Even if MH370 is found, it is too late to stop conspiracy theories

Subs can sneak into Diego Garcia, but what about a plane? US Navy, CC BY-SA

In Italy, the word dietrologia, literally “behindology”, expresses the idea of a search for hidden secrets, and the exposure of secret plots. The main characters are usually the Mafia, politicians, the church and wealthy industrialists. This is a predictable Dan Brown cast, with motives that can be guessed and credible reasons for concealing their powers.

The fog of conspiracies around the still-unaccounted-for flight MH370 are a good example of behindology too, and also involve a set of actors who most people agree can’t be trusted. The theories are still coming thick and fast: a new book has claimed the plane was shot down during a joint Thai-US military training exercise, and Malaysia’s long-serving former prime minister Matahir Mohamad hinted at a CIA cover up.

These theories add to longer established conspiracies such as the idea that MH370 landed at the US Navy’s Diego Garcia base, or was shot down by the North Koreans. Unless the plane is definitely found – and perhaps even if it is – MH370’s whereabouts seems set to join the likes of Princess Diana’s death or the moon landings in the canon of never-ending conspiracy theories.

But before we dismiss the MH370 conspiracists as mad or sad, consider what they tell us about who most people assume to be the bad guys.

Area 51, JFK and the moon landings

Frederic Jameson, the US cultural critic, has described conspiracy theory as “the poor person’s cognitive mapping”. It is, he says, an attempt to explain events by invoking a litany of the powers and interests that are popularly believed to run the world for their own benefit. Conspiracy accounts of what really happened at Area 51, the killing of JFK, the faked moon landings, and many others suggest that the world really is organised by secret agencies of various kinds. If “we” look carefully enough at the evidence then “they” will be exposed, and their plans will shrivel in the light of day.

Looking at the actors in the conspiracies about the Malaysia Airlines flight, we see a similar pattern. Many involve various military powers and indeed the idea that governments – Malaysian, Chinese, US – are not telling the world what they know is common to all the big post-World War II conspiracies. In an era when Snowden, Assange, Manning and others are showing us just how much data states can harvest it would be prudent to assume that there is information about passengers, technology or the flight plan which has not been released to a greedy media.

This is another way of saying that conspiracy theorists are not necessarily mad at all, but rather that they often deploy forms of explanation that investigative journalists, social movements and even critical social scientists would be happy to claim as their own.

For example, one of the MH370 stories began with the fact that there were 20 employees from the Texas-based company Freescale Semiconductor on board. Freescale manufactures chips for electronic equipment, including kit for cell phones, which could be used to disable other electronic networks. So it’s not a huge leap to suggest that the plane could have been electronically cloaked, which might account for the some of the difficulties that “the authorities” have had in tracking it.

Consider the logic of this story. We know that the US military is keen on developing weapons to wage electronic warfare and that it will not be advertising the nature of these technologies. That motive in itself is enough to build a series of explanations involving the US protecting its knowledge, the Chinese (or anyone else) trying to find out what the US is up to and Freescale testing secret equipment, or even deliberately killing four employees who have patent rights over the technology.

Impossible or improbable?

All of these are credible accounts, in the sense that they do not invoke any non-human agents and stick with money and power as motives. I’m not saying this is what has happened, but it is something that could have happened, and as Sherlock Holmes tells us “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

To call someone a conspiracy theorist is to suggest that they seek causes which are implausible when simpler explanations will do. Perhaps, but if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had believed what they were told the then US president, Richard Nixon, would never have been impeached. The point is that conspiracies don’t need to involve aliens, or the Illuminati, or the Holy Grail, because they can easily use forms of forensic common sense to reach some remarkable conclusions.

The asking of questions is not in itself pathological, and it’s a fine line between a scientific scepticism that begins with doubt and a form of paranoia which assumes that the world is deceiving us. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

Sensible scepticism

The tragedy of MH370 does demand explanation, and for the grieving, such a need is a pressing personal issue. For many others, the diagnosis of cause will involve a set of characters who are unified only by the lack of trust that most people have in the intentions of the powerful.

Big corporations, the military/industrial complex and the state play such an important part in these theories because we know that they actually do try to organise the world in a way that benefits them, and this often means hiding things from us. This is a generally accepted truth which is embedded in dietrologic, and conspiracy thinking merely begins with a sensible scepticism about what we are told. And scepticism, in science as in politics, is always a form of behindology.