On conspiracy theories
On November 22nd, 1963, the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot and killed during a parade in Dallas, Texas. It was a gorgeous clear day, one few expected would forever change the lives of so many Americans. Though he was rushed to the hospital, Kennedy died immediately from a fatal shot to the head, the impact of which destroyed a significant portion of his brain. Not long after the shooting, the Dallas police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was already known to the police as being a Cuban insurgent, as well as being the owner of a Mannlicher-Carcano Rifle (which he had purchased under the pseudonym A. Hidell). Photos were found showing him holding communist literature, as well as the rifle which was used to kill Kennedy. It was also discovered an assassination attempt had been made by Oswald on one General Edwin Walker, who survived but was wounded by bullet fragments. At the time of the attempt (April 10th) police had no leads as to the suspect, until after the assassination of Kennedy and the subsequent search of Oswald’s home.
Forensic evidence supported the conclusion by the Warren Commission (established by Johnson after the assassination) that the shots were fired from the 6th floor of the Dallas book depository, where Oswald worked. Immediately following the shooting, Oswald left the building, and was the only employee to fail the roll call later that day. Officer Tippit heard the general description of the shooter by an eye witness who saw Oswald shoot from the window, saw and attempted to intercept Oswald. After a brief chat, Tippit opened his door and got out of his police cruiser. Oswald grabbed the officer’s .38 caliber and shot him, killing the officer instantly.
Lee Harvey maintained he was innocent, claiming to have been set up as a patsy, and that he had shot no one. The evidence strongly discredits this statement. And yet, if you were to ask the American population who killed John F. Kennedy, odds are you would get many different answers. “The CIA killed him because of the Bay of Pigs incident” or “the killer wasn’t Oswald, but rather a Soviet double agent codenamed Alex who had assumed Oswald’s identity” or “The Mafia killed Kennedy, since Jack Ruby (Oswald’s assassin) had connections to the mob”. About 49% of Americans are convinced Oswald was either a patsy, or was part of some larger conspiracy to assassinate the president; this, despite the mountain of credible evidence pointing directly at Oswald as the sole killer. Why would anyone believe a massive conspiracy was behind the assassination, and not one man? Why would people choose to disregard crucial evidence in favor of theories for which the evidence is both flimsy and non existent? Why are conspiracy theories so popular in our modern culture?
It’s natural for people to be distrustful, particularly about entities that have, in the past, blatantly lied to them. This mistrust has grown in the past 50 years, as public confidence in both government institutions and corporations have eroded. The idea that Oswald did not act alone was not generally held by the public around the time of his murder. For the most part, the public trusted the Warren Commission’s findings, and the case was closed. But like any good mystery, some questions arose. Why had the government sealed some of the report (about 3%) and would not make it public record for 75 years? Why, in the famous Zapruder film, did the president’s head shoot backwards if the shots came from behind? How could Oswald have shot the president 3 times in only 9 seconds, a feat even the top marksman of the world was not able to reproduce, this despite the fact many have contended he had below average marksmanship?
In actual fact, each of these questions has been answered in a satisfactory way, and each obey Occam’s Razor: that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. The head tilting back is caused by the fact that the point of entry of the bullet (in the back of the head) released very little energy. A bullet passing through a skull meets little resistance, as though passing through a honey melon. But when it leaves the skull, it carries with it much more kinetic force from the bone and brain matter than it is dragging along, pushing the head back as it exits. The simple proof lies in the fact the exit wound turned out to be much larger than the entrance one. Despite the rumors Oswald was a poor marksman, he earned a sharpshooter qualification badge during his Marine corp. years, finishing 212 out of 250 students. The ’9 seconds’ theory was dismissed, as it is believed Oswald had as much as 20 seconds with which to fire. As for the government classifying certain documents, the FBI was criticized for not conducting a proper investigation into the possibility of a conspiracy. However, had they done so, it is likely they would have examined the motive for murder of prominent political figures. If no conspiracy was found, it is likely the sensitive information would have been part of the report, but judged as both irrelevant and politically incendiary.
Today’s well documented events are no different. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks are even more scrutinized by conspiracy theorists. Even though we know a great deal of how the terrorists planned and executed their attacks, even though there were FBI reports indicating the possibilities of such attacks, and even the footage of the terrorists boarding the planes is not enough to convince some CT’ers that the government was actually behind it. After all, did the government not plan on invading Iraq anyways, needing only a way to convince the population of the need for this military action? Almost half of all Americans claim there was government involvement behind 9/11. Are they all crazy?
If the answer was ‘yes’, then we would be in serious trouble. Having half the population of the world’s only superpower diagnosed as insane would be a frightening prospect. Luckily, these people are not actually crazy; rather, they are simply being misguided by bad information. How does bad information, like some of the 9/11 conspiracies that exist today, persist so well?
Because we live in an age of so much information, we are constantly being bombarded on all sides, often with bits of information that contradicts one another. Television, radio, and the Internet are swimming with people offering their interpretation of the truth. It’s often difficult, or even impossible, to distinguish which side of the story is true. If we are thorough, we may try and browse different media sources and compare the information given, in an attempt to determine the truth (not unlike trying to figure out who is right or wrong in an argument by hearing both sides impartially). Sometimes, there are odd discrepancies in stories. Most of them are ignored by us as either being mere coincidences, misprints, or sloppy reporting. Some, however, tend to focus on these seemingly unimportant bits, seeing patterns in the information that re-affirms their preconceived notion of events. These individuals are conspiracy theorists, and although most of us think they are relatively harmless, they nevertheless have a powerful influence on our culture.
The appeal of a conspiracy theory is threefold; (1) it reaffirms our belief in a particular axiom. If this axiom is we are being visited by aliens, a conspiracy theory that confirms Roswell, New Mexico is the location of a crashed alien spaceship will support this notion. (2) Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they are part of a privileged information network. Since often CT are complex, and require much research (the selective kind of course), a person can come to believe very few other individuals are capable of putting the pieces of the puzzle together as elegantly as they. And finally, (3) Conspiracy theories play into the reality we are distrustful of powerful institutions, particularly governments and major corporations. We often see the gross misconduct of public figures and CEOs, and naturally feel if these misdeeds get noticed, just what isn’t being witnessed?
There are examples of real conspiracies that we know about. Our degree of certainty of the completeness of our understanding of how these conspiracies occurred, and all the individuals involved, cannot always be total. We must accept that for any large conspiracy exposed, some individuals are sure to escape our notice, and if the facts are complicated and motivations complex, we may not be privy to the entire truth. Real conspiracies, like the Watergate scandal, have generally been exposed, and the players and perpetrators were identified, though all of the information (particularly the missing White House tapes) was never gathered. The fact remains that the motivations behind the conspiracy are known (mainly that Nixon had become extremely paranoid, and had put wiretaps in the Watergate motel to find out as much information from his democratic rivals as possible). The Watergate conspiracy itself was relatively small, and if the security guard, one Frank Wills, had not noticed there was adhesive tape on one of the locked doors, he would not have called D.C. police, and the events might never have surfaced. Small conspiracies, involving only a few individuals, are usually difficult to track.
Some conspiracies are likely, although specific motivations may not be fully known. The War in Iraq is a good example. We know, for instance, that the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, created a department in the Pentagon called ‘the office of special plans’. Their primary goal was to ‘uncover’ evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and to leave critical details out of their report to bolster support for a preemptive attack. The alleged purpose of the attack is debatable. Some contend major corporations, such as Haliburton, would have benefited from a war in Iraq, as well as some of the major oil companies. When no WMDs were found in Iraq (despite a massive search) the government tried to make the implication that there was a complex terrorist network supporting Al Qaeda within Iraq. No evidence of this was ever found, and the government later admitted there was in fact no connection. Although we can probably draw a number of conclusions for the motivations behind the war, the truth is, without proper investigation and prosecution, the war in Iraq will continue to be theorized by conspiracy enthusiasts.
It’s easier to believe in the conspiracy you can’t prove than the one you can. Although they can often exist, the more complex and bigger a conspiracy is, the less likely it can remain unexposed. People who believe and perpetuate unproven theories are motivated by a deep level of mistrust rather than an honest attempt at impartially interpreting information. We should be weary of those who disregard evidence when it conflicts with their interpretation of the facts. As most serious scientists will tell you, when the model fails, you tend to not want to stick with it, regardless of its elegance. The truth is often far more inelegant, messy, and confusing. If you yourself believe in any conspiracy theory, then I strongly urge you to reconsider the evidence behind your belief, and ask yourself important questions, such as: Is there another explanation that also corresponds to the facts? Is it possible your own prejudice and conviction may be blinding you to contradictory evidence?
The world is a confusing place. Just as many of us assume a Godly Omnipresence dictates the daily operation of the universe, some believe powerful shadowy organizations secretly control our lives. Our skeptical nature should make us weary of claims that require the perfect manipulation of thousands of people, let alone billions. It is not to say conspiracies are not real; it means those that are usually do not appear as grandiose and huge as we would hope. We should seek truth in all its forms, even when they shatter our fantasies and hopes.
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