## Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone

As the world marked the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, I have to confess … no, no, not that I was in on the plot.  I wasn’t even born then, silly.  I have to confess that, in between struggling to make a paper deadline, attending a workshop in Princeton, celebrating Thanksgivukkah, teaching Lily how to pat her head and clap her hands, and not blogging, I also started dipping, for the first time in my life, into a tiny fraction of the vast literature about the JFK assassination.  The trigger (so to speak) for me was this article by David Talbot, the founder of Salon.com.  I figured, if the founder of Salon is a JFK conspiracy buff—if, for crying out loud, my skeptical heroes Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan were both JFK conspiracy buffs—then maybe it’s at least worth familiarizing myself with the basic facts and arguments.

So, what happened when I did?  Were the scales peeled from my eyes?

In a sense, yes, they were.  Given how much has been written about this subject, and how many intelligent people take seriously the possibility of a conspiracy, I was shocked by how compelling I found the evidence to be that there were exactly three shots, all fired by Lee Harvey Oswald with a Carcano rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, just as the Warren Commission said in 1964.  And as for Oswald’s motives, I think I understand them as well and as poorly as I understand the motives of the people who send me ramblings every week about P vs. NP and the secrets of the universe.

Before I started reading, if someone forced me to guess, maybe I would’ve assigned a ~10% probability to some sort of conspiracy.  Now, though, I’d place the JFK conspiracy hypothesis firmly in Moon-landings-were-faked, Twin-Towers-collapsed-from-the-inside territory.  Or to put it differently, “Oswald as lone, crazed assassin” has been added to my large class of “sanity-complete” propositions: propositions defined by the property that if I doubt any one of them, then there’s scarcely any part of the historical record that I shouldn’t doubt.  (And while one can’t exclude the possibility that Oswald confided in someone else before the act—his wife or a friend, for example—and that other person kept it a secret for 50 years, what’s known about Oswald strongly suggests that he didn’t.)

So, what convinced me?  In this post, I’ll give twenty reasons for believing that Oswald acted alone.  Notably, my reasons will have less to do with the minutiae of bullet angles and autopsy reports, than with general principles for deciding what’s true and what isn’t.  Of course, part of the reason for this focus is that the minutiae are debated in unbelievable detail elsewhere, and I have nothing further to contribute to those debates.  But another reason is that I’m skeptical that anyone actually comes to believe the JFK conspiracy hypothesis because they don’t see how the second bullet came in at the appropriate angle to pass through JFK’s neck and shoulder and then hit Governor Connally.  Clear up some technical point (or ten or fifty of them)—as has been done over and over—and the believers will simply claim that the data you used was altered by the CIA, or they’ll switch to other “anomalies” without batting an eye.  Instead, people start with certain general beliefs about how the world works, “who’s really in charge,” what sorts of explanations to look for, etc., and then use their general beliefs to decide which claims to accept about JFK’s head wounds or the foliage in Dealey Plaza—not vice versa.  That being so, one might as well just discuss the general beliefs from the outset.  So without further ado, here are my twenty reasons:

1. Conspiracy theorizing represents a known bug in the human nervous system.  Given that, I think our prior should be overwhelmingly against anything that even looks like a conspiracy theory.  (This is not to say conspiracies never happen.  Of course they do: Watergate, the Tobacco Institute, and the Nazi Final Solution were three well-known examples.  But the difference between conspiracy theorists’ fantasies and actual known conspiracies is this: in a conspiracy theory, some powerful organization’s public face hides a dark and terrible secret; its true mission is the opposite of its stated one.  By contrast, in every real conspiracy I can think of, the facade was already 90% as terrible as the reality!  And the “dark secret” was that the organization was doing precisely what you’d expect it to do, if its members genuinely held the beliefs that they claimed to hold.)

2. The shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby created the perfect conditions for conspiracy theorizing to fester.  Conditioned on that happening, it would be astonishing if a conspiracy industry hadn’t arisen, with its hundreds of books and labyrinthine arguments, even under the assumption that Oswald and Ruby both really acted alone.

3. Other high-profile assassinations to which we might compare this one—for example, those of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Yitzchak Rabin…—appear to have been the work of “lone nuts,” or at most “conspiracies” of small numbers of lowlifes.  So why not this one?

4. Oswald seems to have perfectly fit the profile of a psychopathic killer (see, for example, Case Closed by Gerald Posner).  From very early in his life, Oswald exhibited grandiosity, resentment, lack of remorse, doctrinaire ideological fixations, and obsession with how he’d be remembered by history.

5. A half-century of investigation has failed to link any individual besides Oswald to the crime.  Conspiracy theorists love to throw around large, complicated entities like the CIA or the Mafia as potential “conspirators”—but in the rare cases when they’ve tried to go further, and implicate an actual human being other than Oswald or Ruby (or distant power figures like LBJ), the results have been pathetic and tragic.

6. Oswald had previously tried to assassinate General Walker—a fact that was confirmed by his widow Marina Oswald, but that, incredibly, is barely even discussed in the reams of conspiracy literature.

7. There’s clear evidence that Oswald murdered Officer Tippit an hour after shooting JFK—a fact that seems perfectly consistent with the state of mind of someone who’d just murdered the President, but that, again, seems to get remarkably little discussion in the conspiracy literature.

8. Besides being a violent nut, Oswald was also a known pathological liar.  He lied on his employment applications, he lied about having established a thriving New Orleans branch of Fair Play for Cuba, he lied and lied and lied.  Because of this tendency—as well as his persecution complex—Oswald’s loud protestations after his arrest that he was just a “patsy” count for almost nothing.

9. According to police accounts, Oswald acted snide and proud of himself after being taken into custody: for example, when asked whether he had killed the President, he replied “you find out for yourself.”  He certainly didn’t act like an innocent “patsy” arrested on such a grave charge would plausibly act.

10. Almost all JFK conspiracy theories must be false, simply because they’re mutually inconsistent.  Once you realize that, and start judging the competing conspiracy theories by the standards you’d have to judge them by if at most one could be true, enlightenment may dawn as you find there’s nothing in the way of just rejecting all of them.  (Of course, some people have gone through an analogous process with religions.)

11. The case for Oswald as lone assassin seems to become stronger, the more you focus on the physical evidence and stuff that happened right around the time and place of the event.  To an astonishing degree, the case for a conspiracy seems to rely on verbal testimony years or decades afterward—often by people who are known confabulators, who were nowhere near Dealey Plaza at the time, who have financial or revenge reasons to invent stories, and who “remembered” seeing Oswald and Ruby with CIA agents, etc. only under drugs or hypnosis.  This is precisely the pattern we would expect if conspiracy theorizing reflected the reality of the human nervous system rather than the reality of the assassination.

12. If the conspiracy is so powerful, why didn’t it do something more impressive than just assassinate JFK? Why didn’t it rig the election to prevent JFK from becoming President in the first place?  (In math, very often the way you discover a bug in your argument is by realizing that the argument gives you more than you originally intended—vastly, implausibly more.  Yet every pro-conspiracy argument I’ve read seems to suffer from the same problem.  For example, after successfully killing JFK, did the conspiracy simply disband?  Or did it go on to mastermind other assassinations?  If it didn’t, why not?  Isn’t pulling the puppet-strings of the world sort of an ongoing proposition?  What, if any, are the limits to this conspiracy’s power?)

13. Pretty much all the conspiracy writers I encountered exude total, 100% confidence, not only in the existence of additional shooters, but in the guilt of their favored villains (they might profess ignorance, but then in the very next sentence they’d talk about how JFK’s murder was “a triumph for the national security establishment”).  For me, their confidence had the effect of weakening my own confidence in their intellectual honesty, and in any aspects of their arguments that I had to take on faith.  The conspiracy camp would of course reply that the “Oswald acted alone” camp also exudes too much confidence in its position.  But the two cases are not symmetric: for one thing, because there are so many different conspiracy theories, but only one Oswald.  If I were a conspiracy believer I’d be racked with doubts, if nothing else then about whether my conspiracy was the right one.

14. Every conspiracy theory I’ve encountered seems to require “uncontrolled growth” in size and complexity: that is, the numbers of additional shooters, alterations of medical records, murders of inconvenient witnesses, coverups, coverups of the coverups, etc. that need to be postulated all seem to multiply without bound.  To some conspiracy believers, this uncontrolled growth might actually be a feature: the more nefarious and far-reaching the conspiracy’s tentacles, the better.  It should go without saying that I regard it as a bug.

15. JFK was not a liberal Messiah.  He moved slowly on civil rights for fear of a conservative backlash, invested heavily in building nukes, signed off on the botched plans to kill Fidel Castro, and helped lay the groundwork for the US’s later involvement in Vietnam.  Yes, it’s possible that he would’ve made wiser decisions about Vietnam than LBJ ended up making; that’s part of what makes his assassination (like RFK’s later assassination) a tragedy.  But many conspiracy theorists’ view of JFK as an implacable enemy of the military-industrial complex is preposterous.

16. By the same token, LBJ was not exactly a right-wing conspirator’s dream candidate.  He was, if anything, more aggressive on poverty and civil rights than JFK was.  And even if he did end up being better for certain military contractors, that’s not something that would’ve been easy to predict in 1963, when the US’s involvement in Vietnam had barely started.

17. Lots of politically-powerful figures have gone on the record as believers in a conspiracy, including John Kerry, numerous members of Congress, and even frequently-accused conspirator LBJ himself.  Some people would say that this lends credibility to the conspiracy cause.  To me, however, it indicates just the opposite: that there’s no secret cabal running the world, and that those in power are just as prone to bugs in the human nervous system as anyone else is.

18. As far as I can tell, the conspiracy theorists are absolutely correct that JFK’s security in Dallas was unbelievably poor; that the Warren Commission was as interested in reassuring the nation and preventing a war with the USSR or Cuba as it was in reaching the truth (the fact that it did reach the truth is almost incidental); and that agencies like the CIA and FBI kept records related to the assassination classified for way longer than there was any legitimate reason to (though note that most records finally were declassified in the 1990s, and they provided zero evidence for any conspiracy).  As you might guess, I ascribe all of these things to bureaucratic incompetence rather than to conspiratorial ultra-competence.  But once again, these government screwups help us understand how so many intelligent people could come to believe in a conspiracy even in the total absence of one.

19. In the context of the time, the belief that JFK was killed by a conspiracy filled a particular need: namely, the need to believe that the confusing, turbulent events of the 1960s had an understandable guiding motive behind them, and that a great man like JFK could only be brought down by an equally-great evil, rather than by a chronically-unemployed loser who happened to see on a map that JFK’s motorcade would be passing by his workplace.  Ironically, I think that Roger Ebert got it exactly right when he praised Oliver Stone’s JFK movie for its “emotional truth.”  In much the same way, one could say that Birth of a Nation was “emotionally true” for Southern racists, or that Ben Stein’s Expelled was “emotionally true” for creationists.  Again, I’d say that the “emotional truth” of the conspiracy hypothesis is further evidence for its factual falsehood: for it explains how so many people could come to believe in a conspiracy even if the evidence for one were dirt-poor.

20. At its core, every conspiracy argument seems to be built out of “holes”: “the details that don’t add up in the official account,” “the questions that haven’t been answered,” etc.  What I’ve never found is a truly coherent alternative scenario: just one “hole” after another.  This pattern is the single most important red flag for me, because it suggests that the JFK conspiracy theorists view themselves as basically defense attorneys: people who only need to sow enough doubts, rather than establish the reality of what happened.  Crucially, creationism, 9/11 trutherism, and every other elaborate-yet-totally-wrong intellectual edifice I’ve ever encountered has operated on precisely the same “defense attorney principle”: “if we can just raise enough doubts about the other side’s case, we win!”  But that’s a terrible approach to knowledge, once you’ve seen firsthand how a skilled arguer can raise unlimited doubts even about the nonexistence of a monster under your bed.  Such arguers are hoping, of course, that you’ll find their monster hypothesis so much more fun, exciting, and ironically comforting than the “random sounds in the night hypothesis,” that it won’t even occur to you to demand they show you their monster.

### 135 Responses to “Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone”

1. Matt Austern Says:

Everything you say makes perfect sense, of course. Just for the sake of pedantry, though, I have to mention one high profile political assassination that really was committed by a conspiracy: Franz Ferdinand, June 28 1914. It’s clear that Gavrilo Princip didn’t act alone, although the full details weren’t understood for some time (and some still aren’t).

2. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Your basic analysis seems sound, but claiming this is anywhere near the confidence level of the other beliefs you list as sanity-complete seems overly strong. Consider for example, the possibility that Oswald was the only shooter, but shot four shots, and one bullet was never found. Would that really make you doubt the rest of the history?

There’s a non-trivial point here which connects to your point #20. Even if specific aspects of the shooting might be wrong, such as the number of bullets fired, that’s not a good reason to actually doubt that Oswald acted alone.

3. Blaise Pascal Says:

Matt Austern: Franz Ferdinand isn’t the only high profile political assassination committed by a known conspiracy. Abraham Lincoln also died at the hands of a conspiracy.

But these two conspiracies were vastly different in scope and scale than what’s generally proposed for JFK.

4. Or Meir Says:

Nice post 🙂

Note, however, that Point 20 could be used against “good” skeptics. Consider, for example, a skeptical atheist during the middle ages. He could claim that the arguments for the existence of god are not convincing, using more or less the same arguments we use today. However, he wouldn’t have any “truly coherent alternative scenario” to explain the existence of the world or humanity.
Hence, the church could dismiss his arguments on the basis of him being only a “defense attorney” who only tries to raise enough doubts.

Admit it, you were just procrastinating 🙂

6. lmm Says:

17 doesn’t really sound like evidence. If the opposite were true and no powerful people believed it was a conspiracy, would you really say that made the conspiracy explanation more likely?

7. J Says:

P=NP is the best conspiracy of our time. I need 20 points for that:)

8. csrster Says:

I like your way of thinking, but I don’t think 15 is a great point. You could say the same thing about Obama, but that doesn’t stop right-wing nutjobs thinking he’s a dangerous commie-jihadists.

What I think you are saying is that given that JFK wasn’t really an extreme liberal, a lone assassin is more likely than a conspiracy. That assumes that if there were a proto-conspiracy then they would necessarily have been more rational than the lone-nut Oswald, and would therefore have realised that JFK wasn’t really a threat. But the effect of self-reinforcing groupthink could easily counter that.

9. Scott Says:

Admit it, you were just procrastinating

I thought I already admitted as much, by filing this post under the “Procrastination” category. But OK, I readmit it. 🙂

10. Scott Says:

Joshua Zelinsky #2:

Your basic analysis seems sound, but claiming this is anywhere near the confidence level of the other beliefs you list as sanity-complete seems overly strong. Consider for example, the possibility that Oswald was the only shooter, but shot four shots, and one bullet was never found. Would that really make you doubt the rest of the history?

I agree with you 100%. But then I reread the post, and was relieved to find that I never claimed the belief that precisely three bullets were fired as sanity-complete: instead, I reserved that for the hypothesis of “Oswald as loned, crazed assassin.”

11. Scott Says:

csrster #8:

I like your way of thinking, but I don’t think 15 is a great point. You could say the same thing about Obama, but that doesn’t stop right-wing nutjobs thinking he’s a dangerous commie-jihadists.

Funny, just yesterday I got into a long argument with a cab driver who believed Obama was a dangerous commie-jihadist.

Personally, I’d say that Obama’s political moderation and frequent caving to the Republicans is further evidence (if such were needed) that he wasn’t placed in power by some cackling communist cabal pulling the strings of the world. And yes, I’m sure various “right-wing nutjobs” would disagree with me—but were you seriously offering that as a counterargument?

12. Scott Says:

Or Meir #4:

Consider, for example, a skeptical atheist during the middle ages. He could claim that the arguments for the existence of god are not convincing, using more or less the same arguments we use today. However, he wouldn’t have any “truly coherent alternative scenario” to explain the existence of the world or humanity.

It’s a good point, and I completely bite the bullet on it! That is, I readily accept that before Darwin, some sort of intelligent designer really was the most plausible hypothesis, the one thoughtful people should have accepted (and did accept). Richard Dawkins has frequently made the same point.

But I’d add that, from the bare belief in an intelligent designer, nothing should have followed about the designer’s “infinite goodness,” the literal truth of the Bible, etc., and I’d say there were excellent reasons to reject those hypotheses long before Darwin. (And I’d say David Hume did successfully destroy the further hypotheses, a century before Darwin was around to help him.)

13. Scott Says:

lmm #6:

17 doesn’t really sound like evidence. If the opposite were true and no powerful people believed it was a conspiracy, would you really say that made the conspiracy explanation more likely?

It’s an excellent question. But on reflection, if 60-80% of the American public believed in a conspiracy (as they do), and yet not one powerful figure in government publicly endorsed that belief, then yes, I suppose that would arouse my suspicions…

14. Michael Nielsen Says:

Errol Morris made a wonderful short documentary about JFK conspiracy theories, for the New York Times:

It makes several of Scott’s points in a particularly vivid and amusing fashion!

15. Michael Nielsen Says:

Oops, wrong Errol Morris documentary. Here’s the right link:

http://youtu.be/yznRGS9f-jI

16. John SIdles Says:

David Mumford provides concrete advice on how to escape conspiracy-theoretic ideation in mathematics:

The field [of algebraic geometry] seems to have acquired the reputation of being esoteric, exclusive and very abstract with adherents who are secretly plotting to take over all the rest of mathematics!

In one respect this last point is accurate: algebraic geometry is a subject which relates frequently with a very large number of other fields — analytic and differential geometry, topology, k-theory, commutative algebra, algebraic, algebraic groups and number theory, for instance — and both gives and receives theorems, techniques, and examples from all of them. And certainly Grothendieck’s work contributed to the field some very abstract and very powerful ideas which are quite hard to digest.

But this subject, like all subjects, has a dual aspect in that all these abstract ideas would collapse of their own weight were it not for the underpinning supplied by concrete classical geometry.

For me it has been a real adventure to perceive the interactions of all these aspects.

(preface to Curves and their Jacobians, 1975)

Conclusion  The thesis “The mathematical school of Grothendieck/Mac Lane/Eilenberg/Cartan (etc) plotted to take over all the rest of mathematics” can be argued either way!

17. Gus Says:

Hi Scott. It occurs to me that it’s surprising that a more vibrant conspiracy following hasn’t emerged surrounding the US-led invasion of Iraq. Unlike the JFK assassination, the “official” justification(s) for the invasion sound almost as crazy as the conspiracy-laden alternatives.

18. wolfgang Says:

Scott,

I completely agree with you that the conspiracy theories started with Jack Ruby …
So how do you explain what he did?

It seems that “they” used Jack Ruby to distract everybody from the fact that Oswald acted alone.
And the obvious reason is that the mafia-CIA-Castro-Pope connection needed to create the appearance of a conspiracy to keep journalists and private investigators busy to distract them from the fake moon landings.

19. Scott Says:

Gus #17: I think you put your finger on why there’s not a vibrant second-Iraq-war conspiracy industry!

In one of Jon Stewart’s books, there was a table listing lots of political organizations’ stated agendas alongside their hidden agendas. My favorite entry was the last one:

NAMBLA
Stated agenda: Legalizing sexual relations between adult men and young boys.
Hidden agenda: Dude, did you read the stated agenda?

With Iraq, there’s no need to posit a secret behind-the-scenes conspiracy when you have an overt, amply-documented, in-front-of-the-scenes conspiracy, right down to the bald evil mastermind in his subterranean lair.

20. Jr Says:

Gus,

what is the conspiracy theory of the Iraq war? I thought it was perfectly obvious who was responsible for the Iraq war, namely George Bush and his henchmen.

You might call them a conspiracy, I guess, though I think they prefer the term “government”.

21. Al Says:

Back twenty years ago when I was procrastinating myself, I read extensively the conspiracy theories proposed. Back then I came to the conclusion, using Occam’s razor, that likely Oswald acted alone. The “vast coverup” was nothing but mild rather clumsy attempts from the CIA and FBI bureaucracy to hide the embarrasment that (1) they let it happen and (2) Oswald might have been under the employ for reasons unrelated to the assassination.

22. Jr Says:

Regarding point 3, there are obviously a few examples of high-profile assassinations that really were conspiracies, as well. Trotsky is one example.

Indeed, if Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy the KGB seems as likely a culprit as the CIA.

23. Douglas Knight Says:

Gus, there is no reason to doubt that the people responsible for the Iraq war are the people usually ascribed responsibility. The only question is their motives. But there are a lot theories about their motives: Blood for Oil, Blood for No Oil, Blood for Haliburton, etc.

I reject the conspiracy theory. I reject the theory that the cabinet met out of the public eye to discuss their goals and plans. It appears to me that everyone involved had different beliefs and goals, largely publicly admitted, were different. They didn’t notice that had different beliefs about what would happen and which outcomes were good. If they had noticed, maybe they would have made a more coherent plan.

They didn’t even fake the discovery of WMD.

24. Jair Says:

Thank you for delving into the literature on the JFK assassination and emerging with your rationality intact. But I cannot agree with #10. I don’t think you can conclude anything about the assassination based on the fact that there are a lot of kooky ideas out there. We would expect a large number of zany, conflicting conspiracy theories about any high-profile assassination regardless of whether or not one was true.

25. Koray Says:

I don’t know why you or Dawkins would think that before Darwin the most plausible explanation was indeed an intelligent designer. No explanation is provided for the designer itself.

26. Scott Says:

Koray #25: I completely agree with you that the intelligent designer was never a good explanation, and for precisely the reason you say. However, all I claimed was that it was once the most plausible hypothesis. I meant the following: it’s evident that living things are “astronomically improbably optimized” for various goals, like flying, burrowing, etc. So, if you had no idea that such optimization could happen in a “purposeless” way (i.e., via natural selection)—as people didn’t for most of history—then the obvious next guess would be that it had happened in a purposeful way. More, you couldn’t say: maybe the purposes were those of extraterrestrials, or teenagers running a computer simulation, and either way you’d merely have pushed the burden of explanation somewhere else. So you still wouldn’t have done any honest explanatory work, but the process of elimination by which you got to this point would seem more-or-less sound.

27. jonas Says:

In the list of high-profile assassinations, you forgot to list John Lennon.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

29. GM Hurley Says:

This may be covered by your point (14), but an interesting sense-check on the plausibility of a conspiracy theory is the sheer number of people who have to go to their graves without ever finding reasons, whether of remorse, change of ideology, financial inducement, or self-glorification, for disclosing their role in a significant historical event. And the sheer number of intimates or acquaintances of the first category, who found out (whether because of boasting, or self-condemnation, or chance observation) about this role, but ALSO went to their graves without disclosing it.

On the one hand, things like this DO seem to have happened occasionally (the work of Bletchley Park was kept remarkably secret for decades, for example). On the other hand (back to your point (1), but from the point of view of participants rather than spectators), people involved, however remotely, with a significant historical event often want to claim a piece of it by exaggerating the significance of their own actions, and imputing their own personal motives to ALL the participants.

Obviously I agree with you about the JFK assassination. I’m curious, though, whether enough time has passed, memoirs been written, acrimonious divorces occurred, etc, for us to draw definitive conclusions about the Iraq invasion.

30. Jr Says:

The Slate article claims nerve endings can “explode”. That seems bizarre. Is it really true?

31. Raoul Ohio Says:

1. Denote the posterchild NCCs (Nut Cake Conspiracies) as ML (Moon Landing), TT (Twin Towers), and KA (Kennedy Assassination). Following Scott, define SC to be the Sanity-Complete class.

While it is unclear what reductions to use in proving some K in NCC to be SC, I will argue that it is hard to fit ML, TT, and KA into the same sanity class.

Let p(K) denote an estimate of the probability that K in NCC is actually true. Then reasonable values for p(ML) and p(TT) would be around E-6 to E-9.

But I estimate p(KA) to be about E-3. I propose this high value because of plausible ways a minor conspiracy might have occurred. For example, maybe LHO met person X who said “sure, I’m in”, and perhaps drove him to buy ammo, but then chickened out at showing up. If X had sufficient brains to shut up afterwards, it is not likely he/she would have been discovered. I do not see any such likely scenarios for ML or TT.

These estimates suggest that p(ML) and p(TT) are second or third order in p(KA). This approach might provide a basis for organizing a “Complexity Zoo” type classification; the “Sanity Zoo”.

2. I predict that in about 24 hours, the INC (internet nut cake) community will get wind of this posting, and Scott will be in for some attacks that will make the “claimed P=NP proof” issue of a couple years ago appear mild.

32. keith Says:

I can’t get over that he claimed to be a patsy. You deny killing a hobo, but kill a president and you boast to the world. Unless it was a job. Odds are he was a lone nut but I’ve known lots of crazy people and yet I can’t put myself into his shoes.

33. keith Says:

Although, Scott, your list reads like Sean Carroll trying to disprove God by showing how religious people are doofuses, and makes me think you should stick to your day job. The probability of a thing isn’t affected by the sanity of its believers.

Personally I think there’s a nontrivially small chance Oswald was recruited by a CIA guy after failing to kill General Walker, just because I’ve never known a psychopath carry out a plan and make a ridiculous excuse without an end goal that benefited them. And if he wasn’t a psychopath why not boast after killing a president? So if I cared I would need to research his motives. “Crazy people motives” isn’t an answer.

As far as stated vs. hidden agendas, where does a nation’s spy apparatus fit in? Their barely-disguised agenda is to do whatever it takes as long as it’s believed to be for the benefit of their government – whether it actually is or isn’t. It’s undeniable that our CIA has toppled or attempted to topple governments and install ones perceived to be more friendly to US interests. If they perceived JFK as a threat to the US or particular interests thereof (for example, weak on communism, against established monetary policies, etc), then wouldn’t it be plausible that someone “in the business” thought (as shocking at it would seem to us) that assassinating the president is precisely what they’re there for? No hidden agendas necessary.

Of course I’m not endorsing that or any other conspiracy theory, I’m only saying that if you look at the undisputed history of things done by state actors, a JFK assassination conspiracy theory doesn’t even seem terribly exotic.

35. Scott Says:

keith #33:

The probability of a thing isn’t affected by the sanity of its believers.

Sure it is, from a Bayesian perspective! In general,

Pr[X | Bob, who seems trustworthy, claims X] >> Pr[X | Bob, who seems trustworthy, claims X, but he then goes on to say that his gerbil told him to kidnap the Secretary of Transportation]

36. Scott Says:

Vadim #34: Sorry, it still seems pretty exotic! The CIA reports to the President (via the Director of National Intelligence), and AFAIK, the government-topplings and attempted government-topplings you mentioned were all carried out because a President authorized them. (And as for JFK being seen as an “illegitimate president,” I’d guess that far more people now see Obama as one than saw JFK as one. There was a lot more patriotism then, and as I said in #15, JFK was very much a Cold Warrior and part of the national security establishment.)

37. keith Says:

Ok, sorry. The probability of a thing isn’t affected by the insanity of its followers.

38. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Scott #36, lot of people on the right made similar comments to what is happening with Obama now. The John Birchers were very similar to the modern day Tea Party. There’s a good book about this, “Wrapped in the Flag – A Personal History of America’s Radical Right”.

Re: #10, Yes, I see. That was poor reading comprehension on my part.

39. GASARCH Says:

You’ve touched on an interesting meta-question— given that anyone who looks at the evidence will conclude OSWALD (and I agree with you on that), why do so many intelligent people have doubts? Is this particular assasination different than others— and if so why (I don’t think there are any John Wilkes Booth didn’t really do it’ or Guiteau didn’t kill Garfield didn’t really do it’ etc)

this is why I do math- while I find the above questions interesting I doubt I could ever get a clean answer

40. William Hird Says:

How is it that CIA chief Allen Dulles, who was FIRED by JFK in 1961, winds up on the Warren Commission ” investigating” the assassination? Nothing unusual or nepharious about that , right? Duhh.

41. Raoul Ohio Says:

GASARCH,

Here are a couple reasons.

1. The WC (Warren Commission). A couple of weeks ago a guy was being interviewed on NPR about his new book on the WC. (Anyone know the name of the book or author?) The WC incompetence is mind boggling. Furthermore Warren himself was a total JFK fanboy and dug in his heels to ensure nothing derogatory came out.

2. The Jack Ruby plot twist.

3. A top end movie can convince lots of people about anything. Oliver Stone did huge damage to sanity and history. Who knows if he is nuts or just saw the opportunity to make big $. Jerk. 42. Scott Says: GASARCH #39: Is this particular assasination different than others— and if so why I’d say Ruby is the single biggest reason. Secondary reasons: JFK was handsome and admired by millions; Oswald’s motivations were considerably more obscure than, say, John Wilkes Booth’s; and it all happened near the beginning of the era of national TV. 43. Scott Says: William Hird #40: How is it that CIA chief Allen Dulles, who was FIRED by JFK in 1961, winds up on the Warren Commission ” investigating” the assassination? Nothing unusual or nepharious about that , right? Duhh. See, that’s a perfect example of the “defense attorney” attitude that I rejected in point #20. Earl Warren would have approved the members of the commission, and the conclusions of the report. So, was Warren in on the conspiracy too? If it was a right-wing conspiracy, how did they recruit the most notorious liberal in the Supreme Court’s history? I don’t want things that look “unusual or nepharious [sic],” since those can be multiplied endlessly once you set out to look for them, like constellations in the night sky. I want an alternative account of what actually happened. 44. Peter Shor Says: Your discussion of the bullet angles reminds me of this argument against the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Even assuming that the WTC was properly designed to withstand the impact of a jet plane, which of the following two possibilities do you think is more likely? a) The conspirators, not convinced that crashing planes into the WTC will create a sufficiently provocative incident, decide to plant bombs in the towers as well, thus running an additional risk of discovery. b) The mob was involved in building the WTC, and they did a shoddy job, so it wasn’t built to specifications. 45. luca turin Says: Dear Dr Aaronson: may you procrastinate often ! 46. John Sidles Says: No commenter has yet mentioned a conspiracy that is thoroughly documented in history and much-celebrated in art: the assassination of Julius Caesar and its literary companion, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar What new insights can modern science and mathematics bring to this two-millennium-old conspiracy, that historians and artists have not supplied? As it turns out, the answer is “plenty!” Three richly interesting modern books (all written by scientists/mathematicians) that illuminate conspiracy-behavior in general, and Julius Caesar’s assassination in particular, are primatologist Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, sociobiologist Ed Wilson’s autobiography Naturalist Without a trace of irony I can say that I have been blessed with brilliant enemies. They made me suffer (after all, they were enemies), but I owe them a great debt, because they redoubled my energies and sent me in new directions. We need such people in our creative lives. As John Stuart Mill once put it, both teachers and learners fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field. and mathematician Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. As with cognition in individual minds, so with conspiracies in social groups: these emergent phenomena are biologically originate to diverse agents that are individually simple and have deep evolutionary roots … about which we construct high-level narratives. From this modern math/science perspective, the most fascinating and significant aspect of a conspiracy is the construction of the high-level narrative that explains it which generically occurs after the action of the conspiracy has finished. That’s why the key dramatic element of Shakespeare’s play is not the brutal assassination itself, but rather Mark Antony’s sophisticated explanation of it, that Shakespeare provides in Julius Caesar‘s immortal peroration: “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your ears!” 47. J Says: So there is a guy at my school who is the son of a doctorate from a famous school who vigorously believes WTC was nuked by the fed, the fed pays interests to the queen of England and the Pope, the illuminati wants to gene clean earth’s population with their genes, does not brush his teeth for his fear of federal reserve induced chemical spraying, buys organic goods, does not take bath, believes Newton Killing was organized by the federal reserve to promote gun control to enslave the masses for one world government and gene cleaning, never worked, practices firearms, 46 years or so old, disappointed with america’s amoral culture(this may have a point), single and is fighting to protect his home from foreclosure. So/:?? 48. J Says: Oh I forgot the federal reserve killed JFK (as he was apparently trying to ban the fed and introduce silver). So the fed seems to be a source of conspiracy in the US which seems divinely derived from the Illuminati and the groups’s gangmen such as the Rockefeller family! 49. Gabriel Nivasch Says: Great article! Brings to mind an Isaac Asimov article on the illogicity of UFO’s that I read when I was a kid. 50. Raoul Ohio Says: J, thanks for reminding us of the second most likely suspect for any conspiracy, the Illuminati. Who is more likely than the Illuminati? Beelzebub, of course! Not sure if Mr. B. is an alien. 51. Chris Wood Says: Readers may be interested in this recent article in Slate that discusses new evidence on Oswald from former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon’s book about the Warren commission, “A Cruel and Shocking Act”. 52. Raoul Ohio Says: Chris Wood: Thanks for the info on the book, and the very interesting link. Now I realize that Oliver Stone might be in on the conspiracy; he intentionally made a stupid movie to convince the general population that conspiracy believers are all nut cakes. 53. Douglas Knight Says: Scott, 36, saying that the CIA wouldn’t assassinate the president because he’s the boss is like saying that coups never occur. What lead to your belief that the CIA only assassinates under the president’s orders? the org chart, as your comment implies? Have you taken into account the Chuch Committee? I haven’t read its report, but a quick glance suggests that even they don’t know: The picture that emerges from the evidence is not a clear one. This may be due to the system of deniability and the consequent state of the evidence which, even after our long investigation, remains conflicting and inconclusive. Or it may be that there were in fact serious shortcomings in the system of authorization so that an activity such as assassination could have been undertaken by an agency of the United States Government without express authority. They were not even sure that all the assassinations were authorized by the Director of the CIA. 54. Koray Says: Scott #26: Darwin does not explain our vast & beautiful universe. Is the “hypothesis” that someone put these giant balls in motion the one we should accept today? I think biologists may take issue with your “optimizations”. Do birds really fly optimally? Aren’t dogs quite dumb? Isn’t communications between dolphins very poor? Where do you draw the line to be impressed enough to require a planner behind? What about the hypothesis itself? Is a hypothesis that predicts nothing really better than having no hypotheses at all? (Sorry, this is way off topic. I am with you on ascribing more to severe incompetency over extreme competency in general, including JFK’s assassination.) 55. George K Says: It’s worth noting that “Oswald acted alone” is not equivalent to “Oswald was the only shooter”. Suppose a second assassin — sent by the mafia, the KGB, LBJ, or whoever — fired at Kennedy at almost exactly the same time as Oswald without either of the two knowing of the other. The second shooter snuck away sheepishly, and only Oswald was caught. Nobody set up or prompted Oswald in any way, and evidence pointing to the second shooter was simply overlooked by investigators. So why isn’t the “Multiple Shooters, No Conspiracy” hypothesis more popular? I imagine it’s because it occupies an uncomfortable place between “Oswald Only” and conspiracy theories: it requires more to be explained than the basic story, but doesn’t provide any mechanism (a grand conspiracy) to take care of it. 56. Scott Says: Douglas Knight #53: I didn’t say it was impossible for a coup to happen in the US, and I agree with you that it isn’t. All I did was dispute Vadim’s contention that the idea of such a coup “doesn’t even seem terribly exotic.” 57. Douglas Knight Says: Yet again I learn never to ask two questions in one comment. 58. Scott Says: George K #55: I rather like your theory, though I’d call it the “History’s Craziest Coincidence Theory.” Why was this other, unrelated, chickening-out assassin (for whom we have no evidence, of course) sent on precisely the same day as Oswald? Still, I think your theory deserves to take its place alongside The Onion‘s theory: that JFK was never shot at all; instead his head spontaneously combusted when a passing peanut truck stimulated his allergies. 59. Scott Says: Chris Wood #51: That was an extremely interesting article! I don’t know how I missed it before. Thanks very much for linking to it. I think that article goes in precisely the right direction, for those who want to investigate further: namely, to take seriously that Oswald acted on his own initiative, but seek new information that would help to clarify his motives. In particular, I hadn’t heard about the theory that the idea of assassinating JFK was planted in Oswald’s head by the Cuban leftists who he met in Mexico (even if they didn’t “send” Oswald per se, and were as shocked as anyone else when he actually did it). This theory has the advantage of being, on its face, rather plausible (e.g., we know that Oswald did go to Mexico a few weeks before the assassination, and he did meet Fidelistas there in a position to be outraged about JFK’s attempts to assassinate their leader). Given that (as I said in the post) one of the Warren Commission’s explicit concerns was to avoid precipitating war with Cuba, and given the embarrassment surrounding the failed Castro assassination attempts, we’d also have an explanation for why the WC didn’t pry very hard in this direction. Ironically, while the WC wouldn’t have been trying to cover up the US government’s totally-nonexistent role in JFK’s murder, some of its members might indeed have been trying to cover up the US’s very real, continuing role in Fidel Castro‘s attempted murder! Having said that, one obvious problem for the theory is that, by the time he visited Mexico, Oswald was already an attempted political assassin (as well as militant Communist and Castro sympathizer), having tried and failed to assassinate General Walker. So one could easily believe that he could form the idea to assassinate JFK all by himself, without any additional encouragement from Cuban emigres. Still, it sounds entirely possible that, at least in Oswald’s mind, the Cuban emigres who he met in Mexico did give him such additional encouragement. I hope we learn more, before anyone in a position to clarify further is dead. 60. Joshua Zelinsky Says: George K’s your comment while interesting does have the problem of just being extremely unlikely. I suspect that most people would guess that the need for very careful timing there would almost be enough that P(Conspiracy|multiple shooters) > P(No conspiracy|multiple shooters), unless you start with an extremely low prior on a conspiracy (probably even lower than where Scott estimates it now). Also, somewhat relevant xkcd: http://xkcd.com/690/ 61. John Sidles Says: Yet another example of an assassination that is thoroughly documented in history and much-celebrated in art is the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith. In song, Bob Dylan immortalized the story of Ever’s assassination in his stunning performance of Only a Pawn in Their Game (beginning minute 3:18) at the 1963 March on Washington. In prose, Eudora Welty wrote — within a single day upon hearing the news of Ever’s assassination — an immortal short story titled Where Is the Voice Coming From?. Dylan’s song and Welty’s prose vividly illuminate the cognition and the social context of Evers’ assassination. Conclusion Both historically and artistically, we know far more about supremacist conspiracies and the cognition of Byron De La Beckwith than we are ever likely to know about the assassination of John Kennedy and the cognitiion of Lee Harvey Oswald. It is worth asking: How much more do we need to know? What is it that we are seeking to understand? 62. J Says: @Raoul Ohio #50. I kind of do not know what to tell. I just think these guys misestimate the time horizon needed for the things to happen. For instance, Shafarevich also harbored some negative views of humanity. While in no sense he was a conspiracy theorist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igor_Shafarevich I think regions in the brain incharge of fear, entitlement and temporal reasoning misfire and encode the fundamental region of reasoning in the brain. So whenever the mechanism needed to recover from disillusionment boots up, I feel it charges from this fundamental region which once becomes corrupted cannot make the individual reason properly or makes the individual overrun evidences that can be asserted with Occam’s razor. 63. Name Says: Eh, I dunno, some of your points don’t really hold weight. Quoting xkcd as evidence for certain psychological states seems pretty unfair. Other points I agree with. Here are some points I don’t: (6) and (7) is clearly false. There are several major works that mention both. One that comes immediately to mind is Peter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. Scott has unearthed the fact that General Walker was involved in a right-wing, anti-communist private intelligence organisation called the “International Committee for the Defence of Christian Culture” that was run by other military men (Major General Charles Willoughby, the head of US military intelligence in WW2) and oil tycoons (H.L. Hunt and his sons). General Walker was also forcibly retired by the Military for barraging his troops with John Birch Society propaganda (see his NYT obituary). Individuals that were associated with this organisation (Willoughby, among others) were named in the Warren Commission as spreading the idea that the CIA was behind the murder. If (14) is true, explain the size of the intelligence apparatus in governments worldwide. The US has several highly secretive intelligence organisations with thousands to tens of thousands of people working for them. The Snowden-NSA leaks is obviously a data point in favor of (14), but other organisations (like say, the NRO) still remain large, complex, and we don’t know much about their daily operations and actions. Add in another group like the various JSOC task forces, or the Intelligence Activity. These guys have military operations all over the planet (Afganistan, the Horn of Africa, the Phillipines), yet we don’t know much about their daily activities, their operations, nor their scope. Point (20) is a silly counter-argument and a species of category error. You are comparing gathering of scientific knowledge with a phenomenon that is prima facie secretive. Please outline for me how you would go about gathering knowledge in a scientific manner on a JSOC kill team, or any other organisation that might have counterintelligence, security, or deception capabilities. Of course, the problem with all this conspiracy talk isn’t conspiracists. It is nerds that are the problem, skeptical nerds to be more exact. Here you have some of the best minds on the planet that don’t actually really engage with a supposed conspiracy at all. Instead they engage the people doing the conspiracy theorizing, and go after the most wacky aspects of the conspiracy theory. That’s why you find the fedora-wearing skeptics of places like LessWrong, reddit, and xkcd go after easy-pickings like holographic planes, the illuminati, contrails, or bigfoot. But if you start talking about the death of David Kelly, Iran-Contra, the BCCI, Ali Mohamed, the Al Kifah Refugee Center, the various Saudi embassy associated people who funneled money to the 9/11 hijackers (Faha al Thumairy, Omar al-Bayoumi, and Haifa bint Faisal. That last one being a member of the House of Saud); then, suddenly they turn silent. Shit arguments that can be batted down with lists of fallacies from Wikipedia are ok, but investigating anything resembling an organisation that has security or counterintelligence capabilities is too much of a challenge. Better go back to watching anime. It’s like white, male, skeptic nerds have a pre-programmed bug in their head to take on the stupidest of shit, and expect a pat on the back for acting like little professors like their hero Neil Degrasse Tyson. Conspiracy theorists really deserve a better class of conspiracy theorizer closer to that of an investigative journalist (something like Marcy Wheeler’s Emptywheel blog). But given that nerd culture assigns high status to debunking, that’ll never happen. What we are left with is mainstream media ignoring certain aspects of stories, crazed loons latching onto bullshit, and skeptic nerds attacking the loons. It’s a real sad state of affairs, and this blog post certainly adds to it. 64. Scott Says: Name #63: Seriously, that’s what you’ve got? That critics of conspiracy theories are “white male nerds”? Is it relevant that plenty of the conspiracy theorists fit that description as well (to put it mildly)? Or that Neil deGrasse Tyson, who you call the skeptic nerds’ hero, is not particularly white at all? (Answer: No, it’s not relevant.) Please don’t lump me in with random other people on the Internet who you dislike. If you search the archives of this blog, you’ll find that I don’t bolster my arguments by citing lists of fallacies on Wikipedia (OK, OK, I cited one xkcd), and I don’t choose to spend my time demolishing Illuminati or bigfoot theories. In my opinion, the idea of a JFK assassination conspiracy differs from those other ideas by being just plausible enough that its falsehood is actually interesting. Finally, even I did do those things that you find so nerdy and annoying, I personally feel that it’s better to be annoying than insane—especially since so many insane people are also annoying! 😀 65. Scott Says: Koray #54: Sorry for the delay. You raise an interesting point, but I think there are two extremely pertinent differences between (a) the debates over “design” in living things before Darwin came along, and (b) the debates today over “design” in the laws of physics. The first difference lies in the sheer amount of stuff to be explained. In the case of biology, you have not just one but millions of different kinds of organisms, each apparently “optimized” (or semi-optimized, or whatever) for a different set of tasks. So it would be natural to wonder whether all that diversity had a single purposeful cause behind it. (And if you did wonder, you’d be basically right about the “single cause” part, and only mistaken about the “purposeful” part!) With physics, by contrast, you have a set of equations small enough to fit on a t-shirt, and those equations themselves are heavily constrained by symmetry principles. Sure, you could wonder whether an intelligent designer set the fine-structure constant (at least its low-energy limit), or the other 17 or so dimensionless constants of the Standard Model, to increase the probability that life would arise on at least one planet. But it’s not emphasized enough today just what slim pickins those are, compared to what biology used to offer the design advocate before Darwin. The second difference is that, this time around, we already have Darwin’s example! In other words, we now have a clear, compelling situation where the appearance of design arose without a designer, and where we understand why. And so, if someone today points to (what they see as) evidence for “design” or “intention” in the laws of physics, and claims that as evidence for a Great Designer in the Sky, we might hesitate to agree with them just because of the case study we have, completely setting aside the quality of their evidence. 66. Douglas Knight Says: Do you have a source for the claim that Sagan was a conspiracy buff? 67. J Says: ‘white male nerd’ – I am unsure if they are nerds or crazies. Though most turn out white, it may simply be the probability odf fin\ding a white in a rich country is high and the probability that a rich country has access to lot of cranky websites in english is large and the probability that those whites go to those sites is large since they have internet connectivity. In my case, the example I have is an Asian male. I have seen one more Persian but I do not think he was a consipracy theorist rather than a disillusioned other wise sensible man. I know another white nut case who was blasting Bernanke and had lots of guns and ammo in his home and good God, he bought silver when it was$5 and was interested in Peter Schiff. But he was nice enough to drop me off in when it snowed and I did not have a car.

I even doubt the conspiracy theorists are predominantly white. May be the conspiracy theory they adhere to have a certain cultural connotation that is related to the white world. There are crazy nuts in other places as well such as those building vimanas(planes) and nukes from ancient hindu literature.

68. J Says:

Among many things common among conspiracy theorists, I have noticed a tendency for them to be on the very far right on immigration (particularly illegal) and the native conspiracy theorists have indeed serious issues with race and IQ. Now this again seems to be a serious extrapolation of facts and associating poverty with IQ (note liberals also many times dislike illegals but for objective reasons such as low skills, drain on the system etc. while the crack jobs add IQ to the list).

69. Scott Says:

Douglas Knight #66:

Do you have a source for the claim that Sagan was a conspiracy buff?

Sure. Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson, page 254. If Davidson is to be believed, it sounds like Sagan never discussed the assassination publicly, but would eagerly bring it up in private.

70. Douglas Knight Says:

Thanks. I guess I should have tried google books and not just vanilla google. Have you read any other biographies, like Poundstone, which is not searchable on Amazon?

71. Scott Says:

Douglas #70: Yes, I also read Poundstone’s biography when it came out, but I can’t remember whether it said anything about Sagan’s interest in the assassination (quite possibly not).

72. Bram Cohen Says:

Scott, there’s a strong possibility which you’re disregarding here, which is that Oswald fired all the shots himself, but was set up/encouraged to do so, with the Jack Ruby killing have been planned out in advance to conveniently destroy all evidence, and the president’s brain having been lost to cover up who knows what, and the Warren Commission intentionally bungling everything on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover, who had a death grip on everyone’s dirt and could easily have nudged everyone in the direction of willing incompetence without needing clear conspiratorial marching orders.

73. Raoul Ohio Says:

The first four lines of Bram’s remark is perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, he did not stop while he was ahead.

74. Scott Says:

Bram #72: As I discussed in comment #59, I don’t disregard the possibility that Oswald was “encouraged” to act by, for example, the Cuban Marxists who he met in Mexico (though if so, my guess would be that the latter were as surprised as anyone else when Oswald actually did it). On the other hand, like Raoul Ohio #73, I feel like the plausibility of your scenario drops by another couple orders of magnitude with each additional clause you pile on.

75. Sanjeev Arora Says:

Hi Scott

Amusing post. I must admit that I find the various facts in the JFK assasination are very weird. (But I last looked into them seriously a decade ago, and maybe some have been debunked since then.) For example, it is claimed that Oswald was a lousy shot. There’re weird coincidences:e.g. a woman who was an alibi for one early suspect worked as a stripper at Jack Ruby’s club; the secret service agents was told to step back 10 min before the assasination, and so on.

Don Delillo (a writer I like in general) has a novel called Libra that weaves these facts into a plausible story. It is a “conspiracy” in that it involves people in addition to Oswald but it is not of the “world domination” type which would run into your objection about why the conspirators didn’t go on to dominate the world after killing JFK.

76. Bram Cohen Says:

Raoul #72, Scott #73, the business of JFK’s brain having somehow been lost, taking much of the physical evidence with it, is universally acknowledged. I make no claim that this supports any specific conspiracy theory, just pointing out that it smells extremely fishy. Also the Warren Commission produced a report so monumentally bad and unconvincing that it directly lead to all the conspiracy theories which came later, basically requiring that other people go over the available evidence from scratch to make a case for the one bullet theory which doesn’t come across as a joke. And the business of J. Edgar Hoover having been able to blackmail politicians all over the place, including having ungodly amounts of files which were destroyed on his death, is also universally acknowledged. I’m not saying that the bayesian likelihood of all of these things having acted in unison is all that likely, I’m saying that the physical plausibility of it having happened would hardly pass being viewed as surprising, much less shocking.

The logic which the general public go through is that if there’s a coverup there must be a conspiracy, and the general combination of the Jack Ruby murder, the loss of JFK’s brain, and the utterly unconvincing Warren Commission report count are, by any reasonable definition, a coverup. It’s entirely plausible that the Jack Ruby murder was just a strange happening and the others were incompetence, but can you really blame the general public for doubting that?

The conspiracy theorists of course do themselves no favors by touting specific highly implausible conspiracy theories instead of simply pointing out the coverup which happened. Oliver Stone in particular threw in all kinds of goofiness about Hoover having in turn been blackmailed into blackmailing everybody else based on pictures of him in drag, and a whole slew of other ridiculous crap. There is no evidence for any of that, and Hoover was plenty evil enough that adding on all that artifice to give him motivation is completely unnecessary.

77. Bram Cohen Says:

After reading the linked to Slate article, I have to take back one thing I said in that last post. Unbeknownst to me, and probably most other people, the official non-conspiracy theory is no longer the one bullet theory, but in fact the two bullet theory. Back when I was in junior high in the early 90’s, my class was shown a program on the JFK assassination done by one of the staid exaggeratedly serious news programs of the day, which framed the whole question of the JFK assassination as one of the Very Respectable One Bullet Theory versus Conspiracy Theories, although it couldn’t avoid pointing out that the one bullet theory called for a bullet to first change angle mid-flight, then after going through two people back up and hover in the air for a second before going through the president’s brain. Take a wild guess what side all my classmates took on the one bullet vs. conspiracy theory question.

It didn’t help that the same program repeated the business about the audio recording which indicated four gunshots (which was just plain erroneous), and the Slate article points out that if you adjust the geometry of where everyone was sitting to how the actual car is set up and split it into two shots, you get two straight bullet trajectories a second apart, nothing even vaguely strange.

So taking that all at face value, which I’m inclined to do, there was no second shooter, and it’s clearly the case that the Warren Commission was just plain grossly incompetent at evaluating the available physical evidence.

That leaves the weirdest remaining thing of the Jack Ruby killing, about which neither I nor anyone else has anything useful to say. It’s entirely possible that the Ruby murder was spontaneous, but it’s also possible that it was planned, and Ruby’s being able to get directly up to Oswald and his already having been terminally ill sure are convenient.

The other thing I mentioned is JFK’s brain having been lost. I heard what was at the time a conspiracy theory in the early 90’s that it was thrown out to hide evidence that JFK had serious brain problems. Looking into it now, I’m surprised to find out that his brain problems are now universally acknowledged and known to have been quite serious, which they were NOT at the time (the story was told to me by an investigative journalist). I’d put the odds pretty heavily on his brain having been disposed of on purpose to keep those issues from coming to light, having nothing to do with the assassination.

78. Bram Cohen Says:

Since I mentioned the strangeness of Jack Ruby getting access to Oswald in the last post, I looked into it (having never done so before) and at this point would put odds on Ruby having bullshitted his way into being told by someone at the police station when Oswald was getting moved, but that whoever told him had no knowledge that Ruby had any intention of killing Oswald, most likely believing that Ruby was a member of the press or a voyeuristic friend of the police. Ruby’s motives were apparently related to self-aggrandizement and generally being a nutter. Notably Lincoln’s killer was killed in a not totally dissimilar fashion, so a vigilante counter-assassination is hardly unprecedented, even in US history. It’s clearly the case that the security around both JFK and Oswald was grossly incompetent.

That leads to the only real possible big conspiracy (I’ve just said I believe it two much smaller conspiracies) being that someone, for example, faked correspondence from Fidel Castro to Oswald saying that he personally had been selected to assassinate Kennedy. I find that extremely unlikely because (a) there have been so many attempts on US presidents’s lives that just from a bayesian standpoint that’s unlikely (b) I doubt that any of the likely conspirators could have located such a perfect assassin and strategy for manipulating him using their know-how of the time, and (c) even if they had they’d be far more likely to use that information to conduct a sting on the guy and take him off the streets than to try to use him in such a risky and unreliable manner.

I’d like to point out that all the level-headed pieces of journalism being referred to here which make a strong case for Oswald having acted alone all date from post-2000, and the Slate article which gives the first coherent explanation of the available forensic evidence I’ve seen, apparently for the first time, dates from a few weeks ago. I for one hadn’t spent much of any time thinking about the JFK assassination since then, and prior to then all the formal official accounts promoted the single bullet theory, which is just as bogus as the second shooter theories are. Even that Slate article is less than honest when it says of the Warren Commission that “the report’s central points hold up well”. No actually, the reports central forensic findings are completely and totally wrong, and the state of public discourse would have been far better if it hadn’t been issued at all.

79. asdf Says:

Meanwhile we learn that a quantum computer, if built, will collapse into a black hole?

http://www.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/you-cant-get-entangled-without-a-wormhole-1205.html

😉

80. Rahul Says:

As an aside, are there any good examples of what the majority of rational people at one time assumed to be a conspiracy theory which was at a latter date shown to be the true factual narrative after all?

I think not many but I may be wrong. My personal biggest reason to distrust a conspiracy theory is just that they are almost always just BS.

One counter-example that comes to mind is the recent NSA business. If someone had told me a year ago that it’s highly likely the NSA had all my phone call meta data stashed away or a running tap into Googles datacenter I’d have thought it just another conspiracy theory. Alas, apparently not.

81. Scott Says:

asdf #79: I’ve commented on this before, but briefly, I think “you can’t get entangled without a wormhole” is an absolutely terrible way to describe the ER=EPR idea, assuming that idea is correct. One direction of the correspondence seems plausible and unobjectionable: namely that wormholes, to whatever extent they can exist at all in quantum gravity, are “just” instances of entanglement between two black holes. But the other direction, that every pair of entangled particles formed in the lab or in ordinary chemical processes “is” a wormhole, seems crazy to me—particularly given that a generic entangled state is vastly more complicated than an EPR pair, and doesn’t go “from” anywhere “to” anywhere else. What’s correct, in the Maldacena-Susskind picture, is to say that any collection of EPR pairs could be used to create a wormhole, if you dropped the left halves of the EPR pairs into one black hole and the right halves into another black hole. (And, at least when I talked with Lenny Susskind over the summer, he agreed to that more modest interpretation of “ER=EPR.”)

82. Scott Says:

Bram #78: In general, I’d say that, if some commission claims X, and then the whole world spends a half-century trashing the commission and claiming not(X), and then a convergence of new and old evidence leads to the conclusion that X was true after all, we don’t get to say that the commission was still “completely and totally wrong” because it didn’t nail the forensic details. It has to get some credit for having been unpopularly right on the main point of interest!

As far as I understand, the Warren Commission argued that bullet #1 missed, bullet #2 went through JFK’s shoulder and neck and then hit Governor Connally, and bullet #3 hit JFK in the head, killing him. And the modern consensus is that that’s exactly what happened. The one real advance is that we now have better reconstructions of the relative positions of JFK and Connally in the car, and of the behavior of that kind of bullet when going through flesh, making it completely clear that bullet #2 could have done its job while obeying the laws of physics. But even if we didn’t have those reconstructions, that seems to me like a pretty thin thread on which to hang a conspiracy theory! Forensics is hard, and it’s very easy to be mistaken about exactly which bullet went where when while still being right about the essentials (cf. Joshua Zelinsky’s comment #2).

83. Scott Says:

Sanjeev Arora #75 and others: After watching Oliver Stone’s JFK and reading some of the conspiracy literature, I was blown away by how many of the conspiracists’ “holes” and “mysterious coincidences” had perfectly non-mysterious, known explanations that the conspiracists had simply never bothered to tell me. That played a huge role in undermining the conspiracists’ credibility for me.

For example:

The second bullet needing to pause and change its trajectory in midair to do what the Warren Commission claimed? Complete BS. Connally’s seat was 3 inches lower than JFK’s, which is why the second bullet could continue on to him despite being on a downward trajectory.

JFK’s brain? It’s now known RFK had it quietly interred with the rest of JFK’s remains.

The people connected to the case who mysteriously died? Given the literally thousands of people somehow connected to the case, the small fraction who died soon afterward is completely non-mysterious, nor were the circumstances of the deaths (cancer, stuff like that) particularly mysterious.

Oswald being a terrible shot? Flat-out wrong. The people most in a position to know about his shooting ability thought he was perfectly good enough, and the shot wasn’t all that hard anyway. And he had three attempts.

After seeing enough examples like this, I confess that something changed for me, and I just stopped being interested in yet more mysterious coincidences. (After the first thousand Bigfoot sightings turn out to be just the hairy next-door neighbor, you’re unlikely to run out of the house for the thousand-and-first sighting.)

84. Bram Cohen Says:

Scott, the business of JFK’s brain isn’t quite so pat as all that – http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2013/11/22/jfk-john-f-kennedy-brain-james-swanson-book-50-anniversary/

His brain did wind up with the rest of his remains, and it’s *believed* to have been put there by RFK, but *somebody* stole not only the brain but all the autopsy slides and other documentation which went along with it, and those have never been recovered. (The brain winding up with the rest of his remains sure supports the theory that it was RFK who took it). The theory that his brain was taken to hide his having been sick is today viewed at totally normal and reasonable.

I suspect that business about nerves exploding when bullets hit them is a bunch of bullshit by the way. Thanks to high speed cameras we now have a much better idea of what happens when rifle shots hit flesh (of which mythbusters have shown a whole lot of footage) and basically what happens is that shock waves fly in every direction, destroying all the soft flesh in their path. Probably what happened is that one of those sent part of the president’s skull flying backwards while the overall center of gravity of his head continued on a forward course, somewhat obfuscated by the rest of the head’s larger mass and the blood splattering everywhere.

Then I’m afraid we’re too late: they’ve already gotten to Scott.

Hey, I’m starting to like this whole conspiracy theory thing. Every objection can just be turned into a new layer of the conspiracy.

86. Bram Cohen Says:

Rahul, you’re asking for an awful lot in your request. Specifically, you want a situation where (a) There was a conspiracy (b) The conspiracy wasn’t found out (c) No wait, the conspiracy was found out and widely reported at the time, but (d) People didn’t believe it anyway and then (e) Clear evidence survived and has since emerged for the conspiracy which is now widely accepted.

That’s a lot to ask for! I can’t help but wonder though, if you were to do a full DNA sequencing of literally every human on earth, just how far back you’d be able to trace complete bloodlines, and how many ancient royalty you’d find out were bastards.

87. Raoul Ohio Says:

My offhand remark in #73 seemed about right at the time. However, after reading Bram’s fuller account, it seems that he has made a strong effort to sift out what is plausible from the huge vat of conspiracy goofiness. That is a valuable service; and pretty interesting.

88. J.D. Salinger Says:

If you apply this logic to D-Wave or even the Manhattan Project before it was public, you’d arrive at the same conclusion.

There is virtually no analysis of any of the claims, instead, all else is attacked with ad-hominens and statements about how unlikely it all is.

Let’s take a look:

2. irrelevant
3. irrelevant
4. irrelevant
5. irrelevant, see D-Wave and Manhattan project
6. irrelevant
7. irrelevant, ‘a D-Wave computer is used by Google, which is perfectly consistent with the kind of people that would use a computer like that if it existed’
8. irrelevant, if a person lies in the past, does that mean all further statements are also lies?
9. irrelevant, nutjobs are not only the only people that would take part in something like this, they are great keepers of secrets, precisely because they have no credibility.
10. irrelevant, you could say this about all scientific papers published on a currently open problem with no clear answer.
11. irrelevant, if the Manhattan project had never gone public, the same would be true about it.
12. irrelevant, if D-Wave computers don’t work like they claim they do, why do credible people keep looking into using them.
16. irrelevant, making assumptions about why ‘conspiracy theorists’ think he was involved and guesstimating their opinion of him.
17. irrelevant, this is supposed to be about Oswald being a loner shooter, not about what secret cabals can do or why they are unlikely.
20. the goal of people grouped into the class of ‘conspiracy theorists’ is to poke holes and show that the current version must be false, not to establish an alternative explanation (I know a lot of geocities sites have some, but that doesn’t mean make all the ‘holes’ false). Ironically, when scientists debate creationists, they do the same thing. Creationists then proceed to follow the same exact logic, ‘holes don’t mean they are right’.

Dirty work has been historically delegated to nutjobs or even the mafia. The person is not credible and people will spend decades arguing about the people involved and not about what happened. Note how there is no talk about bullets, events, documents, etc. Just ad-hominems. Then, a few posts later, a post on ad-hominems:

Some readers might be interested in my defense of LessWrongism against a surprisingly-common type of ad-hominem attack (i.e., “the LW ideas must be wrong because so many of their advocates are economically-privileged but socially-awkward white male nerds, the same sorts of people who might also be drawn to Ayn Rand or other stuff I dislike”). By all means debate the ideas—I’ve been doing it for years—but please give beyond-kindergarten arguments when you do so!”

For the record, I don’t have an opinion on what happened that day. There is not enough information.

89. Bram Cohen Says:

Scott, it appears that John Kerry didn’t exactly say that he believes in a JFK conspiracy, his exact wording (which is hard to capture the nuances of in a headline) appears to be snarking about the general territoriality and incompetence of differing intelligence agencies, which given recent revelations is clearly a big problem to this day.

90. Rahul Says:

Bram Cohen #86:

(1) Event happens (2) Afterwards theories emerge saying the official, widely believed version of events is a cover up with an alternative conspiracy theory version (3) Mainstream doesn’t believe conspiracy (4) Eventually conspiracy version is proven true.

Not too much to ask for. I think the Snowden NSA saga fits the bill. No?

I just think it’s so rare that the mainstream is wrong.

The two Slate articles are decent, but both assume that because Robert Kennedy ran Operation Mongoose that he and the administration approved the Castro assassination attempts. That inference has always been a reach to me and it often seems employed by writers to complete the story’s arc. Arthur Schlesinger investigated it while writing RFK’s biography and found no evidence in the record that the CIA agents involved informed anyone outside of the agency of what they were doing. Plus, RFK was a devout Catholic – an order to kill would have been inexplicably inconsistent with his worldview.

I think many conspiracy theorists – Talbot, for sure – have been horrified to learn of the autonomy that the CIA enjoyed before and during the Kennedy administration and that has been a great source of fuel for them. And they do have great examples to work with, like when CIA agent Bill Harvey independently tried to send sixty agents into Cuba to begin planning an invasion at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But their best evidence to date is probably this cable, which is more suggestive of negligence than conspiracy.

92. Raoul Ohio Says:

The mainstream is wrong plenty. What’s your (birth) sign?

93. BT_Uytya Says:

(probabilities)
> I would’ve assigned a ~10% probability
> Conditioned on that happening

(using of priors)
> use their general beliefs to decide
> our prior should be overwhelmingly against anything
> Other high-profile assassinations
> at most one could be true

(explaining away)
> created the perfect conditions for conspiracy theorizing to fester
> “emotional truth”… is further evidence
> how people could come to believe in a conspiracy even in the total absence of one

(likelihood ratio vs representativeness heuristic)
> reality of the human nervous system… reality of the assassination
> To me, however, it indicates just the opposite

(Occam’s razor)
> growth in size and complexity

(absense of evidence is evidence of absense)
> why didn’t it do something more impressive
——–

Scott, are you finally converted into Bayesianism?

94. BT_Uytya Says:

(damn, I should’ve spellchecked this thing)

95. Rahul Says:

Raoul Ohio :
Comment #91

It’s so rare that the mainstream is wrong….about conspiracy theories I meant. Give me counterexamples? That’s what I’m looking for.

Name some theories widely ridiculed as conspiracy theories that subsequently proved true after all.

96. John Sidles Says:

Rahul says: “Name some theories widely ridiculed as conspiracy theories that subsequently proved true after all.”

Both true and false conspiracy theories occur commonly in the literature of intelligence:

• Ultra and Purple *were* real (that is, the Allies broke the Axis codes).

• The following *were* spies: Klau Fuchs, Morton Sobol, Julius Rosenberg, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt.

• The theory that Ludwig Wittgenstein caused WWII by antagonizing Adolf Hitler is supremely nutty.

However, *none* of the above three conspiracy-theoretic narratives (as it seems to me) offer any substantial insights into contemporary global issues.

Alternative  Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2012), which nominally is about the 20th century Soviet enterprise, can be read with insight and enjoyment as a parable about the 21st century STEM enterprise.

Spufford’s amazing quasi-novel teaches that the deadliest conspiracies mostly arise from shortsighted parochial ignorance, not from foresighted globe-spanning intelligence. And this is likely to be similarly true of the 21st century, as of the 20th century.

97. John Sidles Says:

PS  I forgot to mention that a key character in Spufford’s Red Plenty is the mathematician Leonid Kantorovich, the Nobel-winning Soviet inventor of the linear programming algorithm. It’s fun when sophisticated conspiracy-theoretic narratives involve real complexity-theoretic mathematics!

98. J.D. Salinger Says:

‘Conspiracy theories’ that turned out to be true:

PRISM, Manhattan project, Iran-Contra, Rex 84, COININTELPRO, Operation Mockingbird, Asbestors, Watergate, Operation Northwoods, Bohemian Grove, Operation Paperclip, Operation Peter Pan, Area 51, Gulf of Tonkin, MKULTRA, Mitrokhin Archive, Rothschild Waterloo plot, Cosa Nostra, Murder Inc., Abu Ghraib, and everything here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States to name a few

99. Douglas Knight Says:

Rahul, how about North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens?

100. John Sidles Says:

Shtetl Optimized readers who are interested the concrete entanglement of higher mathematics with real-world conspiracies may enjoy these three lively references:

The Future  Thomas Saaty and H. J. Zoffer write in this month’s Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society Principles for Implementing a Potential Solution to the Middle East Conflict.”

Is the Saaty/Zoffer solution feasible? Crazy? Sufficiently crazy that it might be feasible (Kantorovich-style)? You decide.

The Present  Gen. James Mattis USMC (ret) accepts the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) Franklin Award for 2013, Reflections of a Combatant Commander in a Turbulent World.”

Is Mattis’ worldview realistic? Crazy? Sufficiently realistic that it might be crazy? You decide.

The Past  Gen. Hassan Arfa (dec.) A Dramatic Account of the Evolution of Iran by One Who Took Part

Gen. Arfa was an ardent Iranian royalist. Was he crazy? Traditionalist? Sufficiently crazy as to make a loyal royalist? You decide.

—————-

These readings are suggested with view toward Francis Spufford’s on-line supplementary remarks in regard to Red Plenty

I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it [Red Plenty].

But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past.

I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences.

Whatever it is.

Conclusion  Francis Spufford articulates an over-arching reason to study mathematics, history, conspiracies … *and* the conspiracy-centric cognition that passionately powers so much mathematics and history … and makes us (in Spufford’s words) “laugh nervously while naively going about our business.”

101. Scott Says:

BT_Uytya #93: Well, I’ve always used Bayesian reasoning any time it seemed appropriate—so if that’s all it takes to be a Bayesian, then I’ve always been one! (Except that I didn’t usually call it Bayesianism; I just called it “clear thinking” or something like that.)

My only disagreement is with what you might call the “ultra-Bayesians” or “Bayesian fundamentalists”: i.e., the people who consider it sensible (and even a requirement of rationality) to have a single prior over everything that could possibly happen in the history of the universe.

102. BT_Uytya Says:

You use “Bayesians” in a meaning which differs slightly from meaning implied by your previous answer to the similar question.

Looks like you are fairly confident in “every argument should be consistent with probability theory as extended logic” and not sure in “humans should assign probabilities to everything”. Am I correct here?

103. Douglas Knight Says:

Cosa Nostra / Murder Inc is a good example of something that was dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but really was a conspiracy. I don’t think that the rest of Salinger’s examples fit.

Probably pretty much everything that happened in Italy in the 70s fits.

104. Raoul Ohio Says:

Douglas Knight:

Are you kidding? Who dismissed Cosa Nostra as a conspiracy theory? You might be the only person who believed the press releases of the American Italian Anti-Defamation League.

105. Douglas Knight Says:

My understanding is that J Edgar Hoover dismissed the Mafia as a conspiracy theory until the 1950 Kefauver Committee, and to a lesser extent for decades afterwards, but I don’t have a primary source.

106. Scott Says:

BT_Uytya #102:

Looks like you are fairly confident in “every argument should be consistent with probability theory as extended logic” and not sure in “humans should assign probabilities to everything”. Am I correct here?

Yes, that’s correct, although “not sure” understates my skepticism about the idea of assigning probabilities to everything.

107. Bram Cohen Says:

Examples of conspiracies not widely believed at the time but now clearly happened: FDR not having working legs, Reagan having gone seriously senile while still president.

Examples of things widely dismissed as conspiracies but are entirely plausible, if not likely: Dubya wearing a wire in his debates with Kerry, Trig Palin not being Sarah Palin’s kid.

108. Douglas Knight Says:

Bram, what is your evidence that people at the time of FDR’s presidency did not know he was in a wheelchair? My impression is that they had more accurate beliefs about him than today, but people today just love the idea that people in the past were rubes.

If Trig’s mother were Bristol, especially if his father were Levi Johnston, wouldn’t this have come out after their falling out and LJ’s book?

Trig not being Sarah’s child is a great hypothesis because it is testable. The information is not being destroyed and, barring an early death, someone will do surreptitious genetic tests in 10-30 years.

109. Anon Says:

The chance of having a baby with Down Syndrome at age 18 is less than 1 in 1600.

The chance at age 44 is more than 1 in 40.

Bayesian probability tells us that Trig’s mother is probably Sarah Palin.

110. Jr Says:

@Raoul,

Actually I think the most popular suspects for conspiracy theories are the Jews, followed by the Freemasons.

111. Jr Says:

“Bayesian probability tells us that Trig’s mother is probably Sarah Palin.”

For some choices of prior.

112. Bram Cohen Says:

Doug Knight #108, the extent of his disability was well hidden – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin_D._Roosevelt's_paralytic_illness

Anon #109: Most 44 year old women are incapable of having children, most children with downs syndrome are born to younger mothers.

That said, I did the math and it appears that in order to be Trig’s mother Bristol would have had to get pregnant again immediately after giving birth and had Tripp a bit early. So it’s possible, but another odd thing which would have to have happen. Obviously LJ couldn’t be the father of Trig, but given that LJ said that Sarah insisted that they should claim that Tripp was an unrelated kid adopted by the grandparents, his account doesn’t really make the Bristol is Trig’s mother narrative all that much less likely.

113. Douglas Knight Says:

Yes, that article quotes lots of people saying that people in the 1930s were rubes. But then it cites this, which quotes a lot of coverage of his wheelchair.

Most statistics about fertility and age are made up. No one has a clue how fertile is a 44 year old woman.

That’s an interesting story LJ tells, definitely evidence for the hypothesis, but I still think his book is net evidence against it. Simply eliminating the candidate father is a big blow to the theory, but you’re also asking that Bristol hide the plot from her long-term boyfriend, just as he’s getting her pregnant.

114. Raoul Ohio Says:

How about a SO Conspiracy Theory Contest?

You might have read that a fake sign language interpreter was onstage at the Nelson Mandela memorial service, televised worldwide.

What’s the real story here?

115. Bram Cohen Says:

The narratives of FDR’s condition being a secret and it also being out there aren’t really contradictory. Information dissemination was many orders of magnitude less efficient back then, and just because information was published didn’t mean it got to everybody. Of course his condition would have been clearly described on Wikipedia, read by everyone who did any research at all, but Wikipedia wasn’t invented yet.

116. Bram Cohen Says:

Speaking of conspiracies, there’s increasing evidence that Dubya outright knew that Saudi Arabia was directly behind the 9/11 attacks, covered it up, and blamed it on Iraq because that’s the country he wanted to invade –

http://nypost.com/2013/12/15/inside-the-saudi-911-coverup/

This one is also interesting because the truth is likely to come out eventually – there’s some redacted stuff which will inevitably become unredacted at some point.

117. Sanjeev Arora Says:

Hey Scott:
Checking this again after a few weeks.

I’m not convinced you’ve really looked at the evidence so much. There is a reason so many rational people who followed it at the time and since then have concluded that things somehow don’t add up.
What actually happened that day is of course unclear.

For instance, the issue of Oswald’s markmanship and the condition of his rifle was investigated a lot by the Warren commision and you just want to dismiss those findings out of hand).

Obviously I haven’t done the due diligence of checking original sources (nor do I have the patience to do so) but there’s a summary on this website
(which also ends up reaching similar conclusions as DeLillo’s book).

http://22november1963.org.uk/oswald-guilty-or-not-guilty

118. J Says:

To say that Gandhi was assassinated by a hindu nutjob is the one reason that India exists today as it is or India as it is exists today may not be much of an untruth given the history of the subcontinent. Imagine the scenario where the assassin was a muslim nutjob and the potential implications.

119. Nick Gotts Says:

I agree with your conclusion, but was going to make the same point as Matt Austern@1, and I think Blaise Pascal@3 is wrong about the scope of the conspiracy behind Franz Ferdinand’s assassination being very different from those proposed for JFK’s. Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” explains the conspiracy in detail: it was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, chief of Serbian Military Intelligence, and also of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (“Unity or Death!”, better known as “The Black Hand”), a Serbian irridentist organization with thousands of members in the Serbian military, police and customs, as well as in Bosnia and elsewhere. The Serbian Prime Minister, Nikola Pašić, may well have known of its existence. The effects of the assassination, of course, were far greater than those of JFK’s.

120. Yatima Says:

“The effects of the assassination, of course, were far greater than those of JFK’s.”

It also resulted in full success: an independent Serbia.
I very much like this gentle introduction, which also lists a few pretty ugly conspiracies of the large-scale kind, all in plain sight.

Anyway, great job on Scott’s post.

121. Kevin Says:

“Earl Warren would have approved the members of the commission, and the conclusions of the report. So, was Warren in on the conspiracy too? If it was a right-wing conspiracy, how did they recruit the most notorious liberal in the Supreme Court’s history?”

Scott, your command of the context of the era is quite sound, yet Warren was in fact a conservative politician. The fact that the rendered the Brown decision does not make him a liberal, although that’s what his racist opponents considered him. For Warren, the Brown decision was indeed a conservative position.

Just for the record, I think Oswald fired the shots. One thing that puzzles me happens before Oswald fired those shots. How the hell did he get back into the U.S. without going to jail for his defection? He re-entered the USA at a time when people from Hartford, CT to Jackson, MS to Cheyenne, Wyoming were railroading school teachers out of town for using so-called communist-influenced textbooks. Given this highly charged political atmosphere intolerant of defectors, could bureaucratic incompetence have allowed Oswald back into the nation? Yes, but I’m surprised he didn’t receive constant surveillance if not falling victim to mob activity.

122. Thomas Says:

Maybe this was allready mentioned somewhere in the comments but I think you could add Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 to the list of known actual conspiracies.

123. Gary Lundquist Says:

I was alive and well in 1963 and remember it as well as my kids say they remember 9/11. I went to High School with two daughters of Earl Rose the coroner who was pushed out of the way by secret servant agents when he tried to prevent the body of President Kennedy from being removed from Parkland Hospital. I would like to say first of all that if Dr. Rose would have been allowed to do his autopsy there would be no controversy as to how many bullets, there location and from what direction they were fired. Also if all his wounds where the result of the same gun and type of ammunition. He was a dedicated professional doctor who I met once. Sadly he was forcefully prevented from doing his job. I have chatted with a few friends of Dr. Rose and would like to bounce these thoughts by you on his views about the JFK assassination. One, he was I believe very reluctant to believe that our government, his government killed JFK. Parenthetically my dad born in 1914 did not and could not believe the country he went to war for in WWII would ever be a part of any plot to kill it’s own president. But I believe he also knew that all the medical professionals that viewed President Kennedy at Parkland Hospital would not lie about the location of the massive head wound in the right rear of the president’s head. So I think he lived with an outward opinion of the validity of the Warren reports conclusion but still lived with unanswered questions. I have always viewed Dr. Rose as a bit of a hero. One of the very few people in official capacity who genuinely tried to do the right thing. For me, I once believed the warren commission’s report to be true but as years have gone by and more evidence mounts I believe that at the very least there was a cover up of the facts. Probably by J Edgar Hoover and others so their incompetence would not be shown. And I am still deciding if this murder was orchestrated by our government.

124. JFK: Debunking Scott Aaronson’s “Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone” | Richard Charnin's Blog Says:

[…] I came across this blog post by Scott Aaronson: Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone. http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1596 […]

My number one proof as to why there was no overall conspiracy to kill JFK in Dealey Plaza is simple: there was no guarantee that sniper fire would succeed.
All it would have taken was for the Secret Service in the limo (or Connelly) to yell “get down” after the first shot rang out and there would have been no target.
If there were truly powerful people capable of falsifying evidence and setting up patsies – then they would have poisoned JFK in the White House, and put it down to a heart attack from poor health or stress of the job.
A sniper shot at a moving target was the act of desperation of a lone nut who found his workplace overlooked the parade route.

126. Rozelli Zavier Says:

It’s amazing how conspiracy theorists will point the finger of blame at, or to be more precise, individuals and groups who either as they claim conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald or set him up as the poor “Patsy”. Their claims are without foundation, both in fact and in Law. Their claims are illogical, irrational, slanderous, scurrilous, and downright dangerous. And before any individual asks, no, I am not naive enough to think that we are living in Utopia, and that the world is perfect. It is far from perfect. Terrible crimes have been committed. There have been cover-ups and conspiracy’s. Government’s have lied to the people. If there were any evidence in the JFK case of a conspiracy, it would undoubtedly have been laid bare many years ago. There is not a scintilla of evidence, never has been, and never will be in this case of a conspiracy.

All the common conspiracy theory myths have been completely debunked. There have been countless crimes committed by lone individuals, and yes Lee Harvey Oswald is one of those. One man, one gun, (and another for Tippit) the means, the opportunity, the audacity, the maliciousness, the malevolence, and a warped sense of morality and motive in order to achieve a place in history. That is what happened. The evidence is simply overwhelming. Lee Harvey Oswald was one dangerous individual, do not be easily fooled, and he proved that on Friday November 22nd 1963, when he alone assassinated President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

127. Jeff Bilyeu Says:

I have no doubt that Oswald acted alone.
Here’s one bit of logic I’ve never heard anyone explain away.
Oswald got a job at the school book Depository. No one thinks that was part of the conspirators plan. He got this job before anyone knew that Kennedy was coming to Dallas. Ms. Ruth Pain who was a friend of the Oswald’s has been found innocent of being involved in the assassination. She arranged for Oswald to get the interview and eventually the job at the Depository. Later it was decided that Kennedy was going to go to Dallas and much later that the route would go by the Depository. I can’t believe that a group of conspirators just happened to find a marksman, proclaimed communist, violent gun nut that on short notice they could include him in their plan, as a patsy or shooter. Doesn’t work Oswald would never be your choice anyway. The only one that chose Oswald was Oswald.

128. Bill Chapman Says:

I find a number of people here have not done serious research, not even getting the seating positions correct, which are in plain view in many photographs of the JFK limo along the parade route that day, including the famous Croft photo, taken 3.79 seconds before the bullet that struck both victims http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-IZHcKg5nj9g/T4tjQtNDaRI/AAAAAAAAPFc/fxG8lBsze4I/s1600/Croft-Photo-Showing-JFK%2527s-Car-On-Elm-Street.jpg﻿

Oliver Stone, Cyril Wecht, Garrison, and others falsely presented JFK & JBC as seated in a normal car. Such was not the case.

Regarding Ruby, the announced time for the moving of Oswald was 10am. However it wasn’t until around 11am when Oswald was brought out into the garage. Had Ruby been just a few seconds later (someone said 25 sec) he would have missed Oswald.

Ruby was well-known to DPD, acted like he was one of them. He was a huge admirer of JFK, and purportedly didn’t want Jackie to relive the tragedy in public by having to testify in a trial. Besides, a reporter who knew him well said that he’d be the last person on earth you’d want to trust with a secret; he was always bragging and shooting his mouth off.

129. Bill Chapman Says:

I have a trick question that I present when addressing the CTer claim that Oswald had too crappy a rifle and was too crappy a shot to have landed a couple of rounds. I simply ask ‘Since you seem fully convinced of that, would you sit in JFK’S seat?

They are trapped! If they say ‘yes’, they are either lying or stupid. No sane person is gong to let anyone at all—even a blind person—take three potshots at them at that or any other distance along Elm St. If they say ‘no’, they are admitting that Oswald could have gotten lucky.

And since Oswald went through intensive Marine training, he would not have to be anyway NEAR as lucky as you or I. To top that off, people who have visited Dealey Plaza say it’s much, much smaller than they had imagined, and that JFK was a sitting duck.

130. jack d Says:

Really enjoyed your perspective. I’ve struggled with the lone gunman for awhile now. For awhile I was convinced in a headshot from the side, not so much anymore. I’ve accepted this after years of debate. No theory can accurately be proven. I believe Oswald acted alone at this point in my life. 2 years ago I would have told you theories on sewer drains and whatnot. Here’s what I can prove. Oswald wanted to be remembered and we are giving him what he wants. Hell some of us are giving him fame and innocence. Please dont fall into this trap. I promise you at the very least he fired a shot.

131. James Says:

On one point I disagree with you the Mafia owned the election of JFK. They contributed to his campaign as well. JFKs father was a moonshiner he had ties to the mafia. Oswald was a complete moron Marines who were with him said his shooting was lousy but somehow his score is maintained at 212 a sharpshooter then why did you miss General Walker? Oswald was shooting from behind so why did JFKs head rock back like his head was shot from the front? The mafia was angry with Castro for chasing them out of Havana and wanted JFK to do something he wouldn’t. I would suggest reading CIA Legacy of Ashes. Also read up on Rose Cheramie aka Melba Mercades. PBS has a whole program about Oswald and things not talked about like his time in Louisiana and Mexico City.

132. Habits of highly mathematical people | MLN's Blog @ Computer Science Says:

[…] Aaronson wrote a blog post about the JFK assassination and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. In it, he takes the claim […]

133. Hitting the Links | The Tao of Gaming Says:

[…] interesting way to debunk conspiracy theories by Scott Aaronson — 20 reasons to believe JFK acted alone. (Older […]

134. kym Says:

Agreed. And furthermore, when ruby shot Oswald instead of emptying his gun like a “hit man” he jumped on him and tried to punch him like an enraged citizen. LBJ being involved is ridiculous because–unbeknownst to people who didn’t live through the period–LBJ DIDN’T TAKE HIS SECOND TERM. You’re telling me he’d murder to get the job yet just step down? third, Oswald had no get-away plan. His plan was ride the bus home, get his pistol, then wander until arrested. Some conspiracy. Lastly, and totally true, when I lived in Dallas in around 1985 I met a friend of Ruby’s who told me the idea of him involved “is like a joke” that “Jack was the last guy in the world you’d pick for that mission.” He also said it was his brother who was really ruby’s buddy but the warren commission talked to both of them because, “they interviewed everyone Jack ever met.” It was just Oswald. It happened when I was ten and the bottom line is THIS DOESN’T MATTER ANYMORE. thanks.

135. Roger Barrick Says:

The reason for the continued scepticism regarding the “lone assassin” verdict lies not in the fact that the public cannot accept that a man of Oswald’s apparent insignificance and relative powerlessness could bring down the most powerful man in the world; it is, rather, that there are so many contradictory facts, the most significant of which is revealed by the Zapruder film which shows President Kennedy’s head snap immediately backwards after being shot by what could only have been an exploding bullet fired from his front and not the Texas School book depository. That graphic visual evidence has been rebutted by various test firings on human like models but, nonetheless, these tests do not overcome the public’s scepticism about that shot, collaborated by at least a dozen witnesses who testified to both hearing shots and seeing puffs of smoke coming from the “Grassy Knoll” as the President was hit. In addition, Oswald was not an expert marksman, no amount of mock ups of the angle of trajectory from the School Depository can explain how the bullet that struck the President in the back did not explode like the one which hit his head, and that this “magic bullet” would have had to take an immediate upward turn to come in at a steep downward angle in the President’s back and then exit cleanly from the President’s neck. That, in combination with the clearly faked photos of Oswald holding the Mannlicher Carrano rifle in his then residence’s back yard, the Senate Select Committee’s conclusion that more than three shots were fired at the Presidential motorcade, that the President’s death was likely the result of a conspiracy and the very odd circumstance that VP Lyndon Johnson bent down almost to the floor of his limousine in the motorcade a full two seconds before the 1st shot was fired, have fueled the controversy over the President’s assassination and have led a strong majority of the American people to continue to believe that LH Oswald did not act alone and that he may very well have been the “patsy” he steadfastly claimed to be until he was silenced forever by jack Ruby.