Monday, April 16, 2012

"Scientific Evidence" -- and the Search 75 Symposium

First, for anyone who’s not aware of it, let me announce the forthcoming June 1-3 Earhart Search 75 Symposium, to be held in Arlington, VA (across the river from Washington DC). This conference will feature speakers, panels, and exhibits about the Nikumaroro Hypothesis, our pursuit of it, and other Earhart-related matters. Come one, come all! Full information and registration forms can be found at

I also want to take this opportunity to comment on some articles that have appeared in various media since the announcement of the July expedition to search the deepwater face of the Nutiran reef on Nikumaroro. These articles have pooh-poohed the Nikumaroro hypothesis as something akin to Gilligan’s Island, and assured the world that no way, no how did Earhart and Noonan wind up on Niku. They may be right, of course, but they’re not proving their cases by poking fun at ours. More importantly, they’re obfuscating matters by referring to their thinking as “scientific.”

Here’s an example, from the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette – see

Robins resident and former Rockwell Collins engineer Rod Blocksome said The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is about 350 miles off course in their search for Earhart.

‘[TIGHAR researchers] are pretty much the masters of the media and they’re very good at coming up with newsworthy things that garner some publicity,’ Blocksome said. ‘…I don’t think they’re going to find anything, though.’

Blocksome retired from Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids in May 2010 after 42 years as an engineer. The retired communications systems engineer has worked with Dave Jourdan, president of Nauticos LLC, in searching for Earhart’s wreckage over the past several years.

TIGHAR researchers also said they’ve found evidence – such as broken glass jars and bits of women’s makeup – that could prove Earhart and Noonan lived on the remote island.

But Blocksome said circumstantial evidence and castaway theories are not what he, Jourdan, and Nauticos researchers are looking for around Howland Island. For them, indisputable, scientific evidence is necessary.

‘[We’re looking for] some very hard evidence that’s not controversial when we find the plane,’ Blocksome said. ‘[TIGHAR] comes up with little bits and pieces … Before we get everybody all excited, we want to make sure we got something that’s very solid and holds up to scientific scrutiny.’

What I object to in the above story, and others like it, is the equation of “scientific evidence” with something that’s “not controversial,” and the denigration of “little bits and pieces. The fact is that science works with whatever evidence it can find, and applies that evidence to the testing of hypotheses. In most cases it is precisely the buildup of “little bits and pieces” that makes or breaks the case.

It would be nice to find the indisputable, obvious, no-question-about it, smoking-gun piece of evidence (i.e. the airplane), and maybe it’s there to be found – at Niku or someplace else. But there’s a real good chance that it’s not there, or at least not likely to be found, and a failure to find it doesn’t necessarily mean that TIGHAR’s hypothesis is wrong. There are still all those little bits and pieces. And whether or not we ever “prove” the hypothesis to the satisfaction of every critic, it remains a fact that science is every bit as much about the collection, analysis, and application of “little bits and pieces” as it is about finding the big, obvious, indisputable and uncontroversial piece of data (like an airplane) that in one great flash proves the case.

Archaeological and historical research are applications of science that most particularly depend on the collection and interpretation of little bits and pieces -- whether they're little bits and pieces of hominid bone and crude tools in east Africa or little pieces of jars, bottles, and cosmetics from the Seven Site on Nikumaroro.  I think it's rather sad, and a testimony to the dumbing-down of the media's handling of science stories, to imply that only the big, obvious, flash-bang discovery ("Austrolopithecus walks out of cave to greet researchers: Scientists Stunned") constitutes "science."