How the ATSB is mismanaging the MH370 search


MH370 underwater search area map (Image source- Australian Govt)

Bayes and the search for MH370

We are now approximately 60% of the way through searching the MH370 search area, and so far nothing. Which is unfortunate because as the search goes on the cost continues to go up for the taxpayer (and yes I am one of those). What’s more unfortunate, and not a little annoying, is that that through all this the ATSB continues to stonily ignore the use of a powerful search technique that’s been used to find everything from lost nuclear submarines to the wreckage of passenger aircraft. 

In fact in an increasingly ironic parallel with the current search for MH370 it was the failure of traditional search techniques for the AF447 wreck that led the BEA to utilise a Bayesian search. Traditional search techniques had in the case of AF447 proved completely ineffective and as a last ditch measure the BEA finally turned to Bayes. And what a difference it made, in stark contrast to the months of fruitless traditional searching the Bayesian directed search as planned by these guys found the wreckage of AF447 within one week, and in an area that had already been searched. In another parallel the AF447 search strategy also took into account the possibility of sonar pinger failure, which now also seems to be a possibility in the case of MH370. 

So what is one to make of the ATSB’s stance? Perhaps they’re a secret cabal of frequentists who view anything with a prior distribution in it with complete disdain? Maybe they are the unfortunate possessors of slow learner brains. Or perhaps all their science officers were purged for thought crimes. But more likely I think that they are simply ignoring alternatives because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it around here’, confident in their belief that all you need to do is drill a hole in the ocean, sure.

More unfortunately our Australian mainstream media are effectively illiterate when it comes to science, and as we have a cabinet, and parliament, of a determinedly anti-intellectual stripe there’s no one to call them to account, well no one except me :). 

 So here’s my prediction for the MH370 search, we’ll continue to plow through the rest of the search zone but will find nothing. The money allocated by government having been spent it’s a job well done as far as the ATSB is concerned and the search will be ‘scaled back’, that’s code for called off by the way. Unlike the BEA our regulator’s don’t have a whole lot of gumption so there’ll not be a follow up search, and the mystery of MH370 and what happened to everyone onboard will slowly fade into the mists of history.

Somewhere George Santayana is smiling right about now…