Episode 09: Conspiracy Theory
In this episode, the main theme
involves conspiracy theories.
What are conspiracy theories?
At approximately 12:30PM (CST) on 22 November 1963, United States
President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while being driven
through a crowded street in a convertible in Dallas, Texas. The
investigation of the assassination was not carried out with the level
of rigor that is expected in the current era (especially considering
the president was involved), both because standards
were lower at the time and because many of the forensic technologies
commonly used in criminal investigations had not been developed.
A number of bullet fragments were collected from the scene and another
bullet was collected later in the hospital where JFK was pronounced
dead on arrival. A gun was discovered in a nearby building along
with three shell casings. Only a single assassin, Lee Harvey
Oswald, was investigated, and he was taken in by police at 2PM on the
day of the assassination after allegedly killing a police
officer. Oswald was, curiously enough, assassinated the following
morning and was never put to trial. Additionally, as the
investigation was a federal matter, many documents were closed to the
public, and a small number of documents remain closed to present (2009).
To many, the assassination seemed too complex for Oswald to have acted
alone, and many people believe he must have been involved in a
conspiracy to kill the president, meaning he had a number of
individuals working with him (either as additional shooters or in the
planning process). The investigation was also too sloppy for many
to believe it, especially when compared to modern investigations.
The trajectories of the bullets, the number of bullets obtained from
the scene of the crime, and even the number of assassins remains
questionable. Many believe that the documents which are still
closed contain information which would debunk the investigation's
However, it is seemingly possible that a single individual can produce
results like this. On 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a veteran
of the first Iraq War, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The bombing killed 168 people, injured
more than 680, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to
the surrounding area. Until the World Trade Center attacks in
2001, the bombing was the most violent terrorist attack to ever take
place in the United States. There is some evidence which suggests
that McVeigh may have had accomplices, but in an interview McVeigh
responded to such claims with, "You can't handle the truth. Because the
truth is, I blew up the Murrah Building, and isn't it kind of scary
that one man could wreak this kind of hell?"
Causes and problems of conspiracy
Conspiracy theories are typically the result of interpretation.
The amount of information collected from an assassination or a
terrorist attack is astronomical. Hundreds of witnesses are
interviewed. Footage from dozens of security cameras is obtained
and analyzed. Autopsies must be undertaken. Thousands of
pieces of evidence must be carefully cataloged. Typically there
are procedural laws which must be obeyed in how all of this information
is collected. There are also laws determining if and when
becomes publicly available. Since human beings make mistakes,
mistakes are made, evidence is mishandled or lost or not collected at
all, and witness testimony changes (for a variety of reasons).
Constructing a time-line is difficult because timestamps on the video
footage may not line up exactly, testimony from different witnesses may
conflict, and huge amounts of time may be completely unaccounted for.
So, some key evidence (the number of bullets, for example) may be
questionable. Or, it may be that all the evidence seems
sound. However the sheer magnitude of evidence allows for
drastically different interpretations. Numb3rs references the
Graham Allison Rationality Theorem, which essentially states that,
given any action by a government, one can, after the fact, come up with
criterion so that this action seems to be the best possible
choice. One can see such behavior surrounding the United States'
second war with Iraq. Prior to the war, the US position was that
Iraq was amassing powerful weapons. However, this turned out not
to be the case. So the government changed its position. The
goal, then, was to free Iraq from a tyrannical regime and bring
democracy to an oppressed nation. Thus, even though the original
argument for going to war turned out to be false, the government
remains in the position of having made the correct decision. That
is to say that it is not hard to paint any action by
a government to seem like it was the rational, necessary choice.
While not an exact analogy, there is a sort of relation to conspiracy
theories: by weighting different evidence differently, one can make a
particular sequence of events leading to an assassination or terrorist
attack seem much more plausible than another, and vice-versa, depending on how
important one decides some evidence is.
So, in any investigation, there is a huge amount of subjectivity in how
the evidence is weighted. During an investigation of a serial
killer, it may seem logical that it is important to deeply understand
the psychology of the killer and study very carefully the way in which
he or she kills. However, it is often the case that seemingly
trivial errors on the part of the killer rather than their deranged
thinking which wind up being the killer's undoing:
David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, was caught because he got a
ticket for parking too close to a fire hydrant around the time and in
the area of a murder.
An additional problem with conspiracy theories is that data can lead to
correct but seemingly paradoxical conclusions, causing some people to
completely disregard evidence because it doesn't make sense to
them. This is referenced in Numb3rs by Simpson's Paradox.
The paradox can be exemplified by the following example (also
referenced in Numb3rs): in 1995, 1996, and 1997, Major League Baseball
player Derek Jeter (of the New York Yankees) had batting averages of
.250, .314, and .291, respectively. David Justice, of the
Atlanta Braves (in '95 and '96) and the Cleveland Indians ('97), had
averages of .253, .321, and .329, respectively, for the same three-year
period. So in every individual year, Justice had a higher batting
average. It thus seems "obvious" that Justice was better at
those three years than Jeter. Yet over the whole three-year
period, Jeter had a higher average. Justice had
104+45+163=312 hits out of 411+140+495=1,046 at bats. So, his
three-year average was .298 (a very, very good batting average).
However, Jeter's average over all three seasons was
(12+183+190)/(48+582+654)=0.300 (slightly better). This is
because the three-year average is not just the average of the
single-year averages. Jeter's poor performance in 1995 was the
result of far fewer at bats as his good seasons in '96 and '97, and
Justice's bad year in 1995 had far more at bats than his good
performance in '96. In 1997, Jeter had more than 4 times as many
at bats as Justice. So as far as overall average over the three
seasons is concerned, Justice's 1995 was worse than Jeter's 1995 and
Justice's 1996 was not as good as Jeter's 1996.