Thoughts on Conspiracy Theories

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2013


These thoughts have been inspired by watching Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). Stone has formatted this movie using the contemporary documentary style of story telling -- in that he's strongly advocating a specific point of view on a controversial topic. And he's quite convincing at it. If you're not aware of alternative explanations for the JFK assassination the movie makes a conspiracy theory for explaining his death seem quite viable.

To give one alternative point of view, our teacher, Sara Jade Woodhouse, has provided a link to a site, 100 errors in Fact and Judgment in Oliver Stone's JFK, that calls into question many of the specifics that Stone portrays. Another alternative source is the book Case Closed (2003) by Gerald Posner which supports the theory that Oswald was a lone gunner.

But the heart of this discussion is not the movie, or how correct it is, but why conspiracy theories, such as those that swirl around the death of JFK, are so potent in human thinking.

Why have conspiracy theories?

Through almost all of the existence of the modern human species, people have lived short, nasty and brutish lives. And those lives were filled with unexpected events, some beneficial, many deadly. One powerful technique for helping the day-to-day survival of primative-living humans was discovering patterns in the world around them. If a pattern could be identified, it could be used to predict. If the predictions were successful, the human and his or her community were more likely to survive. Pattern seeking became hard-wired into human thinking. It is an instinct -- which means it is fast and easy thinking.

Fast forward to humans living in civilized conditions. The world we live in is no longer so dangerous and unpredictable, but the human mind still has a powerful instinct to seek out patterns. Science, religion and fortune telling are all based on this instinct to seek out patterns that are useful for predicting, and conspiracy theories are as well.

One problem comes when this pattern seeking produces false positives -- patterns are seen that don't really exist. This is common, and this is why Donald Rumsfeld and many other managers are found of cautioning, "Don't attribute to conspiracy what simple incompetence can explain."

Why did JFK's death become such a fruitful conspiracy source?

The 1960's were a time of social upheaval and uncertainty in the US. The Great Depression had ended, WWII had ended, the Cold War had replaced it, and the US was experiencing unparalleled post-war prosperity... but how long would it last? Was the 1950's boom another Roaring Twenties prelude to another depression? No one knew, but it was a pattern many people saw.

Adding to this swirl of economic and political change was a demographic change: The Baby Boomers were maturing from kids into young adults, and all they had experienced was the Cold War. They were optimists and open thinkers compared to their folks. Kennedy's election was a symptom of that. He was by far the youngest president elected to that date, and he promised big changes in many areas. The Stone movie focuses on Vietnam, but that was small potatoes compared to short-skirted women, long-haired men, rock and roll and recreational drugs, Civil Rights, Cuba, and Great Society issues such as poverty and health care.

He got elected because he was charismatic and he promised a lot. The icon for that charisma today is calling his administration Camelot, but that icon was not contemporary. What the movie does have right is that he stepped on a lot of establishment toes, but he was far, far from alone in doing that. By 1963 the road was getting tough for Kennedy and he was politicking on this trip to Dallas. He wanted to be seen by a lot of people.

Then he got shot.

Then two days later the accused shooter, Oswald, got shot before he had explained anything. And no other substantive explanation for what happened came forward.

The result: There was so much unanswered.

It is the combination of the swirling times, Kennedy's popularity, the unexpectedness of the assassination, and the lack of explanation caused by Oswald's equally surprising assassination two days later, that made this event such a fruitful one for conspiracy theory.

There is no obvious pattern to this event, but it is a deeply emotional one, so people are supportive of all sorts of more subtle patterns. For many people having a pattern, any pattern, is better than saying, "This was a one-in-a-million event. It's just lots of plan old-fashioned bad luck."

So the JFK assassination has so much conspiracy theory swirling around it because so many people cared so much about JFK, and the explanation for what happened was so sketchy. This makes it one-in-a-million fruitful ground for subtle pattern seeking -- conspiracy theory -- and that's what we have been witnessing for the past five decades.

Curiously, another earth-shaking event of the 1960's, landing on the moon, also swirls with conspiracy theory. This event is well-documented, but there is so much emotion surrounding it that conspiracy theory flows freely in spite of all the documentation.


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