Fact Checking Snopes

Who watches the watchman? It seems that not even the popular fact-check website Snopes can maintain objectivity when it comes to the fate of Amelia Earhart. Reacting to widespread media acceptance of forensic anthropologist Richard Jantz’s 99% certainty that bones discovered on a remote Pacific atoll in 1940 belonged to Amelia Earhart, a Snopes “fact-check, history” article published on March 15  took issue with Dr. Jantz’s conclusions. The article itself sorely wants fact-checking.

I sent my fact-check of the Snopes fact-check to its author Alex Kasprak which resulted in a productive dialogue.  I have included Mr. Kasprak’s replies and my responses in this fact-check.
_________________________________________________

The title – “Have Amelia Earhart’s Remains Been Located?” – is a strawman that should set off alarm bells with anyone at all familiar with Dr. Jantz’s paper and TIGHAR’s work.

Fact Check: FALSE

No one has claimed that Amelia Earhart’s remains have been located. Not Richard Jantz, not TIGHAR, not nobody. The bones have been lost, as the article eventually admits.

Mr. Kasprak responded:
The headline is a reflection of media coverage of your work, which — as most viral news does — oversold the findings. We do this commonly so that our headline reflects the questions people are asking Snopes, which in this case was “Have Amelia Earhart’s Bones been found?” The claim that we were debunking, found in the “claim” section, is this: “Bones found on the remote Pacific Island of Nikumaroro belong to famed aviator Amelia Earhart.”

To which I replied:
Fact-checking your explanation, I find it FALSE.

What media have oversold the findings? Despite lots of Googling I’m unable to find any media source who made the claim you say you are debunking. The headlines and articles I’ve seen all include qualifiers such as “likely,” “may,” “99% sure,” etc. I don’t doubt that some readers skip over the caveats. Correcting their mis-impression would be an appropriate topic for Snopes to address, but that’s not what you did. You wrote a personal opinion piece about the Nikumaroro hypothesis under the guise of fact-checking a strawman.
___________________

In describing the discovery of the bones, he writes:

“Sometime around 1939, a local on the island of Nikumaroro came across a skull and a bottle.

Fact Check: FALSE

The skull and bottle were found in the spring of 1940.1

Mr. Kasprak responded:

I’m willing to correct this. My understanding — and I am happy to have you clear this up — is that, prior to the working party that located and buried the bones on Gardner in Spring 1940, a native had mentioned that he had seen bones earlier, which is why I hedged on the actual timing.

I replied:

You may be thinking of the story told to a San Diego Union reporter by Coast Guard veteran Floyd Kilts in 1960. Kilts claimed that, while stationed on Gardner Island in 1946:  “A native tried to tell me about it. But I couldn’t understand all of it so I got an interpreter. It seems that in the latter part of 1938 there were 23 island people, all men, and an Irish magistrate planting coconut trees on Gardner for the government of New Zealand. … The magistrate was a young Irishman who got excited when he saw the bones. He thought of Amelia Earhart right away. He put the bones in a gunnysack and with the native doctor and three other natives in a 22-foot, four-oared boat started for Suva, Fiji, 887 nautical miles away. The magistrate was anxious to get the news to the world. But on the way the Irishman came down with pneumonia. When only about 24 hours out of Suva he died.

“The natives are superstitious as the devil and the next night after the young fellow died they threw the gunnysack full of bones overboard, scared of the spirits. And that was that.”

It was an outrageous tale that no one took seriously, but we recognized what seemed to be kernels of truth. The island was first settled in “the latter part of 1938” by Britain, not New Zealand, and the initial work party was only eight men. There was no “Irish magistrate” but “Irish” was the nickname of Gerald Gallagher, Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme.  Gallagher never tried to go to Fiji in an open boat but he did die on the island and is buried there.

The reliable information we have about what really happened comes from the British files we found in 1997 and 1998. The files  are on the TIGHAR website in excruciating detail at The Bones Chronology.

Gardner Island was uninhabited until December 20, 1938 when a small work party of Gilbert islanders was put ashore to begin clearing a site for a village at the west end of the atoll. There was no European overseer in residence on the island until early September 1940 when Gerald Gallagher arrived as Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme.

On September 23, 1940 Gallagher sent a message to his immediate superior, the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, “Some months ago working party on Gardner discovered human skull – this was buried and I only recently heard about it. Thorough search has now produced more bones (including lower jaw) part of a shoe a bottle and a sextant box. ….”

In a message sent to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission on October 17, 1940 Gallagher was a bit more specific about when the skull was found and buried.

“Skull discovered by working party six months ago — report reached me early September. Working party buried skull but made no further search.”

That would put the discovery of the skull some time in late April 1940.
___________________

Fact Check: OMISSION

Mr. Kasprak’s description of what was found is incomplete and misleading. With the bones were found the remains of a fire, dead birds, turtle, part of a woman’s shoe, part of a man’s shoe, and corks with brass chains. The sextant box was marked with numbers that meant nothing to the British authorities but which TIGHAR has identified as matching the type of sextant Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan, is known to have used as a back-up instrument.2

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this argument.
___________________

In the Snopes article, Mr. Kasprak goes on to write, “After a prolonged back and forth between British officials, the bones were shipped to Suva, Fiji, where they were analyzed by two individuals — Lindsay Isaac and D. W. Hoodless.”

Fact Check: FALSE

Lindsay Isaac made an unauthorized examination of the bones when the ship carrying them to Fiji made a stop in Tarawa. Isaac quarantined the port which brought a rebuke from his superiors.3

Mr.Kasprak responded:

I can note that the first inspection happened at Tarawa en route to Fiji.
___________________

Mr. Kasprak continued, “Hoodless, the principal of the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji, performed a second inspection. Much of our information about the Nikumaroro Bones comes from a 4 April 1941 telegram from Hoodless to an officer of the British Western Pacific Territories.”

Fact Check: INACCURATE AND MISLEADING

The Central Medical School was not a medical school in the traditional sense. It did not train physicians. It trained Native Medical Practitioners.4  Hoodless’s report was not sent as a telegram and there was no such thing as the British Western Pacific Territories. The report is a typed document delivered to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission.5

Mr. Kasprak responded:

Happy to correct the telegram/report point. A number of historians refer to the colonies of Britain that came into the empire as a result of the Western Pacific Order in Council of 1877 as the British Western Pacific Territories, but either way I am not sure this changes the argument in anyway.
___________________

In researching the article, Mr. Kasprak asked Dr. Jantz, “In your paper, you state, ‘Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.’ This seems to be challenging the reader/opponents of the theory to prove a negative, which seems problematic in general and especially in this case, given the fact that the original material has been lost. Am I out of line there?”

Dr. Jantz replied, “Here is how I view your concern about asking readers/opponents to prove a negative. In forensic anthropology, we do that all the time. When premortem evidence for a suspected victim becomes available, and the premortem and postmortem do not match, the identification is rejected. My own analysis was constructed as a hypothesis that the Nikumaroro bones were those of AE. If the bones are a good match to AE, it supports the hypothesis. If they had not been a good match, I would have had to reject the hypothesis. In science hypotheses are rarely proved, only supported, or not. This hypothesis is out there with the support I have offered and others are free to test it in any way they can construct a meaningful test. If someone can provide evidence that supports another hypothesis, then we will have learned something. In the meantime, the Nikumaroro hypothesis has far more support than any of the others.”

The exchange is not mentioned in the Snopes article.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to include that email exchange. There is nothing nefarious about not including every word of an email exchange in an already 3000-word story.
___________________

Mr. Kasprak wrote, “[Dr.Jantz’s] nearly-complete certainty refers specifically to the kind of analysis Jantz performed, in which he compared the dimensions of the Nikumaroro bones to a pool of data which contained a random assortment of 500 Euro-American individual’s skeletal measurements.”

Fact Check: FALSE

The correct number, as clearly stated in the published paper, is 2,776.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

Corrected.
___________________

Mr. Kasprak was unable to find an anthropologist who disagreed with Richard Jantz. Bruce Anderson at Arizona State University described Jantz as “the pre-eminent physical/forensic anthropologist in the US in terms of measurements of the human body” and is quoted in the Snopes article as saying “If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the interpretation forwarded by Richard Jantz.”

Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida felt that some media reports have “oversold” Jantz’s findings. “Dr. Jantz has done a great job with the information at hand in an attempt to go further in solving this case. … It’s essentially gaming out the logical conclusion of a whole lot of different variables. So this isn’t positive identification as Jantz noted in his article.”
___________________

Unable to shoot down Richard Jantz, Mr. Kasprak turned on TIGHAR.

“One group in particular has been remarkably successful in promoting their own theory of the incident to the mystery-loving public – The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), led by aviation accident investigator Ric Gillespie. The group is single-handedly responsible for the bulk of viral Amelia Earhart headlines over the past decade.”

Fact Check: MISREPRESENTATION

Past decade? Make that the past three decades. Somehow, a non-profit research foundation publishing its results is “promoting their own theory,” even though we have been as transparent in reporting our many failures as we have been in announcing our occasional successes. If TIGHAR’s discoveries generate viral headlines that’s not a weakness of “the mystery-loving public.”

Mr. Kasprak did not respond to this criticism.
___________________

Before publishing his article, Mr. Kasprak made no attempt to contact TIGHAR. Instead, he stated,

“TIGHAR’s hypothesis rests on the assumption that bones recovered from an island about 350 nautical miles south of Howland named Nikumaroro Island (but known at the time as Gardner island), belong to Earhart.”

Fact Check: FALSE

TIGHAR’s hypothesis that the missing flight ended at Nikumaroro was formulated in 1988, ten years before we discovered documentation that bones had been found on Gardner.6 The Nikumaroro hypothesis was founded on Earhart’s last inflight transmission heard by USCG Itasca, “We are on the line 157 337 … running on line north and south.” Two TIGHAR members – retired military aerial navigators familiar with celestial navigation – pointed out that Earhart’s “line” was a Line of Position that, if followed to the southeast, would lead to Gardner Island. We soon learned that Earhart following the Line of Position to the southeast and landing on an island was not a new theory. It was, in fact, the U.S. Navy’s initial hypothesis in the days following the disappearance. When a brief aerial search a week later saw no airplane on the ground, the Navy shifted to searching the open ocean for floating debris but found nothing. The closer we looked at the historical record, the more clues we found that the Navy’s first assessment had been right all along.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this argument.
___________________

In detailing “Problems with the Nikumaroro Conclusion” Mr. Kasprak bias is revealed by his embrace of the shibboleths promulgated in the “famous” book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved by “Mary K. and Elgin Long” (their correct names are Marie and Elgen).

The book stands the scientific method of inquiry on its head. Rather than formulate a hypothesis based on solid documentation, the Longs begin with the received wisdom that the aircraft ran out of fuel within moments of Earhart’s final inflight radio call. They then selectively interpret the historical record to support their preconceived answer, often presenting raw speculation as fact. To this day, despite no fewer than four multi-million dollar hi-tech searches of the ocean bottom near Howland Island, not one shred of physical evidence has been found to support the Crashed and Sank hypothesis.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to provide this context to your work, I have corrected the typo for Marie Long’s name.

I replied:

You might also correct the spelling of Elgen’s name.  People frequently misspell it “Elgin,” probably because Lord Elgin and the “Elgin Marbles” are well known, but Elgen Long’s name is spelled Elgen (check the cover of his “famous” book).
___________________

Fact Check: OMISSION

Mr. Kasprak makes no mention of TIGHAR’s book which corrected many of the false assertions with solid original-source documentation. Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, published by the Naval Institute Press, was hailed by Pacific scholar Dr. Mark Peattie as “Superb …first-rate history…carefully researched, eloquently written. Probably the most detailed and factual account of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and the failed attempt to find her that we shall ever have.”

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to highlight your book in your fact check.
___________________

Fact Check: OMISSION

Like the Longs, Mr. Kasprak utterly ignores the post-loss radio distress calls that dominated the headlines for nearly a week after the disappearance. The airplane’s manufacturer Lockheed avowed at the time that the signals could not be sent unless the aircraft was on land and able to run an engine to recharge the battery. Bearings on the signals taken by Pan American Airways and U.S. Coast Guard direction finding stations around the Pacific crossed near Gardner Island,7 prompting an aerial search by three aircraft from USS Colorado, but it took the battleship a week to get there from Pearl Harbor and, by then, the signals had stopped. No aircraft was seen during a brief over-flight of the island and no search party was put ashore. The radio signals were written off as hoaxes or misunderstandings and the rest of the Navy’s search looked for floating debris in open ocean but found nothing. A twelve-year scientific propagation and content study by TIGHAR found 57 of the 120 reported post-loss radio transmissions to be credible.8

In the late 1990s, anecdotal accounts by former settlers led us to formulate the hypothesis that the plane had made a safe landing on the island’s fringing reef but had been washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf before the Navy searchers arrived. The broad, flat expanse of reef in the area where wreckage was allegedly seen is smooth and dries at low tide. An on-site survey in 2007 enabled us to compare 1937 water levels with the transmission times of the credible signals. Night after night, with startling reliability, credible signals were heard only when the water level on the reef was low enough to permit an engine to be run.9

Mr.Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this point.
___________________

Fact Check: OMISSION

In 2012, U.S. government photo analysts concurred with TIGHAR’s forensic imaging specialist that an object seen on the reef in a photo taken by a British expedition in October 1937, appears to be the wreckage of a main landing gear assembly from a Lockheed Electra.10
___________________

Fact Check: OMISSION

TIGHAR has confirmed the location on the island where the castaway’s remains were discovered. Archaeological excavations of the site have produced artifacts reliably dated to the 1930s, several of which – such as the broken mirror and cosmetic from an American compact – are gender-specific. Others suggest a direct link to Earhart and her struggle to survive. A pocket knife of the same type inventoried aboard Earhart’s aircraft, had been beaten apart apparently to remove the blades. Small, broken travel-size bottles that once contained American personal care products had once stood upright in a fire, apparently part of a crude water collection and purification system. Clam shells, fish, bird, and turtle bones found in and around the remains of cooking fires reflect Western rather than Pacific islander food selection and preparation practices.11 The castaway-related artifacts and features at the site provide context for the bones whose measurements Dr. Jantz analyzed. The archaeological discoveries support his conclusion that “Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this point.
___________________

TIGHAR agrees that the Nikumaroro hypothesis remains “unproven.” Ninety-nine percent is not certainty, but TIGHAR’s thirty years of science-based research has uncovered and assembled a multi-faceted jigsaw puzzle of archival, forensic, and archaeological evidence that comes as close to certainty as we may ever get – but we will keep  trying to close that 1% gap.

________________________________________

Notes

[1]  The Bones Chronology.
[2]  Numbers Game. 
[3]  The Bones Chronology.
[4]  Bones and Bias.
[5]  The Bones Chronology.
[6]  “Earhart Project Receives Diplomatic Approval.” 
[7]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Radio Direction Finder Analysis.
[8]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Radio Signal Catalog.
[9]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Tidal Study: Post Loss Signal Statistics and Tide.
[10] The Object Formerly Known as Nessie.
[11]  Archaeological Context.

6 thoughts on “Fact Checking Snopes”

  1. If my memory is correct Snopes once published that the Titanic showed “the 1912 version of the movie the Poseidon Adventure” in it’s cinema when the Titanic didn’t have a cinema and there was no such movie in 1912. I didn’t read it any more after that. That was a long time ago – my memory could be wrong – but that’s what I remember.

  2. Greetings, Mr. Gillespie. I hate to be pedantic, but you appear to commit a factual error within your very fact-checking/counter-fact-checking post! Near the very beginning, you refer to “Richard Jantz’s 99% certainty that bones discovered on a remote Pacific atoll in 1940 belonged to Amelia Earhart.” However, that is not at all what Dr. Jantz’s article states. He instead says “This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample.” Those are two very different statements!

    1. You’re being more than pedantic. When the Centers for Disease Control reports that “15.1% of all adults (36.5 million people)… were current cigarette smokers in 2015” no one assumes that they interviewed all the people in the U.S.

      1. I believe you fail to see my point. Perhaps an analogy will help. My automobile is more similar to a Ferrari than 99% of the cars in a very large parking lot. Are you 99% certain that my automobile is a Ferrari?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *