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Conspiracy Theories

2 Dec 2013
I never heard of a conspiracy theory before President Kennedy was assassinated. No doubt they existed before - no doubt someone knew how Julius Caesar was really killed, and certainly the Lincoln Conspiracy continues to draw enthusiasts - but they never went mainstream until the 20th century's first pop-culture political superstar died under unusual circumstances. In the last 50 years they have proliferated like mushrooms in cow patties.

Anyone can see the draw to conspiracy theories: they ask questions often not fully answered, sometimes even conspicuously avoided, by the authorities who created the Official Explanation. If you enjoy questioning authority, as so many of us do, you can't help but wonder how, say, a poor gunman like Lee Harvey Oswald could pull off a nearly impossible double-tap under such conditions.

Wondering such a thing, of course, reflects ignorance on multiple counts, which is common in the media and not uncommon among conspiracy theorists. Oswald was not a poor gunman, as his Russian gun club friends have testified; the shot was not nearly impossible, but relatively easy, as numerous shooters have proven; and shots from the Texas School Depository, due to low-parallax conditions, would have been simple compared to the high-parallax requirements of the infamous grassy knoll. No experienced gunman would have chosen the grassy knoll as a shooting site.

I became hyper-aware of conspiracy theorists after watching some friends go crazy over the BATF storming of the the David Koresh cult compound outside Waco in 1994. One buddy offered a video as proof that flame-throwing tank cannons had set the compound on fire. What his video showed was a building already on fire, and a tank backing away from it. Behind the tank, fire was streaming in such a way that a person not paying close attention might think it was coming from the tank cannon.

But tank cannons do not act as flamethrowers. They shoot shells. A flamethrower affixed to a tank would have a noticeably different configuration. In this case, the video was proof of nothing except my friend's extreme desire to prove that the evil government had done something really bad, as if the assault itself was not bad enough.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem with conspiracy theorists: First and foremost, they want to find conspiracies. They don't give up, not because the evidence points them conclusively in another direction, but because they tend toward obsessive-compulsiveness with a dark view of the world. For the most extreme, conspiracy theories give them a way to maintain a sometimes tenuous hold on reality. Mel Gibson portrayed this tendency quite well in the cult classic Conspiracy Theory, wherein black helicopters really do come after the good guys. His character's level of preparation sets the standard for doomsday preppers everywhere.

How can you tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate alternative hypothesis? A great deal of the time, conspiracy theorists have no alternative hypothesis, only their criticisms of official pronouncements. The validity of their criticisms help lend them credence, but rarely can they go beyond criticism to formation of an alternative scenario that is more viable than the theory they criticize.

So I believe in the Lee Harvey Oswald lone-gunman theory not because it fully satisfies, but because nothing else comes close. As Isaac Newton put it: "We are to admit no more causes of things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." When you evaluate conspiracy theories, Newton's variation on William of Ockham's Razor provides the only functional results.

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