Being obsessed about what happened to Malaysian flight MH370

The story of the plane that mysteriously disappeared last March and was never found has gone from the news pages, consigned to be one of those stories that we will never find the truth about. While this story captivated many people around the world for a while, most people have gone on to other things.

But not all.

There is still a small group of people who are painstakingly going over the most minute bits of information, trying to figure out the truth.

I mentioned before that people like solving puzzles and mysteries but for some it can become almost an obsession. New York magazine has published a long article by Jeff Wise, a private pilot and science writer, who was one of the people regularly interviewed on CNN as an expert during the episode. But the puzzle has continued to nag at him even as his services as a TV expert are no longer required.

He describes the world of TV experts and then, with others, goes on to look at all the theories about the plane before finally arriving at his own conclusion that it was hijacked by people likely associated with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and landed at a remote airstrip in Kazakhstan and that some people (he does not specify who but the Malaysian government is somehow involved) messed around with the telemetry data to mislead people into thinking the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean. His article is full of details about the data from the plane and how it was gathered.

I have no expertise at all to judge the merits of his evaluation of the evidence. But like all elaborate theories for major mysteries (like the one that 9/11 was an inside job staged by the Bush administration or that Obama was born in Kenya or that the moon landing was faked), it lacks a plausible motive for why the people fingered did it in the first place, in addition to the fact that they had much easier ways at their disposal to achieve their goals.

Clearly Wise is obsessed with this puzzle but he also has the detachment to examine his own obsession and shed some light on what makes people so persistent in clinging on to their theories.

I found a peculiar euphoria in thinking about my theory, which I thought about all the time. One of the diagnostic questions used to determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has interfered with your work. By that measure, I definitely had a problem. Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense activity that earned me not a cent. Instead, I was forking out my own money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I was happy.

Still, it occurred to me that, for all the passion I had for my theory, I might be the only person in the world who felt this way. Neurobiologist Robert A. Burton points out in his book On Being Certain that the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a solution that’s good enough. “ ‘That’s right’ is a feeling you get so that you can move on,” Burton told me. It’s a kind of subconscious laziness. Just as it’s harder to go for a run than to plop onto the sofa, it’s harder to reexamine one’s assumptions than it is to embrace certainty. At one end of the spectrum of skeptics are scientists, who by disposition or training resist the easy path; at the other end are conspiracy theorists, who’ll leap effortlessly into the sweet bosom of certainty. So where did that put me?

It is an interesting article nonetheless for the information it provides about how planes are tracked.


  1. Glenn says

    I’m more interested in the disappearance of MH-17 from the media after the black box was recovered from eastern Ukraine.

    The story told by the black box likely doesn’t support the narrative of the Obama administration’s coup in Kiev.

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