CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Conspiracy theories play a major part in popular thinking about the way the world, especially the political world, operates. And yet they have received curiously little attention from philosophers and others with a professional interest in reasoning. Though this situation is now starting to change, it is the purpose of this paper to approach this topic from the viewpoint of critical thinking, to ask if there are particular absences or deformities of critical thinking skills which are symptomatic of conspiracy theorising, and whether better teaching of reasoning may guard against them.
That conspiracy thinking is widespread can be seen from any cursory examination of a bookshop or magazine stand. There are not only large amounts of blatant conspiracy work, often dealing with American political assassinations and other events or with the alleged presence of extraterrestrial spacecraft, but also large amounts of writing where a certain degree of conspiracy thinking is more or less implicit. Thus many ‘alternative’ works of medicine, history, archaeology, technology, etc. often depend upon claims, explicit or otherwise, that an establishment or orthodoxy conspires to suppress alternative views. Orthodox medicine in cahoots with the multinational drug companies conspires to suppress the claims of homeopathy, orthodox archaeologists through malice or blindness conspire to suppress the truth about the construction of the Pyramids, and so on. It certainly seems to the jaundiced observer that there is more of this stuff about then ever before.
However, conspiracy theorising is now coming to the attention of philosophers. That it has taken this long may be because, as Brian Keeley says in a recent paper, ‘most academics simply find the conspiracy theories of popular culture to be silly and without merit.’ (1999: 109n) But I agree with Keeley’s further remark that ‘it is incumbent upon philosophers to provide analysis of the errors involved with common delusions, if that is indeed what they are.’ If a kind of academic snobbishness underlies our previous refusal to get involved here, there may be another reason. Conspiracy theorising, in political philosophy at least, has been identified with irrationality of the worst sort—here the locus classicus may be some dismissive remarks made by Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies (Popper 1996, Vol.2: 94-9). Pigden (1993) shows convincingly that Popper’s remarks cannot be taken to support a rational presumption against conspiracy theories in history and politics.
But certainly such a presumption exists, particularly amongst political commentators. It tends to manifest itself in a noisy preference for what is termed the ‘cock-up’ theory of history—an unfortunate term that tends to assume that history is composed entirely of errors, accidents and unforeseen consequences. If such a dismal state of affairs were indeed to be the case, then there would seem to be no point in anybody trying to do anything. The cock-up theory, then, is agreeable to all forms of quietism. But we have no reason to believe that there is such a coherent theory, and even less reason to believe that every event must fall neatly into one or other category here; indeed, this insistence on black and white reasoning is, as we shall see, one of the features of conspiracy theorising itself!
And what makes the self-satisfied ‘cock-up’ stance even less acceptable is that it ignores the fact that conspiracies are a very real part of our world. No serious historian denies that a somewhat amateurish conspiracy lay behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or that a more professional but sadly less successful conspiracy attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1944. Yet such is the presumption behind the cock-up stance that the existence or frequency of genuine conspiracies is often significantly downplayed. (How many people, taking at face value the cock-up theorists’ claim that conspiracies are a real rarity in the modern history of democracies, do not know that a mere 13 years before President Kennedy’s assassination a serious terrorist conspiracy to murder Harry S. Truman led to a fatal gunfight on the streets of Washington? The cock-up presumption seems to generate a kind of amnesia here.)
We require, then, some view of events that allows for the accidental and the planned, the deliberate and the contingent: history as a tapestry of conspiracies and cock-ups and much intentional action that is neither. Pigden (op.cit) satisfactorily demonstrates the unlikelihood of there being any adequate a priori exclusion principle here, in the face of the reality of at least some real conspiracies. Keeley’s paper attempts a more rigorous definition of the phenomenon, hoping to separate what he terms Unwarranted Conspiracy Theories (UCTs) from rational or warranted conspiratorial explanations:
It is thought that this class of explanation [UCTs] can be distinguished analytically from those theories which deserve our assent. The idea is that we can do with conspiracy theories what David Hume (1748) did with miracles: show that there is a class of explanations to which we should not assent, by definition. (Keeley: 111)
and it is part of his conclusion that ‘this task is not as simple as we might have heretofore imagined.’ (ibid.)
Keeley concludes that ‘much of the intuitive “problem” with conspiracy theories is a problem with the theorists themselves, and not a feature of the theories they produce’ (Ibid: 126) and it is this point I want to take up in this paper. What sort of thinking goes on in arriving at UCTs and what sort of things go wrong? If we say that conspiracy theorists are irrational, do we mean only that they are illogical in their reasoning? Or are there particular critical thinking skills missing or being misused?
Keeley’s use of the term Unwarranted Conspiracy Theory should not mislead us into thinking that all conspiracy theories fall into one or other category here. Warrant is a matter of degree, and so is conspiracy. There are cases where a conspiratorial explanation is plainly rational; take, for instance, the aforementioned July Bomb Plot to kill Hitler, where there is an abundance of historical evidence about the conspirators and their aims. There are cases where such an explanation is clearly irrational: I shall argue later in the paper that this is most probably the case for the assassination of President Kennedy. And there are cases where some conspiratorial explanation may be warranted but it is hard to know how far the warrant should extend.
Take, for instance, the murder of the
Archduke Franz Ferdinand in
What we require, then, is some definition which will mark off the kind of features which ought to lead us to suspect the warrant of any particular conspiratorial explanation. Keeley lays out a series of these, which I shall list and comment upon. But first he offers his definition of conspiracy theories in general:
A conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons—the conspirators—acting in secret… a conspiracy theory deserves the appellation “theory” because it proffers an explanation of the event in question. It proposes reasons why the event occurred… [it] need not propose that the conspirators are all powerful, only that they have played some pivotal role in bringing about the event… indeed, it is because the conspirators are not omnipotent that they must act in secret, for if they acted in public, others would move to obstruct them… [and] the group of conspirators must be small, although the upper bounds are necessarily vague.(116)
Keeley’s definition here differs significantly from the kind of conspiracy at which Popper was aiming in The Open Society, crude Marxist explanations of events in terms of capitalist manipulation. For one can assume that in capitalist societies capitalists are very nearly all-powerful and not generally hindered by the necessity for secrecy.
problem for Keeley’s definition, though, is that it
seems to include much of the work of central government. Indeed, it seems to
define exactly the operations of cabinet government—more so in countries like
difficulty with some kind of illegality constraint is that it might tend to
rule out what we might otherwise clearly recognise as conspiracy theories.
Take, for instance, the widely held belief amongst ufologists
If this gives us a rough idea of what counts as a conspiracy theory, we can then build upon it and Keeley goes on to list five features which he regards as characteristic of Unwarranted Conspiracy Theories:
(1) ‘A UCT is an explanation that
runs counter to some received, official, or “obvious” account.’ (116-7) This is
nothing like a sufficient condition, for the history of even democratic
governments is full of post facto surprises that cause us to revise previous
official explanations. For instance, for many years the official explanation
(1A) ‘Central to any UCT is an official story that the conspiracy theory must undermine and cast doubt upon. Furthermore, the presence of a “cover story” is often seen as the most damning piece of evidence for any given conspiracy.” This is an interesting epistemological point to which I shall return.
(2) ‘The true intentions behind the conspiracy are invariably nefarious’. I agree with this as a general feature, particularly of non-governmental conspiracies, though as pointed out above it is possible for governmental conspiracies to be motivated or justified in terms of preventing public alarm, which may be seen as an essentially beneficial aim.
(3) ‘UCTs typically seek to tie together seemingly unrelated events.’ This is certainly true of the more extreme conspiracy theory, one which seeks a grand unified explanation of everything. We have here a progression from the individual CT, seeking to explain one event, to the more general. Carl Oglesby (1976), for instance, seeks to reinterpret many of the key events in post-war American history in terms of a more or less secret war between opposing factions within American capital, an explanation which sees Watergate and the removal of Richard Nixon from office as one side’s revenge for the assassination of John Kennedy. At the extreme we have those theories which seek to explain all the key events of western history in terms of a single secret motivating force, something like international freemasonry or the great Jewish conspiracy. It may be taken as a useful rule of thumb here that the greater the explanatory range of the CT, the more likely it is to be untrue. (A point to which Popper himself would be sympathetic!)
Finally, one might want to query here Keeley’s point about seemingly unrelated events. Many CTs seem to have their origin in a desire to relate events that one might feel ought to go together. Thus many Americans, on hearing of the assassination of Robert Kennedy (itself coming very shortly after that of Martin Luther King) thought these events obviously related in some way, and sought to generate theories linking them in terms of some malevolent force bent on eliminating apparently liberal influences in American politics. They seem prima facie more likely to be related than, say, the deaths of the Kennedy brothers and those of John Lennon or Elvis Presley: any CT linking these does indeed fulfil Keeley’s (3).
(4) ‘…the truths behind events
explained by conspiracy theories are typically well-guarded secrets, even if
the ultimate perpetrators are sometimes well-known public figures.’ This is
certainly the original belief of proponents of UCTs
but it does lead to a somewhat paradoxical situation whereby the alleged secret
can become something of an orthodoxy. Thus opinion polls seem to indicate that
something in excess of 80% of Americans believe that a conspiracy led to the
death of President Kennedy, though it seems wildly unlikely that they all
believe in the same conspiracy. It
becomes increasingly hard to believe in a well-guarded secret that has been so
thoroughly aired in 35 years of books, magazine articles and even
Pretty much the same percentage of Americans seem to believe in the presence on earth of extra-terrestrials, though whether this tells us more about Americans or about opinion-polls is hard to say. But these facts, if facts they be, would tend to undercut the ‘benevolent government’ UCTs. For there is really no point in ‘them’ keeping the truth from us to avoid panic if most of us already believe this ‘truth’. The revelation of cast-iron evidence of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy or of the reality of alien visits to Earth would be unlikely to generate more than a ripple of public interest, these events having been so thoroughly rehearsed.
(5) ‘The chief tool of the conspiracy theorist is what I shall call errant data’. By which Keeley means data which is unaccounted for by official explanations, or data which if true would tend to contradict official explanations.
These are the marks of the UCT. As Keeley goes on to say (118) ‘there is no criterion or set of criteria that provide a priori grounds for distinguishing warranted conspiracy theories from UCTs.’ One might perhaps like to insist here that UCTs ought to be false, and this is why we are not warranted in believing them, but it is in the nature of many CTs that they cannot be falsified. The best we may do is show why the warrant for believing them is so poor. And one way of approaching this is by way of examining where the thinking that leads to UCTs goes awry.
3. Where CT thinking goes wrong
It is my belief that one reason why we should not accept UCTs is because they are irrational. But by this I do not necessarily mean that they are illogical in the sense that they commit logical fallacies or use invalid argument forms—though this does indeed sometimes happen—but rather that they misuse or fail to use a range of critical thinking skills and principles of reasoning. In this section I want to provide a list of what I regard as the key weaknesses of CT thinking, and then in the next section I will examine a case study of (what I regard to be) a UCT and show how these weaknesses operate. My list of points is not necessarily in order of importance.
(A) An inability to weigh evidence properly. Different sorts of evidence are generally worthy of different amounts of weight. Of crucial importance here is eye-witness testimony. Considerable psychological research has been done into the strengths and weaknesses of such testimony, and this has been distilled into one of the key critical thinking texts, Norris & King’s (1983) Test on Appraising Observations whose Manual provides a detailed set of principles for judging the believability of observation statements. I suspect that no single factor contributes more, especially to assassination and UFO UCTs, than a failure to absorb and apply these principles.
(B) An inability to assess evidence corruption and contamination. This is a particular problem with eyewitness testimony about an event that is subsequently the subject of considerable media coverage. And it is not helped by conventions or media events which bring such witnesses together to discuss their experiences—it is not for nothing that most court systems insist that witnesses do not discuss their testimony with each other or other people until after it has been given in court. There is a particular problem with American UCTs since the mass media there are not governed by sub judice constraints, and so conspiratorial theories can be widely aired in advance of any court proceedings. Again Norris & King’s principles (particularly IV. 10 & 12) should warn against this. But we do not need considerable delay for such corruption to occur: it may happen as part of the original act of perception. For instance, in reading accounts where a group of witnesses claim to have identified some phenomenon in the sky as a spaceship or other unknown form of craft, I often wonder if this judgement occurred to all of them simultaneously, or if a claim by one witness that this was a spaceship could not act to corrupt the judgmental powers of other witnesses, so that they started to see this phenomenon ‘as’ a spacecraft in preference to some more mundane explanation.
(C) Misuse or outright reversal of a principle of charity: wherever the evidence is insufficient to decide between a mundane explanation and a suspicious one, UCTs tend to pick the latter. The critical thinker should never be prejudiced against occupying a position of principled neutrality when the evidence is more or less equally balanced between two competing hypotheses. And I would argue that there is much to be said for operating some principle of charity here, of always picking the less suspicious hypothesis of two equally supported by the evidence. My suspicion is that in the long run this would lead to a generally more economical belief structure, that reversing the principle of charity ultimately tends to blunt Occam’s Razor, but I cannot hope to prove this.
(D) The demonisation of persons and organisations. This may be regarded as either following from or being a special case of (C). Broadly, this amounts to moving from the accepted fact that X once lied to the belief that nothing X says is trustworthy, or taking the fact that X once performed some misdeed as particular evidence of guilt on other occasions. In the former case, adopting (D) would demonise us all, since we have lied on some occasion or other. This is especially problematic for UCTs involving government organisations or personnel, since all governments reserve the right to lie or mislead if they feel it is in the national interest to do so. But proof that any agency lied about one event ought not to be taken as significant proof that they lied on some other occasion. It goes against the character of the witness, as lawyers are wont to say, but then no sensible person should believe that governments are perfectly truthful.
The second case is more difficult. It is a standard feature of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence that the fact that X has a previous conviction should not be given in evidence against them, nor revealed to the jury until after a verdict is arrived at. The reasoning here is that generally evidence of X’s previous guilt is not specific evidence for his guilt on the present occasion; it is possible for it to be the case that X was guilty then and is innocent now, and so the court should not be prejudiced against him. But there is an exception to this, at least in English law, where there are significant individual features shared between X’s previous proven modus operandi and that of the present offence under consideration; evidence of a consistent pattern may be introduced into court. But, the rigid standards of courtroom proof aside, it is not unreasonable for the police to suspect X on the basis of his earlier conviction. This may not be fair to X (if he is trying to go straight) but it is epistemologically reasonable. The trouble for UCTs, as we shall see, is that most governments have a long record of previous convictions, and the true UC theorist may regard this not just as grounds for a reasonable suspicion but as itself evidence of present guilt.
(E) The canonisation of persons or (more rarely) organisations. This may be regarded as the mirror-image of (D). Here those who are regarded as the victims of some set of events being explained conspiratorially tend to be presented, for the purpose of justifying the explanation, as being without sin, or being more heroic or more threatening to some alleged set of private interests than the evidence might reasonably support.
(F) An inability to make rational or proportional means-end judgements. This is perhaps the greatest affront to Occam’s Razor that one finds in UCTs. Such theories are often propounded with the explanation that some group of conspirators have been acting in furtherance of some aim or in order to prevent some action taking place. But one ought to ask whether such a group of conspirators were in a position to further their aim in some easier or less expensive or less risky fashion. Our assumption here is not the principle of charity mentioned in (C) above, that our alleged conspirators are too nice or moral to resort to nefarious activities. We should assume only that our conspirators are rational people capable of working out the best means to a particular end. This is a defeasible assumption—stupidity is not totally unknown in the political world—but it is nevertheless an assumption that ought to guide us unless we have evidence to the contrary.
A difficulty that should be mentioned here is that of establishing the end at which the conspiracy is aimed, made more difficult for conspiracies that never subsequently announce these things. For the state of affairs brought about by the conspirators may, despite their best efforts, not be that at which they aimed. If this is what happens then making a rational means-end judgement to the actual result of the conspiracy may be a very different matter from doing the same thing to the intended results.
(G) Evidence against a UCT is always evidence for. This is perhaps the point that would most have irritated Karl
Popper with his insistence that valid theories must always be capable of
falsification. But it is an essential feature of UCTs;
they do not just argue that on the evidence available a different conclusion
should be drawn from that officially sanctioned or popular. Rather, the claim
is that the evidence supporting the official verdict is suspect, fraudulent,
faked or coerced. And this belief is
used to support the nature of the conspiracy, which must be one powerful or
competent enough to fake all this evidence. What we have here is a difference
between critically assessing
evidence—something I support under (A) above—and the universal acid of
hypercritical doubt. For if we start with the position that any piece of
evidence may be false then it is open to us to support any hypothesis
whatsoever. Holocaust revisionists would have us believe that vast amounts of
evidence supporting the hypothesis of a German plot to exterminate
(H) We should put no trust in what I here term the fallacy of the spider’s web. That A knows B and that B knows C is no evidence at all that A has even heard of C. But all too often UCTs proceed in this fashion, weaving together a web of conspirators on the basis of who knows who. But personal acquaintance is not necessarily a transitive relation. The falsity of this belief in the epistemological importance of webs of relationships can be demonstrated with reference to the show-business party game known sometimes as ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’. The object of the game is to select the name of an actor or actress and then link them to the film-actor Kevin Bacon through no more than six shared appearances. (E.g. A appeared with B in film X, B appeared with C in film Y, C appeared with D in film Z, and D appears in Kevin Bacon’s latest movie: thus we link A to Bacon in four moves.) The plain fact is that most of us know many people, and important people in public office tend to have dealings with a huge number of people, so just about anybody in the world can be linked to somebody else in a reasonably small number of such links.
I can demonstrate the truth of this proposition with reference to my own case, that of a dull and unworldly person who doesn’t get out much. For I am separated by only two degrees from Her Majesty The Queen (for I once very briefly met the then Poet Laureate, who must himself have met the Queen if only at his inauguration) which means I am separated by only three degrees from all the many important political figures that the Queen herself has met, including names like Churchill and De Gaulle. Which further means that only four degrees separate me from Josef Stalin (met by Churchill at Yalta) and just five degrees from Adolf Hitler (who never met Churchill but did meet prewar Conservative politicians like Chamberlain and Halifax who were known to Churchill). Given the increasing amounts of travel and communication that have taken place in this century, it should be possible to connect me with just about anybody in the world in the requisite six stages. But so what? Connections like these offer the possibility of communication and influence, but offer no evidence for its actuality.
(I) The classic logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter
hoc. This is the most common strictly logical fallacy to be found in
political conspiracy theories, especially those dealing with assassinations and
suspicious deaths. And broadly it takes the shape of claiming that since event
X happened after the death of A, A’s death was brought about in order to cause
or facilitate the occurrence of X. The First World War happened after the death
of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and there is clearly a sense in which it
happened because of his death: there
is a causal chain leading from the death to Austrian outrage, to a series of
Austrian demands upon Serbia, culminating in Austria’s declaration of war
against Serbia, Russia’s declaration against Austria, and, via a series of
interlinked treaty obligations, most of the nations of Europe ending up at war
with one another. Though these effects of the assassination may now appear obvious, one problem for the
CT proponent is that hindsight clarifies these matters enormously: such a
progression may not have been at all obvious to the people involved in these
events at the time. And it is even harder to believe that bringing about such
an outcome was in any of their interests. (
Attempting to judge the rationality of a proposed CT here as an explanation for some such set of events runs into two problems. Firstly, though an outcome may now seem obvious to us, it may not have appeared so obvious to people at the time, either in its nature or in its expensiveness. Thus there may well have been people who thought that assassinating Franz Ferdinand in order to trigger a crisis in relations between Austria and Serbia was a sensible policy move, precisely because they did not anticipate a general world war occurring as a result and may have thought a less expensive conflict, a limited war of independence between Serbia and Austria, worth the possible outcome of freeing more of the Balkans from Austrian domination. And secondly, if we cannot attribute hindsight to the actors in such events, neither can we ascribe to them a perfect level of rationality: it is always possible for people engaged in such actions to possess a poor standard of means-end judgement.
But, bearing these caveats in mind, one might still wish to propound two broad principles here for distinguishing whether an event is a genuine possible motive for an earlier conspiracy or just an instance of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Firstly, could any possible conspirators, with the knowledge they possessed at the time, have reasonably foreseen such an outcome? And secondly, granted that such an outcome could have been desired, are the proposed conspiratorial events a rational method of bringing about such an outcome? That a proposed CT passes these tests is, of course, no guarantee that we are dealing here with a genuine conspiracy; but a failure to pass them is a significant indicator of an unwarranted CT.
4. A case-study of CT thinking—the assassination of President Kennedy
diagnostic indicators of poor critical thinking in place, I would now like to
apply them to a typical instance of CT (and, to my mind, unwarranted CT)
A complete classification of such CTs is not necessary here, but I ought perhaps to point to a philosophically interesting development in the case. As a result of public pressure resulting from the first wave of CT literature, a congressional committee was established in 1977 to investigate Kennedy’s assassination; it instituted a thorough examination of the available evidence and was on the verge of producing a report endorsing the Warren Commission’s conclusions when it discovered what was alleged to be a sound recording of the actual assassination. Almost solely on the basis of this evidence—which was subsequently discredited by a scientific panel put together by the Department of Justice—the Congressional committee decided that there had probably been a conspiracy, asserting on the basis of very little evidence that the Mafia was the most probable source of this conspiracy. What was significant about this congressional investigation was the effect its thorough investigation of the forensic and photographic evidence in the case had. Many of the alleged discrepancies in this evidence, which had formed the basis for the many calls to establish such an investigation, were shown to be erroneous. This did not lead to the refutation of CTs but rather to a new development: the balance of CT claims now went from arguing that there existed evidence supporting a conspiratorial explanation to arguing that all or most of the evidence supporting the lone-assassin hypothesis had been faked, a new level of epistemological complexity.
representative CT of this type was propounded in Oliver Stone’s hit 1992
Such a CT
scores highly on Keeley’s five characteristic
features of Unwarranted Conspiracy Theories outlined above. It runs counter to
the official explanation of the assassination, though it has now itself become
something of a popular orthodoxy, one apparently subscribed to by a majority of
the American population. The alleged intentions behind the conspiracy are
indeed nefarious, using the murder of a democratically-elected leader to
further the interests of a private cabal. And it does seem to seek to tie
together seemingly unrelated events. The most obvious of these is in terms of
the assassination’s alleged motive: it seeks to link the assassination with the
subsequent history of
But how do these Kennedy assassination CTs rate against my own list of what I regard as critical thinking weaknesses?
(A) An inability to weigh evidence properly. Here they score highly. Of particular importance is the inability to judge the reliability or lack thereof of eyewitness testimony, and an unwillingness or inability to discard evidence which does not fit.
On the first point, most Kennedy CTs place high reliance on the small number of people who claimed at the time (and the somewhat larger number who claim now—see point (B) below) that they heard more than three shots fired in Dealey Plaza or that they heard shots fired from some other location than the Book Depository, both claims that if true would rule out the possibility of Oswald’s acting alone. Since the overwhelming number of witnesses whose opinions have been registered did not hear more than three shots, and tended to locate the origin of these shots in the general direction of the Depository (which, in an acoustically misleadingly arena like Dealey Plaza is perhaps the best that could be hoped for), the economical explanation is to assume, unless further evidence arises, that the minority here are mistaken. Since the assassination was an unexpected, rapid and emotionally laden event—all key features for weakening the reliability of observation, according to the Principles of Appraising Observations in Norris & King (1983), it is only to be expected that there would be a significant portion of inconsistent testimony. The wonder here is that there is such a high degree of agreement over the basic facts.
We find a similar misuse of observational principles in conspiratorial interpretations of the subsequent murder of Police Officer Tippit, where the majority of witnesses who clearly identified Oswald as the killer are downplayed in favour of the minority of witnesses—some at a considerable distance and all considerably surprised by the events unfolding in front of them—who gave descriptions of the assailant which did not match Oswald. Experienced police officers are used to eye-witness testimony of sudden and dramatic events varying considerably and, like all researchers faced with a large body of evidence containing discrepancies, must discard some evidence as worthless. Since Oswald was tracked almost continuously from the scene of Tippit’s shooting to the site of his own arrest, and since forensic evidence linked the revolver found on Oswald to the shooting, the most economical explanation again is that the majority of witnesses were right in their identification of Oswald and the minority were mistaken.
This problem of being unable to discard errant data is central to the creation of CTs since, as Keeley says:
The role of errant data in UCTs is critical. The typical logic of a UCT goes something like this: begin with errant facts.... The official story all but ignores this data. What can explain the intransigence of the official story tellers in the face of this and other contravening evidence? Could they be so stupid and blind? Of course not; they must be intentionally ignoring it. The best explanation is some kind of conspiracy, an intentional attempt to hide the truth of the matter from the public eye. (Keeley 1999: 199)
Such a view in the Kennedy case ignores the fact that the overwhelming amount of errant data on which CTs have been constructed, far from being hidden, was openly published in the 26 volumes of Warren Commission evidence. This has led to accusations that it was ‘hidden in plain view’, but one can’t help feeling that a more efficient conspiracy would have suppressed such inconvenient data in the first place.
position that errant data is likely to be false, that eye-witness testimony and
memory is sometimes unreliable, that persisting pieces of physical evidence are
preferable, etc., in short that Occam’s Razor will
insist on cutting and throwing away some
of the data is constantly rejected in
Apart from the massive complication of such a plan—clearly going against my point (F)—and its medical implausibility, such a thesis actually reverses Occam’s Razor by creating more errant data than there was to start with. For if Kennedy was shot only from the front, we now need some explanation for why the great majority of over 400 witnesses at the scene believed that the shots were coming from behind him! And this challenge is one that is ducked by the great majority of CTs: if minority errant data is to be preferred as reliable, then we require some explanation for the presence of the majority data now being rejected.
But Lifton at least got one thing right. In accounting for the title of his book he writes:
The “best evidence” concept, impressed on all law students, is that when you seek to determine a fact from conflicting data, you must arrange the data according to a hierarchy of reliability. All data are not equal. Some evidence (e.g. physical evidence, or a scientific report) is more inherently error-free, and hence more reliable, than other evidence (e.g. an eye-witness account). The “best” evidence rules the conclusion, whatever volume of contrary evidence there may be in the lower categories.
Unfortunately Lifton takes this to mean that conspirators who were able to decide the nature of the autopsy evidence would thereby lay down a standard for judging or rejecting as incompatible the accompanying eye-witness testimony. But given the high degree of unanimity among eye-witnesses on this occasion, and given the existence of corroborating physical evidence (a rifle and cartridges forensically linked to the assassination were found in the Depository behind Kennedy, the registered owner of the rifle was a Depository employee, etc.), all that the alleged body-tampering could hope to achieve is make the overall body of evidence more suspicious because more contradictory. Only if the body of reliable evidence was more or less balanced between a conspiratorial and non-conspiratorial explanation could this difficulty be avoided. But it is surely over-estimating the powers, predictive and practical, of such a conspiracy that they could hope to guarantee this situation beforehand.
(B) An inability to assess evidence corruption and contamination. Though, as I note above, such contamination of eye-witness testimony may occur contemporaneously, it is a particular problem for the more long-standing CTs. In the Kennedy case, many witnesses of the assassination who at the time gave accounts broadly consistent with the explanation have subsequently amended or extended their accounts to include material that isn’t so consistent. Witnesses, for instance, who at the time located all the shots as coming from the Book Depository subsequently gave accounts in which they located shots from other directions, most notably the notorious ‘grassy knoll’, or later told of activity on the knoll which they never mentioned in their original statements. (Posner (1993) charts a number of these changes in testimony.)
What is interesting about many of these accounts is that mundane explanations for these changes—I later remembered that..., I forgot to mention that...—tend to be eschewed in favour of more conspiratorial explanations. Such witnesses may deny that the signed statements made at the time accurately reflect what they told the authorities, or may say that the person interviewing them wasn’t interested in writing down anything that didn’t cohere with the official explanation of the assassination, and so on. Such explanations face serious difficulties. For one thing, since many of these statements were taken on the day of the assassination or very shortly afterwards, it would have to be assumed that putative conspirators already knew which facts would cohere with an official explanation and which wouldn’t, which may imply an implausible degree of foreknowledge. A more serious problem is that these statements were taken by low-level members of the various investigatory bodies, police, FBI, Secret Service, etc.; to assert that such statements were manipulated by these people entails that they were members of the conspiracy. And this runs up against a practical problem for mounting conspiracies, that the more people who are in a conspiracy, the harder it is going to be to enforce security.
A more plausible explanation for these changes in testimony might be that witnesses who provided testimony broadly supportive of the official non-conspiratorial explanation subsequently came into contact with some of the enormous quantity of media coverage suggesting less orthodox explanations and, consciously or unconsciously, have adjusted their recollections accordingly. The likelihood of such things happening after a sufficiently thorough exposure to alternative explanations may underlie Norris & King’s principle II.1:
An observation statement tends to be believable to the extent that the observer was not exposed, after the event, to further information relevant to describing it. (If the observer was exposed to such information, the statement is believable to the extent that the exposure took place close to the time of the event described.)
Their parenthesised time principle clearly renders a good deal of more recent Kennedy eye-witness testimony dubious after three and a half decades of exposure to vast amounts of further information in the mass media, not helped by ‘assassination conferences’ where eye-witnesses have met and spoken with each other.
One outcome of these two points is that, in the unlikely event of some living person being seriously suspected of involvement in the assassination, a criminal trial would be rendered difficult if not impossible. Such are the published discrepancies now within and between witnesses’ testimonies that there would be enormous difficulties in attempting to render a plausibly consistent defence or prosecution narrative on their basis.
(C) Misuse or outright reversal of a principle of charity. Where an event may have either a suspicious or an innocent explanation, and there is no significant evidence to decide between them, CTs invariably opt for the suspicious explanation. In part this is due to a feature deriving from Keeley’s point (3) above, about CTs seeking to tie together seemingly unrelated events, but perhaps taken to a new level. Major CTs seek a maximally explanatory hypothesis, one which accounts for all of the events within its domain, and so they leave no room for the out of the ordinary event, the unlikely, the accident, which has no connection whatsoever with the conspiratorial events being hypothesised. The various Kennedy conspiracy narratives contain a large number of these events dragooned into action on the assumption that no odd event could have an innocent explanation. There is no better example of this than the Umbrella Man, a character whose forcible inclusion in conspiratorial explanations demonstrates well how a determined attempt to maintain this reversed principle of charity may lead to the most remarkable deformities of rational explanation.
When pictorial coverage of the assassination entered the public domain, in newspaper photographs within the next few days, and more prominently in still from the Zapruder movie film of the events subsequently published in LIFE magazine, it became clear that one of the closest bystanders to the presidential limousine was a man holding a raised umbrella, and this at a time when it was clearly not raining. This odd figure rapidly became the focus of a number of conspiratorial hypotheses. Perhaps the most extreme of these originates with Robert Cutler (1975). According to Cutler, the Umbrella Man had a weapon concealed with the umbrella enabling him to fire a dart or flechette, perhaps drugged, into the president’s neck, possibly for the purpose of immobilising him while the other assassins did their work. The only actual evidence to support this hypothesis is that the front of Kennedy’s neck did indeed possess a small punctate wound, described by the medical team treating him as probably a wound of entrance but clearly explainable in the light of the full body of forensic evidence as a wound of exit for a bullet fired from above and behind the presidential motorcade. Consistent, in other words, with being the work of Oswald.
There is no other supportive evidence for Cutler’s hypothesis. (Cutler, of course, explains this in terms of the conspirators being able to control the subsequent autopsy and so conceal any awkward evidence; he thus complies with my principle (G) below.) More importantly, it seems inherently unlikely on other grounds. Since the Umbrella Man was standing on the public sidewalk, right next to a number of ordinary members of the public and in plain view of hundreds of witnesses, many of whom would have been looking at him precisely because he was so close to the president, its seems unlikely that a conspiracy could guarantee that he could get away with his lethal behaviour without being noticed by someone. And the proposed explanation for all this rigmarole, the stunning of the target, is entirely unnecessary: most firearms experts agree that the president was a pretty easy target unstunned.
If Cutler’s explanation hasn’t found general favour with the conspiracy community, another has, but this too has equally strange effects upon reasoning clearly. The first version of this theory has the Umbrella Man signalling the presence of the target—movie-film of the assassination clearly shows that the raised umbrella is being waved or shaken. This hypothesis seems to indicate that the conspiracy had hired assassins who couldn’t be relied upon to recognise the President of the United States when they saw him seated in his presidential limousine—the one with the president’s flag on—next to the most recognisable first lady in American history.
more plausible hypothesis is that it is the Umbrella Man who gives the signal
for the team of assassins to open fire. (A version of this hypothesis can still
be seen as late as 1992 in the movie JFK.)
What I find remarkable here is that nobody seems to have thought this theory
through at all. Firstly, the Umbrella Man is clearly on the sidewalk a few feet
from the president while our alleged assassins are located high up in the Book
Depository, in neighbouring buildings, or on top of the grassy knoll way to the
front of the president. How, then, can he know what they can see from their
different positions? How can he tell
from his location that they now have
clear shots at the target? (
Oliver Stone eliminates some of these problems in the version he depicts in the movie JFK. Here each of his three snipers is accompanied by a spotter, equipped with walkie-talkie and binoculars. While the sniper focuses on the target, the spotter looks out for the signal from the Umbrella Man and then orally communicates the order to open fire. But now, given what I have already said about the problem with the Umbrella Man’s location, it is hard to see what purpose he serves that could not be better served by the spotters. He drops out of the equation. He is, as Wittgenstein says somewhere, a wheel that spins freely because it is not connected to the rest of the machinery. Occam’s Razor would cut him from the picture, but Occam is no firm favourite of UCT proponents.
In 1978, when
the House Select Committee on Assassinations held public hearings on the
Kennedy case, a Mr. Louis de Witt came forward to confess to being the Umbrella
Man. He claimed that he came to
Needless to say, conspiracy theorists did not accept de Witt’s testimony at face value. Some argued that he was a stooge put forward by the authorities to head off investigation into the real Umbrella Man, others that de Witt himself must be lying to conceal a more sinister role in these events, though I know of no evidence to support either of these conclusions. What this story makes clear is that an unwillingness to abandon discrepant events as unrelated, an unwillingness to abandon this reverse principle of charity here whereby all such events are conspiratorial unless clearly proven otherwise, rapidly leads to remarkable mental gymnastics, to hypotheses that are excessively complex and even internally inconsistent, (The Umbrella Man as signaller makes the assassination harder to perform.) But, such are the ways of human psychology, once such an event has been firmly embedded within a sufficiently complex hypothesis, no amount of contradictory evidence would seem to be able to shift it. The Umbrella Man has by now been invested with such importance as to become one of the great myths of the assassination, against which mere evidentiary matters can have no effect.
(D) The demonisation of persons and organisations. This weakness takes a number of forms in the Kennedy case, which I shall treat separately.
(i) Guilt by reputation. The move from the fact that some body—the FBI, the CIA, the mafia, the KGB—has a proven record of wrong-doing in the past to the claim that they were capable of wrong-doing in the present case doesn’t seem unreasonable. But the stronger claim that past wrong-doing is in some sense evidence for present guilt is much more problematic, particularly when differences between the situations are overlooked. This is especially true of the role of the CIA in Kennedy CTs.
(ii) Guilt by association. This takes the form of impeaching the credibility of any member of a guilty organisation. Since both the FBI and the CIA (not to mention, of course, the KGB or the mafia) had proven track records of serious misbehaviour in this period, it is assumed that all members of these organisations, and all their activities, are equally guilty. Thus the testimony of an FBI agent can be impeached solely on the grounds that he is an FBI agent, any activity of the CIA can be characterised as nefarious solely because it is being carried out by the CIA. Such a position ignores the fact that such organisations have many thousands of employees and carry out a wide range of mundane duties. It is perfectly possible for a member of such an organisation to be an honest and patriotic citizen whose testimony is as believable as anyone else’s. Indeed, given my previous point that for security reasons the smaller the conspiratorial team the more likely it is to be successful, it would seem likely that the great majority of members of such organisations would be innocent of any involvement in such a plot. (I would hazard a guess that the same holds true of the KGB and the mafia, both organisations with a strong interest in security.)
(iii) Exaggerating the power and nature of
organisations. Repeatedly in such CTs we find the
assumption that organisations like the CIA or the mafia are all-powerful,
all-pervasive. capable of extraordinary foreknowledge and planning. This
assumption has difficulty in explaining the many recorded instances of
inefficiency or lack of knowledge that these organisations constantly demonstrate.
(There is a remarkable belief in conspiratorial circles, combining political
and paranormal conspiracies, that the CIA has or had access to a circle of
so-called ‘remote viewers’, people with extra-sensory powers who were able
through paranormal means to provide them with information about the activities
(iv) Demonising individuals. As with
organisations, so with people. Once plausible candidates for roles in an
assassination conspiracy are identified, they are granted remarkable powers and
properties, their wickedness clearly magnified. In Kennedy CTs
there is no better example of this than Meyer Lansky, the mafia’s ‘financial
wizard’. Lansky was a close associate of
So much is
agreed. But Lansky in CT writing looms ever larger, as a man of remarkable
power and influence, ever ready to use it for malign purposes, a vast and evil
spider at the centre of an enormous international web, maintaining his
influence with the aid of the huge sums of money which organised crime was
reaping from its empire. Thus there is
no nefarious deed concerning the assassination or its cover-up with which
Lansky cannot be linked. This picture wasn’t dented in the least by Robert
Lacey’s detailed biography of Lansky published in 1991. Lacey, drawing upon a
considerable body of publicly available evidence—not least the substantial body
generated by Lansky’s lawsuit to enable him, as a Jew, to emigrate to
The 1990s saw the publication of a remarkable amount of material about the workings of American organised crime, much of it gleaned from FBI and police surveillance during the successful campaign to imprison most of its leaders. This material reveals that mafia bosses tend to be characterised by a very limited vocabulary, a remarkable propensity for brutality and a considerable professional cunning often mixed with truly breath-taking stupidity. That they could organise a large-scale assassination conspiracy, and keep quiet about it for more than thirty-five years, seemed even less likely. As I point out below, they would almost certainly not have wanted to.
(E) The canonisation of persons or (more rarely) organisations. In the Kennedy case, this has taken the form of idealising the President himself. In order to make a conspiratorial hypothesis look more plausible under (F) below, it is necessary to make the victim look as much as possible like a significant threat to the interests of the putative conspirators. In this case, Kennedy is depicted as a liberal politician, one who was a threat to established economic interests, one who took a lead in the contemporary campaign to end institutionalised discrimination against black people, and, perhaps most importantly, one who was or became something of a foreign policy dove, supporting less confrontational policies in the Cold War to the extent of being prepared to terminate US involvement in South Vietnam.
This canonisation initially derives from the period immediately after the assassination, a period marked by the emergence of a number of works about the Kennedy administration from White House insiders like Theodore Sorensen, Pierre Salinger and the Camelot house historian, Arthur Schlesinger, works which tended to confirm the idealisation of the recently dead president, particularly when implicitly compared with the difficulties faced by the increasingly unpopular Lyndon Johnson.
From the mid
1970s Kennedy’s personal character came under considerable criticism, partly
resulting from the publication of biographies covering his marriage and sexual
life, and the personal lives of the Kennedy family. More importantly, for our purposes, were the
stream of revelations which emerged from the congressional investigations of
this time which indicated the depth of feeling in the Kennedy White House about
The changing climate of the 1980s brought a new range of biographies and memoirs—Reeves, Parmet, Wofford, etc.—which situated Kennedy more firmly in the political mainstream. It became that he was not by any means an economic or social liberal—on the question of racial segregation he had to be pushed a lot since he tended to regard the activities of Martin Luther King and others as obstructing his more important social policies. And Kennedy adopted a much more orthodox stance on the cold war than many had allowed: this was, after all, the candidate who got himself elected in 1960 by managing in the famous ‘missile gap’ affair to appear tougher on communism than Richard Nixon, no mean feat. Famously, Kennedy adopted a more moderate policy during the Cuban missile crisis than some of those recommended by his military advisers, but this can be explained more in terms of Kennedy having a better grasp of the pragmatics of the situation than in terms of his being a foreign policy liberal of some sort.
characterisation of Kennedy, this firm re-situating of his administration
within the central mainstream of American politics—a mainstream which appears
considerably to the right in European terms—has been broadly rejected by
proponents of Kennedy assassination CTs (some of whom
also reject the critical characterisation of his personal life). The reason for
this is that it plainly undercuts any motivation for some part of the American
political establishment to have Kennedy removed. It is unlikely that any of
Kennedy’s reforming policies, economic or social, could seriously have been
considered such a threat to establishment interests. It is even more unlikely
when one considers that much of Kennedy’s legislative programme was seriously
bogged down in Congress and was unlikely to be passed in anything but a heavily
watered-down form during his term. Much of this legislation was forced through
after the assassination by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson being a much
more astute and experienced parliamentarian. The price for this social reform,
though, was Johnson’s continued adherence to the verities of cold war foreign
(F) An inability to make rational or proportional means-end judgements. The major problem here for any Kennedy assassination CT is to come up with a motive. Such a motive must not only be of major importance to putative conspirators, it must also rationally justify a risky, expensive—and often astonishingly complicated—illegal conspiracy. Which is to say that such conspirators must see the assassination as the only or best way of bringing about their aim. The alleged motives can be broadly divided into two categories.
Firstly, revenge. Kennedy was assassinated in revenge for the humiliation he inflicted upon Premier Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis, or for plotting the assassination of Fidel Castro, or for double-crossing organised crime over alleged agreements made during his election campaign. The problem with each of these explanations is that the penalties likely to be suffered if one is detected far outweigh any rational benefits. Had Castro’s hand been detected behind the assassination—something which Johnson apparently thought all too likely—this would inevitably have swung American public opinion behind a US military invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro’s rule. If Khrushchev has been identified as the ultimate source of the assassination, the international crisis would have been even worse, and could well have edged the world considerably closer towards nuclear war than happened in the Cuban missile crisis. One can only make sense of such explanations on the basis of an assumption that the key conspirators are seriously irrational in this respect, and this is an assumption that we should not make without some clear evidence to support it.
The second category of explanations for the assassination are instrumental: Kennedy was assassinated in order to further some specific policy or to prevent him from furthering some policy which the conspirators found anathema. Here candidates include: to protect Texas oil-barons’ economic interests, to frustrate the Kennedy administration’s judicial assault upon organised crime, to bring about a more anti-Castro presidency, and—the one that plays the strongest role in contemporary Kennedy CTs such as Oliver Stone’s—to prevent an American withdrawal from Vietnam.
A proper response to the suggestion of any of these as a rational motive for the assassination should be to embark upon a brief cost-benefit analysis. We have to factor in not only the actual costs of organising such a conspiracy (and, in the case of the more extreme Kennedy CTs, of maintaining it for several decades afterwards to engage in what has been by any standards a pretty inefficient cover-up) but also the potential costs to be faced if the conspiracy is discovered, the assassination fails, etc.. Criminals by and large tend to be rather poor at estimating their chances of being caught; murder and armed robbery have very high clear-up rates compared to, say, burglary of unoccupied premises. The continued existence of professional armed robbers would seem to indicate that they underestimate their chances of being caught or don’t fully appreciate the comparative benefits of other lines of criminal activity.
But though assassination conspirators are by definition criminals, we are to assume here that they are figures in the establishment, professional men in the intelligence, military and political communities, and so likely to be more rational in their outlook than ordinary street criminals. (Though this is a defeasible assumption, since the post-war history of western intelligence agencies has indicated a degree of internal paranoia sometimes bordering on the insane. A substantial part of British intelligence, for instance, spent almost two decades trying to prove that the then head of MI5 was a Soviet agent, a claim that appears to have no credibility at all.) If we assume that the Mafia played such a role in an assassination conspiracy, it is still plausible to believe that they would consider the risks of failure. In fact, we have some evidence to support this belief since, though organised crime is by and large a very brutal institution, in the US—as opposed to the very different conditions prevailing in Italy—it maintains a policy of not attacking dangerous judges or politicians. When in the 1940s senior Mafia boss Albert Anastasia proposed murdering Thomas Dewey, then a highly effective anti-crime prosecutor in New York and subsequently a republican presidential candidate in 1948, the response was to have Anastasia murdered rather than risk the troubles that Dewey’s assassination would have brought down upon the heads of organised crime. An even more effective prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, remained unscathed throughout his career.
risks of being caught, we have to balance the costs of trying to achieve one’s
goal by some other less dramatic and probably more legal path. The plain fact
is that there are a large number of legal and effective ways of changing a
president’s mind or moderating his behaviour. One can organise public
campaigns, plant stories in the press, stimulate critical debate in congress,
assess or manipulate public opinion through polls etc. When the health care
industry in the
specific case of American withdrawal from
appears unlikely that Kennedy would have seriously considered withdrawing
opponents could work to change Kennedy’s mind. They could do this by
controlling the information available for Kennedy and his advisers. In
particular, military sources could manipulate the information flowing from
At bottom what we face here is what we might term Goodenough’s Paradox of Conspiracies: the larger or more powerful an alleged conspiracy, the less need they have for conspiring. A sufficiently large collection of members of the American political, intelligence and military establishment—the kind of conspiracy being alleged by Oliver Stone et al.—wouldn’t need to engage in such nefarious activity since they would have the kind of organisation, influence, access to information, etc. that could enable them to achieve their goal efficiently and legally. The inability noted in (F) to make adequate means-end decisions means that UCT proponents fail to grasp the force of this paradox.
(G) Evidence against a UCT is always evidence for. The tendency of modern CTs has been to move from conspiracies which try to keep their nefarious activities secret to more pro-active conspiracies which go to a good deal of trouble to manufacture evidence either that there was a different conspiracy or that there was no conspiracy at all. This is especially true of Kennedy assassination CTs.
The epistemological attitude of Kennedy CTs has changed notably over the years. In the period 1964-76 the central claim of such theories was that the evidence collected by the Warren Commission and made public, when fairly assessed, did not support the official lone assassin hypothesis but indicated the presence of two or more assassins and therefore a conspiracy. Public pressure in the aftermath of Watergate brought about a congressional investigation of the case. In its 1980 report the House Select Committee eventually decided, almost solely on the basis of subsequently discredited acoustic evidence, that there had indeed been a conspiracy. But more importantly, the committee’s independent panels of experts re-examined the key evidence, photographic, forensic and ballistic, and decided that it supported the Warren Commission’s conclusion.
This led to a sea-change in CTs from 1980 onwards. Given the preponderance of independently verified ‘best evidence’ supporting the lone assassin hypothesis, CT proponents began to argue that some or all of this evidence had been faked. This inevitably entailed a much larger conspiracy than had previously been hypothesised, one that not only assassinated the president but also was able to gain access to the evidence of the case afterwards in order to change it, suppress it or manufacture false evidence. They thus fell foul of (F) above. Since the reason for such CTs was often to produce a hypothesis supported by much weaker evidence, eye-witness testimony and so on, they would tend to fall foul of (A), (B) and (C) as well.
One problem with such CTs was that they tended to disagree with one another over which evidence had been faked. Thus many theorists argued that the photographic and X-ray record of the presidential post mortem had been tampered with to conceal evidence of conspiracy, while Lifton (1980) as we saw argued that the record was genuine but the body itself had been tampered with. Other theorists, e.g. Fetzer & co., argue that the X-rays indicate a conspiracy while the photographs do not, implying that the photographs have been tampered with. This latter, widespread belief introduces a new contradiction into the case, since it posits a conspiracy of tremendous power and organisation, able to gain access to the most important evidence of the case, yet one which is careless or stupid enough not to make sure that the evidence it leaves behind is fully consistent. (And, of course, it goes against the verdict of the House Committee’s independent panel of distinguished forensic scientists and radiographers that the record of the autopsy was genuine, and consistent, both internally and with the hypothesis that Oswald alone was the assassin.)
Of particular interest here is the Zapruder movie film of the assassination. Stills from this film were originally published, in the Warren Report and in the press, to support the official lone assassin hypothesis. When a bootleg copy of this film surfaced in the mid 1970s it was taken as significant evidence against the official version and most CTs since then have relied upon one interpretation or another of this film for support. But now that it is clear, especially since better copies of the film are now available, that the wounds Kennedy suffers in the film do not match those hypothesised by those CT proponents arguing for the falsity of the autopsy evidence, some of these proponents now claim to detect signs that the Zapruder film itself has been faked, and there has been much discussion about the chain of possession of this film in the days immediately after the assassination to see if there is any possibility of its being in the hands of someone who could have tampered with it.
What is happening here is that epistemologically these CTs are devouring their own tails. If the evidence that was originally regarded as foundational for proving the existence of a conspiracy is now itself impeached, then this ought to undermine the original conspiracy case. If no single piece of evidence in the case can be relied upon then we have no reason for believing anything at all, and the abyss of total scepticism yawns.
Interestingly there seems to be a complete lack of what I termed above ‘meta-evidence’, that is, actual evidence that any of this evidence has been faked. Reasons for believing in this forgery hypothesis tend to fall into one of three groups. (i) It is claimed that some sign of forgery can be detected in the evidence itself. Since much of this evidence consists of poor quality film and photographs taken at the assassination scene, these have turned into blurred Rorschach tests where just about anything can be seen if one squints long and hard enough. In the case of the autopsy X-rays, claims of apparent fakery tend to be made by people untrained in radiography and the specialised medical skill of reading such X-rays. (ii) Forgery is hypothesised to explain some alleged discrepancy between two pieces of evidence. Thus when differences are alleged to exist between the autopsy photographs and the X-rays it is alleged that one or other (or both) have been tampered with. (iii) Forgery is hypothesised in order to explain away evidence that is clearly inconsistent with the proposed conspiracy hypothesis.
An interesting case of the latter involves the so-called ‘backyard photos’, photographs supposedly depicting Oswald standing in the yard of his house and posing with his rifle, pistol and various pieces of left-wing literature. For Oswald himself was confronted with these by police officers after his arrest and claimed then that they had been faked—he had had some employment experience in the photographic trade and claimed to know how easily such pictures could be faked. And ever since then CT proponents have made the same claims.
But one problem with such claims is that evidence seldom exists in a vacuum, but is interconnected with other evidence. Thus we have the sworn testimony of Oswald’s wife that she took the photographs, the evidence of independent photographic experts that the pictures were taken with Oswald’s camera, documentary evidence in his own handwriting that Oswald ordered the rifle in the photos and was the sole hirer of the PO box to which it was delivered, eyewitness evidence that Oswald possessed such a rifle and that one of these photos had been seen prior to the assassination, and so on. To achieve any kind of consistency with the forgery hypothesis all of this evidence must itself be faked or perjured. Thus the forgery hypothesis inevitably ends up impeaching the credibility of such a range of evidence that a conspiracy of enormous proportions and efficiency is entailed, a conspiracy which runs into the problems raised in (F) above. These problems are so severe that the forgery hypothesis must be untenable without the existence of some credible meta-evidence, some proof that acts of forgery took place. Without such meta-evidence, all we have is an unjustifiable attempt to convert evidence against a conspiracy into evidence for merely on the grounds that the evidence doesn’t fit the proposed CT, which is an example of (A) too.
(H) The fallacy of the spider’s web. This form of reasoning has been
central to many of the conspiratorial works about the JFK assassination:
indeed, Duffy (1988) is entitled The Web!
Scott (1977) was perhaps the first full-length work in this tradition. It
concentrates on drawing links between Oswald and the people he came into
contact with, and the murky worlds of US intelligence, anti-Castro Cuban groups
and organised crime, eventually linking in this fashion the world of Dealey Plaza with that of the Watergate building and the
various secret activities of the Nixon administration. Such a project is indeed
an interesting one, one which enlightens us considerably about the world of
what Scott terms ‘parapolitics’. It is made
especially easy by the fact that Oswald in his short life had at least
tangential connections with a whole range of suspicious organisations,
including the CIA, the KGB, pro- and anti-Castro Cuban groups, the US Communist
Party and other leftist organisations, organised crime figures in
As I say, such research is intrinsically interesting, but the fallacy occurs when it is used in support of a conspiracy theory. For all that it generates is suspicion, not evidence. That Oswald knew X or Y is evidence only that he might have had an opportunity to conspire with them, and doesn’t support the proposition that he did. The claim is even weaker for people that Oswald only knew at second or third or fourth hand. And some of these connections are much less impressive than authors claim: that Oswald knew people who ultimately knew Meyer Lansky becomes much less interesting when, as I noted in (D) above, Lansky is seen as much more minor figure than the almost omnipotent organised crime kingpin he is often depicted as.
Ultimately this fallacy depends upon a kind of confusion between quantity and quality, one that seems to believe that a sufficient quantity of suspicion inevitably metamorphoses into something like evidence. There is, as the old saying has it, no smoke without fire, and surely such an inordinate quantity of smoke could only have been produced by a fire of some magnitude. But thirty years of research haven’t found much in the way of fire, only more smoke. Some of the more outrageous CTs here have been discredited—inasmuch as such CTs can ever be discredited—and the opening of KGB archives in recent years and access to living KGB personnel has shown that Oswald’s contacts with that organisation were almost certainly innocent. Not only is there no evidence that Oswald ever worked for the KGB, but those KGB officers who monitored Oswald closely during his two year stay in the USSR were almost unanimously of the opinion that he was too unbalanced to be an employee of any intelligence organisation.
But a problem with suspicion is that it cannot be easily dispelled. Since web-reasoning never makes clear exactly what the nature of Oswald’s relationship with his various contacts was, it is that much harder to establish the claim that they were innocent. Ultimately, this can only be done negatively, by demonstrating the sheer unlikeliness of Oswald being able to conspire with anyone. The ample evidence of the sheer contingency of Oswald’s presence in the book depository on the day of the assassination argues strongly against his being part of a conspiracy to kill the president. Whether in fact he was a part of some other conspiracy, as some authors have argued, is an interesting question but one not directly relevant to assassination CTs.
(I) The classic logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter
hoc. This applies to all those assassination CTs
which seek to establish some motive for Kennedy’s death from some alleged events
occurring afterwards. The most dramatic of these, as featured in Oliver Stone’s
film, is the argument from
desire for a justification of a view of
this reasoning, then, is an emotional attachment to a view of
The accusation is often made that conspiracy theorists, particularly of the more extreme sort, are crazy, or immature, or ignorant. This response to UCTs may be at least partly true but does not make clear how CT thinking is going astray. What I have tried to show is how various weaknesses in arguing, assessing evidence, etc. interact to produce not just CTs but unwarranted CTs. A conspiratorial explanation can be the most reasonable explanation of a set of facts, but where we can identify the kinds of critical thinking problems I have outlined here, a CT becomes increasingly unwarranted.
Apart from these matters logical and epistemological, it seems to me that there is also an interesting psychological component to the generation of UCTs. Human beings possess an innate pattern-seeking mechanism, imposing order and explanation upon the data presented to us. But this mechanism can be too sensitive and we start to see patterns where there are none, leading to a refusal to recognise the sheer amount of contingency and randomness in the world. Perhaps, as Keeley says, “the problem is a psychological one of not recognizing when to stop searching for hidden causes”. Seeing meaning where there is none leads to seeing evidence where there is none: a combination of evidential faults reinforces the view that our original story, our originally perceived pattern, is correct—a pernicious feedback loop which reinforces the belief of the UCT proponent in their own theory. And here criticism cannot help, for the criticism—and indeed the critic—become part of the pattern, part of the problem, part, indeed, of the conspiracy.
Conspiracy theories are valuable, like any other type of theory, for there are indeed conspiracies. We want to find a way to preserve all that is useful in the CT as a way of explaining the world while avoiding the UCT which at worst slides into paranoid nonsense. I agree with Keeley that there can be no exact dotted line along which Occam’s Razor can be drawn here. Instead, we require a greater knowledge of the thinking processes which underlie CTs and the way in which they can offend against good standards of critical thinking. There is no way to defeat UCTs; the more entrenched they are, the more resistance to disproof they become. Like some malign virus of thinking, they possess the ability to turn their enemies’ powers against them, making any supposedly neutral criticism of the CT itself part of the conspiracy. It is this sheer irrefutability that no doubted irritated Popper so much.
If we cannot defeat UCTs through refutation then perhaps the best we can do is inoculate against them by a better development of critical thinking skills. These ought not to be developed in isolation—it is a worrying feature of this field that many otherwise critical thinkers become prone to conspiracy theorising when they move outside of their own speciality—but developed as an essential prerequisite for doing well in any field of intellectual endeavour. Keeley concludes that
there is nothing straightforwardly analytic that allows us to distinguish between good and bad conspiracy theories... The best we can do is track the evaluation of given theories over time and come to some consensus as to when belief in the theory entails more scepticism than we can stomach.
Discovering whether or to what extent a particular CT adheres to reasonable standards of critical thinking practice gives us a better measure of its likely acceptability than mere gastric response, while offering the possibility of being able to educate at least some people against their appeal, as potential consumers or creators of unwarranted conspiracy theories.
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Popper, Karl (1945) The Open Society and its Enemies, 5th ed. 1966, London, Routledge.
Posner, Gerald (1993) Case Closed, N.Y.: Random House
Scheim, David E. (1983) Contract On America, Silver Spring, Maryland: Argyle Press
Scott, Peter Dale (1977) Crime and Cover-Up, Berkeley, Cal: Westworks
Stone, Jim (1991) Conspiracy of One , Fort Worth TX: Summit Group
Stone, Oliver & Sklar, Zachary (1992) JFK - The Movie, New York: Applause Books.
Josiah (1967) Six Seconds in
Robert Anton (1989) ‘Beyond True and False’, in Schultz, T. (ed.) The Fringes of Reason,
 And this even though professional philosophers may themselves engage in conspiracy theorising! See, for instance, Popkin (1966), Thompson (1966) or Fetzer (1998) for examples of philosophers writing in support of conspiracy theories concerning the JFK assassination.
 See Donovan 1964 for more on this.
 Historians, it seems, still disagree about whether or to what extent Princips’ group was being manipulated.
 And the most extreme UCT I know manages to combine this with both ufology and satanism CTs, in David Icke’s ultimate paranoid fantasy which explains every significant event of the last two millennia in terms of the sinister activities of historical figures who share the blood-line of reptilian aliens who manipulate us for their purposes, using Jews, freemasons, etc. as their fronts. Those interested in Mr. Icke’s more specific allegations (which I omit here at least partly out of a healthy regard for Britain’s libel laws) are directed to his website, http://www.davidicke.com/.
 See Norris & King 1983 & 1984 for full details of and support for these principles.
 I don’t propose to argue for my position here. Interested readers are pointed in the direction of Posner (1994), a thorough if somewhat contentious anti-conspiratorial work whose fame has perhaps eclipsed the less dogmatic but equally anti-conspiratorial Stone (1990).
 One of the first of which, from the charmingly palindromic Revilo P. Oliver, is cited by Hofstadter. Oliver, a member of the John Birch Society, which had excoriated Kennedy as a tool of the Communists throughout his presidency, asserted that it was international Communism which had murdered Kennedy in order to make way for a more efficient tool! Right-wind theories blaming either Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev continued at least into the 1980s: see, for instance, Eddowes (1977).
 And probably not possible! The sheer complexity of the assassination CT community and the number of different permutations of alleged assassins has frown enormously, especially over the last twenty years. In particular, the number of avowedly political CTs is hard to determine since they fade into other areas of CT, in particular those dealing with the influence of organised crime and those dealing with an alleged UFO cover-up, not to mention those even more extreme CTs which link the assassination to broader conspiracies of international freemasonry etc..
 See not only the movie but also Stone & Sklar (1992), a heavily annotated version of the film’s script which also includes a good deal of the published debate about the film, for and against.
 Lifton 1980: 132
 Norris & King (1983), quoted in Fisher & Scriven (1997).
 For a remarkable instance of the exaggeration of the power of organised crime in the US and its alleged role in Kennedy’s death see Scheim (1983) or, perhaps more worryingly, Blakey & Billings (1981). I say ‘more worryingly’ because Blakey was Chief Counsel for the congressional investigation into Kennedy’s death which reported in 1980 and so presumably is heavily responsible for the direction that investigation took.
 This view of Lansky is widespread throughout the Kennedy literature. See, for instance, Peter Dale Scott’s short (1977) which goes into Lansky’s alleged connections in great detail.
 From “(Dis)Solving the Kennedy Assassination”, presented to the Conspiracy Culture Conference at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, in July 1998.
 Keeley 1999: 126
 Anyone who doubts this should try to argue for Oswald as lone assassin on an internet discussion group! It is not just that one is regarded as wrong or naive or ignorant. One soon becomes accused of sinister motives, of being a witting or unwitting agent of the on-going disinformation exercise to conceal the truth. (I understand that much the same is true of discussions in ufology fora.)
 Keeley 1999: 126