Chemtrails is a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory based on the notion that the government is secretly releasing mind-controlling chemicals that sterilize people from airplanes. In reality, it is a combination of water vapor and airplane exhausts. It is bad for the environment, but it is not even close to the fantasies put forward by conspiracy theorists. This is obvious from the realization that world population has increased from ~3 billion in the late 1950s to ~7 billion in the early 2010s, despite increased airplane traffic all over the world. In a similar fashion, the Flynn effect suggests that IQs are increasing by 3 points per decade. So the predictions made by the chemtrails conspiracy theory is refuted on all levels.
However, pseudoscientific cranks almost never let reality come in the way of a tantalizing conspiracy theory that appeal to their own biases and they make up increasingly bizarre and convoluted ideas as they go along. On 11th August 2015, the nuclear chemist J. Marvin Herndon got a paper that promoted chemtrails conspiracy theory published in an obscure journal called International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014 impact factor 2.063 according to their own website).
What was the paper about?
The gist of the paper (webcite) is that chemtrails consists of hazardous ash from the combustion of goals. This stuff is being sprayed by the government in order to alter the weather and the long-term climate (presumably in an effort to stop or mitigate climate change). Herndon compared the concentration of chemical elements in rainwater with the same elements from water that had been exposed to this kind of dangerous carbon ash, and compared chemical elements from dust on HEPA filters with those in unleached ash. He argues that the concentrations are the same, and that this demonstrates his position.
Why was the paper retracted?
On 2nd September 2015, this paper was retracted due to multiple problems and errors. The retraction notice (webcite) lists three damaging issues:
The value for average leachate concentration of Aluminum mentioned in Table 1 and used by the author to normalize the data presented in Figures 2, 3, 4 and 5 is incorrect is incorrect [sic]. The author uses 70,000 µg/kg, while the correct value resulting from the un-leached European coal fly ash samples measurements published by Moreno et al. ) is 140,000,000 µg/kg. This error invalidates the conclusions of the article.
In other words, Herndon carried out a vastly inappropriate normalization. In fact, it was off by a factor of 2000 (three orders of magnitude). In comparison, this is like claiming that the mass of a nickel (an American 5 cent coin) is really 10 kilograms instead of 5 grams. Imagine walking around with half a dozen of those coins in your wallet. Not a pleasant experience, to be sure. Since this normalization controls the outcome of the comparisons, it means that the major conclusions of the paper is flawed. This should have been caught by most competent reviewers, but at least the journal retracted it.
The chemical compositions obtained for rainwater and HEPA air filter dust are only compared to chemical compositions obtained for coal-fly-ash leaching experiments . The author did not attempt to compare his results to chemical compositions of other potential sources. Thus, at this stage, the work is preliminary since it is not clear what the source of these chemicals is.
The author only compared the environmental samples with the leaching experiments. This is problematic, because it means that no alternative hypotheses was entertained which makes the research superficial and extremely preliminary. This does not justify the strong conclusions made in the paper.
The language of the paper is often not sufficiently scientifically objective for a research article.
Although they do not cite specific examples, this issue probably refers to the conspiracy theory ideation that runs throughout the paper, particularly claims about governments being involved in large-scale geoengineering by airplane. Although the main text never mentions chemtrails, chemtrails is listed as a keyword for the paper and the author cites at least one known chemtrails publication (“Das Chemtrailhandbuch” by Jörg Lorenz).
Where can I read more about the problems with this paper?
Detailed analyses of both the paper and the retraction has been made by several people and groups:
Retraction Watch (webcite) provides more details on why the paper was retracted, including communication with the journal editor and Herndon himself.
Jeffrey Beall (webcite), creator of the Beall list for predatory open access journals, argues that this is merely the latest example of pseudoscience published by the journal in question.
Mike West (webcite) and others at the Metabunk.org website digs into the finer scientific details.
Bonus round: reactions by pseudoscientific cranks
This story has not quite yet broken in the chemtrails community, but some reactions are starting to pop up around on various blogs. A commenter on the blog Co-Creating Our Future on Planet Earth wrote:
Wonderful news but when I downloaded the PDF all the pages were labelled “RETRACTED”. I don’t get it Mam. Can you clear this up?
The blogger, going by the name of Jean, replies with:
Frank, it’s been done on purpose. It speaks the TRUTH,, and of course they are trying their best to keep it from us. . . Hold tight, Frank, and hugs, ~Jean
So instead of discussing the many flaws with the chemtrail paper in question, or even linking to the retraction notice, Jean prefers to appeal to malicious intentions and even more conspiratorial thinking. The response also fails basic logic as the paper is still up for anyone to read should they want to. It is also problematic that Jean encourages fellow believers to ignore the fact that the paper was retracted, and, for a lack of better words, “keep the faith”.
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