The recommended approach to solving a mystery is to:
- make a collection of primary data – whatever facts can be gathered in the first instance;
- consider these facts, and either develop two or more hypotheses of one’s own, and/or ask others for their hypotheses for explaining the facts;
- test the hypotheses against the facts, looking for diagnostic evidence, and for missing evidence which, if found, would be diagnostic in favour of one of the hypotheses.
This approach can work well most of the time, because the facts are usually strongly indicative of no more than one or two hypotheses, and it is usual, possibly as a result of satisficing, for people to settle on one of these hypotheses without considering any others. The search then begins for diagnostic evidence, and so we can focus our investigation and come to a conclusion.
However a problem can arise when, rather than having only two or possibly three hypotheses to consider, we are given a plethora of hypotheses. Then the task becomes slightly more difficult – especially if the hypotheses are exotic, ‘conspiracy’-type explanations, which are by their nature consistent with many facts but for which diagnostic evidence, one way or the other, is difficult to find.
But having a multitude of hypotheses goes against people’s natural tendencies towards satisficing, and generally settling on prima facie obvious explanations. Why would this happen? Who would generate this multitude of explanations?
This problem arose in my mind when reading a post on the magnificent The People’s Cube website about the murder of Vladimir Nemtsov, in March this year. Nemtsov was a member of the Russian parliament and a leading figure in the opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Given Putin’s track record in murdering those who oppose him, one hypothesis that immediately came to my mind when I heard the news was that Putin had arranged for his murder.
However, as well as controlling Russia’s armed forces and armed police, Putin also controls the Russian media. And so the stories written about Nemtsov’s murder in that media avoided mentioning this hypothesis, instead raising all sorts of explanations as to why what happened had happened. I’ll let ‘Red Square’ of The People’s Cube take over the story:
In Russia the government-controlled pen has always been mightier than its weapon systems. A de facto vassal of the KGB, the Soviet media faithfully served as a weapon in Moscow’s defensive and offensive strategies. It was used to attack perceived domestic or international enemies, as well as to release chaff of disinformation that swamped radar screens and impeded detection of targets. An ex-KGB colonel with experience in information warfare, Putin began his reign by overtaking Russia’s newly independent press and weaponizing its content.
Today’s coverage of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a fair example. Far from being silent about it, the Kremlin-run media is abuzz with seemingly chaotic theories: ~
- This was a provocation by foreign special services (a media euphemism mostly reserved for the CIA). First proposed by Putin, it immediately became the official working theory of the investigation. The enemy’s goal is believed to be the destabilization of Russia and making Putin look like a thug (or, on the contrary, an incompetent fool unable to control the situation).
- Ukrainian intelligence hired Chechen rebels to kill Nemtsov (who was the best friend Ukraine could ever hope to have in Russia).
- Nemtsov was paid by Ukrainian oligarchs to destabilize Russia; he failed and they eliminated him to cover their tracks.
- Nemtsov’s business partners rubbed him out for embezzling their money (he had no business partners and wasn’t actively involved in any businesses).
- Nemtsov was killed by his own colleagues inside the anti-Putin opposition as a result of a power struggle, or possibly over the money coming from overseas sponsors.
- That night he got involved in a bar brawl with random gangsters, who followed him from the restaurant and shot him in the back.
- Islamic terrorists affiliated with ISIS killed Nemtsov for his vocal support of Charlie Hebdo.
- Bon vivant Nemtsov broke many hearts by dating a gorgeous young model from Kiev; it was a crime of passion.
Tellingly absent from this is the single and most obvious theory the entire world is mulling over: the Kremlin connection. But if the Kremlin-run media mentions Putin in that context, it’s only as a trusted leader who has promised to hunt down the thugs and bring stability to the troubled nation. Attacks on Russia’s president by the Western media and domestic opposition (Garry Kasparov, Alexei Navalny, etc.) only prove to the average media consumer that this was a provocation aimed at attacking Putin. Back to Theory One above.
That is, the mouthpiece’s for Putin’s regime of terror have sought to muddy the waters by concocting a number of fantasy hypotheses – eight at this count – the aim of which is to encourage wild goose chases in search of diagnostic evidence, and all of which distract the public from the most likely hypothesis – that Putin murdered an opponent to get rid of him.
‘Red Square’ goes on to tell us the Russian media’s similar behaviour following another recent mystery for which one of the hypotheses with the strongest likelihood reflected very badly indeed on Putin and his apparatchiks:
A similar template was activated when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam crashed over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, with all evidence suggesting a strike by a surface-to-air-missile launched by a Moscow-controlled military unit (the final report by the Dutch Safety Board is expected in August, 2015).
The initially stunned denial of facts was followed by an immediate allegation of a conspiracy to blow up Putin’s plane, soon accompanied by a motherload of competing theories, all of them clearing Russia of any wrongdoing.
The scenarios were getting curioser and curioser, until the entire media landscape began to resemble a psychedelic scene from the last remake of Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp as a lovable Russian president helping to end the reign of terror in the neighboring Ukraine. Once again, tellingly missing from that script was the Kremlin’s involvement, along with any feelings of shame or empathy:
- According to initial reports, heroic pro-Russian militia shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane; any rumors about a downed Malaysian airliner must be a hostile provocation (was there seriously a plan to clean up the crash site and pretend nothing ever happened?)
- The Ukrainians were planning to assassinate Putin by shooting down his presidential aircraft but got their planes mixed up. The proof was in the photograph of Putin’s plane that looked somewhat similar to the Malaysian jet, even though Putin was nowhere near Ukraine that day.
- The bloodthirsty Ukrainian junta wanted to murder passengers on a Russian airline, but instead they killed 298 foreign citizens. The SBU (Ukrainian National Security Service) covered their tracks by killing the crew of the Buk missile system.
- Ukrainian air traffic controllers deliberately redirected the Malaysian jet towards the war zone and lowered its altitude, as part of Kiev’s plan to make Russia look bad.
- A Ukrainian fighter jet attacked Flight MH17 from behind, first spraying it with bullets and then turning around and launching a heat-seeking missile. This was proven by a satellite photo and an admission by a Ukrainian pilot, both of which turned out to be fake.
- A Spanish air traffic controller claimed he saw two Ukrainian fighter jets closely following the Malaysian Boeing (a report later withdrawn as false).
- An anonymous defector from Ukraine, speaking with a proper Russian accent, claims that on the day of the tragedy he witnessed a takeoff of a Ukrainian military jet carrying air-to-air missiles. The jet later returned without the missiles as the visibly shaken pilot said, “It was the wrong plane.”
- Flight MH17 contained dead bodies that had been soaked in formaldehyde and smelled of decomposition within minutes of the crash. Most bodies were naked, with yellowed skin and no blood inside. The luggage was full of winter clothes even though it was summer. It was obvious that the bodies had come from a different Malaysian plane, which had been shot down by Americans and hidden away on a US Air Force base. The Americans then secretly transported the preserved bodies to Amsterdam, loaded them onto the Boeing, and sent it on an unmanned flight over eastern Ukraine in a plot to frame Russian separatists. This elaborate conspiracy reveals how desperate the Western governments have become to undermine Russia’s reputation as a peaceful power.
Are Russian journalists really such a bunch of unruly and idle gossipers? That could be the case if they also weren’t so disciplined in executing the same maneuver every time Putin gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then, just like werewolves on a full moon losing their humanity, “serious” pro-Kremlin journalists and editors suddenly drop their respectable personae and start acting like conspiracy-obsessed lunatics.
Disinformation has been a staple of the Russian state going way back to the hideous regime of the Tsars. It seems that bare-faced lying is second nature to those who wield power in Russia, as is press-ganging the media to go along with the game – or else. It’s for this reason that I don’t know quite what to believe about what is happening in eastern Ukraine at the moment. I know the most basic and obvious facts – that a lot of people, both civilians and soldiers, are dying, that both militias and regular troops are fighting alongside one another on both sides, and that the Russian-speaking side appears to be winning. But beyond that, the tissue of lies is so thick, and all of the players so untrustworthy, that I can’t make head nor tail of it. And I suspect that’s how many, if not all, of the decision-makers in this conflict want it to remain.
Something similar happened 16 years ago, with the investigation into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which was flying from New York to Cairo on October 31 1999 when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Nantucket. On looking at the initial evidence, the investigators from the US Air Transport Safety Bureau thought the most obvious and most likely explanation was that the co-pilot had deliberately sought to crash the plane, and that his attempt had so damaged the plane’s structure that it broke up and plunged into the sea. But their Egyptian counterparts would have none of it, and kept proposing alternative reasons for the crash – each of which the ATSB engineers and investigators were obliged to take seriously and investigate thoroughly:
Month after month, as the NTSB chased down the theories that EgyptAir kept proposing, Loeb worried about all the other projects that were being put aside. He tried to keep a sense of distance from the work, driving from suburban Maryland to his office dressed in a sports jacket and tie, just like any other Washingtonian with a quiet job. But it was a hopeless ambition. Most mornings the Egyptian delegation was there too. Later Loeb said to me, his voice strangled with frustration, “You had to be there! You had to live through this! Day in and day out! It was as if these people would go back to their rooms at night and then identify some kind of reason … And then it would start all over again. It was insane! It was just insane!” …
A small war had broken out between Egypt and the United States on a battlefield called Loews L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. On one side stood Shaker Kelada and his men, fighting for the honor of their nation against the mysterious forces of American hegemony, and specifically against an agency whose famed independence they believed had been compromised. On the other side stood Bernard Loeb and his people, fighting just as hard—but to set a schedule, write the report, and disengage. Jim Hall was scurrying in between. And Boeing was off in Seattle, not quite out of range, trying unsuccessfully to look small …
Even when he was being reasonable, the party line kept showing through. He said, “I cannot say it’s a mechanical failure. I don’t have enough evidence, but I cannot dismiss the possibility of a mechanical failure … If I want to be careful.”
I said, “On the other hand, you do have enough evidence to dismiss the human factor?”
And he said, “Yes.”
“To dismiss the intentional act?”
“Yes.” He paused. He said, “We search for the truth.”
It was late in the day. Kelada sat behind his desk—a man in a big office with jets outside, a smart man, a careful man. I thought of the question that had plagued me all along: not whether the Egyptians were right or wrong but whether they really believed their own words. Loeb had said to me, “Do they believe it? I believe they believe in fear.”
I went downtown, to an old coffeehouse near the Nile, and spent a few hours with Hani Shukrallah, a columnist and one of the more thoughtful observers of the Egyptian scene. Shukrallah is a small, nervous man, and a heavy smoker. He said, “I know that as far as the Egyptian government was concerned, the point that this was not pilot error, and that the Egyptian pilot did not bring it down—this was decided before the investigation began. It had to do with Egypt’s image in the outside world … The government would have viewed this exactly as it would, for example, an Islamic terrorist act in Luxor—something that we should cover up. So it got politicized immediately. And this became an official line: You are out there to prove that EgyptAir is not responsible. It became a national duty. It was us versus the West. And all the history played into it, from Bonaparte’s campaign until now.” In the minds even of people on the street, Shukrallah said, it became “an all-out war.”
If so, the United States was in such a strong position that it could lose the struggle only by defeating itself. This is why from the very start of the difficult process it was all the more important for the NTSB to consider the evidence fairly and keep an open mind. The problem was that so many of the scenarios the Egyptians posited were patently absurd—stray missiles, ghost airplanes, strange weather, and the like. Yet that didn’t mean that everything they said was wrong. As long as Batouti’s motive could not be conclusively shown, the possibility remained that the dive of Flight 990 was unintentional, just as Kelada maintained. And in the background the Egyptians had some very smart engineers looking into the various theories.
The 767’s elevator movements are powered by three redundant hydraulic circuits, driving a total of six control mechanisms called “actuators,” which normally operate in unison. Given the various linkages and cross-connections, the system is complex. The Egyptians thought it through and realized that if two of the six actuators were to fail on the same side of the airplane, they would drive both elevators down, forcing the 767 to pitch into a dive that might match the profile that had emerged from EgyptAir 990’s flight-data recorder. Furthermore, if such a failure happened and either pilot tried to right it, that could conceivably explain the “splitting” of the elevators that occurred during 990’s attempted recovery.
As might be expected, the discussion about dual actuator failures grew complicated. It also grew political. The NTSB had salvaged most of the actuators from the ocean floor and had found no clear evidence of failure, but with perceptions of public safety at stake, the agency asked Boeing for further information. Boeing engineers calculated that a dual actuator failure would not have deflected the elevators far enough down to equal the known elevator deflections of Flight 990, and that such a failure therefore would not have caused as steep a dive. To explore the question they performed a series of ground tests of a 767 elevator, inducing dual actuator failures and “splits” on a parked airplane in Seattle. After adjusting the measured effects for the theoretical aerodynamic pressures of flight, they found—as they had expected—poor correlation with the known record of Flight 990 elevator positions. They believed in any case that either pilot could quickly have recovered from a dual actuator failure by doing what comes naturally at such moments—pulling back hard on the controls.
The NTSB was satisfied; the Egyptians were not. They poked holes in the conclusions and requested basic and costly aerodynamic research, at speeds well beyond the 767’s limits, toward Mach One. The question was, of course, To what end? But for Boeing this was a delicate thing, because Egypt kept buying expensive airplanes and was influential in the Arab world. A bit of additional research would perhaps be in order.
I recommend the whole article, it is a great read and a real red-pill about the nature of people’s thinking.
Returning to the main point of this post. Usually, we will only have to deal with two or three hypotheses when presented with a mystery. On rare occasions a fourth hypothesis might appear, making things difficult for us. But we should be aware that sometimes people, for reasons of their own, will want to prevent us from finding the truth, and to do so they will deliberately muddy the waters by presenting us with all sorts of wild explanations which will only serve to waste our time and divert us from the explanations with the strongest likelihood of being true.
Just one last point, for those readers who have the desire and the time to think about these things:
It’s something that has always puzzled me – why do people as powerful as Putin, Robert Mugabe, Mao Tse-tung, the Kim family in North Korea, back to Hitler and Stalin – why do they go through the whole charade of pretending that they weren’t / aren’t behind the crimes that they commit, and go to such extraordinary lengths to cover up their crimes and point the finger of blame elsewhere, or to attempt to cover their crimes with a cloak of legitimacy, such as via show trials? They have such great power that surely they could just come out and say ‘Yes, we / I did it, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.’ What psychological forces compel them to generate such pretence? You don’t see this sort of pretence with ordinary, run-of-the-mill criminal gangs, for instance, such as the cartels in Mexico, the mafia in the US and Italy, and the bikie gangs here in Australia. Why do these thugs act differently? Would be interested to hear your thoughts, cos I’m buggered if I know.