To those of us who share an evidence-based approach to knowledge, the answer is, “Are you kidding? Of course it is.” Over a period of thirty years, TIGHAR has pursued multiple lines of investigation that have developed several independent bodies of information – archival, photographic, physical, and analytical – all pointing to the same conclusion: Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed and died as castaways on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro. At the same time, the testing of alternative hypotheses has failed to turn up a scintilla of supporting scientific evidence.
The only mystery that remains is why the case is not universally considered closed. A recent article by psychologist Jeremy P. Shapiro, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences at Case Western University, provides some answers.
The Earhart disappearance is neither the only, nor by any means the most important, issue about which there is consensus among scientists and forensic experts and yet continued denial and controversy in the general public. Professor Shapiro’s article addresses the problem of science-denial with respect to climate change, biological evolution, and childhood vaccination, but his observations ring true for the Earhart case.
As a psychotherapist, he sees “a striking parallel between a type of thinking involved in many mental health disturbances and the reasoning behind science denial. … Dichotomous thinking, also called black-and-white and all-or-none thinking, is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.”
This is not to say that anyone who thinks Amelia Earhart crashed and sank or was captured by the Japanese is bonkers. As Professor Shapiro points out: “Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries … like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent correct earns a P and everything else gets an F.
“Science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.”
To TIGHAR’s critics, if there is no “smoking gun” there is nothing. For those who are emotionally or institutionally invested in an alternative explanation of Earhart’s fate, if there is no absolute proof then all theories are equally possible.
Prof. Shapiro points out that “Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as “unproven.” Such statements are technically correct but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.”
A hypothesis can be disqualified but it can never be proved, only supported. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “smoking gun” in the sense of a piece of evidence that proves the case beyond all doubt.
Decades of research have uncovered and interpreted a wealth of archival and physical evidence that puts Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro. This qualitative evidence can be disqualified but only by showing that the identification or interpretation is incorrect. Analyses of photographs, post-loss radio signals, and most recently bone measurements have shown high levels of quantitative support for the Nikumaroro Hypothesis. Those findings can be credibly challenged, but only by showing that the numbers upon which they are based are wrong.
Prof. Shapiro puts it this way, “Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth but no final end point to the process.”
Is the Earhart mystery solved? We’re convinced that it is, but we’re willing to be proved wrong. TIGHAR will continue to test the Nikumaroro Hypothesis because science-denial is not something that can be fixed with a blog posting. The more scientific evidence we find, the more difficult it becomes for the deniers to deny.
There is a vast gulf between perfect knowledge and total ignorance, and we live most of our lives in this gulf. Informed decision-making in the real world can never be perfectly informed, but responding to the inevitable uncertainties by ignoring the best available evidence is no substitute for the imperfect approach to knowledge called science.
Prof. Shapiro’s full article can be found at The Thinking Error at the Root of Science Denial.