Friday, June 8, 2012

Amelia Earhart, Ridiculous Claims, and Contemporary Political "Thought"


I recently had the privilege of working with my friends and TIGHAR colleagues Tom Roberts and Joe Cerniglia on a paper for the Northern Mariana Islands Council for the Humanities Marianas History Conference. The paper analyzed the suite of hypotheses featuring Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan being captured and executed by the Japanese military in the Mariana Islands.

In the course of this enterprise, I corresponded with the author of a fairly recent book that posits not only Earhart's and Noonan's demise at the hands of the Japanese, but a quite aggressive coverup by both the Japanese and United States government, extending to the present day. To minimize the potential for name-calling, I’ll disguise my correspondent as "Sam."

The correspondence spanned the time of TIGHAR's Earhart Search 75 Symposium, and the release of several items in the media about TIGHAR's fieldwork on Nikumaroro. The media particularly fastened on our discovery of a small jar that may have contained a cosmetic ointment purported to reduce freckles.

I publish excerpts from our correspondence here not to pick a fight with Sam or anyone else, but because I think Sam's writing provides an interesting window into how the minds of some of our critics work.

The Correspondence

Having read our paper, Sam said:

Thanks for sending. Although your conclusions are painfully contorted to deny the truth, this paper is far better than anything I would expect from someone so closely tied to Ric Gillespie. From your point of view, I'm sure you think it's almost fair. You realize, don't you, that if Gillespie had one-hundredth of this much "anecdotal" evidence to support his ideas, the Niku theory would have been universally accepted as gospel by now? Niku has never been anything more than smoke and paper thin speculation promoted all out of proportion by a gullible, ignorant, and corrupt media, and Fred Goerner, with Fred Hooven's expert guidance, warned Gillespie about it from the start. But there's far more involved with Niku than just Gillespie's personal interests, as Hillary and State have recently demonstrated, quite shamelessly. Of course nobody but us chickens have a clue about what's really going on, right? He certainly hasn't fooled those of us who pay close attention.

The anecdotal evidence to which Sam refers is the evidence for the Earhart-in-the-Marianas hypothesis -- which indeed is entirely anecdotal, and based on unsystematically collected anecdotes at that. But note how Sam presents himself, as an authority who knows the truth (based on anecdotes), instructing me on what I should "realize," and proceeding to inform me that the hypothesis I've helped propound and test over the last 23 years is nothing but "smoke and paper thin speculation." I must be pretty dumb not to have realized all that.

Sam goes on to say that the late Freds Goerner and Hooven "warned Gillespie about it from the start." It's safe to ascribe things to the deceased, of course, but one can't know how Goerner or Hooven would respond to the considerable body of data collected by TIGHAR in the years since their demise. Goerner at least showed a healthy ability to change his mind when confronted with contrary evidence. He did say -- before his death in 1994 -- that he thought the Nikumaroro Hypothesis was weak, but would he say that now? I don't know, but apparently Sam somehow does. As for Hooven, it’s worth noting that TIGHAR has praised Hooven’s study of the post-loss radio signals, which he said suggested that Earhart and Noonan had landed in the Phoenix Islands – where he posited that they had been collected by the Japanese. As the demon Gillespie noted in his description of Hooven’s work, Hooven died in 1985, and had he lived to learn of TIGHAR’s findings his opinion might have changed (See

But Sam quickly broadens the scope of his critique, including the "gullible, ignorant, and corrupt media" and "Hillary (Clinton) and (the) State (Department)." It's good that he and his colleagues aren't fooled, but what is it that Secretary Clinton and her department up to? Sam doesn't quite say, but he promptly includes me in the conspiracy

Since I have always considered you to be pure "establishment," should we now consider your paper the latest concession by the establishment to the truth? If so, I'll admit it's much better than what we've had, and wonder how the rest of the establishment will receive it. ... I would advise you to abandon the bi-yearly Niku boondoggles and all the attention and false accolades they bring, and join me and a few others in supporting the unvarnished truth. I can't guarantee you or anyone else anything but rejection, but at least you'd be on the side of the angels, rather than the alternative, which I think will someday count for far more than it does now.

So I'm apparently more or less in bed with the Secretary ('scuse us, Bill), but Sam sees me as perhaps salvageable; maybe I can be persuaded to come over to the way of the truth. Guessing (based on his book) that what he thinks the government is up to is hiding what really happened to Earhart, I replied:

It would come as something of a surprise to some of my archaeological and other colleagues to see me referred to as "establishment," but if that characterization makes you happy, so be it. I HAVE worked in, around, under and against the U.S. government long enough to be very skeptical of its ability to keep a secret for 75 years. But I'm also old enough to be untrusting of my own judgment, so despite 25 years of rather close attention to the Nikumaroro project, I'm not as willing as you seem to be to proclaim the "unvarnished truth" or castigate others as -- let's see -- "gullible, ignorant, and corrupt." I do think we (and "we" are not just Ric, or Ric clones) have a pretty good hypothesis and some pretty good evidence ..., but I don't claim it as the Truth -- varnished, unvarnished, or painted bright pink.

Sam replied:

The truth about Saipan and the few files, hidden deep in top secret files reflecting what happened there, are not something that many "government" people were ever privy to, then or now. But if Hillary Clinton, for example, isn't a corrupt individual in your book, then there's little hope for your conversion.

To which I responded:

Let's be clear. I don't aspire to conversion, and I already am convinced that everybody in and around government is more or less corrupt. But as I said in "Shoes," in an investigation I do think it's important to shave with Ockham's Razor -- you don't jump to complicated conclusions until you've reasonably exhausted the simple ones. In the case of Earhart, the simplest conclusion is that she crashed and sank, but that doesn't account for the post-loss radio messages, nor does it account for the stuff we've found on Nikumaroro. So the Nikumaroro hypothesis becomes the next-simplest conclusion, and until and unless we disprove (or somebody disproves) that one, I think it's the best game in town.

This didn't go down well with Sam.

Give me a break, Tom. Nothing that's been found on Niku has been directly connected to AE/FN in any way. It's become a joke and a circus. Hundreds of people tramped around on that island before Gillespie ever got there. Hoovan and Goerner looked at it closely and threw it in the dumpster. It's a third-hand, hand-me-down-idea that's been explored to death without result. You guys kill me, really.

Odd, I thought we'd had some results. I replied:

I'm no more interested in converting you than I am in being converted, but let me just suggest that you read our stuff before you start calling names. Hooven and Goerner were never on the island; I've spent about three months working there. They weren't aware of the bones papers; I am. They didn't do archaeology on the island; I have. They didn't research the island's history in anything like the detail we have. I don't understand why you think invoking the names of extinct authorities and slapping labels on people's work is convincing to anyone but yourself and your friends.

Which led to:

Nonsense, all of it. The bones papers? More of absolutely nothing, dressed up with pretentious ten dollar words. You're supposed to be a scientist, but both of you choose your results and work backwards trying to fit your evidence to your desires. You fool nobody with half a brain, and without the immense help of the mainline media establishment, in on the charade, the whole NIKU scam would have been ignored decades ago. Please leave me alone now, I've had enough and my patience with you is wearing thin. Thanks for sending the paper, but enough is enough.

I was relieved enough to see the end of the correspondence, and decided not to get into whether we can fool people with whole brains, or explain what I meant by the “bones papers,” so I wound up our interchange with just one last dig:

Yup, it's like Harrry Truman said about kitchens.

An Epiphany
I don’t know anything about Sam’s politics, but it occurs to me that the way he frames his thinking about Earhart’s fate is a nice microcosm for the way many members of congress and conservative (among other) commentators approach such larger issues as the national economy, defense, the shredding social safety net, and the environment.

1. First we decide what the truth is.

2. Then we ridicule and impugn the motives of anyone who disagrees with us.

3. If anyone argues, we just increase the volume of our ridicule – even when we’re talking at people who manifestly know better.

4. If anybody offers evidence that contradicts our point of view, we don’t consider it; we simply label it “discredited” or “false” or “nonsense.”

5. We hint darkly or flatly assert that those who argue with us have devious, disreputable, maybe unpatriotic motives. Gillespie is a crook; King is an establishment shill; we’re all fronting for the immoral, un-American Clintons.

6. And when push comes to shove, we just say "shut up" and go back to talking only with those who agree with us.

It would be nice to think that people today are smart enough not to fall for this kind of thinking, but given what's become of our educational system, I don't suppose that's a very good bet -- in historical research or in politics, alas.


  1. Sam is a most entertaining - and himself either gullible, or self-serving as to his own notions and promotions.

    Keep up the excellent work, Dr. King. You display a wonderfuly habit of sticking to archeological realities while having an exceptional patience for us among the novice public. That is very much appreciated, and whatever 'the story' of Niku turns out to be, it will be well-discerned and told in the end. Many of us who may 'hope' for AE's mystery to be solved will be content with simply knowing more about the real history there at Niku, regardless of 'mystery solved' or not. It is a fascinating human story all around - and it is being ably discovered and well told.

    Jeff Nevill

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I certainly agree that it's a fascinating human story -- and not only from the standpoint of Earhart and Noonan; the story of the colonists, Gallagher, the PISS, the run-up to WWII, all makes a great tale, well worth learning about and telling.