Sunday, April 25, 2010

Frustration; or, The Airplane is not the Only Game in Town

I’ve been corresponding with a fellow who wrote, initially, asking some seemingly reasonable questions about our Earhart search, and offering some seemingly thoughtful suggestions. But as our correspondence has progressed, it’s taken on a sadly familiar form – a sufficiently good (or bad) example of a common type of thinking that I thought it would be worth discussing here.

My correspondent first asked some questions relating to navigational and radio transmission particulars, which I referred to the relevant experts in TIGHAR’s Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC). In passing, I mentioned our plans for work at the Seven Site. He responded:

The search off the island reef is what I am interested in, as the plane is not on the island.

I resisted saying “duh,” and replied:

Well, with all due respect for my colleagues who think they're going to find the plane, or big parts of it, on the reef face (and I certainly hope they do), I expect our biggest bang for the buck to come from work on land, both at the putative death site (the Seven Site) and in the village, where there certainly may be parts of the plane, albeit not big ones. We shall see.

But my correspondent simply is not interested in what we find on land. His response was:

If the plane made it to Gardner and is not on the land, it should be in the sea off the reef.

Again resisting the urge to thank ObviousMan for his enlightenment, I said:

The sea off the reef is a big place, the sea generally is a dynamic environment, and the plane was fragile.

He responded:

It weighed 7400 Lbs empty, and two heavy engines are not going to let it travel far. If it washed off the reef, it should have gone straight down I should imagine Tom. I can only imagine this will be TIGHARS last expedition to Gardner Island.

Rather short on imagination, my correspondent, but his “imagining” did, I thought, reveal something of a bias: “They’re not going to find the airplane, so that will disprove their silly hypothesis, and that will be the end of TIGHAR.” But I tried again to explain, answering:

"Straight down" is a relative term, on the face of a seamount. And there's a lot of "down" into which it could have gone -- straight, crooked, intact or in pieces. It's simplistic to think this expedition or any such project is going to yield a black-and-white, yes-or-no answer; the answer is more likely to come from a sifting of the whole body of evidence.

Such sifting is not something to which my correspondent seems to relate well. He immediately shifted focus, saying:

Didn’t Earhart’s 3105 signal only have ½ a watt radiation due to the antenna set up, surely that was too weak for Pan Am to detect from 1800 miles away? Mr Jones on Hull said he could work Australia with his set up and Canton had a Navy wireless station left from the eclipse observation, aren’t these stations more likely to be the targets Pan Am detected? Even if Earhart’s plane had made it to land, the batteries would have run down by the 4th and 5th of July Tom.

At this point I passed my correspondent off to Ric Gillespie, who says he handles at least one such inquiry a day. Ric referred him to Bob Brandenburg’s analysis of radio matters ( – suffice to say that the matter of what could have been detected where is a good deal more complicated than my correspondent seems to think. Ric also advised him that Mr. Jones did not have a functioning transmitter at the time of Earhart’s disappearance (Jones told the USS Colorado pilots that his transmitter had been down for some time – of course, he could have been lying), and that as far as we can tell from the records, nobody left a transmitter (electronic and/or human) on Canton after the eclipse expedition. As for the batteries running down, as Ric succinctly put it:

The batteries would have run down long before that, unless she ran an engine to recharge them, which is exactly what we think she did.

None of this, however, is likely to convince my correspondent, or others like him who are utterly convinced that the Nikumaroro Hypothesis is wrong, ignore evidence that’s contrary to their convictions, and who see no value in anything but absolute smoking-gun proof.

Setting aside my correspondent’s willful ignorance of evidence, I can render the core of our correspondence as the following abstraction:

My correspondent: “So you think X.”

Me: “Well, I think X, but there are lots of variables involved, so – assuming we’re generally correct in our assumptions – it might be X, X1, X2, X3, or maybe Xn.”

My correspondent: “But if it’s X, then you’ll find Y evidence.”

Me: “Well, maybe, but given all the variables, it could be Y1, Y2, Y3 or Yn. Plus you need to consider evidence A, B, M, Q, and Z.”

My correspondent: “I’m not interested in anything but Y. If you don’t find Y, your hypothesis is wrong and that’s that.”

I suppose it might be nice if reality were organized in such a straightforward way, but of course it’s not. Returning from abstraction to reality and focusing on my correspondent’s stated central interest, we have pretty good evidence (anecdotal and photographic, with consistent tidal and topographic data) suggesting that Earhart and Noonan put their plane down on the Nutiran reef flat, off the northwest end of Nikumaroro. But supposing they did, there’s no guarantee that there’s evidence of the plane still to be found in that neighborhood. We think there’s enough likelihood that evidence has survived that we – and our sponsors and cooperating organizations – are willing to invest quite a bit of time and money sending down submersibles to search the reef face, but we aren’t about to say it’s a sure thing those submersibles will find something. And if they don’t, it won’t prove that Earhart and Noonan didn’t land where we think they did. It might mean that:

1. Once the airplane washed off the reef, it floated quite a way before sinking, going down far from the reef edge and therefore way down the side of the volcano that underlies the island, beyond the reach of our submersiables (There’s evidence suggesting that this isn’t what happened, but it’s still possible).

2. Once the airplane washed off the reef, it simply tumbled down the face of the reef to some abyssal point below the depth (about 300 meters) at which our submersibles can operate.

3. The airplane has broken up over the years into such tiny pieces that its debris field is not detectable in the doubtless complex environment of the reef face.

Shifting to the body of evidence that my correspondent scorns, we think the Seven Site, at the southeast end of the island, is most likely where Earhart – or perhaps Noonan, or perhaps both – expired, and we’re going to dig the bejeebers out of the place this year in hopes of finding out whether we’re right. But even assuming we ARE right:

1. There may not be any recoverable human remains left; they may have been completely reduced by the crabs, microorganisms, and other forces of nature.

2. There may be such remains, but they’re not discernible given the search technology we’re able to deploy, and the limitations of our own tiny brains.

3. The same goes for distinctive artifacts, which Earhart and Noonan may or may not have had with them anyway.

It’s my guess that:
(a) We’re basically right about what happened to Earhart and Noonan; but
(b) The chances of our finding absolute smoking-gun proof that we’re right are relatively slim.

Of course, we hope for smoking guns, but we’re not counting on them, and our research isn’t built around finding them. Particularly at the Seven Site, we’re aiming to add to the mass of evidence we already have that points to this being where Earhart or Noonan (probably the former) breathed her last – that is:

The bones, shoes, and sextant box found on the site (or somewhere else on the southeast end that closely matches its description) in 1940;

The evidence of someone unskilled in the relevant subsistence practices trying to process shellfish and fish on the site.

The evidence suggesting someone trying to purify water in a fire on the site;

The apparent remains of a woman’s compact from the 1930s, and

The various other non-military, American-origin artifacts on the site.

What’s frustrating is that none of this impresses my correspondent at all. To him, we must find a specific, obvious piece of definitive evidence (the airplane), and if we don’t find it, this will be proof that we’re wrong. The absence of evidence (or our simple human inability to find or recognize it) is evidence of absence. I wonder how the guy survives if he applies the same sort of rigid thinking to his everyday life.


  1. To be scientific, a hypothesis must make predictions that can be tested. And one prediction following from the Niku hypothesis is that the Electra was there in 1937. From there it follows that some remnant of it should still exist today.

    Unlike your correspondent, I know the Niku hypothesis well and respect the evidence related to the seven site. But the more evidence the seven site yields, the more confident I become that the Electra must be there as well. So I hope you don't expect the success of your archaeological work to reduce interest in the plane and the reef. The effect is rather the opposite!

    Dave Wheeler

  2. Hi, Dave. Sorry I missed this when you first posted it. I've come around to your point of view on the matter; I've just needed to develop some patience. Thanks for writing, and again, apologies for the long delay in responding.