Is the Earhart Mystery Solved?

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.

Prof. Shapiro:

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.

14 thoughts on “Is the Earhart Mystery Solved?”

  1. “Short of a video of Amelia and Fred walking around the island I don’t know what more they need.”

    Excellent point. The (pre-existing) photo purported to be of Amelia and Fred in the Philippines(?) was all a TV production company needed.

  2. I have been following the TIGHAR forum for several years now, and I do believe that Earhart lived out her last days on Gardner Island. As I said, I believe she did. I won’t know she did until DNA evidence is brought forth or a verifiable piece of the Electra is found.

    I think TIGHAR has definitely made the case for further research, and hopefully at some point a person such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen will fund a multi-million dollar search to put this story to bed.

  3. Hi TIGHAR,
    What ever happened to the 2015 expedition? I don’t seem to find any mention of the results or findings if it did occur. If I am correct you were looking to use a new ROV to explore deeper? It would seem plausible that if the plane fell off the edge there would be evidence in the area.

  4. I would like to pose a question: why was it necessary to post excerpts from Professor Shapiro’s paper in defense of Tighar’s hypothesis and beliefs? There will always be nay-sayers and deniers!

    I believe the mystery has been solved; but (frustratingly) the hypothesis still unproven. All the data and evidence point there; particularly the physical evidence (i.e. the freckle cream bottle, sextant case, shoe remains, etc). The problem (as I see it) is we are emotional beings. Emotionally our minds like neat little packages tied up with a “pretty little bow”. We ALL long to see the “smoking gun”….. an engine with serial number, a wing with the aircraft registration number, anything! Until we get that, are we afraid of the deniers? Worse; are we afraid that, in the end we might be proven wrong? Just something to think about.

    On another matter….. Rick; has there been any further discussion on DNA testing that little bone fragment found on the island?

    1. I did not post excerpts from Prof. Shapiro’s article in defense of anything. TIGHAR’s evidence speaks for itself and needs no defense. I found Prof. Shapiro’s article about science denial interesting because his psychological explanation for the denial of climate change, biological evolution, and vaccination is exactly the kind dichotomous thinking I see in TIGHAR’s nay-sayers.
      As you say, we are emotional beings – but so are dogs. Humans have the ability to reason and make evidence-based, not emotion-based, decisions.
      Speaking for myself, I’m not afraid of the deniers. I think I’ve demonstrated that for the past, oh, thirty years or so. Nobody wants to be proven wrong and there are some who are so afraid of being proven wrong that they are never willing to say they are right.

      1. Climate change denial and vaccine efficacy denial are perfect analogies to the bizarre antipathy to the Niku Hypothesis.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with Prof. Shapiro’s thinking. I think the roots of science denial go deeply into recent culture and the problems of simply knowing who or what to believe.
    However, in my opinion, TIGHAR has presented the best case so far as a solution to the mystery. The alternatives are that she crashed at sea, in which case the only possible proof would be the finding of the Lockheed; or one of various other ideas that are so far only backed up by anecdotal evidence.
    So what would convince people? DNA, or some object definitely associated with the final flight. Until that turns up, no matter how likely it seems, the hypothesis will remain as the “most probable” rather than a certainty.

    1. There’s nothing new about science-denial. We see it within our own ranks. But you’re absolutely correct. Recent culture has made science-denial not only more acceptable but even fashionable. It’s an extremely dangerous trend.
      Prof. Shapiro’s point is that, in science, there is no such thing as “certainty.” “Most probable” is the best we’re going to get and, in the Earhart case, we’re already there – in spades. Further evidence (DNA, an object obviously associated the final flight, or a big chunk of the Electra) would move the needle to a point where it would not require an acceptance of scientific evidence to acknowledge that the mystery is solved. We’ll get there if we can.

  6. I have to object to the huffery-puffery ostensibly on behalf of “those of us who share an evidence-based approach to knowledge.” I daresay everyone shares an “evidence-based approach to knowledge;” people just credit different kinds of evidence.

    And as Tonto is said to have asked the Lone Ranger, “who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about, white man?” The editorial “we,” the magisterial “we,” or who? Not all of us working with evidence to solve the AE/FN mystery are convinced that it’s solved; the most I’ll say is that we have pretty good evidence pointing in a particular direction (to the Seven Site, in essence), but we’ve not “solved” the mystery.

    1. Huffery-puffery? The “we” I’m referring to are the TIGHAR members, scientists, and forensic experts who are familiar with more than just the archaeological aspects of the case. If the artifacts found at the Seven Site were all TIGHAR had I would agree with you, but there is much, much more. As Dr.Jantz puts it, “I consider the case closed but I’m willing to be proved wrong.”

    2. I don’t think you have to be “convinced it’s solved” to say there is a confluence of evidence to support Niku and not yet any to rule it out.

      Enjoyed your talk at Cabrillo College a couple of years ago!!

  7. With a nod to my old friend Dr. Dirk Ballendorf, I commend TIGHAR for your relentless dedication to solving the Earhart case. Your post should be read by any of the doubters out there. Short of a video of Amelia and Fred walking around the island I don’t know what more they need.

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