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Theories abound on disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

By Erik Eckholm
New York Times

It is the talk of lunchrooms, chat rooms and, most certainly, television green rooms across the globe: How and why could a modern passenger jet disappear without a trace?

Along with the predictable UFO theories, the suggestion, presumably facetious, that the television series “Lost” was secretly filming a new season became one of dozens of memes related to Flight 370, some more serious than others, on Twitter.

On chat rooms frequented by pilots and aviation experts, there was more informed discussion of the technical possibilities, such as a sudden decompression or mass electrical failure, and of how a transponder could be shut down. But even the best-informed were arriving at logical impasses.

The one constant, beyond the probability that a terrible tragedy lurked at the end of the story, was the factual void at its center, heightening the frenzy of speculation.

“A main ingredient for rumor generation and transmission is uncertainty,” said Nicholas DiFonzo, a social psychologist at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “The Watercooler Effect.”

Also fueling the intense interest is the suggestion of continuing danger. “Anything that even hints at making us feel less secure or threatened evokes our attention,” DiFonzo said. “It’s hard-wired into us.”

But the main reason for the fascination, he added, may be the sheer mystery, which allows everyone to play detective.

Partisan themes abound

So much uncertainty also opens the door for partisans to dwell on favored themes.

Many American newscasters, after saying that “of course it is premature to draw conclusions,” have veered toward hypotheses about terrorism as they host the usual scramble of former Federal Aviation Administration investigators, pilots turned authors, security experts and, in this case, oceanographers, who helped, at their best, to establish the outer limits of what remained frustrated guesswork.

CNN brought in Dan Rather, introduced as a newsman with long experience, to say, “I don’t rule out anything.” Robert Ballard, the deep-sea explorer who discovered the hulk of the Titanic, described the relatively shallow waters but strong currents of the Gulf of Thailand and the Strait of Malacca and wondered if the flight had continued into the Indian Ocean.

Fox News was most aggressive with the terror theory. “I’m not afraid of the word terrorism,” Sean Hannity said as he pushed his expert guests to agree that, given the latest statements from Malaysia that the plane appeared to have altered its route, foul play seemed all but certain. At the same time, Al-Jazeera America, in its BBC-like fashion, was careful to stress the unknowns as the Malaysian authorities issued yet another contradictory account.

In China, government officials sought to stanch speculation about terrorism. The country’s bloggers were mostly restrained, but some theorized that the Malaysian military had mistakenly shot down the plane after it abruptly changed course, then covered up the action after realizing the mistake.

In Iran, an influential lawmaker on Tuesday called the entire episode a form of psychological warfare by the United States to “sabotage the relationship between Iran and China and Southeast Asia.”

Pilots with ideas

Some of the most technically informed comments were posted on Professional Pilots Rumour Network, a Britain-based chat room that, despite its name, is widely read in the aviation world. The comments – many from people claiming to be experienced pilots and crew members, who did not give their real names – included discussions of radar capabilities and of how communications are supposed to transfer between Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and more talk than elsewhere, it seemed, about how sudden depressurization and lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, could quickly render a crew and passengers unconscious.

Even this crowd was not immune to wild speculation. One crew member wrote: “Could this aircraft literally have been ‘stolen’? Was there a cargo on board that organizations could seriously want and would take whatever measures to secure it?”

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