3 November 2017

Twitter is Chem-trail Central

Posted by Dan Satterfield

We’ve reached a sad state when this explanation needs to be written at the beginning of a scientific paper:


The story goes like this: tens of thousands of commercial airliners a day are deliberately spraying some kind of mixture of toxic chemicals—either across the United States or possibly globally—in what would amount to one of the largest covert operations ever. The scheme has been going on for years, perhaps decades (Thomas, 1999). The goal: everything from large-scale weather modification to mass population or mind control. The motive presumably would vary with the goal, but it is typically seen as a version of powerful business, government, and military interests covering up even worse deeds.

Jet contrail over the Chesapeake Bay. It’s water vapor and NOT a mind control chemical. Dan’s photo.

Except none of this is true.

“Chemtrails” are not real. The US Environmental Protection Agency says so (EPA, 2000). Scientists say so (Cairns, 2016; Shearer et al., 2016). An increasing number of investigative journalistic accounts say so (e.g., Dunne, 2017; Streep, 2008). Contrails, made up of water vapor, have been a byproduct of aviation ever since humans began to fly using jet engines (Pretor-Pinney and Sanderson, 2006).

The paper is here, but what alarms me is how prevalent the belief is that those white lines across the sky are secret government attempts at mind and or weather control. The paper points out that most of the conspiracy echo chamber bounces around on Twitter. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise since the U.S. House of Representatives Space, Science, Technology committee itself is one of the worst purveyors of silly conspiracy theories about atmospheric science.

The paper brings up the question of whether acknowledging this type of conspiracy thinking spreads it more widely, and I think that’s  possible. My own feelings are that making fun of those who believe it’s true seems to work.

Read the paper, but the conclusion is below.


Chemtrails are not real. Belief in the chemtrails conspiracy is. Between ~ 30 and ~ 40% of the general US public appear to subscribe to versions of the conspiracy theory, numbers only topped by the large fraction (~ 60%) of social media discourse, more on Twitter, focused on the topic. That renders rational conversations around solar geoengineering and its potential role in climate policy even more difficult than it would be absent the chemtrails conspiracy (Burns et al., 2016). It also shows some of the broader implications of this online community of conspiracy with implications well beyond climate policy.

The widespread belief in these ridiculous theories is confirmation that we are not teaching critical thinking skills to high school students.

We must start.