We know too much about the JFK assassination
12 March 2001
I took a minibreak from the JFK newsgroups recently. When I returned, I
was dismayed to see the same open-ended subjects being discussed yet one more
time. Why the dismay? Because for the past few weeks I have become increasingly
convinced that these newsgroups, and JFK “research” in general, are
hopelessly bogged down in an approach to the assassination that is not only
self-perpetuating but also never-ending. I refer to the fact that we have
acquired too much information about the JFK assassination and are endlessly
Living as we do in the information age, it is hard to conceive of a downside to having ever-increasing amounts of information at our fingertips. Yet, as a teacher of secondary and college students for more decades than I care to admit, I have seen big changes in students’ ability to work with that information. Simply put, the more we know and the more easily we can get it, the less we know how to think about it. The information rather than the thinking about it becomes our world. (The same thing happens when we surround ourselves with violence—it becomes our world and we start to act that way.) I see this every day in our students, who head for the Internet to answer any and every question without ever stopping and thinking first. It is becoming more of a struggle to get students to do the hard work of thinking about the great principles behind the information—it’s too easy to click a few times and get something that passes for an answer. Furthermore, it doesn’t help matters that we live in a culture where more, bigger, and faster are automatically considered better.
What does all this have to do with JFK? Easy. We dig and dig for more and more, and we find it and are blinded by it. We confuse “more” with “better,” and even with “necessary.” We now have so much information about the assassination and every conceivable thing related to it, out to the twentieth step removed, that we automatically think about all that juicy stuff rather than stepping back and asking whether we are doing the right thing. We have lost sight of the fact that nearly all of this vast array of “information” is uncertain, irrelevant, or both. Want the proof? Just look back at what the JFK community was discussing ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago and see whether it differs in any fundamental way, where fundamental is operationally defined as leading to a solid answer, from the discussions of now. It does not. Want proof number two? Look at how much closer the critical community is to finding that great conspiracy just over the horizon. They aren’t—their efforts have unearthed nothing solid, no smoking gun or anything close to it, in spite of all the hype to the contrary. The great volumes of information have distracted us from the real questions.
The JFK research community needs to start doing things very differently if it wants to progress. First and foremost, we need to forget about pieces of evidence and return to principles of thinking. Instead of asking how much information we need, we must reverse the question and ask how little we need—what the minima are to answer the important questions. We need to start distinguishing between information that is central and that which is only peripheral, and forsake the peripheral until the central is settled. We need to learn how to tell which information is trustworthy and which is not, and throw out the untrustworthy. We need to start asking which information is essential and which can be worked around, and stick with only the essential. We need to learn how to first establish a central core of evidence that is rock-solid, and then begin to add cautiously to it, not the other way around. And last and most important, we need to begin challenging every piece of information we have, and forget about anything and everything that does not pass the most rigorous test. When we can learn to do all these things, we will then be able to identify the few pieces of evidence, perhaps under ten in number, that define the minimum case. Then we will be getting somewhere.
If the JFK community will not do these things, if it continues to focus on the trivia at the expense of the meaningful, it will remain as it has for nearly four decades, in a state of confusion where it thinks the chaff is the wheat because it has more of it. The community must never forget that information is not the same thing as knowledge, that knowledge is not the same thing as understanding, and that one principle is worth a thousand pieces of evidence.