Psychologists are trying to determine why otherwise rational individuals can make the leap from “prudent paranoia” to illogical conspiracy theories
According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.
Conspiracy theories in general are not necessary bad, according to psychologists who study them. “If we were all completely trusting, it would not be good for survival,” explains Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “Sometimes people really don’t have our best interests in mind.”
But when people leap from thinking their boss is trying to undermine them to believing their boss might be a secret lizard person, they probably cross from what psychologists refer to as “prudent paranoia” into illogical territory.
And there are a lot of illogical ideas to pick from. Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.
While aliens and fake moon landings probably trigger eyerolls in many of us, defining what constitutes a conspiracy theory is difficult, Brotherton says. The government, for example, does sometimes conspire to do the unspeakable, such as the infamous 1930s Tuskegee study, initiated by the US government to examine untreated syphilis in African-American men. Researchers blocked research participants from receiving penicillin or exiting the experiment to get treatment. The study continued until a media report made it public. In this case, believing that the government was conspiring to keep people sick would have been completely accurate.
There are characteristics that help differentiate a conspiracy theory from prudent paranoia, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories tend to depend on conspirators who are unduly evil, he explains, with genocide or world domination as a motive. Conspiracy theories also tend to assign an usually high level of competency to the conspirators, Brotherton adds, pointing out that when the government really does “shady stuff” it often isn’t able to keep it secret.
Chances are, we all know someone who believes some version of a conspiracy theory, which is why psychologists have been trying to understand what makes someone jump from logically questioning the world to looking for signs of lizard teeth in public figures. Research has shown that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. Or as Joseph E Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of American Conspiracy Theories, puts it, “conspiracies are for losers”.
Probably the best known mystery surrounding Kennedy’s death is his missing brain. Not as well known are the mysterious deaths of many people connected to the assassination, eventually prompting the House Select Committee on Assassinations to look into possible foul play. After a cursory investigation, it found none.
Of course, a mysterious death may or may not involve foul play. Here are accounts of 10 people who witnessed Kennedy’s actual assassination, or had pertinent knowledge of one or more people involved, and who died “untimely”—at least in some estimations.
10 • Jack Ruby
We begin with Ruby, the only very famous entry, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV just two days after Oswald had been arrested for killing Kennedy. When Kennedy was shot, Ruby was five blocks away from the Texas School Book Depository, distributing ads. He originally claimed to have shot Oswald in order to “redeem” Dallas and spare Jackie Kennedy the agony of a trial. But these motives—and everything else in Ruby’s life—remain shrouded in contradictions.
Ruby himself later claimed that his first attorney had told him to testify to the above motives, while Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli claimed Ruby had been assigned to silence Oswald. In 1965, well after his conviction, Ruby had this to say about the murder: “Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never come to the surface. The world will never know the true facts of what occurred, my motives. The people who had so much to gain, and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world.”
On 3 January, 1967, Ruby died of a pulmonary embolism, a complication of lung cancer. Before his death, he had gone on record claiming that he had been visited by a man who injected him with what he was told were antibiotics for a chronic cold, but which he believed were really cancer cells. He had just been granted a new trial on the grounds that his first trial in Dallas could not have been fairly heard. Shortly before he passed away, Ruby told a psychiatrist that the assassination was a coup d’etat and that he knew who was responsible for Kennedy’s murder.
9 • James Richard Worrell Jr.
Worrell was one of the very best eyewitnesses to Kennedy’s assassination, providing unusually detailed answers to the usual questions about that day (his entire testimony before Congress is available here). In 1963, Worrell was a 20-year-old high school student living in Dallas with his mother and sister. When Kennedy arrived, Worrell decided to skip school in order to see the President, leaving home early in the morning and hitchhiking to Love Field. Finding he was too late to get a good view there, he left for Dealey Plaza and waited four or five feet in front of the Book Depository, on the sidewalk at the corner of Elm and Houston.
He watched as the motorcade came down Houston Street, and turned past him onto Elm. Then Worrell testified that he heard “four shots.” He looked up after the first, which he realized was too loud to be a firecracker, and saw a rifle barrel protruding from the 5th or 6th-floor corner window of the building. He looked back to Kennedy’s vehicle, heard the second shot, and saw the President slump over. He looked back up and saw the third shot’s muzzle flash, then began running in a panic around the Depository and onto Houston Street, where he heard a fourth shot. Stopping to catch his breath, he turned in time to see a man run from the rear exit of the Depository and later gave a basic description of Oswald’s height, build, and dress.
Three years later, on 6 November, 1966, Worrell was riding his motorcycle along Gus Thomasson Street in Dallas, along with a passenger named Lee Hudgins, when he apparently lost control of the vehicle, jumped the median curb, and overturned in the opposite lane. Worrell’s head, without a helmet, struck the curb, and Hudgins was flung in front of a car. Both died at the hospital.
8 • Thomas Hale Boggs Sr.
Boggs was perhaps the most high profile person connected to the assassination to die under mysterious circumstances. A longtime Louisiana Congressman, he was House Majority Whip when Kennedy was killed and became House Majority Leader in 1971. In 1963, he was appointed to the President’s Commission on the Assassination, nicknamed the Warren Commission after its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Commission ultimately concluded that Oswald acted alone, but three of its members disagreed—Boggs and Senators Richard Russell and Sherman Cooper. Russell, who died of natural causes in 1971, publicly stated his “lingering dissatisfaction” with the investigation, while Boggs accused FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of “lying his eyes out” during the hearings.
Boggs was a strong critic of the single bullet theory. According to this theory, Oswald fired three shots, the second of which struck Kennedy in the upper back, passed through his throat and continued into Texas Governor John Connally’s back. The bullet then exited Connally’s chest, smashed through his wrist, and stopped in his left thigh, creating a total of seven wounds in two people. Some critics have claimed this would have required the bullet to somehow rise in mid-flight between the two men, but Connally had actually been sitting in a specially added “jump seat” few inches lower than Kennedy, which would have made it possible for the bullet to cause the seven wounds.
The fact of Connally’s seat height was not known at the time, but Boggs also strongly opposed the theory that Oswald acted alone, and that Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald. As House Majority Whip, then Leader, his words carried great weight.
On 16 October, 1972, Boggs was flying from Anchorage to Juneau with Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich and two others. They never arrived. The cause of the crash has never been discovered, nor has the wreckage of the plane, nor the bodies of the dead. Many civil aircraft of the time did not have emergency transmitters that would broadcast their locations upon crashing (such transmitters were made mandatory as a direct result of the incident). The four men were declared dead early the next year.
Via CBS News
Now there’s new evidence about that fateful day. It comes from a book called “The Kennedy Half-Century,” written by professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
From the moment shots rang out in Dealey Plaza the search for definitive answers in the Kennedy assassination has proved elusive. Was Oswald acting alone, or was he a member of a conspiracy?
The 888-page Warren Report issued in 1964 found no evidence that anyone assisted Oswald in planning or carrying out the assassination. The report had many critics and conspiracy theories multiplied over the years. Hundreds of books have been published about the case and dozens of documentaries and films, most notably Oliver Stone’s 1991 Academy Award-winning film “JFK.” But the strongest official confirmation for conspiracy buffs came in 1979 when the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that President Kennedy was “probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.” A key piece of evidence was an audio recording that the committee believed captured the sound of four gunshots being fired. One of the gunshots apparently came from a second location, the so-called Grassy Knoll, a patch of land that was ahead of the president’s limousine.
This year, political scientist Larry Sabato had the tapes re-analyzed using state-of-the-art technology. He says they do not capture gunshots at all, but the sounds of an idling motorcycle and the rattling of a microphone.
Sabato also says analysis of the recordings showed the sounds — which were of police radio transmissions — were not from Dealey Plaza, but from a location more than two miles away.
A new poll conducted as part of the book found 75 percent of Americans still reject the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone.
Sabato said on “CBS This Morning” his book has completely blown the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations report “out of the water.” He added, “Their evidence simply does not hold. And they concluded there was a conspiracy.
- JFK assassination conspiracy theory “blown out of the water,” author says (cbsnews.com)
- 5 Things I’ve noticed about… 9/11 Conspiracy Theories (illuminutti.com)
- Shedding new light on John F. Kennedy’s legacy and assassination: An interview with Larry Sabato on his “The Kennedy Half Century” book (themoderatevoice.com)
- Sabato: JFK Assassin Acted Alone (newsplex.com)
- JFK book assails conspiracy theory (politico.com)
- Beware the conspiracy theorists as JFK date nears (thenewstribune.com)
- New Book Debunks Important Piece of JFK Assassination Theory (slog.thestranger.com)
- New book raises doubts about 1979 JFK assassination probe (cbc.ca)
- New questions about government’s official story on Kennedy assassination… (politico.com)