The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for January 24th, 2009

Flight 1549 Follow Up

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 24, 2009

A few days ago I wrote a post about conspiracy theories related to last week’s story about U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash-landing into the Hudson River (see “Miracle on the Hudson” Conspiracy Woo).

In that post I argued that it was entirely possible that bird-strikes could have brought down the plane, and this hypothesis was consistent with reports from the pilot about hitting a flock of birds shortly after takeoff. Well, it seems there is yet more evidence supporting the bird-strike hypothesis. Just yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story about new evidence uncovered by the NTSB, and here are some key excerpts:

The National Safety Transportation Safety Board yesterday said an external examination of the plane’s right engine revealed evidence of “soft body impact” damage on fan blades. The agency said its review showed that internal engine parts were either significantly damaged or missing.

John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, said results of the engine probe so far were consistent with a bird striking the engine fan, damaging metal pieces that then broke loose. The pieces were pulled deeper inside the engine, causing further damage, he said.

The NTSB said the organic material was found inside the engine, on the plane’s wings and on other parts of the plane. Additionally, investigators found a single feather attached to a part known as a flap track of one of the plane’s wings.

So the bird-strike hypothesis seems more and more likely to be the explanation for the engine failure which led to Flight 1549’s desperation landing in the Hudson River. Now, allow me to take a moment to compare and contrast the methodologies employed by those who actually use critical thinking and those who are spinning conspiracy theories.

Those who are rigorously investigating this disaster are very frugal in their approach, making sure to look for evidence in a very deliberate & systematic manner. All hypotheses are considered, but once they are found to be in contradiction to the facts available, they are discarded or revised – this is common in the scientific method of investigation.

For example, I was supporting the bird-strike hypothesis in my earlier post. To test this hypothesis for validity, we would expect – upon further analysis of the engines – to see physical evidence that is consistent with bird-strikes on airplanes. And, according to recent news reports, this is indeed what we see (including feathers in the engine!). This gives us greater confidence that bird-strikes had something to do with the downing of Flight 1549.

Now, let’s look at the “reasoning” of conspiracy theorists – like those at the David Icke Forum. Much of their argumentation rests upon being suspicious of “coincidences”, making arguments from ignorance (“The NWO could be responsible for this, we just don’t know”), selective thinking, confirmation bias, and basically outright ignoring or dismissing any evidence contrary to their claims. In short, the CTists use anything to justify their worldview that…

conspiracy

As such, CT-thinking is non-falsifiable. And ideas which are not falsifiable are clearly unscientific; yet, ironically, many CTists claim to be employing science in making their arguments. This is a classic mark of what skeptics call pseudoscience.

In closing I’ll refer you to a great blog entry and discussion on this topic over at the SkepticBlog.org – the entry is titled “The US Airways Hudson River Conspiracy” and Brian Dunning deals with other aspects of the CTist claims that I have not yet addressed. Check it out.

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