My Mea Culpa on Flight 370

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June 17 2014 8:23 AM

My MH370 Mea Culpa

How I went wrong in my analysis of the missing airliner.

(Continued from Page 1)

The fog of misinformation was made worse by the Malaysian and Australian authorities. Faced with an ever-rising chorus of demands that they explain the search operation, they dragged their heels in releasing basic information, left simple questions unanswered, were slow to correct mistakes, and left huge gaps in the data that they did ultimately release.

The resulting uncertainty created a playground for amateur theorizers of every stripe, from earnest to wackadoodle. MH370 was a supermarket of facts to pick and choose from as one’s pet theory required. And the Internet gave everyone a chance to go viral in an instant. One of the more intriguing scenarios was put forward by Keith Ledgerwood, who posited that the plane had flown north and evaded radar by shadowing a Singapore Airlines flight. (The flight path turned out not to match the Inmarsat data.) Another that got a lot of play was the theory by Christian Goodfellow that the plane’s initial turn had been made because the flight crew was trying to get the burning airplane to an emergency landing in Langkawi, Malaysia. (Burning planes don’t fly for eight hours—though Goodfellow stands by his opinion )

Vehement passion was, alas, all too common as theories multiplied. I and everyone else who was publicly associated with MH370 was bombarded by emails, tweets, and blog comments offering evidence that solved the mystery once and for all. I soon formed a Pavlovian aversion to the name Tomnod, a crowdsourcing website that parceled out satellite images for the public to pore over. It was remarkable how many clouds, whitecaps, and forest canopies people could mistake for a 777 fuselage, and then proselytize for with deranged fervor. It always baffled me how people could get so attached to their ideas about an incident in which they had no personal stakes.

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A confession: I, too, secretly had a theory as to what really happened to MH370. Detailed and complete, it included a perpetrator, an M.O., a flight path, a motive, and a destination. I was so swept up in the convincingness of my idea that I shelled out money from my own pocket for a researcher to do some digging overseas. I was careful not to discuss it publicly, since I knew it made me sound crazy, but as I worked out the kinks of the narrative, I became enveloped in the strange pleasure that one gets from letting one’s thoughts steep in the working out of something beautiful and complicated and true. This is right, I told myself giddily.

Well, suffice it to say that it all hinged on the plane going north. After I realized that it hadn’t, I spent the next few days eating more junk food and watching more TV than usual. Eventually I consoled myself with the thought that if I wasn’t right, at least I’d been able to let go. I wasn’t a wackadoodle.

Nor, as it happened, was I the only one to see my pet theory die. Across the Web, there has come to be a notable absence of coherent attempts at narrative. With Ledgerwood’s and Goodfellow’s theories debunked, no one has been able to come up with a replacement that fits with what eventually emerged as the canonical set of credible facts. To be sure, there’s still a vast army of believers, waving their Tomnod printouts and furiously typing half-literate emails about ACARS data buses. But each is a lone voice shouting into a sea of skepticism.

Even the small cadre of independent experts who have come together to decipher Inmarsat’s data seem to be at loggerheads. Each has made a tentative stab at interpreting the “raw data” released by the satellite company, but the unanswered questions remain so numerous that the group can’t form a consensus about the plane’s fate. The officials looking for the plane don’t seem to be doing much better; according to recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal, the team is riven by fundamental differences of opinion as to where it should look.

So to sum up, this is my mea culpa, and it’s a very tepid one. Yes, I was wrong. But so far—101 days in and counting—unfortunately, nobody can make a compelling case for what’s right.

Update, June 17, 8:50 a.m.: Today, the BBC is reporting that Inmarsat remains confident that its analysis of the satellite data will lead to the plane, saying that the authorities never searched the area of highest probability because they were distracted by the underwater acoustic pings that turned out not to have come from MH370’s black boxes. Once a new search gets underway, it will explore an area that conforms much better to the likely speed and heading of the missing plane:

By modelling a flight with a constant speed and a constant heading consistent with the plane being flown by autopilot - the team found one flight path that lined up with all its data. "We can identify a path that matches exactly with all those frequency measurements and with the timing measurements and lands on the final arc at a particular location, which then gives us a sort of a hotspot area on the final arc where we believe the most likely area is," said Mr Ashton.

Unfortunately, it will be several months before such a search of this new area can get underway, since the authorities will first have to survey the ocean floor to figure out how deep it is and what kind of underwater exploration technology—autonomous sub or towed sonar array—will be most appropriate. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Australian organization leading the search described a more complex and ambiguous state of affairs, telling the AFP that experts were still struggling to narrow down the highest-probability search area, taking into consideration not just the satellite data but also "aircraft performance data [and] a range of other information."

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based magazine writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. A contributing editor at Popular Mechanics and Travel + Leisure, he specializes in aviation, adventure, and psychology. He tweets as @ManvBrain and blogs at JeffWise.net.

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