Last Monday, The New York Times closed one of its more speculative Flight 370 updates with this line: “If the flight did land safely with the passengers and flight crew still healthy, whoever was in charge of the aircraft would also face a formidable task in any attempt to provide food, water and shelter for more than 200 people.” It sort of gnawed at my brain for a day or two, vacillating between an unreasonable, paranoid leap and an actually quite reasonable line of thought—but a reasonable line of thought that just seems awfully unreasonable because of the rarity of a full-on missing jetliner in an era of satellites and data streams. In fact, it seemed/seems that so-called reasonable lines of thought have been extinguished more or less fully, leaving the realm of conspiracy to smolder and smoke.
So, last Monday we might have taken the blade of Occam’s razor to the Times speculative nod. But, blade poised, we might return to the typically accepted definition of the Occam’s razor principle within science: “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better." The basic idea is the limiting of assumptions as evidence, and the theory with the least amount of assumptions should be prioritized. Originating with the 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham, we can take the Occam’s razor principle as a kind of proto-scientific method, but also a principle that continually informs science in the 21st century—even in the face of bizarro and quite unreasonable-seeming quantum mechanics—that isn’t likely to go away.
Occam’s razor is arguably why we have modern physics in the first place. Prior to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the slowdown of clocks at high speeds was thought to be the result of a stationary ether spread evenly throughout the cosmos, as described by Lorentz ether theory. In this theory, the stuff of reality all lies in relation to an ether of some unknown but quite real substance. Clocks slowing down and lengths contracting at high speeds were the results of motion relative to stationary, itself defined as a state of rest relative to the ether, which was the ultimate rest state
The proponents of the theory came up with a bunch of supporting math of how this or that phenomenon relates to the ether and by the late 19th century, the ether as a theory was swaddled in what might look like coherency. Except, at the very heart of it, there was still the ether and that remained a mystery with no way in. It was instead a set of convenient assumptions, and Albert Einstein recognized that a cosmic ether saturating the universe at a level beyond detection was actually metaphysics, and unacceptable. This led, eventually, to Einstein’s special relativity, and instead of a reference ether, the constant speed of light—a real, testable thing—became the new reference. The universe didn’t need an assumed layer of metaphysics, and the result is in fact much, much more interesting, what with black holes, space-time, and all the relative rest of it.
Here’s what I don’t get about the appeal of wild speculation. The paradox of conspiracy theories is that they always portend something more interesting or more devious or more complicated than what meets the eye or what can be reached through method or the rationality of simplicity. Yet, if you’re resting all your knowledge on secret assumptions, you have nowhere else to go with knowledge. Like, if you’re looking at this omnipresent substance that reality exists relative to, but can only say that it exists and not what it is or why it is, there’s really nothing more you can say about it, at least that isn't just another assumption and probably a worse one.
Say I speculate that instead of some circuits and a battery, the inside of my phone operates as the result of some weird gas, a gas that can be explained to enable all of the functions of the phone. I’ve never seen the gas, just what it does in relation to my phone, so I’m forced to describe the operations of my phone only as those functions on the outside, not what actually happens inside with the actual gas.
I can’t test or observe this gas because it’s just an assumption, a thought construct. There is no new information to be had, no new theories beyond the impermeable substrata of the untestable. If we kept believing in the ether and sent Einstein into exile, we would still today be left with just the concept of the ether and what it does to things in x, y, and z circumstances. And we would know nothing of all the knowledge relativity, as a real and testable concept, enables, from exoplanet detection to cosmic inflation to dark matter to quantum mechanics.
Assumptions like ether are a way of “black boxing” real knowledge. We know a thing only as its effects on the real world, not what it actually is. Ether is a conspiracy theory—it leaps from place to place aided only by assumptions, no evidence, and it’s free to cross the laws of reality so long as it remains in the black box. And with the black box metaphor in play, now is probably a good time to return the still-missing Malaysian Airlines flight and its not at all regular relationship to truth and Occam’s razor. The Times line above, which buries a whole lot of missing information in that black mystery box, essentially runs with the idea that the plane may have landed safely in some hidden location and the perpetrators of the flight’s events are keeping the passengers captive while not making demands.
How many assumptions does that line of thought entail? Quite a few, I think: the likelihood of a hidden airstrip somewhere big enough to land a 777, the ability to incapacitate 200 people, apathetic military radar operators. Motive. Occam’s razor would seem to have a lot to trim.
But this brings us back to something pretty interesting about the principle and where it might falter. The falter occurs or at least appears to occur when information is so scarce as to make any explanation reasonable. That is, in order to come up with anything at all, there is a minimum number of assumptions we have to make because, if we pared away all assumptions, we wouldn’t have anywhere to search. We need assumptions—those Malaysian military blips were the missing jetliner, for example, or that the plane continued to fly on a generally eastward arc after its last radar detection—or else we’re mostly stuck with the simplest explanation: the jet ditched or crash-landed not long after takeoff.
But we didn’t find a jet that crash-landed after takeoff, and we haven’t found any jet as of this writing. We’re forced to withhold the razor (at least partially) or stop searching. Like ether proponents of yore, we’re stuck with glaring phenomena and wispy scraps of evidence, subject to revision with only the slightest bit of new information. Perhaps maybe the explanation is there right in front of us, and we just need an Einstein to come along and tell us where exactly to cut.