Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Conspiracy Theories

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Last night, while speaking with someone who spent some time in the aviation industry, I was startled to hear the beginnings of a new conspiracy theory regarding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

My source told me that the only thing that could have so obliterated the Boeing 777 was a bomb.  She also revealed that over the last few days, she had contacted a former colleague who now worked for another airline, and this woman refused to say much over the phone, except to caution that all phone calls were being monitored.  They had been told not to discuss the disappearance of flight MH370.

In and of themselves, these two pieces of anecdotal evidence are not earth-shattering revelations.  The fact that search crews have found no wreckage could mean that the pieces are very small and scattered widely over a huge swath of ocean.  Or, it could indicate the search is in disarray, as The New York Times is reporting today.

And of the monitored calls, it comes as no surprise after Edward Snowden’s and Wikileaks’ revelations that our calls, emails, internet searches, personal data, et cetera are all being mined all the time.  Privacy, it would seem, is a thing of the past.

Still, we have an airliner disappearing over land or sea, populated areas or non-populated areas depending on the flight path and course drift, and we are left without a trace so far.  That is a bit unusual, considering we can pinpoint the location of landmarks, spacecraft, aircraft, automobiles, and people with GPS technology as well as with more conventional radar and communication devices.  If this were the Bermuda Triangle instead of southeast Asia, the internet would really be exploding with conspiracy theories.

Those pesky theories—stories that JFK was killed by the CIA, Cuban assassins, the mob, even Vice President Johnson, that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by Vice President Cheney, or Israel, or some secret organization within the U.S. government, that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, that Death Valley houses a secret underground lair of aliens waiting for the right moment to invade—all indicate that human beings love a good story.  We need and crave narrative; it is how we make sense of our world.  It is the same impulse that led ancient Greeks to formulate a mythology to explain lightning strikes and dangerous seas, the Aztecs to sacrifice to the sun god, the Native Americans to worship the wind.  There is a story behind every mystery, and in the absence of fact we will invent a fiction, or a partial fiction, to explain the inexplicable.

But we must be careful in cases such as MH370.

Remember, it was a turbaned or Arab man who was seen walking away from the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Hundreds of Jews, or Arabs, stayed home from their jobs in the World Trade Center on September 11th.  And how many different suspects were considered in the Unabomber case as well as when white powder began showing up at offices across the country?  How many white vans were stopped and drivers proned out in the street during the D.C. sniper rampage?  All tangents and distractions leading nowhere except away from the true story that eventually emerged.

Stories, once they get started, are difficult to correct when the facts come in.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is indeed a strange one.  A big plane like that should leave some telltale wreckage behind on the surface of the ocean.  There should be some indication of a crash, some way to discover evidence of just what happened.  But we should also prepare ourselves that evidence might never surface and the story of this flight and its doomed passengers may be composed of conjecture and best guesses.

We crave story, but we are also rational beings, and we need to think objectively and rationally, evaluating whatever evidence exists, and not lose ourselves to the bogeyman behind the door, lurking in the shadows of every cataclysm that occurs in our world.  I have always liked Occam’s Razor:  the thesis with the fewest assumptions is often the best, or in other words, the simplest explanation often is the correct one.  Flight MH370 has been missing four days; obviously, it has crashed, and much of the evidence, if not all of it, rests at the bottom of the ocean.  Given the lack of communication from the pilots regarding an in-flight emergency, the plane either experienced a very quick end, or whatever brought it down crippled communication from plane to ground.  Was it a bomb or something sinister?  That certainly must be considered.  But we must remember that stories are not always finished, and they can be revised and added to as more layers are uncovered.

Life contains mysteries, things we must take on faith, truths we validate only through our own experiences.  This is the way of our existence.  It is a product of our intellect, our ability to see into things and realize that nothing is ever as it appears.  All we can do is question everything, our governments, our leaders, community authorities, as well as our own prejudices and assumptions.  As I tell my students, the questions are far more important than the answers.  The questions will lead us home.


  1. Very good your reasoned thoughts.
    I agree the imagination must be controled.

  2. A fine analysis indeed, with a very telling final paragraph.


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