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Conspiracy Central Dealey Plaza, JFK, and LHO

Dealey Plaza

On Tuesday, December 7, I walked through and around Dealey Plaza in Dallas where JFK was assassinated by a lone assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (LHO). Or was he? A lone assassin, that is? Yes, he was, but that is not what anyone giving informal tours of the plaza will have you believe if you give them a few minutes (and a few bucks).

I was in town filming a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The subject was conspiracy theories, so it was with some irony that we happened to be filming on December 7 because there are many conspiracy theories surrounding that date as well, a date that will live in infamy, as Franklin Roosevelt so crowned that fateful day in 1941, because he supposedly either helped orchestrate the attack on Pearl Harbor or else he knew about the attack and allowed it to happen in order to galvanize the American public into supporting England against the Nazis and getting the United States into the war.

There is no more to the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory than there is that President Bush helped orchestrate 9/11 or knew about the pending attack and allowed it to happen in order to unite the American public into supporting his wars of aggression in the Middle East. Nevertheless, there is something particularly appealing to conspiracy theorists when they describe “what really happened” in their alternative universe of events. You can see it in their eyes when they begin to talk about what “they” want or don’t want you to know about said event.

This was certainly the case for me when I interviewed several conspiracy theorists hanging around Dealey Plaza that day. Their eye light up and they grow ever more animated (and even agitated) as their story grows in complexity about all the different people, elements, and events that almost miraculously (it would be a miracle in most re-tellings) came together to assassinate JFK. One fellow had so many people involved in the assassination that they would have needed a small sports arena to meet to plan out the day. This improbability seems to bother conspiracy theorists not one tiny bit, as they spin out their narratives, drawing you down their causal pathway that resulted in the end of Camelot.

The most striking thing about being in Dealey Plaza for me was how small it is. Perhaps because the assassination itself was bigger than life we expect the geography to match the eventuality, but that is certainly not the case here. Two X’s on the street mark where JFK was hit: first in the throat causing his arms to move up and splay out, and second where the bullet found its cranial mark and literally blew his brains out (and, according to one conspiricist there, sent the skull cap flying across the street and onto the adjacent lawn). What is astounding is how close both X’s are to the sniper’s nest in the Book Depository building. Both from the street level looking up and from the window looking down (there is a museum on the sixth floor from which you can gain the perspective of the assassin), it seems clear that Oswald could hardly have missed. Given the fact that he was designated a sharpshooter by the Marines during his time in the service, and the fact that Kennedy’s car was traveling less than 10 miles per hour after making the sharp left turn onto Elm street, one is left whispering under one’s breath, “Kennedy was a sitting duck.”

Look at the two photographs (at the top of this post), each taken from one of the X’s on the street (I tried to snap a pic from the sniper’s nest, but this must be a problem for the museum because in addition to “No Photography” signs there is a guard standing there the entire time). The window from which Oswald fired is the square window on the far right of the building, second from the top.

Is it really necessary to invent additional assassins when it is obvious that one could have done the job? No. LHO acted alone in killing JFK. QED.

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The Conspiracy Theory Detector

How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories
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This past September 23 a Canadian 9/11 “truther” confronted me after a talk I gave at the University of Lethbridge. He turned out to be a professor there who had one of his students filming the “confrontation.” By early the next morning the video was online, complete with music, graphics, cutaways and edits apparently intended to make me appear deceptive (search YouTube for “Michael Shermer, Anthony J. Hall”). “You, sir, are not skeptical on that subject — you are gullible,” Hall raged. “We can see that the official conspiracy theory is discredited…. It is very clear that the official story is a disgrace, and people who go along with it like you and who mix it in with this whole Martian/alien thing is discrediting and a shame and a disgrace to the economy and to the university” [sic]. Hall teaches globalization studies and believes that 9/11 is just one in a long line of conspiratorial actions by those in power to suppress liberties and control the world. (continue reading…)

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Paranoia Strikes Deep

Why people believe in conspiracies
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After a public lecture in 2005, I was buttonholed by a documentary filmmaker with Michael Moore-ish ambitions of exposing the conspiracy behind 9/11. “You mean the conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to attack the United States?” I asked rhetorically, knowing what was to come.

“That’s what they want you to believe,” he said. “Who is they?” I queried. “The government,” he whispered, as if “they” might be listening at that very moment. “But didn’t Osama and some members of al Qaeda not only say they did it,” I reminded him, “they gloated about what a glorious triumph it was?”

“Oh, you’re talking about that video of Osama,” he rejoined knowingly. “That was faked by the CIA and leaked to the American press to mislead us. There has been a disinformation campaign going on ever since 9/11.” (continue reading…)

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Does Belief Help Us to Survive?

I don’t think religious beliefs are different from any other kind of beliefs: political attitudes, commitments to political parties, or economic ideologies, for example. These are all forms of belief. I think at the base of it is this whole idea that we’re pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots — A connects to B connects to C — and often, they really are connected, and that’s called associative learning. All animals do it. It’s a biological imperative; we grow new synaptic connections when we learn something.

The problem is that there’s no baloney detection module in the brain that says, “That’s a true pattern; that’s a false pattern” with some consistent algorithm that helps us discriminate those. We tend to assume all patterns are real and that they’re infused with intentional agency. And that’s where I think the belief in spirits and ghosts and souls and gods and God and conspiracy theories and so forth comes in. (continue reading…)

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Agenticity

Why people believe that invisible agents
control the world
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Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids. (continue reading…)

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