A conference paper I didn't see coming.

I thought I'd share a snapshot of my morning with you. For some reason, the internet seems like a good place for it.

The paper promised to be about the evaluation of evidence in understanding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. What follows are the notes I took during the approximately 25 minute conference presentation, edited to clean up typos. I'm not naming names; Google will provide if you really need to know.

The speaker is going to apply the principles of abductive reasoning to see what can be concluded about the assassination of JFK.

Evidence -- all the available, relevant evidence (which should be true, too).

He's laying out a lot of details. Most of these look like they're drawn from popular sources.

He's puzzled that official reports ended up departing significantly in their details from the immediate reports on radio and TV. (Can the news media have changed that much since 1963? The reports were totally reliable back then?)

Holy shit, this is neck-deep conspiracy theory!!

I'm looking around. No one else in the rooms shows any signs of being shocked by this talk ...

Cars in the motorcade totally in the wrong order (also, an assortment of makes, models, colors -- so you can tell where your target is). Secret Service agents destroying evidence on the spot.

Probability of all these events taking place if Lee Harvey Oswald was lone assassin and the government is telling the truth? Vanishingly small.

Now we're looking at a single frame of the Zapruder film. It's like is looking at a Rorshack test. Or a pointillist painting.

News report from the '90s indicating Gerald Ford messed with the Warren Commission report on the details of the death. Analysis of image density of post-mortem head X-ray seems to indicate that it's been doctored. Disappointing, but does it let us draw affirmative conclusions about how the assassination actually happened?

Hard from the remaining evidence to determine exactly what did happen. The speaker is going to turn to this soon, right?


Mafia couldn't have tampered with data at Bethesda under control of US government.

KGB couldn't have gotten its hands on the Zapruder films to tamper with them.

Once you sort out the authentic from inauthentic evidence, not that hard to figure out what happened to JFK on November 22, 1963.

Question from the audience:

Searching for facts afterwards might be expected to lead to unreliable results, right?

Nope, any model of reasoning will lead to the conclusion that the hypothesis of conspiracy is very highly supported.

OMG, and now we're getting shouty!!

"This is one of those occasions where the ivory tower is not coming to grips with reality!" (Did he really just say that? Does "reality" have a special technical meaning here of which I am not aware?)

At least half of the things you stated are not evidence. You're committing logical fallacies.

Shouty response. Those fallacies apply only in the realm of deductive reasoning, not abductive reasoning. (And now, I'm wondering whether this talk is secretly an attempt to turn people away from abductive reasoning.)

(Do we really need top conclude full-scale governmental conspiracy and cover-up? Couldn't evidence support hypothesis of a fair level of government incompetence? No! The bulging veins insist otherwise!)

This is so not the talk I was expecting at a philosophy meeting.

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"And now, I'm wondering whether this talk is secretly an attempt to turn people away from abductive reasoning."

I think you might be onto something here!

been to a faculty meeting, much? you just have to work on your bulging "veins" a bit more before "reality" kicks in. hit the food table.

Wikipedia on abductive reasoning.

Although I can't vouch for this as precisely what the speaker had in mind. He seemed to be pointing towards a defensible way to draw inductive inferences, or something.

The point, though, was government conspiracy!!

Abductive reasoning requires a fairly good grounding in parallel cases, which is lacking in this case, so the scholar's efforts were doomed to failure.

But there is a nice piece of abductive reasoning that does apply to the mysterious case of the assassination of JFK.

JFK is seen to be hit by two bullets. The Governor was hit with one bullet. Some witnesses note that a bullet hit the curb near the motorcade before anyone was hit. It is possible that one bullet hit both the president and the governor. There are conflicting reports and even the official reports conflict in this manner. But it can be said with confidence that three or four bullets were fired.

The rifle that Oswald seemed by all accounts to have possessed could hold four or five bullets, but when recovered was missing, but this rifle was designed to hold six bullets.

Two gentlemen working in the book depositary were watching the motorcade from the room BELOW the one from which Oswald was suspected of firing at the president. They heard three shots and heard spent shells hit the ground as the rounds were squeezed off.

Oswald did not know Kennedy was coming into town until almost the last minute and was known to have been target practising much as late, and to have been low on ammo.

Why would an assassin hired by the FBI, the Mafia, the Cubans, the Soviets and or working for aliens bring exactly the number of bullets his gun would hold minus one? Minus one. That is the key, Watson.

It is evident that our suspect was acting on a long held fantasy, perhaps, but in his direct actions that day, on a suddenly and unexpectedly available opportunity. He took the gun he owned and the few bullets he possesed. The number of bullets, be it three or four, and the last minute nature of this opportunity match, abductively, to the idea of a single assassin, and the other evidence supports it or at least fails to contradict it. This added to the often overlooked fact that Oswald had attempted an assassination some time before (with the same rifle) and is thus clearly capable of this sort of thing leads us to the inescapable conclusion of one man, three or four bullets, and no conspiracy.

Now, similar evidence deduced in the singular affair of the Mystery of the Duke of Longville would lead to an entirely different conclusion. But that is another matter for another time.

Having just, two weeks ago, run into a departmental colleague at a public concert, where he was wearing his "Investigate 9/11" T-shirt (over a long-sleeved button-up shirt)...

... I feel your pain.

Any idea what others in the audience were thinking? At what point they might have been thinking "wait a minute...this isn't going to get back to the topic of abductive inference, is it?" No one left before the questions? Why not? Too polite? Too surprised? Too charitable? Did you think at some point that this was a half-hour of your life you could have spent doing something more productive, like blogging?

Wow; we call that reductio ad absurdum where I come from. Conceivably, though, it could have been decent paper (even if the author did take the conspiracy route) if there were good, well-developed discussion of what sort of evidence is needed to distinguish conspiracy from non-conspiracy cases. But it sounds like it didn't even have a good discussion of the principles of abduction being used, which was what potentially made the paper a philosophical one in the first place.

Oh for the day when the last of the baby boomers dies of old age! No-one below 50 gives a damn about the Kennedy assassination.

Was it a conspiracy? Did elements inside the organs of government assassinate and elected, popular, sitting president? Did the Windsors off Lady Di for failing to execute the only duty of a royal princess ("an heir, and a spare"). Sure they might have - that exactly the kind of thing that the oligarchies that run our nations do. The idea only shocks the innocent, and hardly anyone is innocent anymore.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 20 Jun 2009 #permalink

This is so not the talk I was expecting at a philosophy meeting.

I would have thought identifying logical fallacies was an important skill for philosophers. Typically, a JFKer conspiracy argument is a gold mine of logical fallacies. Then again, perhaps that would be too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

I recall reading something by Sir Karl Popper to the effect that once conspiracy is brought up, there is no longer the possibility of logical examination.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 21 Jun 2009 #permalink

Paul, the fact that most people under fifty do not obsess over JFK's assassination is likely because they were not traumatized by it. Certainly, some of this conspiracy talk is the result of that trauma.

However, you are incorrect to imply as you seem to be that it does not matter. Of course the truth matters. Even when discussing semiotics. It is not sufficient to presume that powerful people will make things happen the way they want to, nor is it sufficient to simply assume that such things never happen.

In the case of the JFK assassination, it is clear that there was not a conspiracy afoot. There is no credible conspiracy theory and there is a perfectly good explanation with only irrelevant (though potentially interesting) ragged edges.

By Sherlock Holmes (not verified) on 21 Jun 2009 #permalink

I love the idea that the "ivory tower" was ignoring "reality" because y'all didn't simply nod or drop your jaws in awe and agree with him.

It reminds me of a time when I had an argument with someone who was accusing me of "not empowering [myself] to choose", because I didn't choose what he wanted me to. "No, no," said I, "Part of my being 'empowered' to choose means that I can choose either way. I choose to disagree with you. That's how it works sometimes."

He sputtered and persisted, but he seemed unused to people standing up to that argument and calling "bull-twinkies".

Hm. I'm willing to consider conspiracy; however, I'd like two more hunks of data.

1) Estimate for the size of the conspiracy required.
2) Data on exposed conspiracies for how long they existed before the aims, motive, and existence of the conspiracy were exposed.

I suspect that (1) would be fairly large, and (2) would show that larger conspiracies tend to get more exposed. This would suggest given the improbability of the conspiracy having remained unexposed, and absent the non-conspiracy explanation requires something comparably improbable, conspiracy is unlikely the correct explanation.