The week of February 7th, 2016

The triumph of the peanut gallery: MH370 and the search for answers

By Jeff Wise

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished shortly after midnight on March 8, 2014, a few things should have happened almost immediately. The process for air crash investigations is dictated by international treaty: Official investigators collect debris, interview survivors, then publish a final report laying out what happened. But this time, things were different. Instead came a stream of official obfuscations, stonewalling, and misinformation that stoked a frenzy of media speculation that lasted for months.

Amid the confusion, a loose confederation of obsessives emerged on the Internet—an ad hoc group that seemed at last capable of explicating the puzzle with clarity and incision. But they, too, were scuppered by a strange turn in the case. Now, nearly two years and $130 million later, the picture is as murky as ever. Add it all together and you’ve got the prototypical mystery for the Internet age, when everyone has all the information all the time and no way to know who to trust to make sense of it.

I came into the MH370 story as a mainstream journalist with a decades experience covering aviation for magazines and websites. When the story kicked into high gear, I started going on CNN frequently as an analyst. But while most media focused on reporting official pronouncements, I quickly developed a sense that something about this story was fundamentally weird.

For one thing, the officials in charge were acting shady. For a week, international rescue teams searched the area of the South China Seauntil the Malaysian government admitted that on the night of the disappearance, its air force had seen MH370 turn and fly west. The search area then shifted to the Andaman Sea, until the satellite communications company Inmarsat revealed that signals received from the plane implied that it had remained aloft for another six hours. Malaysias then-prime minister held a press conference to declare that a newly developed kind of mathematical analysis proved that the plane must have ended up in the remote southern Indian Ocean. Yet only the vaguest explanation of this new math was offered.

The other troubling aspect of the case was that, to my eye, what little was known about the disappearance looked suspicious. The plane had gone electronically dark about a minute after saying goodbye to air traffic controllers in Malaysia, mere seconds before they were due to call up their next air traffic controller in Vietnam. To me this implied not only intentionality, but a high degree of motivation and sophistication. It didnt jibe with a long, suicidal flight into the southern Indian Ocean.

Matters came to a head that April, when the Australian government, tasked with searching the southern Indian Ocean, announced it had detected underwater acoustic pings matching those produced by the planes black boxes. Week after week, CNN breathlessly covered the ensuing seabed search, expecting news of the missing planes discovery to break live on air at any moment. Having been privy to a detailed technical analysis of the situation by the online peanut gallery, I went on camera and said that the detected pings were of the wrong frequency and that their locations were distributed in an impossible way.

Sure enough, no plane turned up.

From a standpoint of professional advancement, my stance had not been very savvy. CNN wants its talking heads to explain the latest official reports, not second-guess them. But I wanted to go deeper. I sensed that there were crucial clues lying just below the surface, clues that might lead the inquiry in a radical new direction.

Fortunately, a small army of other people felt the same way. Scattered around the world, a self-selected band of engineers, scientists, technicians, and savvy laymen was coalescing. Duncan Steel, a space scientist based in New Zealand, deduced that the orbital eccentricity of the Inmarsat-3F1 satellite would play a key role in the mystery and published details of the ephemera on his website. Mike Exner, a satellite engineer in Colorado, helped explain the workings of the planes satcom system. Together with Victor Iannello in Virginia and Don Thompson in Northern Ireland, they formed the core of a group that came to call itself the Independent Group, or IG for short. They decided to reverse-engineer the authoritiesanalysis to see if they could verify or debunk the official conclusions.

Along with the fascinating insights of an international brain trust, I was suddenly playing host to a varied menagerie that ranged from earnest amateurs to aggressive weirdos.

At first, the main discussion forum was the comments section of Steels website, but after a few weeks of frustration from dealing with trolls, Steel shut it down. The conversation then migrated over to my website. I quickly realized why Steel had thrown up his hands: Along with the fascinating insights of an international brain trust, I was suddenly playing host to a varied menagerie that ranged from earnest amateurs to aggressive weirdos.

One annoying tribe consisted of people who had gone online to sift through satellite photos in search of the missing plane, and at some point had stumbled upon a whitecap or wispy cloud that to their eye looked exactly like a 777. (Courtney Love dabbled in this.) What astonished me most about these images was how little they looked like anything other than a cloud or a whitecap.

Then there were the people who became fascinated by a particular eyewitness account in which someone on the ground in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea saw a glowing jet flying overhead in the hours after MH370 disappeared. Never mind that, historically, eyewitness accounts are so unreliable as to be virtually worthless to air crash investigation; these people demanded that if these sightings were incompatible with all the other data we had, then the other data must be wrong.

Worse still were the people who took every piece of alleged and rumored informationeven stuff that had been roundly debunkedand insisted that it was all equally valid and had to be taken into consideration. How could one possibly connect such a random and unvetted series of dots, you ask? Through a vast international conspiracy with invisible tendrils, of course.

What all these people had in common was the unshakable conviction that they were right. Psychologists say there’s a reason why our brains generate a feeling of certainty: It’s our brain’s way of telling us that the “solution” we’ve reached is good enough, and we don’t need to waste time and energy thinking about the problem any more.

The lure of certainty was especially strong with MH370. The disappearance of 239 human beings into thin air was more than a technical puzzle. It raised questions about the safety of air travel, about the limits of global electronic surveillance, about the possibility of unforeseeable danger appearing out of nowhere. It was an unendurable void which demanded to be filled with an answer, any answer, and once people had found theirs they clung to it like flotsam.

Its fine for religions to work like this, but the scientific process is about testing theories, not casting them in bronze. If youre unwilling to listen to any critique of your theory, youll be forever doomed to spin your wheels. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this whole episode was watching people who would take the greatest pride in calling themselves men of science cling to their theories with steadfastness that would have made Torquemada blush. One of the IGs leading lights was absolutely adamant that the plane descended with tremendous speed at the very end of its flight, but also that it glided for dozens of miles. These two ideas are absolutely contradictory, but he defended bothfiercely!at the same time.

At its low point, the whole conversation devolved into endless rounds of people making the same case over and over again, and no one listening. My intention had been to let the conversation run free, but eventually I ran out of patience. One of the more opinionated members of the community launched into a series of long comments arguing that the plane had disappeared because it was hit by lightning and didnt fly on for six hours but had instead floated in the South China Sea for six hours.

This was a manifestly untenable proposition, but what really bothered me was the pseudosophistication in which he couched his arguments: If you didnt know better, you might actually think he knew what he was talking about. I gave him a warning; he ignored me. I deleted his last comment and replaced it with a note that hed been banned. I felt chagrined at first, then elated. Id discovered the guilty pleasure of the banhammer. After I exiled three or four more, the discourse became markedly more friendly and productive.

The IG, meanwhile, was making steady progress in deciphering the new mathematical techniques that Australian search officials had used to calculate the planes likely path. They concluded that the official search area was about 500 miles too far to the northeast. The IG went public with its findings in September 2014.

No one seriously expected it to attract the attention of the officials running the search. And yet, incredibly, a month later the Australians published a report of their own, declaring that they would move the search 500 miles to the southwest.

Though the Australians hadnt given credit to the IG or even mentioned them, within the ranks of the amateur MH370 sleuthing community, this development was received as rapturously as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Without any organization, without any budget, without any mandate, without even having met one another, a small band of unaffiliated hobbyists had managed to out-science a well-funded and -staffed consortium of government and industry experts.

Now the hunt was on in earnest. A small flotilla of ships was dispatched to the search area and began scanning a 23,000-square mile area of seabed with sonar waves. With bated breath, the IG waited as the ships approached the locations theyd calculated. The ships passed overhead, then circled back for a parallel pass. Then another. Then another. Months passed and the search ships scanned an ever-widening swathe of the seabed. They turned up two shipwrecks, but no trace of a plane.

It became increasingly evident the IG’s prediction had been wrong. This was not necessarily the end of the road, I suggested. MH370 happened to have an unusual set of characteristics that meant that the satellite signal used to trace the planes flight could, in theory,  be deliberately altered. If a small band of sophisticated hijackers had taken over the plane, they could have flown the plane north while generating false signals to cover their tracks. If that were the case, it was a fairly straightforward exercise to figure out where the plane would have gone. I wrote up the idea in a Kindle Single called The Plane That Wasnt There.

Without a baseline of knowledge ourselves, how do we know which experts to trust?

The e-book earned some praiseAmazon named it the best Kindle Single of 2015but its premise was too wild for the IG. During a tense round of conversations over Skype, several members threatened to quit unless I retracted my hypothesis. I refused, and the group kicked me out instead. CNN was equally cool. Invited on air to discuss it, I found myself tag-teamed by the host and the other guests. The bookers stopped calling.

I could hardly fault them; almost everyone I talked to had the same reaction. A high-tech spoof would require state-level planning and execution. It would have been a risky undertaking with no apparent motive. Compared to the scenario favored by many CNN analystsa fire or accident that forced the pilots to turn back for an abortive emergency landingit seemed like pure conspiracy theory. Yet my long immersion in technical arcana had taught me that an accident scenario didn’t fit the data at all. What seemed like a “normal” idea to the casual observer was actually entirely fantastical. And given that the circumstances of the disappearance were very odd, my weird theory fit not too badly.

On my website, the conversation continued much as before, although the tempo grew slower. Keen not to perseverate on my own theory, I encouraged the discussion of all reasonable ideasthe most convincing being that the captain locked himself in the cockpit and took the plane for a suicide run. Other ideas had some merit, too. We worked on what leads we could and hoped that new evidence would emerge to help us along.

Meanwhile, in the wide, wild world of electronic media, storms of conjecture and misunderstanding continue to rage. The mainstream media is hardly more discerning than the conspiracy blogs. In December 2015, the Daily Beast published an analysis of an Australian search report that completely misunderstood the technical terminology and missed the upshot by 180 degrees. Lapses like that are annoying, but understandable: The last eight years have been brutal for the mainstream media, and staffing cuts have left few publications with editors experienced enough to judge the credibility of these claims.

This is the problem of our age. An infinity of information lies at our fingertips, but the bastions of authority that we once looked to have largely crumbled. I call it the “expertise problem”: Without a baseline of knowledge ourselves, how do we know which experts to trust?

As a journalist, this new world is both exciting and troubling. I have tools available to me that were unimaginable 10 years ago. Through the Web Ive contacted experts in military radar systems, satellite communications, Earth imaging, high-altitude aerodynamics, avionics, and airline operations. Ive plotted airplane routes, checked historical weather data, and unearthed arcane technical specifications. Commercially available satellite imagery is so good that Ive been able to count the trucks in the parking lot of a remote space-launch facility. Best of all, Ive been able to share my findings with other obsessives around the world who are running around their own rabbit holes. Yet even if all of this does lead me to a solution, how will anyone know whether to believe me?

The Independent Group could have been an answer to the expertise problem. A band of credible individuals, engaging in manifestly sophisticated analysis and bolstered by demonstrable success, should have earned the publics confidence. And why not? After Nassim Nicholas Talebs book The Black Swan seemed to anticipate the events of the financial crisis, and Nate Silvers website FiveThirtyEight.com accurately predicted the election of Barack Obama, both men were hailed as seers. Unfortunately, the Independent Groups credibility went off the rails when their prediction turned out to be wrong.

But listen: Im a born optimist. Having been steeped in this stuff for two years, my intuition is that there will be a definitive break in the case soon. Im hanging onto the hope that not only will the data reveal to us the planes fate, but that the solution will manage to burst through the clutter and into the public consciousness.

Until then, we’ll keep muddling through the fog of strange and incomplete data, patiently trying to make what sense of it we can.

Illustration via J. Longo