Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lure of an Air Disaster Mystery

One of the reasons airplane crash mysteries hold such appeal is that everyone can have a different view of events. For flight MH370, which disappeared and is officially thought to have gone down in the eastern Indian Ocean, I have heard dozens of theories from my personal friends. One explained how a plane flying low enough to evade radar could reach a remote place such as Tajikistan undetected. Another theory is that the GPS navigation system went loopy and sent the flight the long way around. I have heard these stories about GPS systems in cars, so it almost sounds credible. There are theories about China, Lost, Antarctica, the Australian desert, structural failure, electrical systems failure, Iranian hijackers, Malaysian spies, drugs, fumes, snakes, radar shadows, radio jamming, lasers, cell phones, freak weather, and of course, space aliens. The skeptic in me says there is a chance that all of these theories are wrong.

It is only natural that there are so many theories. It is a mystery, after all. The actual known information about the flight is very slight. There are just a few points of information along the way. When some of these points seem to match up with something in someone’s prior experience, this past experience is the hypothesis the person will jump to first. And then, for the most part, there is no further information to disprove the hypothesis. But different people have different past experiences, so the theories people hold are, in a weird way, a measure of their past experience. A person who is asking who on board might have been a spy has a different background than the person who is looking at the possibility of food-borne poisoning.

It is also only natural for people to feel that their own past experience is more telling than what other people have to offer, and so people track the news, waiting to see if there is anything to prove that their theory of events is correct. Who knows what the next headline will tell? The plane reappears in mid-air and passengers tell vague stories of strange lights. Then the people who had put forward that theory can say, “See? I told you it had to be space aliens!” This is ego at work, perhaps, but it helps to explain how the search for a missing plane can stay at the top of the news for weeks.