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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Emmys: An Amelia Earhart Special (Non)Mystery Post-Mortem

Special Report

Benjamin Radford

July 18, 2017

The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise:

Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most experts, including the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, believe Earhart likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But no trace of the aviator, navigator Fred Noonan or her twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane were ever found, confounding historians and fueling conspiracy theories ever since. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan.

According to HISTORY’s investigative special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, airing Sunday, July 9, retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.” In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was “very likely” the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan.

Big... If True

If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up.

To be clear, this idea is not new and is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan.

Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph.”

Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean's ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.”

This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. It’s almost certainly not Earhart but even if it was, it has nothing to do with her disappearance. Displaying keen investigative acumen, Yamano said in an interview “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.”

To be fair, the entire show does not stand or fall on the photograph’s authenticity. The show’s producers likely knew that the photo itself might not be entirely convincing and suggested that there was hard forensic evidence to support the theory: bones found on the island where Earhart supposedly died were to be subjected to genetic testing and compared to Earhart’s known relatives to prove she was on the island. As Eve Siebert noted on the July 12 episode of The Virtual Skeptics podcast, “I’m assuming that this did not actually happen because if they were able to identify bones buried on Saipan identified as Earhart’s, they really buried the lede by focusing on that blurry photograph.”

The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “After tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers. (If it’s any consolation, the recent show almost certainly supplants a 2012 show that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning called “one of the worst examples of television promoting pseudohistory.”)

While skeptics, historians, and sensible people can revel in a touch of schadenfreude, a closer look at the show is warranted. There are surely some executives at the History Channel who—like the general public—are wondering how their program could have gone so spectacularly off the rails. As a mystery investigator, media critic, and an expert who has participated in front of the camera on many television shows (including some on the History Channel), I can offer some insight into what went wrong and why.

1. Extrapolating beyond the evidence

Perhaps the most glaring error is over-interpreting ambiguous evidence and reading too much into what is ultimately a very limited and inconclusive data set. The photograph at the heart (and referenced in the title) of Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence is simply not good evidence of anything relating to Earhart; links to her are based purely on speculation and conjecture. There’s nothing wrong with guesses and theories—as long as they are presented as such rather than all-but-verified facts. Absent strong corroborating evidence, one theory is as good as the next.

The show takes great pains to demonstrate that the photograph had not been altered or retouched, which is a good first step in authentication but sheds no light whatsoever on the key issue of whether the image depicts Earhart and Noonan. There was never any reason to doubt the image’s authenticity in the first place, and surely a photographic faker trying to deceive could have crafted a much better likeness of both aviators.

Going beyond the evidence is routinely seen on reality television, in which ghost hunters believe (or at least act as if they believe while on camera) any creak or thud in a darkened room is a ghost. Though I suspect the History Channel would bristle at comparing their fact-based research on a real-life historical mystery with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, there are other parallels as well. The science in both shows is oversold; audiences are assured that the highest level of technological sophistication is being brought to bear on the investigation, whether it’s EMF detectors, infrared devices, or cutting-edge facial recognition software. The devices and technology can only do as good a job as the data they have to analyze; otherwise it’s GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Much of the analysis lies in interpretation, often by people who have a vested personal and financial interest in the outcome. Which leads me to a second issue…

2. Failure to recognize confirmation bias

According to an ABC News story offering context to the find,

Retired U.S. Treasury Agent Les Kinney said that he was looking for clues surrounding Earhart’s disappearance in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, when he found the photograph in 2012 in a box filled mostly with text documents from the Office of Naval Intelligence but “didn’t really look at it carefully” because he was looking over thousands of documents and images. In 2015, he took another pass at the photo. “I looked at it and I went, ‘I can’t believe this!’” He asked his wife to come over and pointed to the seated person, asking if it seemed to her to be a man or a woman. “She said, It’s a woman!”

This passage is revealing from a psychological point of view because Kinney explicitly states that he was examining all the materials with the hope or expectation that it would be connected to Earhart in some way—whether it was or not. We often see what we want or expect to see, and it’s not surprising that upon discovering a piece of ambiguous information he imposed his pre-existing assumptions, hopes, and interpretations on it. When Kinney’s wife (according to him) independently confirmed his belief that the seated figure was female, that to him was strong corroborating evidence it was Earhart—motivated, surely, by his wanting to be the first person to solve an international mystery. This is a common psychological phenomenon, and Kinney is hardly alone: Once we have an idea or a mental framework by which we understand a topic, it can be very difficult or impossible to not see additional information on the subject through that prism; it’s a form of what psychologists call anchoring bias.

The ABC News piece continues, “Kinney, who started his career as a naval intelligence agent, said the photograph he found was in a batch of documents collected by U.S. sources in anticipation of the 1944 invasion of the Marshall Islands. ‘This was a mistake. This was never meant to be there,’ he said. The National Archives verified Thursday that the image is from its holdings and was in a file ‘unrelated to Earhart.’”

Thus, Kinney understood explicitly that the material collected there was unrelated to Earhart as far as anyone knew. This leads some to introduce a conspiracy theory, and indeed Kinney states that “This was a mistake. This was never meant to be there,” perhaps suggesting that damning information had been misfiled by some clerk unaware that it proved Earhart made it alive to the islands. Except that Kinney doesn’t know who placed it there or why, so he cannot know whether it was “meant” to be there or not—that’s his expectations and assumptions once again coloring his interpretations.

This does not suggest that Kinney was wrong to consider the photo as potential evidence, or that it might not have been of Earhart. It does, however, suggest a reason to be extra careful about establishing the provenance and authenticity of the photograph—and helps explain why Kinney and the producers ran with it.

3. Choosing TV drama over substantive research

The process of solving mysteries is often tedious and academic, and thus not terribly telegenic. For that reason, TV producers are under pressure to add drama anywhere they can, to break up the talking head interviews (no matter how well informed they may be) with action. In the context of ghost hunting shows, this demand usually means turning all the lights off and having people walk around in the dark with beeping gadgets, trailed by a camera crew. In the case of Destination Truth, it often involves host Josh Gates running up stairs, jumping down holes, into surf, that sort of thing. In the case of Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence there’s a fair amount of hacking through leaves and tropical overgrowth for no apparent reason.

Much has been written about the value of crowdsourcing information, and if the goal was to solve the mystery, the History Channel could have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment by soliciting help from the public to prove or disprove their theory. They did not do that for several reasons, including that it undermines the credibility of their highly touted experts. After all, if anyone with a knowledge of Japanese, a spare half hour, and an Internet connection can locate the photo, why do they need retired federal agents and digital forensic analysts? Secondly, of course, it ruins the drama; the History Channel can’t hype and tease the reveal for weeks before the anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, because the online collaborators and keyboard detectives would already know about the discovery as soon as the answer was found. The demands of television outweighed the search for the truth.

There is also a lesson to be learned by the experts on how to avoid getting egg on your face: Don’t go beyond your expertise, and qualify your statements. To the best of my knowledge none of the experts have publically claimed that the show misrepresented their views, and I’m not suggesting the show did. But it’s important to keep in mind that producers want their experts and eyewitnesses to issue dramatic and bold statements that pack in as many superlatives as possible. In my years of television work, I can think of a dozen times when a producer or assistant producer has tried to steer me into saying what they want to hear on camera. Sometimes the producers will feed you lines, points they want you to hit or say in order to fit their script. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; typically, there are one or more pre-production interviews in which they have established your views and what you’re going to say, at least in general outline. Working from that, writers craft a script and plug your contributions in as necessary to flesh out the narrative. At the end of the day, it’s your credibility on the line, preserved (or tainted) forever in reruns.

It is true that clever video editing can completely distort and mischaracterize what you say on camera. While colleagues of mine have complained about being the victim of dishonest editing on television shows, it’s rarely happened to me, partly because I have learned how to carefully phrase my answers to make a deceptive editing job more difficult. Give them clean and concise sound bites saying what you want to say, and most of the time the editors will use them—even if the producers wish you had been more declarative and hyperbolic.

Top. Men.

So where does the debunking information leave the show? National Geographic, perhaps with a hint of rivalry-inspired delight, noted that “In the wake of Yamano’s evidence, the History Channel and the documentary’s on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief. ‘I don't know what to say,’ says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. ‘I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.’” Requests for additional clarification were not returned. In a statement, the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.”

Reading this I’m reminded of the exchange at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones questions the competence and authority of those investigating the titular remarkable find:

“We have top men working on it right now.”

“Who?” asks Jones.

“Top. Men.”

Given that the photograph’s provenance was established—and thus the key premise of the show discredited—in about half an hour of Google searching, it will be interesting to see what world-class expertise and “top men” the History Channel will bring to their re-investigation of Earhart’s disappearance.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Bad Clowns; his next, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, will be out in Fall 2017.