I am not a conspiracy theorist. I was when I was younger and more impressionable. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned two immutable facts of life. First, people in power aren’t that bright. Oh, they can be book smart and even cunning. They can be crafty. But inevitably they are not smart enough to outwit everyone. The mad genius who outsmarts the world is a Hollywood creation. And even if he did exist, conspiracies involve a lot of people. The more people they involve, the more likely it is that they will involve someone stupid who blows the whole thing.
Second, human beings are defined by their inability to shut up. People are simply terrible at keeping secrets. They want to talk; they need to talk. So if a conspiracy actually existed, we’d have constant leaks and first-hand information. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it would involve someone who just could not keep his trap shut. Think about how difficult it is to keep a surprise baby shower quiet; now imagine trying to keep people from talking about alien bodies at Roswell.
(The latter was partially informed by Dave Barry who said he knew the Roswell conspiracy was garbage because, were it true, we’d have constant leaks and Congressional arguments about whose district the dead alien storage facility would be built in.)
But conspiracies actually do exist, sometimes. Cracked has run two articles on real-life conspiracies. So there could be something to all this conspiracy mongering, right?
No. Cracked calls them “conspiracy theories that turned out to be true” but they were actually conspiracies that wound up being discovered. First hand evidence surfaced, people admitted what was done and no one really questions the conspiracies. But you will not find a conspiracy that was kept quiet for decades and cracked by some nut peering at photographs and spinning yarns. In each case, they were discovered either by devoted investigation that uncovered first-hand evidence or an admission by the parties involved.
So how do we know real conspiracy theories from bogus ones? When it comes to conspiracy theories, I evaluate them by three criteria. I’ll list them below and then illustrate them with some examples of conspiracy theories that are garbage (9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was faked) and conspiracy theories that were actually true (Tuskegee experiments, the streetcar conspiracy). And in the end, I’ll apply these to the most common JFK conspiracy theories to show why I don’t believe them.
The One Tooth Fairy Rule: One of my professors at UVa used what he called the “One Tooth Fairy Rule” when it came to theoretical astrophysics. The idea was that a theory was allowed to have one aspect that was, at the moment, unexplained. It was allowed one ad-hoc “well, if you assume X, then our theory works”. But once you needed two tooth fairies, your theory could no longer be considered worthwhile. It might be an interesting speculation, but it wasn’t really a viable theory at that point.
As applied to conspiracy theories, this means that the theorists are allowed one “we can’t really explain X” but no more. Going beyond that means the theory isn’t worth thinking about. If you have numerous holes in your theory, that’s probably a sign that the theory is garbage.
What you quickly find is that almost all garbage conspiracy theories are a veritable Tooth Fairy convention. 9/11 conspiracy theorists, for example, have no real explanation for what happened to the hundreds of passengers on the planes that supposedly didn’t hit the Pentagon, they have no explanation for why remote-control planes were used in one attack and missiles in another, they have no explanation for the frantic phone calls from passengers on the planes. They make wild conjectures about these things, but you pretty much have to assume, for example, that passengers were disappeared with zero evidence to support it or dozens of phones calls were faked well enough to fool family members (or that all the family members were in on it).
The moon landing fails this test as well. They don’t really have an explanation of why NASA would go the trouble of building all the pieces of a moon shot without actually doing it. They have no explanation for the moon rocks that had different chemistry than Earth rocks. Oh, they have wild-eyed theories. But in the end, you just have to assume that NASA was just an ounce shy of a moon shot and faked the analysis of dozens of scientists who investigated the lunar rocks.
By contrast, the streetcar conspiracy and the the Tuskegee Experiment theory have no tooth fairies and never did even before they were proven. The first is a straight-forward conspiracy to buy up trolleys and trash them in favor of highways and buses. The streetcars were bought, the streetcars were trashed and the companies that did it turned out to be shells for automotive interests. Had you been hypothesizing about this before the government’s investigation, the only tooth fairy would have been the financial records.
As for Tuskegee, that is also a straight-forward. You had black men supposedly treated for “bad blood” dying of syphilis and they all saw the same group of doctors. The only tooth fairy was the actual medical records. And it was broken because one of the men who knew about it went public.
Basically, garbage conspiracy theories tend to be Rube Goldberg contraptions involving a lot of assumptions, a lot of bizarre decisions by the conspirators and a hosts of completely silent participants. This is because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence but from snaking around the primary evidence to fit holes (or perceived holes) in the conventional explanation. By contrast, real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight-forward. Look at Cracked’s conspiracies that turned out to be real. All of them are straight-forward and simple. Contrast “we’re not going to give penicillin to black men and see what happens” or “we’re going to blow up Parliament” with the paragraph after paragraph needed to explain your typical Truther theory.
No Bullshit: A conspiracy theory can not have elements that are complete garbage. It is common for conspiracy theorists, when called on one piece of bullshit, to say, “well, yeah, but you can’t explain the rest of it!” Even though that is not usually true, the fact is that the conspiracy theory was rested on a foundation of lies and misunderstandings. Once you pull out one card, the rest collapse. Finding multiple pieces of bullshit in a conspiracy theory is an indicator that the theorists haven’t done their homework. It’s a sign that they have built their conspiracy from the top down (assume a conspiracy, look for evidence of it) than from the bottom up (gather evidence, find a conspiracy).
Truther conspiracy theory rests heavily on a series of falsehoods: false claims that plane debris was not found at the Pentagon, false claims that steel doesn’t warp at high temperatures, false claims that no plane was seen hitting the Pentagon. Moon hoaxers claim that movie props are labelled with letters, that flags flutter, that stars should be seen on the moon. These are easily verifiable claims that are easily proven to be false. A theory can’t possibly be considered reasonable if multiple elements of it are completely bogus. And they indicate a casual disregard for systematic approaches to information as opposed to simply grasping at straws.
By contrast, nothing in the Tuskegee Experiments contradicts known science or facts. People get syphilis. The symptoms can be a bit unclear. It can go untreated and be spread or kill people. Black men were treated by Tuskegee doctors and they actually died. The theory was never implausible nor contained any implausible elements. The same thing is true of the streetcar conspiracy: trolleys were bought up, trolleys were destroyed and highways were built. Even before the clinching proof was found, nothing in the conspiracy theory was a lie.
Again, real conspiracies tend to be straight forward involving a small set of easily testable facts. Bogus ones tend to be complex involving a host of often incorrect assumptions. The evidence of a real conspiracy is like a house made of stone, built brick by brick with irrefutable evidence; the evidence for a bogus one like a house made out of cards, laid delicately once against the other.
Some Positive Evidence: To be reasonable, a conspiracy theory has to have some positive evidence that distinguishes it from conventional explanations. In other words, it must falsify the non-conspiracy explanations. This can not be speculation. It has to have some piece of evidence that supports that theory and only that theory. Nor can it be based on taking the same evidence and simply re-interpreting it in a counter-intuitive way.
What original evidence to the Truthers present that isn’t complete garbage? What facts do they dig out that distinguish it from the conventional explanation? For moon hoaxers, what original evidence do they produce that isn’t garbage?
Tuskegee had positive evidence — a series of black men who had been signed up for a treatment of “bad blood” and had died of syphilis or its complications. The trolley conspiracy had streetcars purchased by new companies and immediately junked. These facts were primary evidence that supported the idea of a conspiracy and belied claims that nothing funny was going on.
You’ll notice that my criteria are heavily influence by my background in science: theories of any type need to be consistent, simple and, above all, testable. Real conspiracies meet these criteria; crackpot ones don’t come close.
That brings us around to today’s 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Polls show that most people do not believe that Oswald acted alone. So conspiracy theories about this straight-forward murder abound.
The first type are the Grand Conspiracy Theories — that JFK was killed by his own government, the mafia, the Freemasons, whatever, in an ambush by multiple shooters. We should be immediately suspicious of such theories because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence. They snake around supposed “holes” in the single-shooter theory.
These Grand Theories easily flunk the conspiracy test. You can look for some detail here. They involve numerous tooth fairies — extra shooters that were never seen, a conspiracy of silence involving hundreds of people, including the dozens needed to create Oswald’s “fake” background. They involve tons and tons of bullshit: the “magic bullet” which wasn’t magic at all, the jerking of his head toward the shot. And they present no positive evidence: no original discovery ignored by the initial investigators that proves their theory and no other.
A subset of this propounded by a number of people, including some I have a lot of respect for like Bill James, is that Oswald tried to kill the President but the fatal shot was actually delivered by Secret Service agent George Hickey, who stumbled while reacting to the shots and accidentally discharge his AR-15, killing the President.
This conspiracy sounds reasonable until you realize that it is just Grand Conspiracy Lite. It still involves a massive cover-up involving dozens if not hundreds of people. It still violates my rules above, many of which are covered in this debunking. It has tooth fairies — the spectacularly unlikely one in a million accidental shot itself, the conspiracy of silence from the Secret Service and any direct evidence that Hickey even fired his weapon. It fails the bullshit test because it relies heavily on conjectures about bullet trajectories and misinformation about bullet wound sizes. And it fails the no positive evidence test. The bullet-hole is not inconsistent with Oswald’s rifle and the trajectory only fingers Hickey with certain assumptions. There is no record of a missing bullet, no record of a discharged firearm, no witnesses that ever claimed that a shot came from the Secret Service detail. What you have is the image of a stumbling agent, the difficulty of Oswald’s shot and highly conjectural speculation about bullet trajectories.
Howard Donahue came up with this theory because of the difficulty marksmen had in recreating Oswald’s shot (although other have found it not so difficult). But he ignores the difficult of recreating Hickey’s one-in-a-million shot. Which is more likely? That Oswald got “lucky” and hit the target he was aiming at on the third try? Or that Hickey had the most spectacularly unlucky firearm accident ever?