[Paleopsych] Jerry Goodenough: Critical Thinking about Conspiracy Theories

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Jerry Goodenough: Critical Thinking about Conspiracy Theories

[This is a very good analysis, esp. when it comes to noting that many, many 
conspiracies posit too many conspirators. As far as the specific analysis of 
the Kennedy assassination goes, the author makes a very good point about the 
Mafia being incompetent. I'll send along in a moment excerpts from a new 
book, "Ultimate Sacrifice," that makes a new case that the Mafia did in fact 
orchestrate the assassination. According to the book, the Mafia got wind of 
a CIA plot to murder Castro and threatened to reveal it, thereby causing an 
international crisis. The Warren Commission, accordingly covered things up, 
a cover-up which continues.

[Still, the charge of incompetence remains. I reinsert my own theory that 
the assassination was an assisted suicide. JFK knew he had not long to live 
but did not want to go down in history like Millard Fillmore, whose only 
achievement was to not install a bath tub in the White House. Just being 
assassinated would not be enough, so he got the conspirators to leave enough 
bogus and inconsistent evidence that researchers would never stop spinning 
theories, all of them imperfect for failure to reconcile the evidence.

[The Enlightenment died in six seconds on the Dealey Plaza.]

Jerry Goodenough is Professor of Philosophy at the University of
East Anglia, Norwich, UK

1. Introduction

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.[1] 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?[2]  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?

2. Definitions

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
Sarajevo in 1914. There was plainly a conspiracy to bring this
about: some minutes before Gavril Princips shot the archduke, a
co-conspirator was arrested after throwing a bomb (which failed to
explode) at the archduke's car. Princips and his fellow students
were Serbian nationalists, acting together to demonstrate against
the presence of Habsburg influence in the Balkans. But there
remains the possibility that they had been infiltrated and
manipulated by Yugoslav intelligence elements seeking to provoke a
crisis against Austro-Hungary. And there are more extreme claims
that the ultimate manipulators here were agents of a world-wide
conspiracy, of international Jewry or freemasonry seeking to bring
about war. We are fully warranted in adopting the first
conspiratorial explanation, but perhaps only partially warranted in
thinking there is anything in the second claim[3], while the
extreme claims seem to me to be as unwarranted as anything could

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.

A greater 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 Britain with no great tradition of governmental
openness than in many other democracies. What is clearly lacking
here is some additional feature, that the conspirators be acting
against the law or against the public interest, or both. This
doesn't entirely free government from accusations of
conspiracy--does a secret cabinet decision to upgrade a country's
nuclear armaments which appears prima facie within the bounds of
the law of that country but may breach international laws and
agreements count? Is it lawful? In the public interest?

A further 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 that the US government (and others)
has acted to conceal the existence on earth of extra-terrestrial
creatures, crashed flying saucers at Roswell, and so on. It doesn't
seem obvious that governments would be acting illegally in this
case--national security legislation is often open to very wide
interpretation--and it could be argued that they are acting in the
public interest, to avoid panic and so on. (Unless, of course, as
some ufologists seem to believe, the government is conspiring with
the aliens in order to organise the slavery of the human race!) So
we have here what would appear to be a conspiracy theory, and one
which has some of the features of Keeley's UCTs, but which is
excluded by the illegality constraint. Perhaps the best we can do
here is to assert that conspiracy theories are necessarily somewhat
vague in this regard; I'll return to this point later.

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 for Britain's military success in the Second
World War was made in terms of superior generalship, better troops,
occasional good luck, and so on. The revelation in the 1970s of the
successful Enigma programme to break German service codes
necessitated wholesale revision of military histories of this
period. This was an entirely beneficial outcome, but others were
more dubious. The growth of nuclear power in Britain in the 1950s
was officially explained in terms of the benefit of cheaper and
less polluting sources of electricity. It was only much later that
it became clear that these claims were exaggerated and that the
true motivation for the construction of these reactors was to
provide fissile material for Britain's independent nuclear weapons.
Whether such behaviour was either legal or in the public interest
is an interesting thought.

   (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.[4] 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

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 Hollywood movies.

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.[5] 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

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 Europe's Jews are fake. As Robert Anton Wilson (1989:
172) says, `a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths
can deceive us about anything, and that it takes a great leap of
faith for Holocaust Revisionists to believe that World War II
happened at all.' Quite so. What is needed here is that I might
term meta-evidence, evidence about the evidence. My claim would be
that the only way to keep Occam's Razor shiny here is to insist on
two different levels of critical analysis of evidence. Evidence may
be rejected if it doesn't fit a plausible hypothesis--this is what
everyone must do in cases where there is apparently contradictory
evidence, and there can be no prima facie guidelines for rejection
here apart from overall epistemological economy. But evidence may
only be impeached--accused of being deliberately faked, forged,
coerced, etc.--if we have further evidence of this forgery: that a
piece of evidence does not fit our present hypothesis is not by
itself any warrant for believing that the evidence is fake.

   (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. (Austria plainly had an interest in shoring up its
authority in the Balkans but not, given its many structural
weaknesses, in engaging in a long and destructive war. The outcome,
which anyone might have predicted as likely, was the economic ruin
and subsequent political dissolution of the entire Austro-Hungarian

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

With these 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) thinking.[6] On 22 November, 1963
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Two
days later, the man accused of his murder, Lee Harvey Oswald, was
himself murdered in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters.
These two events (and perhaps particularly the second, coming as it
did so rapidly after the first) led to a number of accusations that
Kennedy's death had been the result of a conspiracy of which Oswald
may or not have been a part. Books propounding such theories
emerged even before the Warren Commission issued its report on the
assassination in August 1964. Writing at this time in his essay
`The Paranoid Style in American Politics' the political scientist
Richard Hofstadter could say; "Conspiratorial explanations of
Kennedy's assassination have a far wider currency in Europe than
they do in the United States." (Hofstadter 1964: 9) Hofstadter's
view of the American paranoid style was one of small cults of a
right-wing or racist or anti-Catholic or anti-Freemason bent whose
descendants are still to be found in the Ku Klux Klan, the John
Birch Society, the Michigan Militia, etc.. But within a couple of
years of the emergence of the Warren Report and, more importantly,
its 26 volumes of evidence, a new style of conspiratorial thinking
emerged. While some right-wing conspiratorial theories remained[7],
the bulk of the conspiracy theories propounded to explain the
assassination adopted a position from the left of centre, accusing
or assuming that some conspiracy of right-wing elements and/or some
part of the US Government itself had been responsible for the

A complete classification of such CTs is not necessary here[8], 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.

A representative CT of this type was propounded in Oliver Stone's
hit 1992 Hollywood film JFK .[9] It asserts that a coalition of
interests within the US governmental structure, including senior
members of the armed forces, FBI, CIA, Secret Service and various
Texas law-enforcement agencies, together with the assistance of
members of organised crime, conspired to arrange the assassination
of President Kennedy and the subsequent framing of an unwitting or
entirely innocent Oswald for the crime. Motives for the
assassination vary but most such CTs now agree on such motives as
(a) preventing Kennedy after his supposed re-election from
reversing US involvement in Vietnam, (b) protecting right-wing
industrial interests, especially Texan oil interests, from what
were regarded as possible depredations by the Kennedy
administration, (c) instigating another and more successful US
invasion of Cuba, and (d) halting the judicial assault waged by the
Kennedy administration under Attorney General Robert Kennedy
against the interests of organised crime.

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 America's involvement
in Vietnam. But a number of other connections are made at other
levels of explanation. For instance, the deaths of various people
connected in one way or another with the assassination are linked
together as being in some way related to the continuing cover-up by
the conspirators. Keeley's fourth claim, that the truth behind an
event being explained by a UCT be a typically well-guarded secret
is, as I pointed out above, much harder to justify now in a climate
where most people apparently believe in the existence of such a
conspiracy. But Keeley's fifth claim, that the chief tool here is
errant data, remains true. The vast body of published evidence on
the assassination has been picked over with remarkable care for
signs of discrepancy and contradiction, signs which are regarded as
providing the strongest evidence for such a conspiracy. What now
seems to me to be an interesting development in these more paranoid
UCTs, as I mention above, is the extent to which unerrant data is
now regarded as a major feature of such conspiracy theories.

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

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

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:

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.

The standard 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 Kennedy CT literature.
Perhaps the most extravagant example of this, amounting almost to a
Hegelian synthesis of assassination conspiracy theories, is Lifton
(1980). Seeking to reconcile the major body of testimony that
Kennedy was shot from behind with a small body of errant data that
he possessed a wound in the front of his body, the author dedicates
over 600 pages to the construction of the most baroque conspiracy
theory imaginable. In Lifton's thesis, Kennedy was shot solely from
the front, and then the conspirators gained access to his body
during its journey back to Washington and were able to doctor it so
that at the subsequent post mortem examination it showed signs of
being shot only from the rear. Thus the official medical finding
that Kennedy was only shot from the rear can be reconciled with the
general CT belief that he was shot from the front (too) in a theory
that seems to show that everybody is right.

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.[10]

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

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

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

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.

An apparently 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? (Dealey Plaza is full
of trees, road signs and other obstructions, not to mention large
numbers of police officers and members of the public who might be
expected to get in the way of a clear view here.) And secondly,
such an explanation actually weakens the efficiency of the alleged
assassination conspiracy. (Here my limited boyhood experience of
firing an air-rifle with telescopic sights finally comes in handy!)
In order to make sense of the Umbrella Man as signaller, something
like the following sequence of events must occur. Each rifleman
focuses upon the presidential target through his telescopic sight,
tracking the target as it moves at some ten to twelve miles per
hour. Given the very narrow focus of such sights, he cannot see the
Umbrella Man. To witness the signal, he must keep taking his eye
away from the telescopic sight, refocussing it until he can see the
distant figure on the sidewalk, and when the signal is given, put
his eye back to the sight, re-focus again, re-adjust the position
of the rifle since the target has continued to move while he was
not looking at it, and then fire. This is not an efficient recipe
for accurate target-shooting.

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

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 Dealey Plaza in order to barrack the president as he went
past, and that he was carrying a raised umbrella because he had
heard that, perhaps for some obscure reason connected with the
president's father's stay in London as US Ambassador during the
war, the Kennedy family has a thing about umbrellas. De Witt hadn't
come forward in the 15 years since the assassination since he had
had no idea about the proposed role of the Umbrella man in the
case. This part of his explanation seems to me to be eminently
plausible: those of us with an obsessive interest in current
affairs find it hard to grasp just how many people never read the
papers or watch TV news. There is something almost endearing about
de Witt, an odd character whose moment of public eccentricity seems
to have enmired him in decades of conspiratorial hypotheses without
his realising it.

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.

Senator Church's 1976 congressional investigation into the
activities of US intelligence agencies provided clear evidence that
in the period 1960-63 elements of the CIA, probably under the
instructions of or at least with the knowledge of the White House,
had conspired with Cuban exiles and members of organised crime to
attempt the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Evidence
also emerged of CIA involvement in the deaths of other foreign
leaders--Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Lumumba in the Congo,
etc.. These findings were incorporated in Kennedy CTs as evidence
to support the probability that the CIA, or at least certain
members of it, were also responsible for the death of Kennedy. Once
an assassin, always an assassin? Such an argument neglects the fact
that the CIA could reasonably believe that they were acting in US
interests, possibly lawfully since they were acting under the
guidance or instruction of the White House. This belief is not open
to them in the case of killing their own president, a manifestly
unlawful act and one hard to square with forwarding US interests.
(Evidence that Soldier X willingly shoots at the soldiers of other
countries when ordered to do so is no evidence that he would shoot
at soldiers of his own country, with or without orders. The
situations are plainly different.) At best the Church Committee
evidence indicated that the CIA had the capacity to organise
assassinations, not that it had either the willingness or the
reason to assassinate its own leader.

(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

(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.[12] 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 of America's enemies that couldn't be
discovered in any other way. Such a belief has trouble in easily
accommodating the fact that the CIA was woefully unprepared for the
sudden break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, or for the
fact that America's intelligence organisations first learned of the
start of the Gulf War when Kuwaiti embassy employees looked out of
the window and saw Iraqi tanks coming down the road! Sadly, it
appears to be true that people calling themselves remote viewers
took very substantial fees from the CIA though whether this tells
us more about the gullibility of people in paranoid institutions or
their carefree attitude towards spending public money I should not
care to say.) The more extreme conspiracy theories may argue that
such organisations are only pretending to be inefficient, in order
to fool the public about the true level of their efficiency. Such a
position is, as Popper would no doubt have pointed out, not open to

(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 America's premier gangster
of the 1940s, Charles `Lucky' Luciano. Not actually a gangster
himself (and, technically, not actually a member of the mafia
either, since Lansky--as a Jew--could not join an exclusively
Sicilian brotherhood) Lansky acted as a financial adviser. He
organised gambling activities for Luciano and probably played a
significant role in the mafia involvement in the development of Las
Vegas, and in subsequent investments of the Luciano family's money,
including those in pre-revolutionary Cuba, after Luciano's
deportation to Sicily.

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.[13] 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 Israel, was able to show that Lansky, far from
being the mob's eminence grise, was little more than a
superannuated book-keeper. The arch manipulator, supposedly
empowered by the mafia's millions, led a seedy retirement in
poverty and was on record as being unable to afford healthcare for
his relatives. The effect of reading Lacey's substantially
documented biography is rather like that scene in `The Wizard of
Oz' when the curtain is drawn back and the all-powerful wizard is
revealed to be a very ordinary little man.

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 Cuba; most important here were the
Church Committee's revelations that the CIA had conspired with
members of organised crime to bring about the assassination of
Fidel Castro. These, coming hard on the heels of the revelations of
various criminal conspiracies within the Nixon White House, stoked
up the production of CTs. (And provided a new motivation for the
Kennedy assassination: that Castro or his sympathisers had found
out about these attempts and had Kennedy killed in revenge.) But
they also indicated that the Kennedy brothers were much harder cold
war warriors than had perhaps previously been thought.

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.

This changing 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
policy over Vietnam. I leave consideration of Kennedy's Vietnam
policy to the next section.

   (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.

Against the 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 US wanted to defeat the Clinton
administrations reform proposals, for instance, they didn't opt for
assassination but went instead for a highly successful campaign to
bring congress and substantial parts of public opinion against the
proposals, which soon became dead in the water.

On the specific case of American withdrawal from Vietnam, all of
the above applies. In the first case, following on from (E) above,
it can be plausibly argued that Kennedy had no such intention. He
certainly on occasion floated the idea, sounding out people around
him, but this is something that politicians do all the time as part
of the process of weighing policy options and shouldn't be taken as
evidence for such an option. But to see Kennedy as seriously
considering such an option is to see him as a figure considerably
out of the Democratic mainstream. He would certainly have been
aware of the effects that an Asian policy can have upon domestic
matters; as a young congressman he would have been intimately aware
of the effect that the fall of China to communism in 1949 had upon
the last Democratic administration, severely weakening Harry
Truman's effectiveness. For years afterwards the Democrats were
regarded as the people who "lost China" despite the fact that there
was nothing they could have done--short of an all-out war, like
that occurring in Korea shortly afterwards, which couldn't possibly
be won without the use of nuclear weapons and all that entails.
Kennedy's administration had a much stronger presence in South
Vietnam and it can reasonably be asked whether he would have wanted
to run the risk of becoming the president who "lost Vietnam". He
would also have been aware of the problem that ultimately faced
Lyndon Johnson, that one could only maintain a forceful policy of
domestic reform by mollifying congress over matters of foreign
policy. The price for Johnson's Great Society reforms was a
continued adherence to a policy of involvement in Vietnam, long
after Johnson himself--fully aware of this bind--doubted the wisdom
of this policy. Kennedy's domestic reforms were already in
legislative difficulties; to believe that he was prepared to
withdraw from Vietnam, then, is to believe that he was effectively
abandoning his domestic programmes. (That Kennedy was alleged to be
considering such an action in his second term, if re-elected,
doesn't affect this point. He would still have been a lame-duck
president, and would also have weakened the chances of any possible
Democratic successor, something that would certainly have been of
interest to other members of his party.)

It thus appears unlikely that Kennedy would have seriously
considered withdrawing completely from Vietnam. But if he had, a
number of options were available to opponents of such a policy.
Firstly, as noted above, they could have encouraged opposition to
such a policy in congress and other important institutions, and
among the American public. There was certainly a strongly
sympathetic Republican and conservative Democrat presence in
congress to form the foundations of such an opposition, as well as
among newspaper publishers and other media outlets. If Kennedy had
underestimated the domestic problems that withdrawal would cause
him, such a campaign would concentrate his mind upon them.

And secondly, 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 Vietnam itself. (That Kennedy thought
something like this was happening may be indicated by his
insistence on sending civilian advisers to Vietnam to report back
to him personally.) This policy worked well in Johnson's time--the
control of information over the trivial events in the Bay of Tonkin
in 1965 was manipulated to indicate a serious crisis which thus
forced Johnson into inserting a heavy military presence into South
Vietnam in response. There is no reason to believe that such a
policy would not have worked if Kennedy had still been in office.
At the very least, it would be rational to adopt such a policy
first, to try cheap, legal and probably efficient methods of
bringing about one's goal before even contemplating such a
dramatic, illegal and high-risk activity as assassination. (I omit
here any consideration of the point that members of the American
establishment might feel a moral revulsion at the idea of taking
such action against their own president. Such a claim may well be
true, but the argument from rationality does not require it.)

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 New
Orleans and Texas, and so on. And considerable webs can be drawn
outwards, from Oswald's contacts to their contacts, and so on.

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 America's
disastrous military campaign in Vietnam. US military involvement
escalated after Kennedy's death, therefore it happened because of
Kennedy's death, therefore Kennedy's death was brought about in
order to cause an increased American presence in Vietnam. The
frailty of this reasoning is obvious. As I pointed out in (F)
above, such a view attributes to the proposed conspirators a
significant inability to match ends and means rationally. In
addition there is no end to the possible effects that can be
proposed here. Ultimately everything that is regarded as immoral
about modern America can be traced back to the assassination. As I
pointed out in a recent lecture, what motivates this view is:

a desire for a justification of a view of America as essentially a
benign and divinely inspired force in the world, a desire held in
the face of American sin in Vietnam and elsewhere. There are
plausible explanations for Vietnam and Watergate in terms of the
domination of post-war foreign policy by cold-war simplicities, and
the growth of executive power at the expense of legislative
controls, and so on. They are, for those not interested in
political science, dull explanations. Above all, they do not
provide the emotional justification of conspiratorial explanations.
To view Vietnam as the natural outcome of foreign policy objectives
of the cold-war establishment, of a set of attitudes shared by both
Republican and Democrat, above all to view it as the express wish
of the American people--opinion polls registered majority support
for the war until after the Tet disaster in 1968--is ultimately to
view Vietnam as the legitimate and rational outcome of the American
system at work. A quasi-religious view of America as `the city on
the hill', the place where God will work out his purpose for men,
cannot afford to entertain these flaws. Hence the appeal of an evil
conspiracy on which these sins can be heaped.[14]

Underlying this reasoning, then, is an emotional attachment to a
view of America as fundamentally decent combined with a remarkable
ignorance about the real nature of politics. All of the features of
America's history after 1963 that can be used as a possible motive
for the assassination can be equally or better explained in terms
of the ordinary workings of US politics. Indeed many of them,
including the commitment to Vietnam and the aggressively murderous
attitude towards Castro's Cuba, can be traced to Kennedy's White
House and earlier. Though CT theorists often proclaim their
commitment to realism and a hard-headed attitude towards matters,
it seems clear that their reliance upon this kind of reasoning is
motivated more by emotion than by facts.

5. Conclusions

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".[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]
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.


Blakey, G. Robert & Billings, Richard (1981) Fatal Hour -The Plot
to Kill the President, N.Y.:Berkeley Publishing

Cutler, Robert (1975) The Umbrella Man, Manchester, Mass.: Cutler

Donovan, Robert J.(1964)  The Assassins, N.Y.: Harper Books

Duffy, James. R. (1988) The Web, Gloucester: Ian Walton Publishing

Eddowes, Michael (1977) The Oswald File, N.Y.: Ace Books

Fetzer, James (ed.) (1997) Assassination Science, Chicago, IL: Open
Court Publishing

Fisher, Alec & Scriven, Michael (1997)  Critical Thinking - Its
Definition and Assessment, Norwich: Centre for Critical Thinking,

Hofstadter, Richard P.  (1964) The Paranoid Style in American
Politics, London: Jonathan Cape

Hume, David (1748) Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by
P.H. Nidditch 1975, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keeley, Brian L.  (1999) `Of Conspiracy Theories', Journal of
Philosophy 96, 109-26.

Lacey, Robert  (19901)  Little Man, London: Little Brown

Lifton, David (1980)  Best Evidence, London: Macmillan. 2nd ed.
1988 N.Y.: Carroll & Graf

Norris, S.P.  & King, R.  (1983) Test on Appraising Observations,
St Johns Newfoundland: Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Norris, S.P. & King, R. (1984) `Observational ability: Determining
and extending its presence', Informal Logic 6, 3-9.

Oglesby, Carl  (1976)  The Yankee-Cowboy War , 2nd ed. 1977, N.Y.:
Berkley Publishing

Pigden, Charles (1993) `Popper revisited, or What Is Wrong With
Conspiracy Theories?', Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25, 3-34.

Popkin, Richard H.  (1966)  The Second Oswald , London: Sphere

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:

Stone, Jim  (1991)  Conspiracy of One , Fort Worth TX: Summit Group

Stone, Oliver & Sklar, Zachary  (1992)  JFK - The Movie, New York:
Applause Books.

Thompson, Josiah(1967) Six Seconds in Dallas , 2nd ed. 1976,
N.Y.: Berkeley Publishing

Wilson, Robert Anton (1989) `Beyond True and False', in Schultz, T.
(ed.) The Fringes of Reason, New York: Harmony.


[1] 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

[2] See Donovan 1964 for more on this.

[3] Historians, it seems, still disagree about whether or to what
extent Princips' group was being manipulated.

[4] 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/.

[5] See Norris & King 1983 & 1984 for full details of and support
for these principles.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] 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..

[9] 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.

[10] Lifton 1980: 132

[11] Norris & King (1983), quoted in Fisher & Scriven (1997).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] From "(Dis)Solving the Kennedy Assassination", presented to
the Conspiracy Culture Conference at King Alfred's College,
Winchester, in July 1998.

[15]  Keeley 1999: 126

[16] 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

[17] Keeley 1999: 126

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