The Skeptical Folklorist: What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

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Amelia Earhart has been one of my lifelong heroines. I had actually wanted to be a pilot once, but I developed seizures as an adolescent so I’m barred from getting a pilot’s license as a result. Still, Earhart remains a beloved inspiration and, like many people, I would love to have the closure that comes with knowing how her final chapter ended. Tonight I saw an article about how an old photograph provides evidence that she was captured by the Japanese, and I want to take some time to look at this.

The photo appears to show a Caucasian man, his face partially obscured, and a Caucasian woman with her back turned towards the camera. The other claim is that there is an object in the picture that matches the wingspan of Earhart’s plane. And then the kicker is dropped, a government conspiracy designed to silence everything, based on the idea that the government tried to suppress evidence that Earhart sent distress signals after she landed, and if you want to know more, watch the 2 hour documentary.

I do believe that there is enough evidence to support that idea that Earhart’s plane did not crash in the ocean, but landed on a remote island. And it is true that Earhart did broadcast radio distress calls for help after she landed. While people are now claiming that the government suppressed the transmissions in some sort of conspiracy, the truth is that people thought they were bogus. For comparison, of the 120 claims of radio transmissions made by Earhart, only 57 are believed to be credible. Then as now people pulled hoaxes, and then as now people’s senses tricked them, or a person’s desire to be part of history lead them to misinterpret what they were hearing. If you are familiar with the story of the boy who cried wolf, then you can understand how sometimes people are too skeptical, and especially when inundated with obviously false information, unfortunately, true information can get last in the onslaught.

I’m also not convinced that the people in the photo are Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. For one, you don’t get a good look at either of their faces, the photo is in black and white, which further obscures details, and I can’t even say for sure that the woman is Caucasian because you can’t see enough of her features (for that matter, while there does appear to be a feminine curve along her sides, from the back, it is real hard to tell for certain if the person in the photograph is female).

Yet even when we have good photos of people’s faces, it is extremely hard to identify people in photographs. Remember Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia? After Anderson’s death, DNA evidence proved that she was not Anastasia. Yet before her death, Anderson was subjected to a lot of facial recognition, and some experts believed that a study of her facial features (her ears in particular) proved that she was Anastasia.

So basically it’s going to take a lot more than a black and white photograph of a person taken from the back and of a man with his face in the shadows to prove to me that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese, especially when the Japanese have no record of them being captured (of course I know what conspiracy theorists will say to that).

While it is possible, I’m putting more trust in TIGHAR’s effort to located her remains on Nikumaroro.

In summary, anyone who starts talking about government conspiracy and cover up loses credibility with me. Especially when the evidence is so flimsy to begin with.

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2 thoughts on “The Skeptical Folklorist: What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

  1. Sirius Bizinus

    There was a Cracked video I saw recently where they interviewed an expert regarding the JFK assassination. He put forth a theory that the third shot to the president’s head could have been friendly fire, and there was decent evidence to back it up.* Most conspiracy theorists hate that theory, as it negates any nefarious government motives or wild speculation.

    I think this is why conspiracy theories get traction, alongside new religious movements. People want to be the sole or limited possessors of knowledge. Even Judaism and Christianity got this way, as studying religious texts was only given to the few scholars and not the masses.

    *Cracked is a comedy publication, so they could have embellished some details. That said, sometimes they’re accurate when it helps lampooning fringe ideas like conspiracy theories.

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    1. roianna Post author

      Oh, the JFK assassination! There was something about that on Netflicks with the friendly fire idea, though I’d later read some other stuff debunking it. NOVA has a good documentary on Netflicks (Cold Case JFK) that goes deep into the forensics and debunks the conspiracy theory stuff and is well worth a watch.

      I do think that people wanting to be the sole possessors (or the first ones to think something) plays a role in conspiracy theory thinking, along with not wanting to be sheep believing whatever the establishment tells people.

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