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.


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