From January to April 2008, I taught an unusual upper-level undergraduate philosophy course on Argumentation Theory at McMaster University. The course focused on such questions as “What makes a good argument good?” and “What makes a belief rational?” — where an argument is understood as an exercise in rational persuasion aimed at inculcating rational belief. And approximately five weeks of the course were devoted to studying the arguments of the 9/11 truth movement.
I have two purposes in writing this essay. First, teaching this course was a very positive experience and, by writing about it, I hope to encourage other academics to explore ways of incorporating this kind of material within the curriculum at their own universities. My students enjoyed and benefited from this course, I believe, and teaching is one effective way of raising the profile of these important issues.
Second, I want to discuss some of the more interesting ways in which some of my students responded to, and in particular resisted the arguments presented by David Ray Griffin in The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (hereafter referred to as NPH). Griffin has written extensively about the various reasons why so many people simply dismiss or refuse to examine critically, with a fair and open mind, the arguments of the 9/11 truth movement. My students, however, did take the time to study these arguments carefully, and many of them responded in thoughtful and creative ways. In what follows, I will describe these responses in what I hope is a fair and charitable manner, as well as offer a few critical reflections of my own. (Of the six responses discussed below, I should note that the fourth alone is entirely my own response. It is also a more positive criticism, which explains why it is not followed by a rebuttal.) My aim, of course, is not to present the final, definitive word on any of these topics, but to stimulate further constructive debate that will promote the possibility of rational persuasion. I begin, however, with a brief summary of the structure and organization of the course in question.