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Only implausible explanations remain

My Times column is on the missing airliner and
Occam’s razor.


The tragic disappearance of all 239 people on
board flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean has one really peculiar
feature to it: none of the possible explanations is remotely
plausible, yet one of them must be true.

The usual rule on these occasions – choose the simplest
explanation or, as William of Ockham taught, make the fewest
assumptions – simply does not work. There is no simple explanation.
Whether the cause was an accidental decompression, a terrorist act
or a suicide, all three require us to assume that an outlandish and
bizarre sequence of events happened.

I don’t know about you, but I have had conversations about MH370
with many people recently, some of whom were fairly confident that
they knew what had happened. Yet every story they told was baroque
in its contrivance to the point of implausibility, requiring a
chain of events that stretched my credulity. Yet, as I say, one
such story will turn out to be right.

Consider the sequence of events. Very shortly after entering an
air-traffic control dead-spot, somebody switches off both
communication devices and changes course. He then changes course
twice more, possibly rising very high and then dropping low (this
does not seem to be established for certain), and heads for a
region of sea with no hope of landing, apparently choosing to run
out of fuel slowly rather than land or crash sooner.

An onboard accident of any kind seems highly unlikely, because
somebody was in control for at least some of the time. Yet whoever
this was remained silent. That surely makes it unlikely that a
terrorist took control. A secretive disappearance with no message
to the world and no claim of responsibility seems an unlikely way
for a terrorist group to act.

There was no emergency radio message, so a struggle between
pilots and terrorists for control of the plane seems equally
unlikely. A conspiracy between the two pilots seems still more
unlikely and nothing in their backgrounds suggests such a thing.
That’s five unlikely things already.

We are back to suicide, of the pilot or co-pilot, with only the
thinnest of motives (the pilot is said to have been upset following
the break-up of his marriage and the conviction of the opposition
leader for sodomy), the narrowest of opportunities (his colleague
left for the toilet just as the plane left Malaysian air-traffic
control?), an implausibly callous indifference to the happiness of
passengers and their families, and the oddest of methods – who
wants to kill themselves very slowly over seven hours and why would
he care to leave no trace? All this, too, sounds utterly
ridiculous. Yet it may prove to be the least ridiculous theory and
thus satisfy Ockham’s razor.

I’ve never had a great deal of time for Sherlock
Holmes’s bon mots, which are just that little bit too
smug. One of the smuggest is the put-down of the long-suffering Dr
Watson in The Sign of Four, which seems appropriate
to this case: “You will not apply my precept,” Holmes says to
Watson, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that, when
you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however
improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through
the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could
not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment
possible. Whence, then, did he come?”

This seems to sum up the problem of MH370 rather well, but
Arthur Conan Doyle proves to be no help either, for the answer to
Holmes’s question turns out to be that the villain came through a
trap-door in the roof. This hardly qualifies as more improbable
than an impossibility, as Sherlock had suggested. It’s rather a
simple (and irritatingly deus-ex-machina)
explanation, after all.

Indeed, I am struggling to find any unsolved case of mass
disappearance that is remotely as baffling as this one, even from
before the age of satellites. Take Flight 19, the five torpedo
bombers that vanished off the coast of Florida on a routine
training exercise in 1945, and whose planes have never been

The case was much beloved of the UFO crowd (the pilots return to
Earth — still youthful — in the film Close Encounters of
the Third Kind
), but it takes only a brief internet search to
find out that there is nothing mysterious here at all. The flight
leader was on the radio admitting he was lost and saying he thought
he was over the Florida Keys, rather than the Bahamas. This led him
to fly further out to sea, rather than back towards the coast.

The disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the
North-west passage after 1845 seemed mightily mysterious to the
Victorian public because two whole ships and 129 men vanished
altogether, and nine years of searching by lots of expeditions
turned up nothing.

As with MH370, they were looking in the wrong place at first.
But eventually buttons, medals, spoons and clothing in the
possession of Inuit natives led searchers to the west shore of King
William Island, where they found a trail of artefacts, bodies, two
messages and a boat.

These eventually told a coherent, if confused, story of two
winters stuck in the same stretch of pack ice, deaths from scurvy
(abetted by lead poisoning, as 20th-century analysis showed) and
the abandonment of the ship by the 105 survivors in an attempt to
reach mainland Canada, dragging the boats overland intending to row
them up a river. Mysteries remain, including why the boat that was
found on a sled was apparently being dragged back towards the ships
and contained not just bodies but also soap, silk handkerchiefs,
silver, 40lb of chocolate and several books including a copy of
theVicar of Wakefield.

But these are minor mysteries — not like the Malaysian airliner.
The black box will stop transmitting in about a week, so we may
struggle ever to find it and know what actually happened.

If the cause remains mysterious for years, as now seems
possible, that need not prevent us from learning lessons. Planes
will surely now be fitted with satellite tracking devices. And
given that some kind of human intervention seems to be at the root
of the disappearance, as I argued two weeks ago, pilotless planes
may come to be seen as less dangerous than piloted ones.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times