Earhart probably ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island. But where? Nikumaroro Island lies some 350 nautical miles south of Howland. Bones found on this uninhabited coral ring in 1939 and sent to Fiji for examination (and now lost) were measured in 1941 by a physician who concluded that they probably belonged to a 45- to 55-year-old male who was around five-and-a-half feet tall.

However, an early release of an article by University of Tennessee anthropologist Richard Jantz, in the University of Florida's new journal,

*Forensic Anthropology*, rejects this conclusion. Arguing that that the skeletal features for sex determination at the time were only weakly probative, Professor Jantz maintains that in 1941, the examiner “could easily have been presented with morphology that he considered male, even though it may have been female.”

__1__/

As to the lengths of the bones, Dr. Jantz compares estimates for Earhart (inferred from photographs and clothing) with the reported lengths of the Nikumaroro bones using a statistic known as the Mahalanobis distance. By this distance measure for multivariate data, Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a sample of bones from 2,776 other people. The sample is not clearly described in the article, but it is well known to forensic anthropologists, and “Jantz told Fox News that 2,776 individuals used in the reference group were all Americans of European ancestry [who] lived during the last half of the 19th century and most of the 20th century ... .”

__2__/

With respect to this sample, Jantz wrote that:

Let's not get bogged down in the details of the distance measure, bootstrapping, and the conversion to a likelihood ratio.Earhart’s rank is 19, meaning that 2,758 (99.28%) individuals have a greater distance from the Nikumaroro bones than Earhart, but only 18 (0.65%) have a smaller distance. The rank is subject to sampling variation, so I conducted 1,000 bootstraps of the 2,776 distances, omitting Earhart, then replacing her to determine her rank. Her rank ranged from 9 to 34, the 95% confidence intervals ranging from 12 to 29. If we take the maximum rank resulting from 1,000 bootstraps, 98.77% of the distances are greater and only 1.19% are smaller. If these numbers are converted to likelihood ratios as described by Gardner and Greiner (2006), one obtains 154 using her rank as 19, or 84 using the maximum bootstrap rank of 34. The likelihood ratios mean that the Nikumaroro bones are at least 84 times more likely to belong to Amelia Earhart than to a random individual who ended up on the island.

__3__/ There is a broader point to note. A likelihood ratio of at least 84 hardly means that “the Nikumaroro bones are at least 84 times more likely to belong to Amelia Earhart than to a random individual” — or even to a random Caucasian-American of the relevant time period. Likelihoods are measures of statistical support for a claim like the one that the particular bones are those of Amelia Earhart. The ratio indicates how much the bone-length data support the Earhart source hypothesis as contrasted to the support those data provide for random-Caucasian-American source hypothesis.

Relative support contributes to the odds in favor of a hypothesis, but it does not express those odds directly. Suppose I pick a coin at random from a box that contains one trick coin (it has heads on both sides) and 128 fair coins. I flip the coin seven times and observe seven heads. The likelihood ratio for the hypotheses of the trick coin as opposed to a fair coin is the probability of the data (seven out of seven heads) for the trick coin divided by the probability for a fair coin. The value of ratio therefore is 1 / (1/2)

^{7}= 1 / (1/128) = 128. But the odds that it is a trick coin are nowhere near 128 to 1. They are 1 to 1. Because it is no more probable that the coin is a trick coin than a fair one, I cannot even say that the preponderance of the statistical evidence favors the trick-coin hypothesis. See Box 1.**Box 1**. The Odds on the Trick Coin

Consider what would happen if we repeated the coin picking and tossing experiment 129 times (replacing the picked coin each time). We expect to pick the trick coin from the box only once and hence to see seven heads for that reason one time in 129. We expect to pick fair coins the other 128 times. We also expect that one of the 128 seven-flip tests of these fair coins will produce seven heads. Observing seven heads does not prove that the coin is more likely to be a trick coin than a fair one. We should post the same odds on each hypothesis about the coin. (This heuristic argument easily could be replaced with a more rigorous proof using Bayes' rule.)

Unfortunately, the statement that “the Nikumaroro bones are at least 84 times more likely to belong to Amelia Earhart than to a random individual” sounds like an assertion that the odds on Earhart as opposed to “a random individual” are at least 84 to 1. Mathematically, if there were no other possibilities to consider, these posterior odds would mean that the probability that the bones are Earhart’s is at least 84/(84+1) = 0.988, or just about 99%. If the probability that the bones are from a member of some other ancestral group (such as Micronesians) is, say, 1/10, then the probability for Earhart would decline to 0.889 (about 89%). See Box 2.

**Box 2**. Going from the Odds of Two Non-exhaustive Hypotheses to a Probability

Let

*E*denote the event that the bones are Earhart’s, let

*R*be the event that they are “a random individual” (among all Caucasian Americans of the time) and let

*X*be the event that they come from someone else. Also, let

*p*,

*r*, and

*x*be the probabilities of each of these events, respectively. Then 84 =

*p*/

*r*, and

*p*+

*r*+

*x*= 1. Substituting and rearranging terms, tt follows that

*p*= 84(1–

*x*) / 85. If

*x*= 0, the probability of

*E*is

*p*= 84/85 = 0.988. If

*x*= 1/10,

*p*= (9/10)×(84/85) = 0.889.

__4__/

*Forensic Anthropology*article “claims they have a 99% match, contradicting an earlier conclusion.”

__5__/ But being in the upper percentile on a list of distances is not the same as being 99% similar. Fox News crowed that “Amelia Earhart Disappearance '99 Percent' Solved,”

__6__/ whatever that may mean.

Other than seeming to conflate the likelihood ratio of 84 with the odds in favor of Earhart, the article does not contend that the probability that the bones are Earhart's is at least 99%. Hewing to the proper interpretation of likelihood as a measure of support for a hypothesis, Professor Jantz wrote that his “analysis ... strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.” He did go on to mention Bayes' rule and to illustrate what the posterior probability of this hypothesis might be, but following the recommended forensic practice, he did not settle on a specific prior probability.

__7__/ That probability turns on the non-anthropological information in the case — things like the fact that the Coast Guard cutter off of Howard Island received radio transmissions from Earhart (suggesting that she was not near Nikumaroro Island). Nevertheless, the article seems to propose that the bone lengths in and of themselves prove that the remains probably are Earhart's. It states that:

If [the] sex estimate, can be set aside, it becomes possible to focus attention on the central question of whether the Nikumaroro bones may have been the remains of Amelia Earhart. There is no credible evidence that would support excluding them. On the contrary, there are good reasons for including them. The bones are consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer. Her height is entirely consistent with the bones. The skull measurements are at least suggestive of female. But most convincing is the similarity of the bone lengths to the reconstructed lengths of Earhart’s bones. Likelihood ratios of 84–154 would not qualify as a positive identification by the criteria of modern forensic practice, where likelihood ratios are often millions or more. They do qualify as what is often called the preponderance of the evidence, that is, it is more likely than not the Nikumaroro bones were (or are, if they still exist) those of Amelia Earhart. If the bones do not belong to Amelia Earhart, then they are from someone very similar to her. And, as we have seen, a random individual has a very low probability of possessing that degree of similarity.Contrary to the highlighted text, likelihood ratios of 84–154 do not necessarily mean that evidence satisfies the preponderance-of-the-evidence or more-probable-than-not standard of most civil litigation. The legal standard applies to a posterior probability, not to a likelihood ratio standing alone.

__8__/ Even a large likelihood ratio may not suffice to overcome a small prior probability. (That is what happened in the coin-flipping example of Box 1.) Conversely, even a small likelihood ratio may be enough to boost a prior probability into the more-probable-than-not range.

Professor Jantz recognizes that no one can resolve the historical mystery on the basis of his statistical analysis alone. He writes:

Ideally in forensic practice a posterior probability that remains belong to a victim can be obtained. Likelihood ratios can be converted to posterior odds by multiplying by the prior odds. For example, if we think the prior odds of Amelia Earhart having been on Nikumaroro Island are 10:1, then the likelihood ratios given above become 840–1,540, and the posterior probability is 0.999 in both cases. The prior odds or prior probability pertain to information available before skeletal evidence is considered. It is often impossible to assign specific numbers to the prior probability, because it depends on how the non-osteological evidence is evaluated, and different people will usually evaluate it differently. In jury trials, experts are often advised to testify only to the likelihood ratio developed from the biological evidence. The jury then supplies its own prior odds based on the entire context (e.g., Steadman et al. 2006).Judging the entire historical record, Jantz adopts a high prior probability (perhaps higher than the 10:1 figure for the prior odds quoted above) to conclude that “[u]ntil definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.” In other words, the product of the moderately large likelihood ratio and the prior odds (already sufficient to establish a preponderance) is so large that only

*definitive*evidence for an alternative hypothesis could possibly overcome it.

* * *

In the end, do “modern methods produce results that suggest a 99 percent certainty that the bones belonged to Earhart,” as a respected fact-checking website concluded?

__8__/ Well, the “modern methods” try to exploit the anthropological data more fully than the earlier analyses, but any conclusion about “the certainty that the bones belonged to Earhart” necessarily rests on a judgment of other information as well — the radio transmissions received by the Coast Guard cutter, the failure to spot any signs of Earhart’s presence in a contemporaneous search of the island, other artifacts found on the island in later investigations, and much more.

Professor Jantz is widely reported to have a personal probability of 99% for Earhart as the source of the remains. ABC News, for example, quoted him as stating that "I am 99 percent sure that these bones belong to Amelia Earhart."

__10__/ This level of belief may be appropriate, based on his review of all the historical information and his latest statistical analysis of the bone lengths. But the article, at least, does not assign a posterior probability to what it presents as “the most convincing argument,” and a forensic anthropologist who did so in court would be relying on knowledge from outside the realm of forensic osteology.

**NOTES**

- Richard L. Jantz,
*Amelia Earhart and the Nikumaroro Bones: A 1941 Analysis versus Modern Quantitative Techniques*, 1(2) Forensic Anthropology 1-16 (2018), available at http://journals.upress.ufl.edu/fa/article/view/525/518. - James Rogers,
*Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved? Scientist '99 Percent' Sure Bones Found Belong to Aviator*, Fox News, Mar. 7, 2018, http://www.foxnews.com/science/2018/03/07/amelia-earhart-mystery-solved-scientist-99-percent-sure-bones-found-belong-to-aviator.html. - The length estimates for Earhart's bones are not exact, bootstrapping is not the same as drawing repeated probability samples from the desired population, and (as discussed in the article) deriving a likelihood ratio involves categorizing continuous measurements into discrete intervals whose size is somewhat arbitrary. Accounting for these sources of uncertainty would produce a broader range of plausible likelihood ratios.
- Jantz argues that the sizes of the recovered bones are less typical of Pacific Islanders than of “Euro-Americans,” but the article does not maintain that the probability of a different ancestry is zero or that it should be ignored.
*Amelia Earhart: Island Bones 'Likely' Belonged to Famed Pilot*, BBC News, Mar. 8, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43323944.- Rogers, supra note 2.
- Cf. Ira M. Ellman & David H. Kaye,
*Probabilities and Proof: Can HLA and Blood Test Evidence Prove Paternity?*, 55 NYU L. Rev. 1131 (1979), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1466964. - See, e.g., John Kaplan,
*Decision Theory and the Factfinding Process*, 20 Stan. L. Rev. 1065 (1968); David H. Kaye,*Clarifying the Burden of Persuasion: What Bayesian Decision Rules Do and Do Not Do*, 3 Int'l J. Evid. & Proof 1 (1999), available at http:/ssrn.com/abstract=2702990 - Alex Kasprak,
*Have Amelia Earhart’s Remains Been Located?*, Mar. 15, 2018, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/amelia-earharts-remains-located/. - E.g.,
*Professor Believes Bones Found on Pacific Island Belong to Amelia Earhart*, ABC7 Eyewitness News, http://abc7chicago.com/science/professor-believes-bones-found-on-pacific-island-belong-to-amelia-earhart/3190174/.