MH370 and a problem in deduction

23/03/2014 — Leave a comment

MH370 Satellite Image (Image source: AMSA)

MH370 and privileging hypotheses

The further away we’ve moved from whatever event that initiated the disappearance of MH370, the less entanglement there is between circumstances and the event, and thus the more difficult it is to make legitimate inferences about what happened. In essence the signal-to-noise ratio decreases exponentially as the causal distance from the event increases, thus the best evidence is that which is intimately entwined with what was going on onboard MH370 and of lesser importance is that evidence obtained at greater distances in time or space.

What you can’t expect is to start a few steps removed from the actual events, argue from some favoured hypothesis and end up with a plausible explanation. Well you can try, but what you’ll actually be doing is engaging in that time honoured game of privileging the hypothesis.

So let’s look at all the evidence we’ve heard abut the aircrew, those wiped flight simulations, the captain’s support for the opposition, the odd phone calls and relaxed radio chat in the last communication with Malaysian ATC. Whatever you think might be significant, I’m sorry brace yourself it’s not. In fact all that suspicion is simply cognitive noise in your brain, resulting from your tendency as a human being to place way more credence in intangible human motives, feelings and thoughts than you ought. Instead, what we should do is start as close to the actual events of the night of the 8th of March and work backwards letting the evidence take us where it will.

The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four

Our error comes in even asking the question “what was the caption saying on that call”, when in the first instance we have no evidentiary basis that points to the captain. Maybe it’s unlikely that an innocent person would behave so, but is the likelihood of someone making a preflight call, or deleting files on their flight simulator, of the same magnitude as knowingly flying deep into the southern ocean and crashing? Not even close. In essence what you’re doing is using the hypothesis of the captain being guilty to explain why he deleted files, or made a call before take-off. I’ll leave you to also consider the damage this presumption of guilt in the media can do to family and friends.

What we need to do instead is, as Holmes suggests, to ruthlessly tune out that little emotive voice in the back of our minds and focus on the facts that we know, eschewing whether we think people are  acting suspiciously. Then, and only then, our theories may have some explanatory power.

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