Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The "anti-Cassandra" effect: believing the unbelievable

 Nobody ever said that Cassandra was dumb, but when she said that she didn't think that the wooden horse that the Greeks had left on the beach was exactly a "gift", nobody believed her. This is something that we could call the "Cassandra Effect". Sometimes, however, there happens the opposite effect. That is, people believe in improbable stories without the smallest attempt of applying a bit of critical analysis. This is something that could be called the "Anti-Cassandra" effect. As an example, let me analyze a recent report that has appeared on newspapers all over the world. It is the story of how the window of a Ryanair plane was repaired with sticky tape and that because of that, the plane needed to return to the airport soon after take-off. Above: photo from "The Sun". (2018 note: the article and the pictures have been removed from the site of "The Sun")

On Oct 24 2011, "The Sun" published on their web site an article titled "Passengers watch Ryanair crew mend window with tape". It describes how the passengers of a plane leaving from Stansted were horrified at the sight and how the plane had to go back to the airport after take-off because of "damage to the windscreen". The article of The Sun has been reproduced in various forms in innumerable newspapers and web sites, for instance on the "Daily Mail.

Now, let's analyze this report. Can it be true that a major airline such as Ryanair (by the way, with an excellent safety record) can think of repairing a broken plane window with what the "Daily Mail" describes as "sticky tape"? Unlikely, to say the least; just as it is unlikely that the pilot of the plane would have accepted to take off with a window pane precariously held in place with scotch tape bought at the nearest hardware store.

Looking at the story a bit more in depth, we discover that there exists something called "speed tape" commonly used in aviation to repair minor damage and to stick parts together. It is not the common kind of tape, but a metal tape specifically developed for aviation. If that is what was being used to repair the cockpit window, then there is no scandal and there was no attempt on the part Ryanair of "penny pinching" (as stated in the Daily Mail). Indeed, the Irish Aviation Authority investigated on the question and both The Sun and The Daily Mail report that nothing wrong was found in the repair procedure.

But there is more in this story that may show that it was not just a mistake, but a true hoax. Let's go even more in depth in the report. Here is the image that appears on the Daily Mail; it is somewhat different from the one that appears on "The Sun" (shown above)

It is clear that this is the original photo; it has a better resolution than the one that appears on "The Sun," which has been retouched and reframed. Note how in the image on The Sun the left lower corner has been blanked out - we'll see later on that it was done for a reason.

Now, first of all, let's think in terms of perspective. From what I know, the nose of a Boeing 737 stands almost 3 meters high from the ground. Look at this image of a 737 and note how high the nose is with respect to the people standing.

Now, to take a picture like the one shown in "The Sun" or in the "Daily Mail", the photographer must be either at some distance from the plane or at a height comparable to that of the nose. Both conditions are highly improbable in the reported circumstances. When you board a plane they don't let you wander around to take pictures. And they don't let you climb on the roof of the passenger bus, either. Taken from where, then? Maybe from the inside of the passenger terminal? But that is just as unlikely; the level of the terminal floor is normally higher than the plane.

Besides, note another detail: the "arms" of the technician who is supposed to be repairing the window. These arms have been heavily retouched. But why? Possibly, because this is a photo montage where the technicians have been added to the photo of the plane.

But that's not all. Let's now read what they say in "The Sun,"  the original report.

"Passengers watched in horror as ground crew put the tape around the edge of the windscreen shortly before take-off from Stansted, Essex, to Riga, Latvia. "

But from where did they watch? It is weird, because we read that,

"We were kept in the dark, and were terrified. I could see guys taping in the windscreen with what looked like duct tape or gaffer tape. "

In the dark? What do they mean with that? If they mean actual darkness, it is impossible. The picture is taken in daylight and the passenger cabin of a plane is never "in the dark" when there is light outside. Besides, if the passengers were inside the cabin, how could they see the technicians taping the cockpit window from outside? Maybe they were looking from the passenger terminal, but again the story doesn't make sense. If they were really "terrified" would they have accepted to board the plane?

These contradictions would be enough to say that this story is a hoax, but there is more. Who took that picture? We cannot say that from the version of "The Sun" but we can from the one that appears on the "Daily Mail". It is written right there, on the left lower corner - just the region blanked out in the other photo. The author is one "Lee Thompson" who placed a copyright notice near his name.

Isn't it weird that a "passenger" would put a signature and a copyright sign on a picture taken while on a trip that is described as for a "stag party" as we read in the "Daily Mail"? But there is no doubt that "Lee Thompson" is the name of the passenger - we are told that explicitly in the article on "The Sun." Not just that, we have a picture of Mr. Thompson in the article. Here it is (note the disgusted expression - is that the face you make when your plane is forced to an emergency landing?)

So, let's see..... we have someone named "Lee Thompson", it is quite a common name, but he must be a professional photographer (because he puts a copyright mark on his images) and he must be connected with "The Sun". A little search on the web and you find him. He is, indeed, a professional photographer and he works for The Sun. Here he is as he appears on his site.

I don't know what's your opinion, but to me he looks damn like the same Lee Thompson of the article on the Ryanair "accident". Nice coincidence, right? The same person was both a passenger of the flight and a correspondent from The Sun! That explains, by the way, why they had blanked out the name of the photographer and the copyright notice. But someone, most likely by mistake, has placed on line the original.

The curious thing is that this curious story has been reproduced everywhere in the press and on the web without any attempt of criticism on the part of those who reproduced it. So, we have here a good example of the "Anti-Cassandra" effect, that is of people believing something unbelievable without making the slightest attempt to apply a bit of critical analysis. Sometimes people refuse to believe in reality and sometimes they fall easy prey of legends. So, in this case, everyone - or almost everyone -  loved the chance of a little "Ryanair-bashing" given the fame of penny pinching of the company. It is the same effect that led so many people to believe in the "Climategate" story as a chance to do a little science-bashing against those nasty scientists.

It is part of the way we reason; we believe in what we want to believe and we don't believe in what we don't want to believe. It has always been like that from the times of the prophetess Cassandra of Troy and, apparently, things haven't changed so much today.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)