The Real World isn’t a Sound Bite

Perth has been in the news, but not for any reason I’d have hoped for. Making the news around the world since March 8 has been the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Despite personal concerns I might have (with colleagues in Malaysia, including one on a Malaysian Airlines flight that day), I’ve found the ongoing media reaction occasionally disappointing.

Any airline incident has the potential to be big news, and MH370 has been no different. Having done some flying myself, and with friends who fly airliners internationally for their day job, I found the immediate speculation of terrorism, pilot suicide or unprofessional behaviour to be disheartening, and incredibly disrespectful to the families of those involved. And conspiracy theories – such that the plane was shot down by the Chinese, for example – are offensive enough at the pub, but just because people posts random theories on the internet, do they need to be repeated by the media to the point that officials have to deny it to the relatives?

The problem, as I see it, is that as a society we’re training ourselves to always prefer the simple solution: Dumb it down for me. Layman’s terms, please! Give me the executive summary, Just the facts, Ma’am.

No episode of Perry Mason was ever as long as your average real murder trial. Real life is complex and drawn out. It contains minutiae, multiple motivations, probabilities. But when do you ever see an interviewee on the TV or radio talk for more than 30 seconds? The answer is either Never, or In the boring bits. Because if you can’t summarise what you have to say in 30 seconds, the editing room is going to do it for you.

Aviation incidents are long and complex. Reports of airline disasters can be hundreds of pages long and routinely detail lengthy chains of human error, conflicts of interest between profits, safety and politics, or technical or training oversights which have sometimes been at play, without incident, for decades. When we see a jet fly overhead, there’s a temptation to see a thing. An object. It’s hard to see it as a perfectly integrated mesh of moving parts, engineered to precise tolerances and being managed by sometimes hundreds of people in a day.

Rather, the real world is complex. Science is hard. It reminds me of this snippet by Louis CK, where among other things, he mentions Chesley Sullenberger’s ditching into the Hudson River. Put yourself in the shoes of a pilot: You train, multiple flights every day, for years. On every one of those flights, you review what your plan is if the engine fails here, on takeoff. Or here, during flight. Or… at any instant. You repeat simulated engine failure exercises to understand the room and time you’ll need. And when it happens you switch to that routine: Once you have a plan, it’s no longer an emergency. But as Louis CK points out, to the average punter, that’s waaaay to complicated: It’s much simpler to call it a miracle; and when we call it a miracle we do a disservice not only to the effort of the people like Sullenberger who made it happen, but to all the people who went before, who failed, and from whose sacrifices we learned and made the world a better, safer place.

I have my theories about MH370, and while they might not involve terrorism or gross malfeasance or conspiracy, I’m happy to keep them to myself and wait for the evidence.

Instead, as our local airforce base flies out a continual stream of search teams looking for MH370, I’ll be taking a moment to contemplate the scope and complexity of this undertaking. And to them, their support teams and the countless long hours spent at their thankless, unglamorous tasks, away from the media spotlight, I’ll simply say Thank you.