This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Occam’s Razor and the Non-Bermuda Triangle by Christina Smith
Occam’s razor (sometimes referred to as the principle of parsimony) is a scientific problem solving technique put forth by philosopher William of Ockham. It is used to explain unusual and bizarre observations in a much more simple and effective way. It posits that the most accurate and logical explanation for an event or mystery is most likely the simpler one, meaning an explanation which requires fewer underlying assumptions. Occam’s razor can be applied to the Bermuda Triangle and the illogical claims behind the mystery to produce much more accurate and scientific explanations.
The Bermuda Triangle (sometimes referred to as The Devil’s Triangle) is an infamous triangular location in the Atlantic Ocean encompassing a large area (roughly 500,000 square miles) between the southern tip of Florida and between the islands of Bermuda and Puerto Rico. This area has been said to be the site of many disappearance of planes, ships, people, and underwater vessels. The area became known in mid-1940’s during World War II when five US Naval planes disappeared during a training exercise. Since then, several other planes and ships seemed to have gone missing in the area without explanation. The Bermuda Triangle began receiving worldwide attention when the media grabbed a hold of it in the 1960’s and 1970’s each time something or someone became lost in the area.
The disappearances have been attributed to several types of pseudoscience phenomena. First, let’s start with UFO’s and evil extraterrestrials. One theory believes that a UFO crashed here and then set up camp underwater to suck in anything and anyone who passes over in order to conduct tests. The other one is that there is a space-time gap resulting from UFO activity and communication with Earth. If a boat passes through at the wrong time, it will pass through this space-time continuum, and gets taken by who the hell knows what or where…awesome. Another favorite pseudoscience belief lies within the lost city of Atlantis. According to this theory involving Atlantis, the inhabitants derived their energy from crystals and the energy of these super powerful crystals is apparently so strong that boats and people are being sucked into the ocean. Some other beliefs regarding disappearances in the area include malicious humans with anti-gravitational devices, fourth dimension vile vortices, and crazy compasses with a mind of their own. The ships, planes, and people have never been found so what else could it be? Perhaps there are much simpler and more rational explanations for the disappearances.
The Bermuda Triangle is one of the busiest commercial and shipping areas in the world with planes and ships passing through numerous times per day. By this information alone, the event of a plane crashing or boat sinking isn’t all that far-fetched. In fact, the disappearance rate in the Bermuda Triangle is not significantly higher and actually is considered to be “normal” – meaning it corresponds proportionally to other commercial areas across the world. At times, the disappearance rate was actually shown to be lower than the surrounding areas. Also, there is no consensual agreement about the exact geographic boundaries that make up the Triangle, which therefore makes some of the disappearances not even associated with the region at all.
A very popular scientific explanation hypothesizes that the disappearances are most likely the result of harsh weather. The Bermuda Triangle is conveniently located in the heart of hurricane country in the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean is already a largely unpredictable and dangerous place, without adding in torrential rainstorms and high wind speeds to the equation. If a plane were to crash or a ship were to sink because it could not withstand the ocean forces, then all evidence can easily be swallowed up and never accounted for. In fact, only 5-10% of the entire world’s ocean waters has been explored so I think that humankind has a ways to go before we start accusing innocent aliens for abducting our planes and ships.
Another plausible cause for these disappearances is the emission of methane gas deposits from the ocean floor. There are concentrations of trapped gas that float to the surface when released and make the water underneath a ship less dense and unable to support it. These events have been known to have sunken oil drillings rigs in the past. This theory is actually the least popular scientific one, but, it is still a much more sensible explanation compared to those involving paranormal activity.
However, there are of course a few “human error” explanations. Nobody is perfect, people can be dumb, and even the most trained captains and pilots make mistakes and incompetent navigation decisions. Also, most of the disappearances and crashes happened well before advanced modern technology, which could account for a few things such as directional compass and communication failure. In fact, the disappearance rate has gone down significantly and appears to correlate to the increase of technology advancement. Additionally, the Bermuda Triangle is a rather large area and if one gets lost trying to navigate the waters, there is a good chance that a carrier could run out of fuel at some point. There has also been speculation about explosive cargoes on some of the ships and if one possibly detonated, then unfortunately there wouldn’t be a lot of evidence to search for.
Additionally, there are human errors happening on land as well. There have been known instances of stories about some of the disappearances changing significantly from source to source. People tend to manipulate and twist initial facts into more interesting and irrational explanations just to liven up the story (remember the telephone game?!). There have been cases of disappearances attributed to the Triangle that did not even happen within the region – not even close. There have also been “disappearances” when a ship just accidentally got re-routed only to turn up still intact at a different port. However, people still continued to claim the loss of the vessel regardless. Furthermore, some disappearances were documented as occurring during “calm and clear weather” when in fact, turned out to not to correspond with what was written in the weather reports when these claims were investigated by skeptics. These same claims often included in the reports that “strange, alien-like” noises were heard across the radio transmitter just before losing contact with the ship. Radios are more than capable of making strange and unusual noises due to airwave static. People hear the phrase “strange noises” and all of a sudden it is known as paranormal communication.
Stories about the Bermuda Triangle only became more exaggerated and elaborate with each additional disappearance. These stories, however, can be whittled down to much more rational explanations via Occam’s razor. People want to believe in the magic and the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. They want to think that the plane and ship disappearances are the work of pseudoscientific phenomena. However, these explanations require extraneous details that cannot be scientifically proven or even rationally explained. While the thought of alien abduction or the long lost civilization of Atlantis seems fun, there is an abundance of simpler and more logically sound explanations in regards to the disappearances within the Bermuda Triangle.