Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.

Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.

The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.

I also find it interesting that these tendencies are often not inhibited by the many counter-examples that we encounter on a regular basis. The vast majority of the time, when I find the actions of another person puzzling, if I am able to simply ask them to account for their behavior, there is usually a non-sinister explanation. There were factors of which I was unaware. They knew (or at least believed) something I did not know, or were reacting to an external stimuli, or had a previous experience informing their current action. Sometimes they were just doing something whimsical for fun or to stave off boredom, or perhaps they were satisfying some minor curiosity.

In response to such experiences we should question our basic underlying assumptions of purpose and deliberateness. Instead, we tend to dismiss this data as quirky exceptions, and carry on with our assumptions intact.

Conspiracy theorists have essentially formalized the tendency to assume agency, deliberateness, and sinister motivations in the quirky details of events. Conspiracy theories are often an exercise in anomaly hunting. When anomalies, like the Umbrella Man, are inevitably found it is assumed that they are evidence for a conspiracy.

The assumption that anomalies must be significant rather than random is an error in the understanding of statistics, a form of innumeracy. It is also partly the lottery fallacy – which involves asking the wrong question. The name of the fallacy is based on the most common illustrative example. If John Smith wins the lottery our natural tendency is to consider what the odds are that John Smith won (usually hundreds of millions to one). However, the correct question is – what are the odds that anyone would have won, in which case the odds are close to one to one (at least over a few weeks).

The fallacy is in confusing a priori probability with posterior probability – once you know the outcome, asking for the odds of that particular outcome. This is perhaps more obvious when we consider the odds of someone winning the lottery twice. This occurs regularly, and when it does the press often reports the odds as being astronomical. They are usually also falsely considering the odds of one person winning on two successive individual lottery tickets. Further, they calculate the odds of John Smith winning twice, rather than the odds of anyone anywhere winning twice (the odds are actually quite good and match the observed rate).

So – conspiracy theorists tend to ask, what are the odds of a man standing with an open umbrella right next to the president when he was shot? Rather they should be asking – what are the odds of anything unusual occurring in any way associated with the JFK assassination?

There is another aspect to anomaly hunting and that is the use of open-ended criteria. What constitutes an anomaly? Well, anything you want to count as an anomaly. There are no specific criteria. In practice the criterion is – it seems weird to me. This then opens the door to confirmation bias. Seek and ye shall find.

What, then, is the explanation for the seemingly bizarre actions of the Umbrella Man? A nice documentary, recirculating on social media, has the answer. The man (Louie Steven Witt) was asked to come forward and explain his actions, and he did, before congress. The umbrella was a protest of Joseph Kennedy’s appeasement polices when he was Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1938-39, with the umbrella being a reference to the umbrella often carried by Neville Chamberlain.

This is actually not as random as it may seem (and this is the one hole in the documentary’s treatment of the topic). An open umbrella was a common protest of appeasement policies. According to the historical society:

Umbrella protests first began in England after Chamberlain arrived home from the conference carrying his trademark accessory. Wherever Chamberlain traveled, the opposition party in Britain protested his appeasement at Munich by displaying umbrellas. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Americans on the far Right employed umbrellas to criticize leaders supposedly appeasing the enemies of the United States. Some politicians even refused to use them for that reason. Vice President Richard Nixon banned his own aides from carrying umbrellas when picking him up at the airport for fear of being photographed and charged as an appeaser.

That puts the umbrella protest into more context. In the early 1960’s I can see there still being people around who were angry at any attempts to appease Hitler and the Nazis prior to the start of WWII. I also wonder if Witt was protesting JFK in some way, but did not want to say so after he was assassinated and so blamed the protest on his father. Either way, the umbrella is not such a random detail after all.


The various aspects of anomaly hunting are critical to understand in order to avoid falling into this seductive mental trap. Poor intuition for statistics, logical fallacies, confirmation bias, and the use of open-ended criteria combine with the fundamental attribution error and the tendency to see patterns and significance everywhere to create the powerful impression that something (usually sinister) must be going on.

Our penchant for narrative then takes over. We love a good story, and the notion that some tiny clue in the form of an anomaly can reveal a vast unseen conspiracy is more compelling story telling than just random noise in the background of history. Unless, of course, your telling the story of how we fool ourselves. That, of course, is a story I like telling.

31 responses so far

31 thoughts on “Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man”

  1. Bill Openthalt says:

    Steven —

    We love a good story,

    I have to agree with Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen and Terry Pratchett in “The Science of Discword”, who call our species ‘Pan narrans’ (the story-telling chimpanzee) instead of ‘Homo sapiens’ (because we’re really not very wise).

  2. carbonUnit says:


    And now umbrellas are the symbol of the protests in Hong Kong.

    I like the description of the lottery fallacy. A more mundane example would be
    the odds of meeting a particular person at the mall vs
    the odds of meeting someone you know at the mall.

  3. evhantheinfidel says:

    I have an acquaintance (a friend of a friend) who, despite lacking belief in any big conspiracy theories, falls directly into the conspiratorial thinking category. She assumes that every action she takes umbrage with, which is a wide and inconsistent range, is performed with malevolence toward her directly. I am not just talking about social gaffes and the like, but even things as innocuous as people bumping into her. I wonder if this is a form of extreme narcissism (she does like for the attention to be on her) and/or delusional thinking. More interesting than her specific case is the mindset, however. I have always, despite my nationality being US-ian, fallen more into the opposite category associated with England and Canada; I usually assumed things were my fault to an irrational degree, and I probably still do. I also wonder if this is a true spectrum, or if they are different categories altogether. It can be very difficult, after all, to delve into the heads of others effectively.

  4. Mr Qwerty says:


    I have a close relative and a (used to be close) friend that perfectly match your acquaintance’s description. Although both strive to be “good, rational, thinking people”, this paranoia often puts them into conflicts with others and they also fall prey to various mild conspiratorial thinking even after sometimes acknowledging previous blunders.

    They are, however, very different in other ways (the first one is extrovert, narcissistic and lacks introspective, while the other is very introvert and spends too much time analyzing his actions and environment, to the point of becoming mentally paralyzed).

    What they do have in common is this trait where an event (social or not), that an average person wouldn’t think of twice, is assigned (often severe) malign meaning (or just A meaning, where there is none).

    I see it as different tunings of our heuristics mechanisms: after all, seeing patterns, categorizing (and, often, assigning meaning) is the first necessary step to thinking about anything. And I think it’s a multi-dimensional spectrum, governed by brain wiring, personality traits, previous experience, current mental state, etc.

    It reminds me of a funny example: my wife often interprets things in a subtly more conspiratorial and/or paranoid light than me (although this can completely reverse depending on the subject) and, while I don’t see much everyday difference as a result of that, since the difference is very mild, when watching crime drama film/series she always suspects the murderer while I’m left defending them until the very (bloody) end, only to be proven naive, again and again 🙂

    But it begs the question – what if a person is somewhere on the paranoid spectrum – is there really a way of reasoning with them, as everything can be explained as a part of the conspiracy?

    This actually bothers me a lot – I had a discussion with a moon hoax believer few years back, and by driving the premise to its logical conclusion we ended up in a world where every goverment agency of every goverment in the world is in a collusion, and everyone in power or working as a journalists or PR is either very ignorant or a part of the conspiracy. And, really, how do you counter that?

  5. vm says:

    some races that have darker skin and live in hot climates dont like sun. For them its a reflex to use an umbrella whenever its sunny (maybe unless its also freezing cold) and they also want to protect their non-tanned complexion which is a mark of beauty and wealth in their societies

    this actually happened. My mother was one of 2 people watching a bullfight in spain and using an umbrella (we were careful to keep a vacant seat behind us so we would not spoil the view). The other person with an umbrella was on the other side of the coliseum or whatever you call it

  6. Jared Olsen says:

    I am constantly amazed and rather humbled that humans have managed to firstly, recognize, and secondly, to overcome our inherent biases and heuristics; which is basically what science is.
    Confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error are the two worst offenders imo.
    Just curious Steve, but why did you capitalize the umbrella man if he’s just some guy with an umbrella?

  7. steve b says:

    Thought provoking article – but the thing is, conspĂ®racies DO exist. There must be a fallacy that explains the tendency to explain away all inconsistent facts in a ‘official narrative’ as ‘wing-nut’ behaviour.

    Wait! I’m not a tinfoil-hat kind of guy, but governments and corporations do do dreadful things, cover them up and get away with them. Not everything is an anomaly.

    Fish head.

    Though that is….where did that fish head come from?

  8. It has become his recognized designation, like Jack the Ripper.

  9. Jared Olsen says:

    steve b-

    I agree that conspiracies do in fact exist, they must. But the type of
    *grand* conspiracy involving dozens, if not hundreds of people, controlling the fates of the proletariat or whole nation states for their own (often malign) purposes just seems entirely unlikely. Way too many moving parts.

    The fish head? I’m not too sure mate…

  10. RedMcWilliams says:

    You Are Not So Smart had a podcast a few weeks back about the Illusion of Asymmetrical Insight. I think that fits nicely into this discussion.

    Basically, if I cut you off in traffic it’s because I was distracted or had a momentary lapse in (otherwise sound) judgment. If you cut me off it’s because you’re a horrible driver and an even worse person.

  11. RedMcWilliams says:

    I should add, that’s my perception of those two events. I think I can glean valuable insight into your psyche just by seeing a small sampling of your behavior, while a similar sample of my behavior is random and therefore useless in determining my true nature.

  12. mumadadd says:

    Aka the fundamental attribution error.

  13. Sylak says:

    So this man is the most intelligent man in Dallas, because he protect himself from the sun and don’t want skin cancer. So now he is part of a conspiracy? This mean that my wife is part of it, she always protect herself with hats and umbrellas
    In what universe it is a anomaly to protect yourself of the sun, Especially if you are going to stand in the sun for a long time waiting to see the president. Wow, some anomalies are really weird ( but are still anomalies that doesn’t mean anything) but this one is like the weakest, stupidest anomaly, in fact it is totally normal, Just plain ordinary. you can see that everyday when there’s sun. you don’t need rain. the guy is probably fair skinned like my wife ( and maybe it is a women, we can’t know for sure).

  14. grabula says:

    @Sylak – I think you and a couple of others have mistaken his purpose. He’s protesting and using the umbrella as a symbol of that protest. In either case it’s not evidence of a conspiracy but it’s important to get these details right if you want to engage with those who don’t understand the underlying issue.

  15. Fair Persuasion says:

    Did Mr. Witt innocently protect himself from the sun on the day President Kennedy was shot and then when summoned before Congress, did he fear his simple action would be misinterpreted in such a way as to associate him with the assassination? Did he intentionally create a tall tale to state before a Congressional Committee? Did the marksman, Lee Harvey Oswald use the innocent umbrella man to focus his aim and shoot the President using a stationary object as a visual cue?

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    Has no one yet noticed that the umbrella has levitated Mr Witt clean off the ground?

  17. Jared Olsen says:

    BJ7- Mary Poppins?

  18. Pete A says:

    The standard normal distribution is a useful guide to our fascination with anomalies.

    If we consider the y-axis to be mundaneness instead of probability then low values (the outliers) grab our attention whereas high values are too mundane (commonplace/normal) to be noteworthy.

    To those who’ve lived in regions where umbrellas are used on sunny days this act is mundane. Conversely, this act will grab the attention of those who are unfamiliar with it.

    Another large factor in anomaly hunting is priming. Something that we did not previously consider to be noteworthy may become noteworthy after someone else points out its oddness. One person pointing it out may not have much effect on us, but it primes us to pay attention to all future instances of it being pointed out (both indirectly by third parties and directly by our own observations).

  19. Sylak says:

    @Grabula, Ah right then, I stand corrected, and your are right. But like you said, either way, it is not evidence.

    But Still, the first I thought when i see a lone man with a umbrella is not “conspiracy” it is “this guy don’t like the sun”, when you don’t know the story behind, that’s the most likely and most instinctive explanation, but my mind is not conspiracy bonded , even if it was, I would need a lot better than that as evidence.

  20. leo100 says:

    I should point out even Chris French a well known skeptic has admitted that the case of Mr. A does demonstrate consciousness for at least three minutes after brain activity ceased. However is far from answering any existential questions.

  21. leo100 says:

    Sorry wrong post.

  22. BillyJoe7 says:


    “the first I thought when i see a lone man with a umbrella is not “conspiracy” it is “this guy don’t like the sun”, when you don’t know the story behind, that’s the most likely and most instinctive explanation”

    That was my first thought as well but I live in sunburnt Australia where umbrellas are used as often to protect against the sun as the rain.
    But it seems our intuitions were wrong as intuitions most often are. The guy was protesting! Who would’ve thought that? Seems such a feeble protest. What’s the point of a protest when no one knows you are protesting?

    Now, if that umbrella had actually levitated Mr Witt clean off the ground…

  23. tiffany says:

    The “seemingly bizarre actions” of the Umbrella Man are not bizarre to anyone who has lived in the South. When I first moved to New Orleans in 1990 I was startled to notice the occasional person walking around on a blazingly sunny day under a black umbrella. Then I got used to it. These are simply sun shields (made for rain, perhaps, but used for this additional purpose). A long-standing practice (celebrated in a beautiful portion of Alvin Ailey’s dance suite “Revelations”). I don’t know how old the umbrella man was — those I saw with umbrellas were not necessarily old — but we can assume that older people might welcome the protection of a sunshade while standing for a prolonged period of time watching a motorcade. Cultural context indeed!

  24. GolfTango says:

    I had often been puzzled by the umbrella man. I thank Mr. Novella for clearing this up, it is commendable work. However, does Mr. Novella think that stereotyping is rational?
    Would it be too much to ask him to stop stereotyping conspiracy theorists?

  25. BillyJoe7 says:


    Please stop JAQing off.
    (Six threads and counting)
    If you have something interesting to say please just say it.

    I don’t think Steven Novella is here for your personal amusement, however important you think you are.

  26. Jared Olsen says:

    GolfTango! Cheers!
    I’ve often wondered what the paradigmatic troll would look like!

  27. mumadadd says:


  28. mumadadd says:


  29. mumadadd says:


  30. mumadadd says:

    Sorry again… clean up on aisle 5. 🙂

  31. mumadadd says:

    OMG a heading!
    Block quotes can contain more than just paragraphs…

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