Used to describe a situation that is tumultuous, circus-like, and has spun out-of-control. Originates from the 1970s variety show of the same name, though some users many not be aware of the source.
– Urban Dictionary
Brace yourself for the press releases! Delaware-based TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) is beginning another Nikimoro Island expedition starting June 2015. They’ll be using a small ROV (Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle), SCUBA team and on-shore search team to try and locate Amelia Earhart’s lost Electra aircraft and supposed castaway campsite.
Background: The Gardner Island (Conspiracy) Theory
TIGHAR is the leading proponent of the “Gardner Island Theory.” The hypothesis states that Amelia Earhart, unable to locate her intended destination of Howland Island, broke off from her search pattern and flew another 350 miles to the SE to crash-land on the shores of 4.7 mile long Gardner island, now known as Nikumaroro island. She supposedly then lived for a short while as a castaway before dying on the island.
One must swallow a long list of assumptions before accepting any part of this theory. First, that Earhart abandoned her search for Howland Island. Second, that she did not announce her intentions via radio despite issuing regular transmissions during her search for Howland Island. Third, that Amelia Earhart landed her plane on or near Nikumaroro island and subsequently created a campsite in such a way that left no direct evidence for the US Navy close aerial search or the colonists that moved onto the island shortly thereafter.
Not Settled, but Exhaustively Studied
Let’s take a look at the long list of experts who maintain Earhart was lost during her search for Howland Island (meaning her plane crashed into the ocean and now lies in 17-18,000 feet.) This list includes:
- USN Capt. Laurence Safford, the Navy cryptologist who undertook an comprehensive analysis of the loss beginning in 1970;
- Elgen and Marie Long, the former of whom was a 40-year combat and civilian pilot, the both of whom have spent over 35 years exhaustively researching the loss,
- Howland Island airstrip commander Rear Admiral Ricahrd R. Black, USN;
- Susan Butler, author of East to Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, who based her book on ten years’ research;
- Roy Nesbit, prolific British Aviation Historian;
- David Jourdan, Deep Ocean Recovery specialist who searched 1,200 square miles of ocean bottom adjacent to Howland for Earhart’s plane;
- George Palmer Putnam Jr., Earhart’s stepson;
- Tom D. Crouch, National Air and Space Museum Senior Curator
- And many, many more.
The Problems with TIGHAR’s Case
Beyond the problems with TIGHAR’s theory is the way they present the evidence itself. Confirmation bias is the thread shared by all their findings to date, one glaring example after another.
- A photograph of Nikumauro reef dating to October, 1937 that supposedly shows a “blurry object sticking out of the water… consistent with a strut and wheel of a Lockheed Electra landing gear.” Even the Gardner Island proponents admit the circumstantial nature of this photo.
- A skeleton discovered on the island in 1940, which was subsequently lost. The analysis of the skeleton remains highly controversial, with the height, sex and ethnicity still under great debate. The skeleton has since been lost.
- Bronze bearings and a “zipper pull” discovered in 2007. Given the habitation of the island from 1938 through 1965, there is little evidence that these finds are tied in any way to Earhart.
- 2010 location of bones resembling a human finger. DNA testing could not even establish the species origin of the bones, much less any link to the missing aviatrix.
- 2012 location of “possible wreckage site” on sonar system. Of all the evidence, this is one of the worst examples of confirmation bias; it is highly likely that the sonar picked up natural geology or some other debris source. Until visually inspected, the ‘wreckage site’ should be as a sonar hit marked for future investigation, not a headline-worthy event.
- Other: Improvised tools, a piece of plexiglass, a heel and other such non-specific debris.
- In 2013, the group “rediscovered” an aluminum panel from a 1991 expedition, claiming that it was a “fingerprint match” to a patch put on the Electra. Despite widespread press coverage, this find remains incredibly controversial, namely pertaining to the degree of the match, the other possible sources for the debris, and the lack of explanation as to why it could have come free from the fuselage with so little damage.
It Comes Down to Evidence
Can I be convinced that Earhart landed on or near Nikumaroro island? Absolutely. But I would need to see compelling evidence linking Earhart or her missing plane to the island. So far, all we have is a few pieces of circumstantial evidence that seem to have fallen victim to the overwhelming bias of the searchers.
TIGHAR never quite comes back empty-handed. I’ve no doubt that they will find something during this trip. It will probably be some kind of personal effect, a bone, maybe a piece of metal debris. If they can’t come up with that, they might give us a vague underwater photo (maybe with some helpful arrows or outlines) or what I call a “Rorschach test” sonar image. Certainly nothing definitive, testable, or accepted by the preponderance of Earhart experts.
Part of their mission calls for the inspection of a sonar target and other visual landmarks on the reef. If they again come up with nothing, we may again hear the unsupported-by-evidence claim that very little of the plane was expected to remain after 75+ years of submergence. They’ll likely get their headlines and ultimately go back to raising funds for their next expedition. The Gong Show rolls on.
The TIGHAR folks and their supporters are great advocates of their own viewpoints, which is their right. It’s not uncommon for them to pile onto the comments section of news sites and blogs to defend their hypothesis.
However, news outlets have a responsibility to treat these stories with a more critical eye. Too often, even sources like National Geographic, Discovery and Smithsonian post stories that more resemble rewritten press releases than the thoughtful analysis their readers expect. If TIGHAR continues to play fast and loose with the evidence and their own bias, the public deserves proper investigative journalists that will call them out on it.