On Conspiracy Theories

(Originally published 2/28/21)

It was Friday, November 22, 1963. John Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas Texas, and what followed was incredible – literally.

Within hours, his assassin was caught, and days later killed. The federal government put together a group to investigate (the Warren Commission). The public was outraged. The Warren Commission reported, the report was unsatisfying.

For the next three decades (conservatively) the theories flew.

The Warren Commission identified Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin – the lone assassin. This simply could not stand. Oswald was a Marine, he had also defected to the Soviet Union, he had a Russian bride, and he had been seen distributing pro-Castro (Cuba) propaganda. Certainly, there must be more to the story.

Kennedy, according to the Warren Commission, had been shot from behind with a 6.5mm Italian military surplus rifle. But film footage showed his head being blown backwards – as if being shot from the front. Since the location of Oswald was known, this must mean there was another shooter – from the front – and another shooter means (by definition) there was a conspiracy.

The number of shots fired, and the number of wounds inflicted (on Kennedy and Texas Governor Connelly) did not add up. There was a Dallas police officer on a motorcycle and several witnesses on the ground that had differing reports as to the number of shots fired. More evidence of a conspiracy – there must have been more than one shooter – at least two, maybe three – a rifle team? 

Arguably the most significant problem (and the most persistent) was the Warren Commission single bullet theory – the Magic Bullet.

Oswald could not have made the shot, the single bullet could not have changed direction in mid-flight, and therefore the explanation was impossible.

It took decades, but eventually investigators were able to prove the plausibility of the single bullet theory and in fact duplicated it precisely. The only real mystery about the Kennedy assassination left today is Oswald’s motivation.  

So, what is it that drives conspiracy theories?

One of the more dominant ideas is that the human mind naturally seeks order, there must be reasons and explanations to satisfy that quest for order. The murder of the leader of the free world by some random and insignificant individual does not comport with that quest for order and explanation. I agree that this is a factor, and may be a significant factor, but I find it hard to apply universally.

In the Kennedy assassination you had physical and objective evidence – a real event hand in fact happened. With Q (for example) we have little or no objective evidence; Q seems to be entirely made up out of thin air.

Another factor is that conspiracies do exist. The bar is quite low; if two people agree to an illegal drug deal, by definition you have a conspiracy. The revelations that came out of the Church Committee in the 1970’s about some CIA and FBI operations were shocking and proved several “crazy” conspiracy theorists right.

I would submit a slight twist on the idea of the quest for order: information, specifically the lack of information.

Many people seem to have difficulty with the fact that some things are unknown, and that some of those unknown things are unknowable. We can never know, for example, what was on Oswald’s mind.

The difficulty the Warren Commission encountered with supporting evidence for the single bullet lead, in no small part, to many people rejecting it. In everyday problem solving, it is rational to set aside an idea or a theory that lacks supporting evidence, but it can be a mistake to reject it as impossible.

Unfortunately, a common fallacy of reasoning is “argument from ignorance”: “You can’t prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.” I have personally heard or read more than one proponent of some widespread conspiracy say something like, “The fact that we can’t find the evidence is proof of how widespread the conspiracy is.”

Say that again? The lack of evidence is evidence? It does not get much more circular than that. A lack of evidence is simply “nothing”, it does not support or refute anything.

I think a lot of people tend to make things up to fill in the blanks where there is a lack of information. I think this, do some degree, drives conspiracy theories.

Another all-to-common fallacy is known as argument from silence. One side of an argument says nothing or refuses to give evidence, the other side assumes this is evidence supporting their argument. Again, the lack of evidence is taken as evidence when in fact it represents nothing at all. Sometimes imagined reasons are more appealing than real ones.

In our current environment, I place much of the blame for lack of information (accurate information) squarely on the news media. The biased agenda of the news media is blindingly obvious. Almost daily we see the news media blatantly lie about, or otherwise misrepresent, what they purport to be “reporting” on.

How many times, particularly in the last five years or so, have we seen the media play a clip from a speech or an interview, then immediately cut to a reporter or some other talking head who then proceeds to lie about what was just said?  

Trump’s remarks after Charlottesville were “racist” because he called white supremacists and Nazis “good people”. This they claim right after playing the video of him making these remarks, right after he condemned white supremacists and Nazis. Is it possible that there were some “good people” there that day that wanted the statues preserved simply for the sake of preserving our history? No – not according to the media narrative. No matter what you might think of Trump, I watched that speech and I heard what he said, and what the media reported was not what he said.

In October 2017, then White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said during an interview that the Civil War resulted from a failure to compromise. He was instantly attacked for this as supporting a compromise on slavery by the media and (stunningly) several prominent historians. He did not say the North should have compromised on slavery. I assumed at the time he meant the South should have compromised. But not one critic had the presence of mind to note that ALL wars are the result of a failure to compromise. War is always the last resort – after all other avenues have failed. As a military man, Kelly is as aware of this as anyone. Kelly simply stated the obvious.

The list of examples like these is endless. The lies and distortions have become so obvious that many people now simply reject everything coming from the mainstream media out of hand. The hunger for information drives them to other sources such as social media (where conspiracy theorists lurk).

The media, in recent months, has spent a good deal of effort decrying conspiracy theories such as Q. Decades ago, the media were the fact checkers – fact checking what politicians say. Now we have fact checkers checking what the media says. This is a reduction to the absurd.

Given the obvious misinformation, emanating from the very sources that decry misinformation, one wonders where the media expect people should turn for good information.


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