The past week or so has seen yet another wave of terrible, terrible reporting in the science media about the Amelia Earhart non-story. We’ve had it a lot this year, ever since TIGHAR — the organization of crank Earhart researcher Ric Gillespie — obtained financing to repeat the Earhart treasure hunt he’s done so many times before for a Discovery Communications TV crew. Gillespie’s completely implausible belief is that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan did not crash where history tells us they did in 1937 (off of Howland island), but instead went to Nikumaroro island 650km away where they lived as castaways.
(I’m not going to repeat the details of how we know what we know, and why we can be assured that TIGHAR’s conjecture is bunk, because I’ve already done so in other writings. See the complete Skeptoid episode here, and a follow up blog post here, for the supporting background of my fundamental assumption for this article.)
Predictably, the expedition found nothing. This must have been a huge disappointment for a lot of people, since it got so much attention, even garnering encouraging comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and noted ocean explorer Bob Ballard. The unfortunate part is that if any of the parties who paid the reported $2.2 million cost of Gillespie’s expedition had done even a minimum amount of due diligence, they’d have discovered the same thing I stated in my Skeptoid podcast episode:
TIGHAR’s is a fringe theory supported by poor evidence and that has almost no serious support from mainstream historians or archaeologists.
So now TIGHAR has released a frame of the underwater video they took of the sea floor off Nikumaroro. It is a sobering, pitiful image. The picture shows nothing remotely identifiable. It’s probably just rocks, coral, shells, or who knows what. Yet TIGHAR has placed yellow arrows on the image pointing to… well, to nothing, really; though they authoritatively state that it shows manmade objects. This is the type of image that we call a “blobsquatch”. That word comes from the evidence presented by delusional Bigfoot hunters who post photographs that show nothing clear at all, but that they interpret as Bigfoot.
Note that I could have dropped on two or three more yellow arrows, completely at random, and you’d have not been able to tell which were mine and which were TIGHAR’s. In fact, suppose I told you that two of the five existing arrows in the picture are mine — would you be able to guess which? (They’re not; they’re all TIGHAR’s.)
I am not surprised that TIGHAR released this image. TIGHAR’s whole history of Earhart research has shown that they are disdainful of what constitutes good evidence. What surprises me is how widely TIGHAR’s image was published by the mainstream media, including by numerous science reporters who should know better. Examples include these articles by Discovery News, Yahoo News, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters, and CNN.
My point here is not to say what did or didn’t happen to Amelia Earhart. It is to chastise the reporters who have promoted this story with no fact checking, and most especially those who published this terrible image with a headline parroting the ludicrous assertion that it may show debris from Earhart’s airplane. There’s no realistic chance that Earhart’s plane is within 500 kilometers of Nikumaroro, as these reporters would have learned if they’d done even minimal information gathering.
When I’ve discussed this before, I’ve received the criticism that it’s always appropriate to ask questions and explore and learn and experiment and to follow up all the possibilities. That’s only true to a point. When we do consider an alternate angle, we give it a fair shake and see what evidence it produces. TIGHAR’s has produced no credible evidence over several decades of such shaking. That this embarrassing picture is the best that came from this expedition should tell us that it’s time to move on. It does not warrant continued reporting, TV documentaries, and an ongoing assault on the historical knowledge of an unsuspecting public.
TIGHAR is not trying to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart. They are trying to justify their own conjecture about it. Those are two very different processes, and reporters should know better.