected photographs of planes allegedly involved in the activity, or of barrels inside planes with no context and without addressing the explanations that debunked the arguments implied by the photographs. I realized that none of them had read any of the references I provided or tried to rebut the arguments against chemtrails contained within them. This is another characteristic of irrational skeptics: they are impervious to facts. Nothing will convince them they are wrong.
Finally, another characteristic of irrational skeptics is that they do nothing about it. Chemtrail proponents could raise money and sponsor a credible study to, for example, assess whether a regular jet airplane flying in the right conditions can produce long-lasting contrails. Imagine if the results of such a study favored their position. That would make their claims more believable and people would take them more seriously. But they don’t, because believing in the tenets of the conspiracy is more important than testing them.
In my opinion, the chemtrail conspiracy, as most conspiracies, is nothing more than a mishmash of sweeping generalizations, innuendo, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations, combined with a generous proportion of denial, paranoia, and refusal to face the facts.
Eventually the chemtrail proponents blocked me on twitter. One stated that she is praying for me that I “wake up”. To tell you the truth, I do think that many of these people believe what they claim to believe, and I feel sorry for them. It must be terrifying to live in their world believing all those contrails crisscrossing the sky are harmful chemical agents dumped by the government. These beliefs undoubtedly take a toll on their lives and those of their families. And the irony of it all is that contrails may actually be detrimental to humanity in the sense that they enhance global warming, but this is not a focus of the chemtrail conspiracy.
Picture of the contrails of a jet by Adrian Pingstone is in the public domain.