Normally, as with 9/11, a conspiracy theory involves convoluted chains of reasoning so torturous that it can take a while to determine how the conjuring trick was done: where the lie was implanted. But often, the anatomy of a conspiracy theory takes the following basic form:
Part 1 is a plausible but flawed technical claim that aims to refute an official account, and provides the starting point for Part 2, which is a multi-threaded stream of whataboutery. To connect Part 1 and 2 a sleight of hand is performed. This is the anatomy of a basic conspiracy theory.
I have been thinking about this because a relative of mine asked me for my opinion about a video that turns out to be a good case study in this form of conspiracy theory. It was a video posted by a Dr Chris Busby relating to the nerve gas used to poison the Skripals:
So, against my better judgment, I sat through the video.
Dr Busby who comes across initially as quite affable proceeds to outline his experience at length. He says he was employed at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham (see Note 1), where he worked, in his words,
“… on the physical chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds or small organic compounds”, and he used “spectroscopic and other methods to determine the structure of these substances, as they were made by the chemists”.
I have no reason to doubt his background, but equally have not attempted to verify it either; in any case, this is immaterial because I judge people on their arguments not their qualifications.
I want to pass over Busby’s first claim – that a state actor was not necessarily involved because (in his view):
“any synthetic organic chemist could knock up something like that without a lot of difficulty”
… which is questionable, but is not the main focus of this post. I do have a few observations on this subsidiary claim in Note 2.
He explains correctly that a Mass Spectroscopy spectrum (let’s abbreviate this as ‘spectrum’ in what follows) is a pattern of the masses of the ionised fragments created when a substance passes through the instrument. This pattern is characteristic of the molecule under investigation.
So a spectrum “identifies a material”. So far, so good.
He now makes his plausible but flawed technical claim. I don’t want to call it a lie because I will assume Dr Busby made it in good faith, but it does undermine his claim to be an ‘expert’, and was contained in the following statement he made:
“… but in order to do that, you need to have a sample of the material, you need to have synthesized the material”
In brief we can summarise the claim as follows: In order for you to identify a substance, you need to have synthesised it.
Curiously, later in the video he says that the USA manufactured the A-234 strain that is allegedly involved (see Note 3) and put the spectrum on the NIST database, but then later took it down.
It does not occur to Dr Busby that Porton Down could have taken a copy of data from NIST before it was removed and used that as the reference spectrum, thereby blowing a huge hole in Busby’s chain of logic (also, see Note 4).
But there is a more fundamental reason why the claim is erroneous even if the data had never existed.
One of the whole points of having a technique like mass spectroscopy is precisely to help researchers in determining the structures of unknown substances, particularly in trace quantities where other structural techniques cannot be used (see Note 5).
To show you why the claim is erroneous, here is an example of a chemistry lecturer taking his students through the process of analysing the spectrum of a substance, in order to establish its structure (Credit: Identify a reasonable structure for the pictured mass spectrum of an unknown sample, Professor Heath’s Chemistry Channel, 6th October 2016).
This method uses knowledge of chemistry, logic and arithmetic to ‘reverse engineer’ the chemical structure, based on the masses of the fragments:
Now it is true that with a library of spectra for known substances, the analysis is greatly accelerated, because we can then compare a sample’s spectrum with ones in the library. This might be called ‘routine diagnostic mass spectroscopy’.
He talked about having done a lot of work on pharmaceuticals that had been synthesised “in Spain or in India”, and clearly here the mode of application would have been the comparison of known molecules manufactured by (in this case Wellcome) with other samples retrieved from other sources – possibly trying to break a patent – but giving away their source due to impurities in the sample (see Note 6).
It then struck me that he must have spent so much time doing this routine diagnostic diagnostic mass spectroscopy that he is now presenting this as the only way in which you can use mass spectroscopy to identify a substance.
He seems to have forgotten the more general use of the method by scientists.
This flawed assumption leads to the scientific and logical chain of reasoning used by Dr Busby in this video.
The sleight of hand arrives when he uses the phrase ‘false flag’ at 6’55” into a 10’19” video.
The chain of logic has been constructed to lead the viewer to this point. Dr Busby was in effect saying ‘to test for the agent, you need to have made it; if you can make it, maybe it got out; and maybe the UK (or US) was responsible for using it!’.
This is an outrageous claim but he avoids directly accusing the UK or US Governments; and this is the sleight of hand. He leaves the viewer to fill in the gap.
This then paves the way for Part 2 of his conspiracy theory which now begins in earnest on the video. He cranks up the rhetoric and offers up an anti-American diatribe, full of conspiracy ideation.
He concludes the video as follows:
“There’s no way there’s any proof that that material that poisoned the Skripal’s came from Russia. That’s the take home message”
On the contrary, the message I took away is that it is sad that an ex-scientist is bending and abusing scientific knowledge to concoct conspiracy theories, to advance his political dogma, and helping to magnify the Kremlin’s whataboutery.
Now, Dr Busby might well respond by saying “but you haven’t proved the Russians did it!”. No, but I would reply ‘you haven’t proved that they didn’t, and as things stand, it is clear that they are the prime suspect’; ask any police inspector how they would assess the situation.
My purpose here was not to prove anything, but to discuss the anatomy of conspiracy theories in general, and debunk this one in particular.
But I do want to highlight one additional point: those that are apologists for the Russian state will demand 100% proof the Russians did it, but are lazily accepting of weak arguments – including Dr Busby’s video – that attempt to point the finger at the UK or US Governments. This is, at least, double standards.
By all means present your political views and theories on world politics, Dr Busby – the UK is a country where we can express our opinions freely – but please don’t dress them up with flawed scientific reasoning masquerading as scientific expertise.
Hunting down a plausible but flawed technical claim is not always as easy as in the case study above, but remember the anatomy, because it is usually easy to spot the sleight of hand that then connects with the main body of a conspiracy theory.
We all need to be inoculated against this kind of conspiracy ideation, and I hope my dissection of this example is helpful to people.
© Richard W. Erskine, 2018
Note 1: The Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham closed in 1995, when the GlaxoWellcome merged company was formed, and after further mergers transformed into the current leading pharmaceutical global entity GSK.
Note 2: Busby’s first claim is that the nerve agent identified by Porton Down is a simple organic compound and therefore easy for a chemist to synthesise. Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said on Sky News (here reported in The Guardian)
“It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”
But the difficulty of synthesising a molecule is not simply based on the number of atoms in the molecule, but rather the synthetic pathway, and all that, and in the case of a nerve agent, the practical difficulties involved in making the stuff in a safe environment, then preparing it in some ‘weaponized’ formulation.
Vil Mirzayanov who was a chemist who worked on Novichok has said that that this process is extremely difficult. Dr Busby thinks he knows better but not being a synthetic chemist (remember, he had chemists making the samples he analysed), cannot claim expertise on the ease or difficulty of nerve agent synthesis.
The UK position is that the extremely pure nature of the samples found in Salisbury point to a state actor. Most of us, and I would include Dr Busby, without experience of the synthesis of the nerve agent in question and its formulation as a weapon, cannot really comment with authority on this question.
Simply saying it is a simple molecule really doesn’t stand up as an argument.
Note 3: While the Russian Ambassador to the UK claims that the strain is A-234, neither the UK Government, nor Porton Down, nor the OPCW have stated which strain was used, and so the question regarding what strain or strains the USA might or might not have synthesized, is pure speculation.
Note 4: He says that if the USA synthesised it (the strain of nerve agent assumed to have been used), then it is possible that Porton Down did so as well. I am not arguing this point either way. The point of this post is to challenge what Dr Busby presents as an unassailable chain of logic, but which is nothing of the sort.
Note 5: There are many other techniques used in general for structuralwork, but not all are applicable in every situation. For large complex biological molecules, X-Ray Crystallography has been very successful, and more recently CryoEM has matured to the point where it is taking over this role. Neither will have used in the case of trace quantities of a nerve agent.
Note 6: He also talks about impurities that can show up in a spectrum and using these as a way to identify a laboratory of origin (in relation to his pharmaceuticals experience), but this is a separate argument, which is irrelevant if the sample is of high purity, which is what OPCW confirmed in relation to the nerve gas found in Salisbury.
.. o O o ..