A missile launch?

I’m sure most of you saw the news story last week about a mysterious, unknown “missile launch” off the coast of Los Angeles. Combine viral internet video with people’s wild imaginations and a zealous media and suddenly a national (or even international) news story arises.  I ran across this very thorough blog, explaining the “missile” as a simple jet contrail viewed from an unlikely angle. The author of the blog backs up his conclusion with photographs of other contrails that look similar, flight information, physics, and other analyses of angles and satellite photos. The explanation is quite thorough. Yet, many of the hundreds of comments posted to the blog refute the contrail explanation and suggest some kind of government conspiracy or coverup regarding a missile launch. Why do most people often dismiss the most rational explanation in favor of a more tenuous one?

Occam’s razor states that “the simplest explanation is more than likely the correct one.” Having that premise in mind during any investigation usually leads to rational conclusions. I like to think of Occam’s razor a little differently, that during an investigation one should not dismiss the simplest explanation unless sufficient evidence exists to do so. In the case of this “missile”, a contrail is the simplest explanation because contrails are common occurrences seen by everyone, and that thousands of jet aircraft cross our skies daily.  Additionally, the blog post makes a good case as to how a contrail could be misinterpreted based upon the viewing angle. When the author points out other contrails that were similarly misinterpreted, complete with photos, it becomes difficult to refute the simplest explanation (a contrail). Yet people continue to speculate on a more complex missile hypothesis that involves foreign governments and a government coverup. The only “evidence” to support that claim is “it didn’t look like a contrail to me, so it must be something else.” What leads a person to choose the more complex hypothesis in this case?

A television influence.

Combine unemployment with fall allergies, and you will understand why I have been spending more time inside watching television. I’ve realized that to be truly entertained my most television shows and movies, one needs to dumb themselves a little and take things at face value by ignoring plot holes and unrealistic acting.  I notice when writers incorrectly portray science, or when the plot requires breaking the laws of physics. In some cases, plots require scientific fallacies in order to speed up the timeline or make things more interesting.  That’s all acceptable as long as the viewer understands the manipulation.

I am only 35, but when I was younger I remember a more distinct line between science fiction and reality. Shows using scientific nonsense did not hide their intent. People would fly around in spaceships, characters would be aliens, or the show or movie was obviously targeted towards juveniles. I don’t think too many adults looked at “Knight Rider” or “Ghostbusters” with a serious eye.  The “science” in those shows was obviously fiction, and the audience knew it and enjoyed it.  Even in the 1990s  with the “X-Files”, I think people generally understood that it was a science fiction show.

During my recent time on the sofa, I noticed many television shows labeled as “drama”, “cop drama” or “medical drama” are using more scientific mumbo-jumbo to facilitate outlandish story lines or further an improbable plot.  Because viewers likely do not identify the show within the realm of “science fiction”, I wonder if many viewers are led to believe that many of the shows’ claims are absolutely true, possible, or even likely.  FOX seems to stretch science pretty thin with “House” and “Bones”, but I also notice the same trends within the more popular police dramas of “CSI” and “NCIS”  (To CSI’s credit, I was quite impressed that last night’s episode incorporated a motive of groundwater contamination resulting from natural gas drilling – a very serious and real problem).   And in all of those shows, I notice recurring “X-Files” themes of government coverup, large scale conspiracies, and secrecy.  The difference is that the focus of the “X-Files” was obviously the paranormal and weird, whereas the focus of  “CSI” is about police, detectives and crime – real subjects.

Disbelief about rational explanations.

Are people jumping to more complex conclusions about real-life events based upon their experiences from watching television or movies?  One could argue that television shows and movies are simply exaggerating real-life, because nobody denies the existence of real government coverups or conspiracies.  But are real-life conspiracies so widespread that people should consider them the simplest possible solution to an event like the “missile launch”?  Or, do we simply think conspiracies are widespread because the idea is constantly reinforced by television and movies? If people believe that conspiracies are the norm, then Occam’s razor certainly holds true for a secret missile launch hypothesis.  But, if the belief that conspiracies are the norm is based upon fiction, are people denying the simplest possible explanation?

Consider this:  Our beliefs about reality are largely based upon our life experiences.  If someone spends the majority of their time watching fictional television or movies, would that not mold their reality?

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3 Responses to Disbelief.

  1. Hippie Cahier says:

    Your final point landed right where my mind was headed: the notion of “reality” shows. The relationships and events portrayed there as “real” seem to be shaping the way people approach relationships and behave in an increasingly disconcerting way. Just a regular everyday existence is too boring for folks anymore. For too many people it seems that f there isn’t “drama,” it isn’t life.

    One of my favorite tv characters is Penelope Garcia from NCIS. What she does is similar to what I am trained to do and loosely aligned with what I actually do. Perhaps government computers work as quickly as they are portrayed there, but I doubt it. She is able to retrieve and analyze complex data and synthesize it into a comprehensive yet concise report in a matter of seconds. It doesn’t work like that in the real world, but those who are waiting for the information think so. I love Penelope, but I also blame her. 🙂

    • All of the police/cop/detective shows seem unrealistic, but I don’t know if the average viewer understands that. Things happen way too fast, and the technology and information sources are way too accessible. I’ve never had a DNA test, but I expect it to take more than a few hours to match DNA from a flake of dandruff. It’s cool for television, as long as the viewer understands it doesn’t work like that in real life. Unfortunately, I think people get influenced by the television shows, and suddenly expect the police and government to have unlimited technology and information. The result is an unrealistic expectation on what the government does and is capable of, and this leads to lofty expectations, distrust, and conspiracy theories.

      • Hippie Cahier says:

        You’re spot on. I’ve read – and perhaps you have, too – that there is difficulty in criminal court cases because juries expect prosecutors (in particular, but I suppose defense attorneys, too) to be able to create as clear-cut a case with forensic evidence as the characters on these shows.

        I hope that resistance is not entirely futile.

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