Conspiracy

The Flight 370 Conspiracy Stories Aren't About to Stop

At a time like this, suspicious speculation is inevitable.

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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?

NEXT: Economist Tyler Cowen's Attacker Identified as John Pendleton

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  1. It’s pretty obvious the plane was shot down during a military exercise gone wrong and then moved to the Indian Ocean.

    1. The best one I’ve heard so far is that Russian intelligence received a report from Chinese intelligence who’d determined that the US Navy captured the ‘plane and took it to Diego Garcia because there was both something and someone on the ‘plane that the navy wanted.

      1. Whoa-no No NO ha ha!!

      2. Of course they did! Russia is the largest beneficiary of diverting attention away from the occupation of Crimea by military without insignia. Who has the capability of taking a plane, turning off the transponders, turning it around, lowering altitude, setting the autopilot, and parachuting out? People with military training. We have no evidence. So what is the most conspicuous motive?

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    3. Ho ho ho Ha ha HA!!!

  2. Just wait until the inevitable movies, which I’m sure are already in production, hit the silver screen.

    1. Ince they ascertain that an explosion took place, the movie should be handed to Miachel Bay to direct.

  3. I still say it was definitely aliens. Chinese aliens.

    1. Bored, mutant, teen aged aliens who were just out looking for kicks.

  4. It’s at the bottom of the ocean people…

    the ATLANTIC ocean!

    1. How do they keep the water for the Atlantic and Pacific separate is what I want to know.

      1. The Atlantic water is colder. Also, Nicaragua.

  5. It was the Australians. Everybody knows to never trust the Australians.

    1. I doubt that. I have heard nothing about beer shortages in Australia and, thus, no motivation for Australians to do anything provocative.

    2. I thought it was the Norwegians.

      /narrows eyes.

    3. Oi oi oi ha ha ha. HAAA!!!

  6. relatives and friends of passengers mounted an angry protest in Beijing, breaking through police lines and marching to the Malaysian Embassy demanding more answers

    Now I’m going to sound conspiratorial but I’m pretty confident that if protestors broke through police lines in Beijing it was because the authorities WANTED them to break through.

    1. Or, it was those Chinese aliens. No cops can stop Chinese aliens who are invincible.

  7. Everybody wants the universe to conform to their preconceived ideas, ergo, “Muslim terrorists must have hijacked it to use it as a WMD”, or “obviously the US military knows where it is, because they have real-time satellite imaging of the whole planet”.

    And, of course, people want to be smarter than everybody else, because that lets them sneer at the other guy, who’s naive enough to think that the plane might have simply crashed.

    1. Or even so naive that they thinked it simply crashed, after flying hundreds of miles off course.

    2. Gotta admit I’d expect the US to have sufficient satellite coverage to locate it.

  8. The psychology behind this is fascinating. Great piece.

    1. Yes it is.

      “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.”

      And thus religion is born.

  9. I like to think I am allergic to conspiracy theories, but I watched that TWA 800 documentary and, at least before I dozed off, the witness testimony seemed scarily convincing. Anyone who knows more want to clue me in on why it is or is not bullshit? Is the missile accident story an open secret, a secret secret, or a wacko conspiracy theory?

    1. I like to think I am allergic to conspiracy theories,

      Not counting the ones that involve the Kochs, of course.

      1. He says on a website for a foundation they fucking subsidize.

        1. So, if I write a check to the DNC, I become a co-conspirator with Debbie Wasserman?

        2. I subsidize it too Tiny. What does that mean?

          1. Obviously you’re ONE OF THE KOCHS!!!!!11!!!!1!!!!

        3. Soros, the speculator, subsidizes MoveOn. Point?

        4. Tony, as of lately, you have been becoming even more uncivilized and hostile than usual. If you continue on your present path it’s only reasonable to assume your computer privileges will be suspended indefinitely.

    2. That’s the great thing about demonizing conspiracy theories. When someone gets close to the truth, you just label that a conspiracy theory, and people tune it out.

    3. Enough witnesses (dozens, wasn’t it?) claimed to have seen a missile for me to be readily convinced that it was anything but. I know the NTSB ruled that it was an explosion in the center fuel tank, but did they even try to substantively address eyewitness accounts of a missile?

      1. Yes.

        The data recorder indicated that after the explosion that sheared off the nose the aircraft ascended several thousand feet (presumably while on fire) before a second explosion resulted in a wing separation and the death spiral began.

        If a stray SM-2 had brought it down as has been put forth, somebody would have talked. There are several hundred men on a guided missile destroyer, all of whom, regardless of location on the ship would know a missile had been launched.

        There is also the fact that there were no intersecting radar objects. Missiles are small, but they show up quite well on radar.

        And it if was a terrorist MANPADS, why cover it up? Seriously. The explanation of “preventing panic” used by the conspiratorialists just doesn’t feature, especially considering the circles that claim TWA 800 was shot down and that 9/11 was a false flag operation have significant overlap.

      2. A phoner-in to a talk show at the time, a full year before the accidental fire story came out, gave a plausible explanation that anticipated that: that a flame front following fuel leak to the plane would look to witnesses on the ground like a jet-propelled missile catching the plane.

  10. I ask because the Malaysian 370 story is obvious: Obama did it to distract from Benghazi.

    1. Why would he bother to distract from a fake scandal?

    2. But never happened? right? no one died right?

  11. I like how all these different countries “find” pieces of the plane with their sophisticated satellite and radar technology but when boats and seaplanes get there it’s just gone! Or nefariously replaced with random non-Flight 370 flotsam and jetsam.

    I’m starting to think Richard Jewell wasn’t really dead either. He vanished, underwent race and nationality reassignment surgery, learned to fly and quietly assumed the identity a Malaysian Airline pilot.

    1. It’s almost like the Malaysian government reached a conclusion on where the plane ended up before they, you know, actually discovered where it ended up.

    2. Is anyone claiming to have definitely found parts of the plane, or just that they found some stuff in a place where the plane could possibly be?

  12. Not tracking closely, but did they ever confirm that any of the debris from the suspected Indian Ocean site was actually from the plane?

    1. They have a speedboat en route from the Florida Keys as I type, to verify that with “eyes on” confirmation.

    2. No

      No piece of the plane has been identified or recovered.

  13. Or it might have been an electrical fire.

    1. I agree that’s a fair bet.
      Decompression maybe? I remember a case where a little private jet had a window blow out and the pressure change froze everyone aboard.

    2. Francisco, weren’t you a pilot?

      I am gonna go way out on a limb here and say…..you probably know what you are talking about.

  14. …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”).

    I thought a small black hole (such as the one the Large Hadron Collider would have created if time travelers from the future hadn’t intervened to crank the power down a notch or two) would have only sucked in most of Europe?

    1. You know who else sucked in most of Europe?

      1. Elton John?

        1. nice

    2. A very small black hole would probably either disappear very quickly, if Hawking is right, or fall to the center of the Earth and eventually consume the whole planet. But it would pretty much stop there.

  15. All I know is Rep. Peter King is going to have a big sad when it turns out that them Muslim terrists didn’t do it.

  16. We are still waiting for the translation of the final, final transmission from the plane-

    “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”

    1. Cthulu lives in the South Pacific where the bloop was….stoopid.

      1. A minion of the Third Order to Hastur the Unspeakable has turned his attention to this conversation. Everyone make a sanity roll tonight in your sleep.

  17. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with tio.

    http://www.EliteVPN.tk

  18. This is just all the build up to a new Lost series.

    1. When the story first broke, I left the comment, “4. 8.. 15… 16…. 23….. 42” and got pummeled with pissed-off replies for it.
      I finally understand the pleasure some get from trolling.

    2. I considered it possible it was perpetrated by people who, solving “Lost” as I’ve been ( http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/teach ), took the material that inspired “Lost” (chiefly “The Lost Special” by A.C. Doyle and various “Dept. S” episodes) as instructional.

  19. “What, you expected the speculation to stop?”

    No, I expect it to continue for many years.

    “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”).”

    Yep. Top Men material there.

  20. The plane is with Andy Kaufman, Elvis, and Jim Morrison.

  21. And Amelia Earhart.

  22. And famous lost Engine 115, which disappeared on Sept. 22, 1892 and thus provided the basis for “The Lost Special” and its acknowledged & unacknowledged adaptations. (BTW, “Watchmen” was one of them. “Lost” was Damon Lindelof’s way of telling Alan Moore, “I saw what you did there.”)

  23. What pisses me off is that the American government got involved and flushed a bunch of money down the toilet (as usual). Malaysia’s problem not ours.

    1. There was an American on the plane.

      1. He made his bed and slept in it. When you leave US borders IT SHOULD BE your risk and your risk only, not ours who haven’t left.

  24. I see a pattern:

    Plane flew off course for some unknown reason into the middle of a great big remote ocean, crashed when it ran out of fuel, sank, and sharks cleaned up the bodies. Any pieces of wreckage that floated to the surface were scattered by winds and waves.

    Eventually, someone will find a piece washed up on a remote shore, and start a thousand new conspiracy theories.

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  26. 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 , very very sad:from http://www.vendrefree.com/

  27. “Except, of course, for the questions of where precisely the airline is and how it ended up there.”

    The airline is still in Malaysia, as it was founded there.

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