If you were leading a high-profile international aircraft investigation, in command of the world’s most qualified technical experts and in possession of all the relevant data, would you bother listening to a rag-tag band of internet commenters, few of whom actually work in the space or aviation industry, and none of whom have access to all the data?
Most likely, you’d say: certainly not! But as time goes by, and the puzzle remains curiously impenetrable, you might find it worthwhile to pay a listen to what the amateurs were saying. You might even abandon some of your own conclusions and adopt theirs instead.
This appears to be the case in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing back in March. From the beginning, the authorities running the investigation — first, Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport, and later the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) — held their cards close to the chest, releasing very little information about the missing plane and maintaining a posture of absolute conviction. The investigators’ self-confidence reached its apex in April, when their methodology led them to an area of ocean where underwater accoustic signals seemed to be coming from pingers attached to the plane’s black boxes. Officials assured the press that the plane would be found in “days, if not hours.” But then it wasn’t. A scan of the seabed found nothing; the pingers were a red herring (perhaps literally!). Back to square one.
Meanwhile, on the internet, a group of amateur enthusiasts had come together from all around the world to trade ideas and information about the missing flight. The group, which came to call itself the Independent Group (IG), emerged from various online comment threads and eventually grew to about a dozen individuals. This was a truly spontaneous, self-assembling crowd: there was no vetting of credentials, no heirarchy of any kind. (Full disclosure: I count myself among this group.) Basically, if you seemed to know what you were talking about and could comport yourself in a collegial fashion, you were accepted into the crowd.
While the mainstream press was reporting the ATSB’s pronouncements as received wisdom, the IG was raising red flags. IG members were among the most vocal critics of the ATSB’s contention that the accoustic pings probably came from black-box pingers. And later, after a public outcry led Inmarsat to release a trove of data received from the aircraft, and the ATSB issued a report explaining how it had come to identify its current search ear, the IG dove into the new information with abandon, quickly identifying holes in the data and weaknesses in the official approach. In a pair of papers, the group recommended its own search area, hundreds of miles to the southwest of the ATSB’s officially designated zone.
Today, the ATSB has released an update to its earlier report, explaining why it has decided to reassess its conclusions and move its search zone to a new area — one that overlaps, as it turns out, with the IG’s recommended area. (In the graphic above, the white bracket shows the ATSB area; I’ve added a yellow dot to show the IG area.) Needless to say, this has caused elation within the ranks of the IG, who see the move as vindication of their methods, and indeed validation of their combined efforts over the last few months.
A few observations on the new report: