Vague ramblings

Occam’s Razor and the ghost of MH370

Posted in Musing, Reason by Ian Cundell on 17 March, 2014

There’s nothing quite like a good mystery to bring out the most annoying aspects if the British Press. While the Malaysian authorities, quite rightly, keep every possible explanation open, the British media have decided a politically extreme pilot, possibly acting with Chinese Islamists, planned a 9/11 style attack – apparently by practising on his home-brew flight simulator.

The number of assumptions and the degree of hasty reasoning needed to come to these conclusions is mind-boggling but, of course, how they get there is simple: while the professionals trying to solve the mystery, and find the plane, see new data as additive to the picture, the media sees each new fact as a new story and treats it as such. There is a big, complex picture building up that ends up like this: the search for an aeroplane-sized needle in an ocean-sized haystack. That’s not good news, not a good story.

Over the years I have found myself more than once on the websites of the US National Transportation Safety Board and the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch reading through accident reports. It isn’t morbid curiosity – their reports are masterclasses of evidence-led reasoning and their conclusions are invariably couched in terms of  “The most likely cause…”, even when the cause seems screamingly obvious to my inexpert eyes. They do not go beyond where the evidence leads. If you go looking, you may wish to steer clear of  the cockpit voice recorder transcripts – they are a tad upsetting. There are few lines more chilling than “sound similar to a mechanical movement in cockpit“, meaning the plane has broken up in flight.

Reason and the popular media are not good bedfellows: where reason demands a step-by-step sequence, revising its hypothesis with new information and weighing with care, popular media demands a headline. That is not really a criticism of the media, but its crushing need for the black-and-white means – sometimes – it becomes impossible to distinguish it from a voyeur. The Straits Times of Singapore is doing a pretty decent and non-sensational job of following the story, if you are interested.

Meanwhile, nearly two hundred and fifty very real families face the very real agony of silence.

For what it is worth – which is exactly nothing – reason and Occam’s Razor suggest to me that, sometime around the handover to Vietnamese air traffic control, hypoxia – caused by decompression – catastrophically impaired the cognitive abilities of the air crew, causing them to act in seemingly meaningful but actually haphazard and disastrous manner, before losing consciousness. This caused the aircraft to head out on an unknown, but almost certainly fatal, heading.

Obviously this view will change with compelling new information. Not that my view matters.

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