Oct 20 2015

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).

This is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.

Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.

Further, like many categories of proponents that skeptics tend to address (pseudoscientists, cranks, true-believers, deniers, etc.), conspiracy theorists are defined mainly by their behavior, the way that they construct their beliefs and arguments.

For example, the power of conspiracy thinking is that it is immune to refutation through evidence. Any lack of evidence was covered up. Any evidence against the conspiracy theory was planted. Anyone who mounts a convincing argument against the conspiracy is part of the conspiracy.

But the cornerstone of conspiracy thinking is anomaly hunting – their “evidence” for a conspiracy is largely apparent anomalies, things that don’t quite make sense at first blush. It’s actually easy to trump up apparent anomalies, because the world is complex and it’s difficult to explain any complex event down to the tiniest detail.  Further, people are quirky individuals, and have their own complex motivations for doing things.

Why was there a man standing on the side of the road near where JFK was shot with an open umbrella, on a clear day? The behavior seems anomalous. Perhaps he was signalling the shooter. Unless you had some very specific historical information, you would never guess the real explanation.

One apparent anomaly that JFK conspiracy theorists have pointed to for years is the photo of Oswald prior to the shooting holding a Carcano rifle, the very one used in the assassination of JFK. This is a pretty solid piece of evidence that Oswald owned the gun used and was practicing with it. In fact, for your reference, the definitive analysis of the JFK assassination was Case Closed by Gerald Posner. In this book Posner actually analyses the case for Oswald, convincingly showing that Oswald as a lone shooter is the most consistent interpretation of all available evidence.

Because the photo is part of the evidence for Oswald as the shooter, conspiracy theories have tried to refute it by looking for anomalies in the photo. Further, if they could demonstrate that the photo was a fake, that would be real evidence for a conspiracy. Here is one example, but there are many. Essentially, these are non-experts shooting from the hip, looking for anything that seems odd to them.

Two of the main points made for the fake photo claim is that Oswald is standing at an odd angle, and the shadows are inconsistent. The shadow argument reminds me of conspiracy theory claims about the faked moon landing, arguing the shadows on the moon are inconsistent. The real problem is that it is difficult to imagine exactly how a three dimensional scene will be represented in a two dimensional image.

Now researchers at Dartmouth College have published a computer analysis of the photo. They created a 3-D reconstruction of the image, mainly using software called Blender. They created his skeleton, skin, distributed weight throughout the body, exactly duplicated his stance, and then calculated his center of gravity. They concluded that his center of gravity lies well within his base of support, so his stance was stable. In fact they then repeated the analysis with 1,000,000 perturbations (adjusting the weight and stance a bit to account for any errors in their reconstruction) and 99.99% of the reconstructions are stable.

While they were at it (reconstructing the photo) they also demonstrating that the shadows int he picture are consistent – they reconstructed the lighting and the camera angle, and reproduced the shadowing.

This analysis destroys the arguments of conspiracy theorists claiming it is a fake. Not only is the photo not evidence for a conspiracy, it is evidence supporting the case against Oswald.


What this episode demonstrates is that it can be very easy to generate the impression that there is something strange going on by hyping apparent anomalies, and then giving them (or just implying) a sinister interpretation. Throw enough crap at the wall, and many people will be left with the feeling that something odd must be going on (hence 60-80% of the American public think there is a JFK conspiracy).

Sometimes intrepid conspiracy theories will do what they present as a thorough analysis, but which is nothing more than working backwards from their conspiracy conclusion with a healthy dose of confirmation bias.

While “just asking questions” about apparent anomalies can be very quick, it can take an exhaustive effort to explain the apparent anomalies, and this is one more example. With the JFK assassination, every time researchers have performed a detailed analysis of one specific component of the conspiracy claims, they have found that the official explanation (Oswald as the lone gunman) turns out to be correct. We can now add the Oswald backyard photo to the pile.

21 responses so far

21 thoughts on “Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy”

  1. John Danley says:

    Perhaps, but I still believe that Oswald was a shape-shifting reptilian who was deployed by the Louisiana illuminati. There are just too many coincidences…

  2. Lukas Xavier says:

    One question springs to mind, maybe someone can answer this:
    Why was Oswald posing with the rifle and newspaper in the first place? Did he have some reason to want to prove that he owned that rifle at a particular date?

    Maybe this is well-known, but I’m not a big JFK buff.

  3. Lukas,

    The newspapers are not to prove the date. They are communist newspapers. Oswald was and anti-US communist at that time. He was looking to move to Cuba (they turned him down). These are just vanity pictures of him sporting his guns and his communist cred.

  4. Newcoaster says:

    As a Canuck, I’ve only had a passing interest in the JFK assassination, though I’ve probably watched several documentaries over the years.

    I probably learned more about it from Stephen Kings novel “11/22/63”, (which is about a guy who passes through a time portal to about 5 years before the JFK assassination with a plan to find and kill Oswald. King’s take on time parodoxes, culture, and unintended consequences is classic) King pretty clearly shows good motivations for Oswald to be the lone gunman, and does claim that while the dialogue of Oswald with his wife and other historical characters is obviously invented, he is basing it on real historical events and documents that are available.

  5. mark.hadf says:

    I’m not a great conspiracy enthusiast and have not followed the JFK theories, but I’ve always thought the fact that Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby while in custody two days after the assassination was a bit anomalous.

  6. Bernie Mooney says:

    I’m not a conspiracy guy, but you will never convince me it wasn’t a conspiracy.

  7. Never? No amount of evidence can convince you?

  8. 107197 says:

    Shouldn’t that be “conspiracy hypothesis”? 🙂

  9. Damlowet says:

    At Bernie Mooney,

    The whole idea of being open minded DEMANDS that you MUST change your mind about even the most entrenched belief if the evidence shows in fact that a certain event happened.

    Again: Regardless what you believe, you must change your mind if new, compelling, irrefutable evidence is uncovered to show that indeed there was/were lizard people that killed JFK in conspiracy with the Elves of Rivendell!

    That is how science works, it does not care what you think you believe.


  10. mindme says:

    “I’m not a conspiracy guy, but you will never convince me it wasn’t a conspiracy.”

    I’ve found conspiracy people have a hard time, if not an impossible time, ever articulating what evidence they would need to abandon their hypothesis. I’ve found non-conspiracy people can quite easily articulate what evidence they would require.

    The few conspiracy people that attempt to outline what evidence they would require to abandon their hypothesis tend to offer burdens of proof that are silly or disingenuous (“build a time machine and return me to Dallas on that day!”). I’ve found non-conspiracy people can quite easily articulate a reasonable goal post.

    Finally, I can’t recall a single conspiracy theorist I’ve debated with that has ever honestly spent any time examining how they might go about testing their beliefs.

  11. zorrobandito says:

    The basic flaw in most if not all conspiracy theories is that they require that a large number of people keep a secret. Experience shows that this very seldom happens.

    Take the moon-landing conspiracy theories as an example. Think of how many people must have necessity known that those films were faked. The actors, the camera people, people to create the sets, on and on. And not ONE of them has gone to the National Enquirer, goes the theory, in the meantime.

    So also here.

  12. Fair Persuasion says:

    The photo is of Oswald with his famous rifle. Apparently, he had sniper training on two continents.
    He adopted another ideology other than that generally accepted in US politics. He believed in Cuba’s
    cause. Can we at least say he had support in getting to the point of successfully murdering President Kennedy?

  13. stonehamskeptic says:

    Once upon a time I believed JFK was the victim of a conspiracy. After all, it couldn’t be possible that a great man like the President was brought down by a single insignificant malcontent.

    Time changed things.

    Eventually, everything I read or viewed, both pro or con, made me realize that the conspiracy hypotheses were failing to hold water. Every plan had to include scores of conspirators, who, to this day have remained silent. No one has contacted the National Enquirer to sell his story. No one has confessed on his death bed. No one has gotten drunk some night and shot his mouth off.

    Occam, as ever, was right. The simplest answer is the right answer. One man, one gun.

    Every once in a while, a tiny little piss-ant like Oswald with a mediocre record of marksmanship, gets off a lucky shot. You only have to do it once.

  14. DS1000 says:

    Everyone here should check out This American Life’s podcast for this week (http://www.thisamericanlife.org). It details the equally ridiculous conspiracy surrounding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister. While the hard argument against the JFK assassination includes all the facts and evidence, the soft argument is that there’s a conspiracy theory surrounding essentially every important event in history – regardless of how well documented it actually was. Personally, I think you need both arguments to convince conspiracy theorists.

  15. string puller says:

    Lots of people share Bernie Mooney’s sentiment (about a host of ideas that are interesting to skeptics). It’s nice to know, at least, that there is no reason to bash our skeptical heads against that popular brick wall.

    If someone comes right out and says they are unmoved by new information, they are outside rational discourse. Thank you Bernie, and those who think like you, for at least coming right out and admitting it- it’s a great time saver.

    It’s also great to let Bernie’s opinion see the light of day, so fence sitters can see the futility (opposite of utility?) of his opinion.

    To me, there is no difference between Bernie’s opinion and nihilism. Skepticism is the opposite of nihilism.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    I thought Bernie was joking.
    You don’t often see someone so obviously putting their heads in the noose.

  17. mumadadd says:

    “I thought Bernie was joking.” Me too.

  18. mumadadd says:

    Red rag to a skeptical bull — commenter says, “Evidence won’t convince me.” 🙂

  19. Belgarath says:


    I’m sorry. The definitive book on the JFK assassination is not by Posner, although his is very good. The definitive book is ‘Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy’

    He goes into excruciating detail on all of the evidence and the conspiracies and why they fail the evidence test.

  20. Belgarath says:

    Should have included the author: Vincent Bugliosi

  21. Bacchusoo7 says:

    While I have not spent much time reading up on the JFK assassination. One thing that I realized while reading some of the comments about red flags for conspiracies, etc. It is worth noting, that sometimes grand conspiracies exist and large groups of people can keep secrets. For example, if a few years ago someone told you that the government was listening to the phone conversations of huge numbers of americans they would have been laughed out of the room. But as Snowden has shown, it is true. Now, I’m not saying that all of the stuff people say the government is doing is true, but just noting that it is possible to have a grand conspiracy with a large number of moving parts and not have people know about it. So those may not always indicate a crank, just sometimes.

    Also, I share mark.hadif’s curiosity about Jack Ruby’s assassination of Oswald. I wonder if there is an interesting story behind that.

Leave a Reply