Jul 11 2017

No, This Isn’t Amelia Earhart

amelia-earhart-photo2I love a good unsolved mystery as much as anyone. Mysteries provoke curiosity, and challenge our investigative skills. They may also challenge our skepticism and critical thinking.

The story of Amelia Earhart is an iconic mystery, and the inspiration for both legitimate investigation and a lot of nonsense. The story of Earhart is in the news again. The History Channel is promoting a theory that Earhart, and her navigator (Fred Noonan) were captured by the Japanese and later died in prison. Their new alleged evidence for this is the above photograph.

Some Quick Background

Earhart is famous for being a female aviation pioneer.  She had many firsts, including being the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland, California. This in itself was enough to make her famous, but her disappearance on July 3, 1937 made her legendary. She was attempting to fly around the globe, starting and ending in Miami, Florida. She made it as far as Papua, New Guinea.

She then had to traverse the vast Pacific Ocean. She was flying a Lockheed Electra, which was stripped of everything unnecessary to make more room for fuel. She had completed most of her flight, but the most challenging leg was in front of her. She and her navigator had to find a small island, Howland Island, which is just 1.6 miles long and half a mile wide.

On July 2, 1937 she left from New Guinea. Despite good weather, they ran into cloud cover and rain. According to her official website:

As dawn neared, Earhart called the ITASCA, reporting “cloudy weather, cloudy.” In later transmissions, Earhart asked the ITASCA to take bearings on her. The ITASCA sent her a steady stream of transmissions, but she could not hear them. Her radio transmissions, irregular through most of the flight, were faint or interrupted with static. At 7:42 a.m., the Itasca picked up the message, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” The ship tried to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear. At 8:45 a.m., Earhart reported, “We are running north and south.” Nothing further was heard from her.

Despite 80 years of searching, nothing was ever found of Earhart, Noonan, or their Electra. It is presumed that they ran out of fuel and ditched into the Pacific, sinking to the ocean floor. Since they were never found, however, this left the door open to speculation.

History Channel’s Photo

One of the persistent speculations by Earhart hunters is that she actually did land on an island, perhaps Marshal Island, where she was capture by the Japanese. Critics argue, however, that this theory makes no sense. At the time the US and Japan were not at war. The Japanese had their hands full with the Chinese, and would not want to provoke a conflict with the US. They also had nothing to gain from capturing and not simply rescuing Earhart and Noonan.

These theories about Japan were born after Pearl Harbor. Even though that was only four years later, a lot had changed in that time. It was only once Japan was the enemy that it was thought plausible that they would have captured Earhart. This actually made no sense at the time. We also have records of Japanese activity at the time, and there is no evidence any Japanese ship found Earhart, let alone captured her.

Now comes this new photo. The History Channel showcases experts who claim that the person sitting on the dock is Earhart. It is fun to imagine that the blurry figure is, in fact, Earhart, and of course that is what the History Channel is banking on. But of course, that makes them a fiction channel selling pseudoscience, not a channel dedicated to legitimate history.

This is a classic case of overinterpreting fuzzy evidence and retrofitting. This photograph is just clear enough to be provocative, but not discerning enough to see if the person is actually Earhart. That makes it like every Bigfoot photo ever taken, and similar to many photos of UFOs, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, chupacabra, and even the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

As evidence the photo is worthless because it does not contain enough detail to draw any conclusions.  Proffering it as evidence for a dubious alternate theory of Earhart’s fate is nothing but pseudoscience.

But of course it gets even worse. It is probable that the photo was taken in 1935, two years before Earhart disappeared. Here is clearly the same photo published in a Japanese book dating to 1935.

It is nice when such a definitive debunking is possible, because it then proves the skeptical principles used to critically analyze the original claims. There are lots of reasons to doubt that the photo is evidence of Earhart and the silly overinterpretation of it by the History Channel, and those reasons are further validated by proof that the photo cannot be of Earhart.

I do hope that one day Earhart’s plane is discovered. It would be nice closure to her epic story, and would prove false all the conspiracy theories about her capture (except, of course, to hardcore conspiracy theorists). Her story would then include a cautionary tale about wild speculation and the need for skepticism.


14 responses so far

14 Responses to “No, This Isn’t Amelia Earhart”

  1. SteveAon 11 Jul 2017 at 8:41 am

    Well, thank goodness you linked to the ‘Daily Beast’ page. Without the magnifying glass tracking across the page, I’d have had no idea which figure was meant to be Amelia.

    A fuzzy back-shot taken from, what? Sixty yards? And that’s evidence?

    This has to be the stupidest story I’ve read this year.

    Nice someone dug up the 1935 image. Really rubs their noses in it…

  2. Kabboron 11 Jul 2017 at 9:13 am

    No one knew at the time that Amelia Earhart was experimenting with time travel technology. We all know from comics and science fiction films that traveling around a celestial body will result in going back in time.

    I imagine that The History Channel must be having a tough time staying relevant to current audiences. They could spend their time and money making shows that inform and accurately portray life in any number of different time periods and locations… but this is cheap and easy.

  3. Ryan Martinon 11 Jul 2017 at 9:53 am

    I saw this a few days ago and it’s ridiculous. One of their lines of “evidence” is that Fred Noonan is also in the photograph. It’s the gentleman with the sharply receding hairline and bulbous nose. They say that this, combined with his teeth are a strong indication that this is a photo of Noonan and Earhart. It’s hard to believe the history channel is making a doc about this… Or is it?

  4. edwardBeon 11 Jul 2017 at 10:56 am

    I’m pretty sure it was determined a long time ago that Amelia Earheart married Bigfoot and they moved to Scotland where their descendants are still raising little Loch Ness monsters and Ivory Billed Woodpeckers with big feet.

  5. Sylakon 12 Jul 2017 at 6:40 am

    She was a badass, It’s a shame they crashed. What is fascinating, as a skeptic, in this story is the weird need of people for making it more complicated for no apparent reason. 1937, old technology ( no no tech at all for navigating, cloudy day, so shitty visibility and the need to find a tiny island in the biggest ocean. Their plane probably drifted because of wind and they didn’t notice. A couple of kilometers and it’s done. The only thing going for the wild mystery is that we never found anything. Which by itself does only mean : we don’t know their position and heading at the time they crashed, if the had deviate ( which is highly probable) then we are screwed. Second a small plane in a vast ocean decades ago. No surprise there. But of course we don’t know, therefore ALIENS! Lol

  6. SteveAon 12 Jul 2017 at 6:50 am


    It’s surprisingly (and horribly) easy to become disorientated in a small aircraft, even under the best weather conditions if you’re flying over featureless ocean.

    I wonder how many lives GPS tech has saved?

  7. BillyJoe7on 12 Jul 2017 at 7:15 am

    Jerry Coyne was credulous 😀


    JC: “Now there’s a new story, and to my mind this one is pretty good”

    Here is his mea culpa;


    “As I said in my earlier post, I’m credulous about stuff like this, and I was excited at the finding. Sadly, though, it wasn’t Earhart and Noonan, and the excitement, well, it was all due to credulous folk like me”

    Kudos for being transparent though. 🙂

  8. BillyJoe7on 12 Jul 2017 at 7:22 am


    “The only thing going for the wild mystery is that we never found anything…a small plane in a vast ocean decades ago. No surprise there.”

    For three years, using all our modern technology, we haven’t been able to find the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, flight MH370, with 239 people on board:


  9. cloudskimmeron 12 Jul 2017 at 10:20 am

    One thing I wondered about was the edge and corner visible above the typing below the photo–as if a piece of paper with the words on it were placed below the picture and the image taken on a photocopier or scanner. The letter “O” in “atoll” is a bit different from the one on the right in “ONI.” With the photo now showing up as a work from 1935, the only question is are the people who did the documentary being conned, or are they doing the conning? How will they react to the new evidence that the photo dates from 2 years before their death. In all probability, they will cling ever more tightly to their theory.

    There is also a youtube video claiming it’s a fake and pointing to various features of the photo, such as the uneven horizon line, to say it’s been altered. Unfortunately he degenerates at the end to conspiracy theories and anti-government rants.

  10. cloudskimmeron 12 Jul 2017 at 10:34 am

    By the way, Earhart had the best technology available and a trained navigator to use it. There were ways to determine wind drift, perhaps not a accurate as those available to day, but good enough for Pan American to fly reliably across the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately Howland Island was a small target, and they were relying on visual acquisition at the end of the flight. Sometimes it’s easy to pick out islands, but at a low altitude, necessary in this case to get below the scattered to broken cloud layer, visual range was evidently too limited for them to spot the island. The runway at Howland had been prepared for them and there were no navigational beacons there, which was the reason for the navy ship to be present. Such navigation is relatively short-range however, and evidently Earhart was unable to pick up the signal; there’s even the possibility that the system wasn’t working correctly. So many possibilities, and no way to get the answers.

  11. Fair Persuasionon 12 Jul 2017 at 9:54 pm

    Daredevils, Earhart and Noonan captured the imaginations of Americans who listened to radio. Stunned listeners across the country heard broadcasts that there was some fishy business going on when the plane plunged 17,000 ft down into the ocean. Earhart was Congress’ recognized medalist and of course, better than the average females or pilots anyone could dream about. Along comes Pearl Harbor, WWII and the Battle of Saipan; blending suspicion with bitterness and real loss. Good mysteries make for fine television viewing on any channel. Fiction anyone?

  12. Bill Openthalton 13 Jul 2017 at 7:37 am

    BillyJoe7 —

    For three years, using all our modern technology, we haven’t been able to find the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, flight MH370, with 239 people on board:

    Surely they have been abducted by aliens too.

  13. Kabboron 13 Jul 2017 at 8:18 am

    And by aliens you mean pre-WWII Imperial Japan. No one suspected them of abducting flight MH370, which makes it the perfect crime…

  14. Bill Openthalton 13 Jul 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Kabbor —
    Obviously, now that Daryl Bem has proved reverse causation. I am thrilled “The Final Countdown” (with Kirk Douglas) turns out to be a docudrama after all. 🙂

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