Further thoughts on PSC404, Spring 2001


Welcome to the Spring 2001 version of PSC404, "The Assassination of John F. Kennedy." This year's course will once again differ from the previous one (Spring 2000's PSC482G). Last year I stressed putting the material for the course on the web; this year I will finish that job and will move the focus to the academic prerequisites for getting the right answer, where "right answer" is defined as learning just how close to a solid answer we can come with the available evidence. The JFK "research community" has been in a quagmire for many years, and shows every indication of remaining that way indefinitely because its members operate largely ad hoc—they feel their way along from point to point without working from any general framework or scheme. They need to forget the relentless pursuit of ever-narrowing details and carefully examine their efforts from a distance. They need to learn the proper procedures for investigating a crime and operate that way. They should learn how to think critically and logically and vow to eliminate all error from their thinking. They should educate themselves in the other disciplines necessary to understand the physical evidence from the assassination, such as ballistics and traditional physics and chemistry. And most importantly, they should commit themselves to learning the truth, wherever it lies. Until they take these important steps, they cannot and will not know the full extent to which the assassination can be understood.
    This course attempts to do exactly that. The assassination touches on so many areas of knowledge that the JFK investigator who wishes to appreciate the full power of the available evidence needs to be the classical "generally educated" person. That means you need to feel comfortable with at least the basics of all those academic disciplines listed in the previous paragraph—evidence, critical thinking, ballistics, wound ballistics, chemistry, physics, etc. The difficulty of becoming familiar with all these fields may be the main reason that after 37 long years the JFK assassination remains so misunderstood. To put it another way, the JFK assassination is the business of scholars, not of buffs or hobbyists. Unless you commit yourself to understanding it by bringing the proper resources to it, you will not get it right. This makes the JFK assassination an unusual topic within political science—one that demands knowledge of many diverse fields. It is for only those students who can make themselves both broad and deep. This is why I will push you hard for the entire semester. To do anything less would be unworthy of the subject and of you.
    That hard work may be considered the bad news of this course. To counterbalance it, there are two pieces of good news. The first is that you can still get the right answer without the deep scientific abilities mentioned above—you just can't see the full power of the evidence. The second piece of good news is that once you have the prerequisites in place at either level, you can get the right answer in a matter of hours, and perhaps even less. In fact, the JFK assassination is much easier to understand than is claimed by those who don't have the tools. But your friends and associates probably won't be able to get the answer unless they have done that spadework. The JFK assassination has been debated for so long because the participants, mostly Warren Commission critics, have systematically broken the rules of data handling and critical thinkingbecause they didn't prepare themselves properlyand consequently have kept the field in chaos. You think I'm exaggerating? Wait until you see for yourself this semester. You will be shocked by the lack of genuine scholarship in this field. Like Thomas, you will only believe the real situation after you see it for yourself.
    Here is a rough outline of the logic behind this course:

  1. There is overwhelming physical evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK.
  2. There is an overwhelming absence of evidence that anyone else was involved.
  3. No other credible suspects, general or named, have emerged after 37 years of intensive investigation.
  4. Thus the exceedingly strong working hypothesis must be that Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone.
  5. The logical and procedural errors of the critics and conspiracists are so clear and obvious that further discussion of conspiracy is no longer justified without solid new evidence.
  6. Given that no conspiracy has emerged in 37 years, there is no reason to expect the present situation to change (although it could at any time).
  7. Therefore the era of national soul-searching and angst that followed the JFK assassination and the distrust of the government it created were unnecessary and hurtful. The spotlight should have been turned inward on the critics rather than outward on the government. Recognizing these things, we are now ready to write the simple, clear, and true history of the assassination.

Let us be clear on one central point, however. I'm not going to tell you how to think or what the answer has to be. That is not the way of a university. I will, however, show you the basic choice you have—using reliable (physical) evidence or unreliable evidence (all other types)—and the consequences of that choice. The major consequence, of course, is that the reliable evidence gives a simple, clear answer and the unreliable evidence gives a host of unreliable and indefensible "answers." Your choice, quite simply, is clarity and simplicity vs. chaos and confusion. I will also show you how the best people in the relevant fields think, and will let you compare their ways with those of most JFK researchers. The handwriting on the wall will be very clear at that point.
    Why, then, do so many JFK researchers chose the path that leads inevitably to chaos and confusion? And why, after the alternate path is shown them, do they persist? These are two of the most important questions surrounding the assassination, and we will consider them both near the end of the semester. There are no pleasant answers for either one.
    In short, the story of the JFK assassination is one of choice and consequence. The confusion in the field is, pure and simple, a consequence of the choice of evidence by its "researchers." They must bear the responsibility of having gone down a chimeric path and thus having kept the answer from the American public for nearly forty years. This semester we will show you the way to the answer and where most folks have gone wrong.
    Now let's get practical—what specifically do you need to learn before you can understand the assassination? An elaborated list of topics from the previous paragraphs is presented in "A ten-step program for understanding the evidence on the JFK assassination." These steps form the introductory sections of the course (Parts I–IV). The full outline for the revised course will have seven or eight parts, depending on how you subdivide the long central section on issues and evidence, and will resemble that shown below. See the syllabus for the simplified final outline.

Prologue—The reasons for this sequence of topics

Part IThinking about evidence
    The academic perspective
    Committing to the truth, wherever it lies
    Basic epistemology
    The types of evidence and how to deal with them
        Strengths of physical evidence
        Weaknesses of testimonial evidence
    The basic sequence of critical reasoning
        Justification for each of the steps
    How police departments investigate crimes

Part I
I—The deed and how it affected America and the world
    The deed (WCR Chapters I, II, V)
        The motorcade
        The shooting
        Parkland Hospital
        The autopsy
        The killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby
    Its effect on America and the world

Part III—The physical evidence

    The rise of scientific criminology in the last 150 years
    Physical evidence from the crime scene (Depository, Dealey Plaza, limousine)
WCR Chapters III, IV
    Physical evidence from the body, including clothing (much of which is ultimately unimportant)—WCR

    The Zapruder film (ballistics and physics)
    NAA and the bullet fragments (chemistry)
    Documents (P.O. box, rifle and pistol, etc.)—WCR

    Synthesizing the physical evidence (the unity and strength of the physical evidence)

    The single-bullet theory (SBT)—WCR and other sources

Part IV—The suspects
The evidence implicating Oswald
        The physical evidence
            Howard Brennan's sighting
            The rifle
            The bullets and casings
            Fingerprints and palmprints
            Oswald's other killing that day (Officer J.D. Tippit)
        Oswald's background and nature (including The Mind of Oswald)
    The evidence for conspiracy

Part V—Putting it all together
    How we put it together
    How the Warren Commission put it together
    Understanding the differences

Part VI—Analysis of challenges to the Warren Commission
    How the conspiracy theorists put it together (the 101 conspiracy theories)
    Review of evidence that does and doesn't matter
    The history of critical/conspiratorial thought in the JFK case
        Pre-WCR explanations of the assassination
        The rise of the critical movement—reactions to the Warren Report
    The main errors of conspiratorial thinking (fallacies, predisposition, dishonesty, overuse of testimonial evidence)

Part VII—Lessons learned
    Why the critics went so wrong
    JFK as a special case of conspiracy theory
        What is conspiracy theory?
        JFK and UFOs—a surprising connection

    Unnecessary damage done to the American psyche by the critics
    Things to guard against in the future

Part VIII—The JFK assassination and American culture (as time permits)
    Higher criticism of assassination literature
    Novels about the assassination
    Films about the assassination
    Stories about the assassination
    The assassination in art

Some additional questions raised by the history of JFK assassination scholarship
    People's basic conclusions about the JFK assassination can divide them into three broad groups: (1) those who agree with the nonconspiracy conclusions of the Warren Commission, although perhaps for different reasons; (2) the critics, who maintain the the commission's work was full of errors but who are not willing to say what the right answer was; and (3) the conspiracists, who disagree with the Warren Commission and believe that there was a conspiracy. Let us refer to these groups simply as the Supporters, the Critics, and the Conspiracists. The Critics and the Conspiracists have been vocal and shrill, and have dominated the debate nearly from the beginning. The Supporters have been much quieter, except for two or three brief periods. Why have the groups behaved so differently? Clues to the answer come from a time line. The "periods" of the JFK assassination movement might be considered to be as follows:

  1. The first year after the assassination—the official explanation predominates. The majority of voices heard are from Supporters. A few Critics and Conspiracists begin to speak out, however.
  2. The immediate aftermath of the release of the Warren Report in Fall 1964—a relieved country accepts the conclusions of the Warren Report, and the voices of Supporters dominate.
  3. The next few years—Supporters become quiet; Critics and Conspiracists reach a critical mass and form into a movement that drowns out the Supporters.
  4. The next decade—the chorus of Critics and Conspirators continues to grow until shortly after the Zapruder film is shown in national television, the House Select Committee on Assassinations is formed. 
  5. The HSCA period—Supporters speak out once again as the HSCA agrees with virtually every conclusion of the Warren Commission but adds that a second shooter fired from the grassy knoll (a last-minute change that deeply divides the committee). The Critics and Conspiracists, sensing a victory of sorts, remain extremely vocal.
  6. The next decade—Supporters are once again quiet; Critics and Conspiracists again control the public discussion. Level of interest fades significantly, however.
  7. The Stone Age (release of JFK film)—public interest in conspiracy is reinvigorated, Critics and Conspiracists are reenergized, and Supporters speak but few listen.
  8. The ARRB period—Critics and Conspiracists hail the release of millions of pages of classified materials by the Assassination Records Review board and pore through them for the "smoking gun" of conspiracy. They find no such evidence, however, and change the subject.

What is so intriguing about this time line? Simply that the truth of the assassination is unrelated to the decibels surrounding it. With the proper preliminaries that are provided in the first part of this course, it is easy to show that the Supporters have all the solid evidence on their side. Conversely, the Critics and Conspiracists have nothing solid to back them up. Then why have the Supporters spoken out so quietly and briefly, whereas the Critics and Conspiracists have maintained their hue and cry for over thirty years? The answer, as you will learn here, is that the Supporters presented their near-airtight case when they had to, and quietly stepped back when they saw that they were being drowned out by the Critics and Conspiracists, whose case the public was accepting over theirs. The Critics and Conspiracists, on the other hand, kept up a constant barrage of propaganda because they had to—they had no solid evidence, as witnessed by the very fact that the debate continues. (If conspiracy had been proven, there would have been court actions long ago, and there would not be multiple Kennedy conferences still being held every year.) In the absence of evidence, one turns to rhetoric to do the job, and that's what the Critics and Conspiracists did. Let us be very clear on one critical point, however—the majority doesn't automatically rule in matters of fact or reason. That the majority of Americans (between 60% and 90% over the years) have chosen to believe in conspiracy in no way makes it true. Much public opinion was formed in ways that advertisers know well—repeat something often enough and people will believe it. The Critics and Conspiracists with their advertising thus won a victory that is superficial, for it does not stand up to solid scrutiny.
    I am fully aware that this scenario will seem highly improbable to most people reading it for the first time. By the end of this semester you will be persuaded by it, however. I hope that you will react strongly against the large number of misimpressions you have been given and untruths you have been told about the JFK assassination, for the damage done to America by the unsupportable rhetoric of the Critics and Conspiracists has been great indeed. This course will set the record straight and will give you the tools to prevent you from ever again being fooled by artifacts of improper thinking.

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