Today, it's been 50 years since the assassination of JFK.
The murder took place on Friday, just like today. For generic two years, the probability is 1/7 that a given day occurs on the same day of the week. However, for a 50-year gap, the probability is approximately 1/3 because each of the 50 years shifts the day of the week by 1 plus 11-13 (mostly 12) from leap years (it may be just 11 because about 3/8 of the 50-year intervals include a non-leap year like 1900).
A historical movie from that day, 15 minutes. Death at 6:01.
The shift is therefore 60, 61 (most likely), or 62 days which is 5,6 or 7 modulo 7. For 1963-2013, the case 62 i.e. 7 occurred. So even the same day of the week isn't too shocking – the day of the week is almost as likely to agree as it is to disagree after 50 years. These two paragraphs were preemptively included to fight another conspiracy theory about the day of the week. ;-)
I wrote about JFK 5 days ago but now I want to avoid particle physics.
About 2/3 of the Americans, including John Kerry and Oliver Stone, believe that there is some deeper story behind the murder than a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. Holy crap. Why are they doing it? I have already mentioned that they probably want to "restore some order", to save their (incorrect) assumption that famous men may only be killed by other famous men or their collectives.
In The Guardian, it is argued that people believe in conspiracy theories because conspiracies actually sometimes happen. This differentiates the believers from believers in telepathy and so on.
I agree that conspiracies do sometimes happen but I disagree that this fact prevents us from concluding that most people believing similar conspiracies are morons. One may estimate the probability \(P\) that there is some big conspiracy behind a collection of similar enough events and compare this probability with the percentage \(Q\) of people-event combinations in which the people believe that there was a conspiracy. If the people's opinions were sensibly reflecting some underlying reality (which isn't quite known), we would have \(P\approx Q\). However, in the real world, \(P\ll Q\). Assuming that you buy my arguments that \(P\) is actually small enough in the absolute sense, it proves that most people who believe the conspiracies must be systematically deluded.
First, the actual story seems so straightforward that I wouldn't normally spend much time with it. The best movie of the incident was captured by the amateur Abraham Zapruder. There were probably exactly 3 shots and The Zapruder film shows everything you need:
The camcorder was running at 18.3 frames per second. It's being said that in the frame 160, there was the first shot that missed everything. After 220, there was the second shot (magic bullet) that hit the governor in front as well as JFK (non-fatally). They react in some way. The third shot at 313 was used to make JFK's head explode which turned out to be lethal. The time between the first and third shot was probably over 8 seconds.
One may reconstruct the trajectory of the second bullet from the holes in the bodies. The Texas governor John Connally was closer to the center of the car and at a lower height and his chest was just turned to the right side. One may still trace the holes in their bodies and they agree with a straight single shot whose origin (from the back) is moreover compatible with the 6th floor of the building where Lee Harvey Oswald is located. The direction where the brain fragments appeared (front) and the direction of the momentum transfer to the body agree with the predictions of physics, too, although the momentum transfer is a bit subtle issue.
You may clearly see these things in the movie. They couldn't really fake movies well at that time. Why would you doubt it? Some people want to protest against a bullet that goes through both bodies. But what's so shocking about it? When one body is behind another, and it clearly was from that angle (it is not too unlikely in a car, anyway), a shot simply gets through both bodies.
Now, take the claims that there was a different shooter, like the driver. Well, the driver theory just disagrees with all the evidence I could see. An even more popular theory is the Grassy Knoll Badge Man. I watched this conspiracy video defending this meme and I just had to laugh out loud. They take a random place in the noise of a picture and argue not only that it contains a man. They can say that he had a particular haircut or hat and a uniform and some of them say that he wore glasses. Holy cow, I don't see a damn thing. It's as noisy a piece of the picture as almost any other in the area.
So some people analyzed this theory in some more detail, using the state-of-the-art computer techniques. No clear signs of a human – or glasses or anything like that – were found. More devastatingly, the person had to be one meter tall if he were exactly there; or he was several meters tall and flying 5 meters above the Earth's surface at a much more distant place.
Great. Even if a really tall human had a ladder over there, one that no one had noticed in 1963, what do you exactly want to achieve with this extra contrived assumption? There was no shot through the bodies that would be going in that direction. So what else than the complete stupidity – or a form of religion that may be classified as a type of complete stupidity – could be the reason that someone still believes the Badge Man Grass Knoll theory?
Quite generally, the very idea that there should be more people involved in this shooting is bizarre. A vast majority of similar incidents involves a single shooter. Think about Breivik and lots of others. Why would someone think that it's more convincing to create a theory with numerous shooters?
There are exceptions. When the Czechoslovak government in London needed to execute a blonde beast called Reinhardt Heydrich, perhaps the main father of the Holocaust and a gangster who acted as if he were a leader of 2/3 of Czechoslovakia for almost a year (1941-1942) just because a nutcase with one testicle told him that he was one, they sent several parachutists including two shooters. This "backup" is what governments or companies do when they want to be "insured" that the maneuver will work. And indeed, the first executer's gun got jammed which is why the second one was ready and useful because he could throw the hand grenade that killed the beast after some delay in the hospital. It worked fine. Thousands of Czech lives (including two whole villages) were terminated in the hysteria afterwards but it was needed for the Czechs not to be a nation of complete cowards and collaborators.
But in the case of the JFK assassination, there is simply no evidence that there were numerous shooters and/or that there was any organization or group of people who would want to increase the probability of the success by a backup plan or a spare shooter. In fact, it's very likely that if there had been several shooters, we would almost certainly learn about some traces the others have left. There aren't any.
So why the hell would someone switch from the minimal, effective theory to the contrived one – one which needs several shooters and perhaps even some synchronization of their shooting? A contrived hypothesis that is not only less plausible a priori but one that also seems to almost directly contradict the empirical data about the shots and their trajectories? I think that the stupidity is the only conceivable explanation.
It's just far more effective for gunmen to act individually if they want to achieve a similar "goal". Without backups, some of them may fail but indeed, they sometimes do. But if someone wants to have a decent enough chance to kill the president of the U.S., the best strategy is simply to try. Individually. It may even be better not to inform or ask anyone else because that could reduce the probability of the success. That's what happened according to all the evidence I see: a lone gunman. People who find it natural to believe that there should be several shooters and backups think like communists and would be lousy managers if they adopted the same philosophy in their management. Some jobs may simply be done by one person. Shooting a man – and whether he's a president doesn't really matter – is an example.
A related issue is the question whether the shooters or the originators of the plots must be famous people. The conspiracy theorists generally believe that the answer has to be Yes. But it's another fact that there are many more ordinary people – even ordinary people with some access to guns – who might want to kill a politician. If it is possible to get to a reasonable floor of a building, they may just give a try.
So by pure counting, it is simply much more likely that the shooter is someone who isn't famous at all. Famous people are just too rare. Moreover, they are more visible. So I would think that a famous man probably has a smaller chance to organize something that remains completely secret than an ordinary man.
A computer reconstruction etc., 4 minutes. See 10 minutes.
On the contrary, famous people like politicians are probably much more likely to be shot simply because many more people know them and either hate them or consider them to be symbols of something they hate. The Earth is a large place and it's often difficult even for the best agent to perfectly protect such a politician. You don't need a very contrived theory to explain such data.
Even though it is "academically plausible" that there is something beneath the obvious and mundane events we have seen, one should understand that there isn't any real evidence and it is just a sign of irrationality to be attracted to unjustified contrived hypotheses and to (loudly) dismiss simple, effective theories that agree with the evidence, especially if one does so repeatedly.
(Of course, Kerry is less of a nutcase. He "just" believes that Oswald was directed by the Soviets or Cubans. Well, I would say that a marine who defects to the Soviet Union is probably extreme enough to think of similar acts himself. Even if Kerry were right, I don't think it is an important change to the story. There were surely people in the USSR who would rather openly say that the U.S. president should have been killed – along with many other "imperialists". And what? They couldn't do it. Oswald could. So even if he had met with some people who told him he should have, why does it matter? He was almost certainly a more unhinged commie than an average member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party so he was still likely to be the key guy behind the murder. Unlike Oswald, the top Soviet officials were sane enough to realize that a murder of JFK wouldn't end capitalism in America etc. so they were less motivated than him, too.)
There are just so many illogical steps and contradictions with the empirical data from that day as well as with some historical data on similar events and with the knowledge about the human nature that these conspiracy theorists commit so that I can't avoid thinking that they're just stupid. But there must be more to it – it's some stupidity that is more likely to spread through the society. It may be the case that most of the JFK conspiracy believers haven't really tried to think about the sad day rationally and independently. They are just absorbing a mass delusion from their environment.
The misconception that famous men may only be "challenged" by famous challengers helps. Let me articulate a related, more religious point: Many people probably feel that death and sacrifice should always have a meaning and it must always be possible to find a fair, comparably large "revenge" for any crime (Oswald's death isn't a good enough revenge). But it's unfortunately not the case. The laws of physics guarantee neither afterlife nor the meaning for our lives nor universal justice.
While Oliver Stone shot another pro-conspiracy JFK movie, Bill O'Reilly was the executive producer of a movie whose main point was that there was no conspiracy. So much for the idea that conservatives are the conspiracy theorists. He points out that FBI wanted a conspiracy to exist at some point but they couldn't find it.