The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on March 8, has opened the spigot for conspiracy theories. It’s an enduring mystery that’s at the heart of the fascination with this incident.
If it’s been hijacked remotely, from the ground, by a mobile phone or a U.S.B. stick, then why are there no demands? Perhaps because a villain of the likes of Hugo Drax—the red-headed baddie, who in the James Bond flick, “Moonraker” (1979), stole space shuttles—has purloined the aircraft.
Did the pilot commit suicide because he was upset about the break-up of his marriage? Could there have been a mechanical failure? Perhaps there was a fire? Did aliens abduct the airliner?
Did it enter another time, and for some reason, get stuck there? This had happened in the “The Final Countdown” (1980), in which a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier encounters a bizarre, pop-up electromagnetic storm in the high seas. When it settles, it finds itself hurled back in time to December 7, 1941, a few hours prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Maybe MH370 evaded radar because it escaped in plain sight, in the “shadow” of another plane. Has it been flown to a secret military base on the island of Diego Garcia? As there’s not a scrap of wreckage, is it resting on the ocean floor, still intact à la “Airport 77” (1977)? Is the Malaysian government hiding something? Was there a terrorist on board?
Each of these theories touches upon every aspect of the incident: why and how the jet vanished, where it’s now, and the direction of the investigation. Some of these notions can be rejected outright as madcap. The rest have holes, some bigger than others. But few are quite probable and plausible.
Spinning off-the-wall, outrageous, fanciful yarns may well be the favorite pastime of tinfoil hats. But not all who speculate are wackos and winos and the willfully ignorant.
There are perfectly rationale people among the lot. The question is why.
Providing a gist of an essay in the book, “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas,” by Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar, Fareed Zakaria writes:
A key condition that helps fuel conspiracy theories is a lack of information. When information is scarce, conspiracies abound.
People in a state of fear or rage find it easier to believe in far-fetched ideas.
Group-think also takes over. When people, who’re affected or interested, tend to gather and talk to one another in isolation, their convictions tend to get hardened.
MH370 is a textbook example of this logic. The Malaysian authorities are releasing information in dribs and drabs. And whatever little they are, they’re contradicting, days later. Throw into the mix, the number of false leads, and it’s not hard to see what’s fueling such notions. It appears to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.
Yet, none of this is to say that there are no conspiracies and cover-ups. There are.
However, the biggest driver of events is chance.
Things go well or badly because of luck—sometimes good luck, sometimes bad luck—much more than we would like to admit. And the combination of chance, ignorance, and incompetence often produces something that looks like a mystery and feels like a conspiracy.
In the unlikely scenario that the Boeing-777 isn’t found, and the reason it vanished remains forever encrusted in uncertainty, its effects will still be felt. It’ll change the way planes fly.