The strange disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH340 has captivated the world, myself included. In an era of instant information, it’s sobering that an entire Boeing 777 could just vanish. I am sure I am not the only one who will be uneasy the next time I board a plane for a routine journey – especially if its itinerary lies over water. Such a tragedy could literally happen to any of us, at any time.
In the course of the last few days, the main protagonists in the search effort have been the multinational ad hoc fleet of aircraft and ships scouring the surface of the vast oceans for telltale flotsam. We have been gripped by grainy images of white, green and orange objects as the search parameters narrowed inward towards the southern corridor of the Indian Ocean some 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.
But yesterday, UK science took center stage, when the Malaysian authorities announced that the plane was shown to have crashed into the sea leaving no survivors, with the airline adding that it was beyond any reasonable doubt.
I assumed, on seeing this headline, that a bit of flotsam had finally been positively ID’d. But no – it turned out that the authorities had pinned their certainties on a cutting-edge model based on the interpolation of satellite imagery by Inmarsat and information from the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Not just data, but a computer model – and one that apparently has never been used in this way before.
At first, I was baffled that everyone seemed to accept this verdict – even the relatives, one of whom was quoted as saying, “We accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate.” Such is the power of being blinded by science – and perhaps, by the gravitas of a high-profile press conference. This morning, however, there’s been a backlash that I find a bit more understandable, and the relatives are again engaging in protests. How rigorous is this model, and on what is it based? Is it truly solid enough to draw such a firm conclusion about something that is so very important to the victims’ relatives? From my own work with computer models, I know that they can give good indications but are seldom “beyond reasonable doubt”. With the stakes as high as they are, and the tempers as frayed, I am surprised that the authorities had so much faith in science that they felt able to draw such definitive conclusions.