‘There are known knowns — there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns, that is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
Here at least, Donald Rumsfeld had it right.
And, when it comes to these three categories of knowledge, America’s preference lands firmly on option two. MH370 is proving that.
We know that something untoward has happened; we just don’t know what. Terrorism or alien abduction? Ransom or insanity? Pick your theory. Or form another.
Let’s cut to the chase: This mystery is well suited to the American appetite. Conspiracy theories have always been part of our national psyche. In fact, as I’ve argued before, conspiracy theories can actually nurture our cultural, social, and democratic health. And, as CNN’s rocketing ratings prove, we’re enjoying the MH370 uncertainty. Facing coverage of a Russian invasion, Toyota settlements, and a missing jetliner — the mystery is master.
But why to such a significant degree?
As I see it, the hyperinterest is rooted in MH370’s ultimate “known unknown”-ness.
In some sense, it flows from jetliners’ unique “known” charisma — as six-mile-high, 500-mile-an-hour cocoons of delivery. Jetliners balance humanity’s technical innovation in a wager with the Earth. We know that we need planes to travel long distances, but we also know that if a problem develops in flight — it won’t be a good day. In this dichotomy, the frost on a plane window serves as a cold metaphor; it reminds us of the vulnerability that lingers just inches away.
In the case of MH370, however, this dynamic is accentuated by the conflicting information.
Because of the many elements at hand — eyewitness reports from the Maldives, silent regional governments, stolen passports, floating debris/nothing, simulator memory deletions, etc., etc., etc. — the theorizing has been opened up to include anyone with an idea.
Imagine that the debris off Australia’s coast does turn out to be from MH370. In such a situation, public interest would immediately begin to dissipate — the tangible debris would provide a physical presence to dampen our speculation. Sure, MH370 would continue as a “known unknown” — we still wouldn’t know exactly what had occurred. But we would also know that the field of possible “unknowns” was diminished.
The distinction is critical.
At a basic level, until we have evidence of something somewhat definitive, it will remain possible, for example, to go on TV and suggest that MH370 is sitting under camouflage netting in a remote jungle. Or that it’s in the Gobi Desert, refueled, packed with explosives, and ready to crash into a major city. Or that it’s at the bottom of one of the planet’s oceans. Albeit precariously, it will remain possible to use social media to claim that MH370 is now docked in the Alpha Centauri star system and that those on board are drinking tea with three-headed aliens, Amelia Earhart, and Elvis.
Ultimately, this speaks to a broader truth. MH370’s disappearance allows us to regard the normally implausible as newly plausible. It tempts us to believe that somewhere, somehow, the truth is out there. The longer the conundrum continues, the more our analytical tendencies give way to our expanded imaginations.
Nevertheless, this is America. If a story is easy to watch and relevant to our daily lives, there’s a magnetism to that which we know we do not know.
In the end, even if subconsciously, perhaps we do not wish to truly know the unknown. Perhaps we’re happier to be able to identify truth as that which our minds have created.