No Lack of Conspiracy Theories

Why we believe what we do

Posted Apr 15, 2016

Dallas Morning News, public domain
Source: Dallas Morning News, public domain

If you think the Pentagon is concealing information about UFO's and what really happened at Roswell, that global warming is a hoax, or that the CIA killed JFK, well, you are not alone.

Conspiracy theories about who killed our 35th president range from Cuba's Castro, to Vice President Johnson, to organized crime, and to the CIA. By now, enough has been written about the assassination to fill a small library, and although we know most of the facts in the case, nagging questions still remain. Just to name a few: What was the killer's motivation? Did he act alone? If not, who else was involved?

We know, or think we know, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy from the 6th floor of a building in Dallas. The moment was captured on a grainy home movie known as "the Zapruder film," but the film is inconclusive as to whether there was more than one shooter. That gave rise to the "Grassy Knoll" theory that other shots came from that location.

As a mystery writer, if I had dreamed up a plot like the one beginning that day in Dallas, readers would think it too fantastic, too implausible, even for a novel. Think about it: The president of the United States is killed by a single bullet from Oswald's rifle, then Oswald is shot dead by Jack Ruby––while in police custody––and Ruby dies in prison without ever revealing a motive for his bizarre actions. (Some saw his connections to organized crime as support for one theory.)  

In fact, with so much that was unknown about the assassination, there existed no lack of conspiracy theories. Pointing the finger at the CIA is still popular, and in my opinion it's no wonder. Who really knows what that clandestine agency is up to? It's easy to blame them for anything.

Case in point: A few years ago I was crossing a downtown Seattle street when an elderly lady touched my arm and asked if I would help her. She was well dressed, and didn't appear to be panhandling, so I asked what I could do for her. She explained that she wanted help in reporting "to the authorities" what the CIA was doing with microwaves. They were controlling her mind, she said, through a tiny transmitter in her back tooth. I happened to be on my way to a dental appointment in the next block, and asked if she wanted to come along and discuss her tooth problem with the dentist. "You don't believe me," she said, and marched off, looking for someone else who would listen.

I bring all this up now because of something I read recently in the op-ed section of the newspaper about conspiracy theories, and why we are inclined to believe them. Recent psychological research shows that our "pattern-seeking brains" see a bunch of dots, and can't resist trying to connect them. It gets more complicated when certain biases (and we all have them, whether we admit it or not) want to arrange the dots in a way that suits our own prejudices. But sometimes we turn out to be right.

Take, for example, the infamous Watergate burglary which a couple of eager young reporters on the Washington Post saw as a conspiracy hatched at the White House to ensure Richard Nixon's reelection. (That involved the CIA, too, you may recall.) Even some of their own editors at the Post were skeptical of the story, and knew there would be hell to pay for printing it. But the story was true, and in the end it was Nixon who paid the price.

And here's something else: Remember the lady on the street who tried to convince me that the CIA was controlling her mind with microwaves? Turns out, there really was a project, code name MKUltra––a mind-control experiment on U.S. citizens without their knowledge or consent––begun in the 1950's by the CIA.

Could the lady have been correct?