It's Been 50 Years, Time to Drop The Conspiracy Theories

Today, newspapers including the NYT and WaPo are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death both on their front pages and opinion pages I was thinking if it’s finally time to confront one of the most persistent, and widespread conspiracy theories out there – that of a larger conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination.

However, I’m not interested in addressing specific allegations of the conspiracy theorists, as Fred Kaplan does or Vincent Bugliosi in his thorough debunking of JFK conspiracies and Oliver Stone’s absurd JFK.(If you can find it it’s great: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy) While Bugliosi’s book is excellent, I can save your 50 bucks and hours of reading by summing up the central point – Conspiracy theorists have consistently fabricated, misrepresented, or misunderstood the relevant evidence to serve their interests, time and time again. And why should we be surprised? In our years of interacting with conspiracies from 9/11 truth to birtherism, the pattern is always the same. First comes the conclusion, then the evidence is bent, cherry-picked, falsified, or invented from whole cloth to fit that conclusion. Whether it’s changing the position of the occupants of the car to create a bizarre ballistic trajectory, showing the undamaged side of a bullet in a photograph to suggest it was undamaged after its recovery, wrongly suggest Oswald or similarly competent shooter could not make the shot despite replication of the act and even improvement on his time and accuracy by other shooters, or any of the various tenuous links that show ties between Oswald and the CIA or the Soviets or the mafia or whatever, it’s the same problem we’ve always seen with conspiratorial thinking. The only data that are incorporated are those that are convenient to the theory, and, in 50 years, there does not exist a solid, well-proven alternative explanation of the assassination or Oswald’s involvement that explain the data.

We’ve seen 9 presidents since then, the fall of the soviet union, the advent of more modern forensic and technological analysis, and the evidence still overwhelmingly shows that Oswald, a Marxist, failed defector, crackpot and loser, bought a cheap rifle, made a failed attempt to assassinate Edwin Walker, successfully shot the president and wounded Governor John Connally, was seen leaving the scene, while fleeing got in an altercation with a police officer, who he shot in front of multiple witnesses, and was ultimately apprehended within hours by police. While his motivations will never be certain, his links to various governments, spy agencies, or criminal organizations remain unproven.

Despite 50 years, multiple changes of administrations, governments, investigations and re-investigations, there is still no better explanation than that a solitary loser shot a powerful, important man, because he wanted to make a statement, or because he could.

You understand the motivation of the conspiracy theorists in this case. It’s such an unsatisfactory and disturbing revelation. Even small men, men like Oswald, can have a dramatic impact on history. And as we’ve seen in intervening decades various examples of actual government conspiracies, from anti-Castro assassination attempts to Iran-Contra, it seems like such a behavior is within the capacity of our government. Critically, this argument fails for three reasons. One, the government, as demonstrated by the common knowledge of these supposedly secret activities is completely incapable of keeping anything secret for anything but short periods of time, and certainly a secret as big as an internecine assassination by agents of our government would be virtually impossible to conceive, plan, or subsequently cover-up. Second, the physical evidence tying Oswald to the shooting is incontravertible, it was his rifle, his ammunition (also tied to the Walker attempt), his workplace, he was seen entering and fleeing the scene, and even shot a police officer in his attempt to flee. Third, the idea that anyone would rely on Oswald as an assassin is ludicrous. He wasn’t some professional receiving guidance or pay from some well-equipped or funded organization. He bought a cheap rifle from a mail-order catalog, not because it would hide his tracks, but because he couldn’t afford better (and it was tracked right back to him despite his attempt at using an alias). He wasn’t even clever enough to arrange a straw purchase. He was a rabid Marxist and anti-fascist, not the type the CIA would employ to lick stamps, let alone carry out the highest-profile assassination in history.

After 50 years where is the solid data the conspiracy theorists have? Is Oliver Stone’s JFK their best effort? If so then all they have is the story of a loony, homophobic southern prosecutor/media whore, whose failed attempts to link a presidential assassination to an unfortunate, and innocent businessman in New Orleans was glorified by the film-maker rather than condemned for being the worst kind of bigotry and incompetence. Jim Garrison is a dubious character to hang your hat on, with a prosecutorial career only exceptional for accusing dozens of people of various crimes, using dubious witnesses, and with no successful prosecutions (unless you count the one against him for defamation). His conspiracy theory was similarly ludicrous and tied together so many groups and agencies (from Earl Warren to NASA) the idea it could remain secret for 2 hours defies belief.

What else is there? In 50 years, what solid evidence of anyone but Oswald being involved is left? What incontrovertible data has arisen in 5 decades that is more plausible than Oswald as the shooter? Is it time to stop tolerating our nation’s most socially-acceptable, loony conspiracy theory?

Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn’t more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what’s underneath), and that they’re basically an admission of one’s own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he’s part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation’s policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It’s just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it’s really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.

I’ve found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can’t seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it’s worth peering through PPP’s full results to see the nature of some of these associations.

For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were “misled” or “intentionally-misled” puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon’s razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were “true believers”, of course I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it’s just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren’t huge partisan differences like over WMD).

One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That’s 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn’t be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it’s sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There’s no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for “sinister” reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn’t even hide a tawdry affair.

Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to “government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals”, it’s possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.

Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a “hoax”. That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective – often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I’m often accused of being a part of but I’m sure I’m missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it’s not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.

Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn’t healthy thinking, it isn’t rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.