March 07, 2015

Horse 1854 - The Bermuda Triangle

Woo. Boogity-boogity-boo.

Despite what you may have heard about The Bermuda Triangle, about paranormal activity, aliens, mad theories about some sort of scientific anomaly like there being some massive deposit of iron under the sea which throws out compasses or methane gas bubbling up from the sea floor and thus lowering the density of water, all of these theories trying to explain the Bermuda Triangle as a strange phenomenon are complete hogwash.
A new report identifies the world's most dangerous waters for shipping and says accidents pose a particular danger for some of the most ecologically important areas. The research says the worst accident hotspots are in the South China Sea, the Mediterranean and North Sea.
- BBC News, 7th Jun 2013

If the Bermuda Triangle was so dangerous, then shouldn't it show up in statistics? It doesn't even appear in the top ten of places where shipping incidents have occurred. If the Bermuda Triangle was so dangerous then we should be hearing about massive numbers of cruise ships going missing. Companies like Disney, Carnival and Princess would never sail there.

So why did this story begin if it's so demonstrably untrue. Mostly the reason for this is that people like stories; even if those stories are unfounded. It's easy to remember something if there's a neat story about it. The Bermuda Triangle is one of those stories.

Basically, the whole mythology of The Bermuda Triangle is a work of pulp fiction which got out of hand. It's as credible as the story that ostriches put their heads in the sand (which they never do), of George Washington telling the truth about chopping down the cherry tree (which he never did), about Columbus discovering America because the earth was "flat" (the ancients knew the earth was round - heck Martin Behaim's Erdapfel was made in 1492 before Columbus even headed westwards) and about people only using 10% of their brain (you never hear of someone suffering from brain damage but being perfectly fine because it was in the 90% of their brain they weren't using).

The most reliable evidence that I've found for where this whole malarkey began was in an article which in the Miami Herald on 17th Sep 1950:
DAT OLE DEBBIL SEA has shrouded in riddles the fate of 135 persons who flew or sailed the Atlantic in recent years. Modern man with his pushbutton miracles has no clue to what happened to those who were swallowed without trace in the loss of ships and planes indicted on this map.
- Miami Herald, 17th Sep 1950

I don't know if the Miami Herald is a newspaper of record but to put this in perspective, the "black box" flight recorder, didn't start appearing in planes until after a series of crashes involving the de Havilland Comet started to make airlines and legislators very worried about their investment. The Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation started looking into flight recorders from about 1954, with prototypes being made in 1957.
It's also worth noting that the first man made satellite, Sputnik 1, didn't go into space until 1957 and so our modern notion of tracking aircraft by satellite would have been impossible in 1950.

This didn't stop the mythmakers from going absolutely nuts. The Bermuda Triangle was the perfect sort of thing for magazines and novelists to write about because it was impossible not to prove. Any plane or ship that went missing, was further proof that The Bermuda Triangle was a thing and if they didn't, then no-one wrote any articles about it. It is the journalistic equivalent of confirmation bias and it works even better if planes fall out of the sky and into a sensationalist uriah heap.
Maybe a mythology rose up around this but it was a pulp-magazine called the "Argosy" who finally coined the phrase in a Feb '64 article called "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle". Give something a fancy name, throw in some psuedo-half-baked science and some marketing and voilĂ , you've got a legend.

Really, the only things which go regularly missing in The Bermuda Triangle are people's sense of style when they start to think that Bermuda Shorts are a good idea, and people's luggage when British Airways accidentally sends it to Frankfurt.

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