JFK conspiracy theorists are more alienated than the rest of us


This past week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy included more than a few retrospectives on conspiracy theories that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing our 35th president.

Will Saletan used the occasion to pen THIS LITTLE ESSAY on conspiracy theorists in general:

To believe that the US government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught.

To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them – the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organisations, peer-reviewed journals, news organisations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states – was incompetent, deceived or part of the cover-up.

And yet, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl points out, millions of Americans hold these beliefs. In a Zogby poll taken six years ago, only 64 per cent of US adults agreed that the attacks “caught US intelligence and military forces off guard”. More than 30 per cent chose a different conclusion: that “certain elements in the US government knew the attacks were coming but consciously let them proceed for various political, military, and economic motives”, or that these government elements “actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks”.

How can this be? How can so many people, in the name of scepticism, promote so many absurdities?

The answer is that people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really sceptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favour a world view, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites.

Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor. But it’s not the kind of distrust that cultivates critical thinking.


Once you buy into the first conspiracy theory, the next one seems that much more plausible…

The common thread between distrust and cynicism…is a perception of bad character. More broadly, it’s a tendency to focus on intention and agency, rather than randomness or causal complexity. In extreme form, it can become paranoia. In mild form, it’s a common weakness known as the fundamental attribution error – ascribing others’ behaviour to personality traits and objectives, forgetting the importance of situational factors and chance. Suspicion, imagination, and fantasy are closely related.

The more you see the world this way – full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence – the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.

Many studies and surveys have documented this pattern. Several months ago, Public Policy Polling asked 1,200 registered US voters about various popular theories. Fifty-one per cent said a larger conspiracy was behind President Kennedy’s assassination; only 25 per cent said Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Compared with respondents who said Oswald acted alone, those who believed in a larger conspiracy were more likely to embrace other conspiracy theories tested in the poll. They were twice as likely to say that a UFO had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 (32 to 16 per cent) and that the CIA had deliberately spread crack cocaine in US cities (22 to 9 per cent). Conversely, compared with respondents who didn’t believe in the Roswell incident, those who did were far more likely to say that a conspiracy had killed JFK (74 to 41 per cent), that the CIA had distributed crack (27 to 10 per cent), that the government “knowingly allowed” the 9/11 attacks (23 to 7 per cent), and that the government adds fluoride to our water for sinister reasons (23 to 2 per cent).

The appeal of these theories – the simplification of complex events to human agency and evil – overrides not just their cumulative implausibility (which, perversely, becomes cumulative plausibility as you buy into the premise) but also, in many cases, their incompatibility. Consider the 2003 survey in which Gallup asked 471 Americans about JFK’s death. Thirty-seven per cent said the Mafia was involved, 34 per cent said the CIA was involved, 18 per cent blamed vice-president Johnson, 15 per cent blamed the Soviets, and 15 percent blamed the Cubans. If you’re doing the maths, you’ve figured out by now that many respondents named more than one culprit. In fact, 21 per cent blamed two conspiring groups or individuals, and 12 per cent blamed three. The CIA, the Mafia, the Cubans – somehow, they were all in on the plot.

Two years ago, psychologists at the University of Kent led by Michael Wood (who blogs at a delightful website on conspiracy psychology), escalated the challenge. They offered UK college students five conspiracy theories about Princess Diana: four in which she was deliberately killed, and one in which she faked her death. In a second experiment, they brought up two more theories: that Osama Bin Laden was still alive (contrary to reports of his death in a US raid earlier that year) and that, alternatively, he was already dead before the raid. Sure enough, “The more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered”. And “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when US special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive”.


Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly  demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.”  Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated scepticism”.

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated sceptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.



  1. All hale Will Saletan, the most credible sensible person in the world. Why? Because he says so.

  2. Speaking of conspiracy theories: You seem to have been removed from the RRSTAR website. What could it mean?

    • expdoc, Pat’s column is always missing. I’ve brought that to his attention many times. He has it corrected, then it disappears again, almost immediately. Who knows what’s going on. He blames it on a glitch in the system.It appears his column is the only one that has glitch problems. I would think Pat would be more curious about that phenomenon considering how he boast his column is the most popular of all the RRSTAR blogs. How can that be if you can’t find it on the homepage of the newspaper, just saying? PS – I thought I may have misspelled the term “hale” in my first entry on this thread but upon checking, I was right. Maybe the prayer “Hail Mary” uses the wrong spelling as this spelling of “hail” is defined as pellets of frozen rain that fall in showers from cumulonimbus clouds.

      Depending on the number of responses this article gets, I have some other thoughts on the legitimacy of this author, Will Saletan, but will wait since I’ve been accused in past of bogarting the board.

  3. Steverino

    There’s a fine line between skepticism and paranoia in this country.

  4. thehereandnow1

    They’d probably be welcomed by the groups that believe Bush was behind 9/11 and Katrina, or that he and Cheney were had some secret nefarious plot with Halliburton.

  5. shawnnews


    Some conspiracies are true. This is why we know the national Republicans amount to the blockade party. They made a conscious decision to oppose the Denocrats for the sake of opposing Democrats. It’s documented and everyone outside the Republican Party can see it. If their intent was the purposeful sabotage of the economy, like this blog author thinks, then the national leaders of the party are really being seditious. Listen to Sessions talk about how they have to learn from the Taliban. It’s not the Democrats who are the “un-American” party.

    • thehereandnow1

      Ah, your link is so laughable, I don’t know where to begin:

      First, the phrase GOP Propaganda Minister. There is no actual position and all that does is betray the author’s bias and indicate that his slant will lead to a work devoid of most fact.

      Second, all it mentions is that there was a meeting. The author has no proof of the exact mechanics/topis of said meeting. You’d think that if he spoke the truth he’d have evidence of their machinations. Instead the list of examples he cites are no different than what the Democratic party would do had there been a Republican president. It’s not sedition, it’s not anti-American, it’s called political politics 101. Nice try.

      I especially like how the author goes to great lengths not to give any props to the big G as well. He refuses to capitalize God (opting for the lib ‘god’ spelling), and when he is forced to use the word at the beginning of a sentence he wimps out and uses Gawd.

      Shawn (or would it be more fitting if I went with shawn), your willingness to accept this Micheal Moore / Matt Damon movie idea as truth just shows that you too are out of touch.

  6. shawnnews

    You guys can argue about spellings of God all you want. I’m bet you think he agrees with you. I’m sure the Ayatollahs/ayatollahs believe the same. Nevertheless, you are using a dodge. If you want to be a part of the obstructionists, you can be. But really the whole history of the Republicans ever since Clinton was elected was that the country was really about them.and that the Democratic presidents were novelty acts. They could’ve contributed to the success of the country rather than just being the hurdle the Democrats have to leap. Everyone outside the Conservative movement knows when they have just about nothing to contribute they will attack the Democrats’ piety.
    The book that includes this meeting is by Robert Draper.
    Two shut downs, impeachment without a conviction, war based on faulty intelligence and obstruction is the Republican Party legacy after G.H.W. Bush — but the Democrats are impious.

  7. What’s interesting about the author of this article is how he can condescend to people who just can’t believe the official story lines on many major historical events and with good reason, but he hasn’t got one once of courage to go after people who have no problem believing in some supernatural being that watches over us, punishes us for our sins and indiscretions and and graces us with fairy tales involving virgin births and resurrections after being dead for 3 days, and all the other myth, fables and farcical tales that make up organized religion. Why is that?

    Just about every one of the conspiracy’s he noted ( notice I said just about, not all) has a better chance of being a legitimate occurrence or possibility in some form than the belief system that 100’s of millions believe without question. Baaaaaaaa

  8. expdoc and Robert: I have again informed our techies of the occasional omission of my blog from the RRStar roster.

    They’re working on it.

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