Now that the Malaysian government has concluded that the lost Flight 370 crashed into the Indian Ocean, we can all rest content that the mystery has been solved. Except, of course, for the questions of where precisely the airline is and how it ended up there. Not to mention the possibility, intensely believed in some quarters, that the authorities got even this rudimentary story wrong. On Tuesday, The New York Times reports, "relatives and friends of passengers mounted an angry protest in Beijing, breaking through police lines and marching to the Malaysian Embassy demanding more answers." To judge from its public statements, the Chinese government sympathizes more with the protesters than with the embassy.
What, you expected the speculation to stop? Yes, we seem to have a better sense of what happened to the plane this week than we did before. But we have lots of remaining questions too—and anyway, since when has the existence of an official explanation stopped people from imagining alternatives? We may have moved past the stage when a CNN host can straight-facedly ask if it's "preposterous" to think the plane was swallowed by a black hole (and when one of his guests, former Transportation Department official Mary Schiavo, can outdo even that level of scientific illiteracy by claiming "a small black hole would suck in our entire universe"). But alternative theories are still bound to flourish. Indeed, if you look at the reasons why such stories emerge, you'll see that this is the kind of mystery that's most likely to invite a lot of suspicious speculation.
First: Human beings are pattern-seeking, storytelling creatures. If there's a gap in the data, we'll try to fill it in a way that makes a coherent picture. That's just the way our minds work, and for good reason: It would be hard to survive if we couldn't draw such inferences. The problem is that we're also prone to drawing inferences that are false. (As David Friedman has put it, we "are equipped with superb pattern recognition software—so good that it can even find patterns that are not there.") Ideally, we're always open to new information and constantly revising our map of the world to take those data into account. In practice, we can get stuck on a story our psyches find compelling, even if new evidence points in a different direction.
The Malaysian mystery was particularly likely to inspire this sort of connect-the-dots game. On one hand, we know there's some pattern to be found amid the noise: The plane must have disappeared for a reason. On the other hand, the gaps in the data are so large that even the most careful and responsible speculation will require some guesswork. And if you aren't a specialist in aviation, you're not always going to be well-equipped to know which of those guesses are plausible. Especially after weeks when even news presented as hard evidence turned out to be false leads.
Second: Frightened people see frightening patterns. If you've got a reason to be scared or suspicious, that anxiety will inform the speculations you use to fill in the gaps. That's one reason why conspiracy theories are an inevitable part of social life. Combine an unsolved mystery with a feeling of fear, and you're bound to hear people positing that a villain's at work.
Here again, the Malaysian mystery is a particularly potent illustration of the principle. It's a story, after all, about an innately scary thing. Worse, a scary thing associated with common anxieties: fear of crashes, fear of terrorism, and so on. So people are especially likely to fill in those blank spaces with forces that scare them, from Islamists to North Korea.
Third: Less transparency means less trust. Some spaces are intentionally kept blank. There are times when that represents a deliberate cover-up, and there are times when it merely reflects the familiar bureaucratic impetus toward inefficiency, mistrust, and miscommunication. Either way, withholding information only inflames outsiders' suspicions. In this case, we haven't just seen transparency problems among the Malaysian authorities; the Malaysians have had trouble extracting information from neighboring nations. The governments of the region don't trust each other, that makes them less transparent, and that in turn encourages more distrust.
No wonder we've heard so many conspiratorial conjectures. Though here we have to be careful with our language. In all the mockery of CNN's black-hole discussion, one bizarre bit of the broadcast didn't get as much attention as it should have: The host referred to the idea as one of "these conspiracy theories," even though a black hole isn't a conspiracy. I suppose you could make the tale a conspiracy theory if you wanted to: If you're already imagining a event horizon floating over the ocean, you might as well take one more step into fantasy and propose that a secret society of wizards put it there. But it's hardly a conspiracy story per se.
In the last few decades, our language has evolved in a strange direction. People started using the phrase "conspiracy theory" to mean "implausible conspiracy theory," then "implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy." CNN isn't the only offender here: A Daily Beast video, theoretically devoted to listing the "kookiest conspiracy theories" about the plane, included not just the black hole but such nonconspiratorial notions as the ideas that the craft was hit by a meteor or landed on an isolated island. (Meanwhile, some bona fide conspiracy theories weren't so far out. It wasn't absurd to wonder whether the passengers had been the victims of a terrorist plot.)
Treating "conspiracy" as a synonym for "fringe"—or just for "weird"—conceals the fact that we're all capable of conspiracy thinking, and not just when a real plot is afoot. If there's a hint of a hidden pattern and a reason to be afraid, suspicions can cross anyone's mind; and if someone seems to be withholding important information, those suspicions will become more intense. The question to ask at a time like this is not What do we do about all these weird theories? It's How do we keep our heads when the evidence is sparse and not always easy to judge?
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