Credulous Books by Skeptics

I’ve been doing some reading here and there, first to prepare for our awesome GenCon presentations, and then to get ready for the upcoming academic year. And in each case, some of the reading I’ve been doing has forced my palm to meet my face.

First, as part of the last surge of brainstorming-and-research phase for our presentation on conspiracy theories, I read chapters from The Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories. It’s an entertaining book, written as a critical examination of conspiracy nuttery with “penned-in” annotations by a conspiracy theorist caricature, or possibly just Alex Jones. Where the book really lost me, though, was in the chapter on the JFK assassination. In it, the author claims that the “magic bullet” theory–that a single bullet hit Kennedy, zig-zagged through the air, then hit Connally in at least two places, emerging almost unscathed–is an aspect of the official story. He also notes a litany of “suspicious” deaths that occurred to people peripherally involved with the assassination, and based on these traits assigned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory a fairly high degree of plausibility.

Now, I’ll admit that as far as conspiracy theories go, the JFK assassination is firmly ensconced on the more plausible end of the spectrum. In fact, Don and I put together this graphic of conspiracy theories that we didn’t get to use in the talk, and you can see that we were generally pretty favorable to the JFK assassination buffs.
Legend to be printed in a future post.
See, JFK is right there in the “pretty darn significant” and “only somewhat batshit insane” section of the graph. And even that’s largely because the secret has somehow been kept for over fifty years, and the conspiracies get pretty crazy pretty quickly. But it’s not hard to imagine, what with his Communist sympathies, that maybe Oswald was put up to it, or that Jack Ruby was working for the mob, or something along those lines.

That being said, the whole “magic bullet” thing smacks of not doing the research. The “magic bullet” is not a feature of the official story, but an anomaly seized-upon by the conspiracy theorists, based entirely on a misunderstanding of how Kennedy and Connally were seated in the car. When you account for the actual seating arrangement, with Connally sitting somewhat inboard and Kennedy elevated, the path of the “magic bullet” suddenly becomes a fairly straight-line path expected by an average bullet. And, of course, the “unscathed” bit is based on one misleading photo of the bullet; other photos show that it was all smushed in on one side and kind of twisted.

So that soured me on Cook’s book; if he could miss that bit of research–something that’s easily found in any number of sources, from TV specials to Vincent Bugliosi’s encyclopedia of the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, then what else might he have missed? I own the book, so I suspect that I’ll come back to it eventually–everyone makes mistakes after all–but it was a little disheartening to see a book with “skeptic” right there in the title, and one of the few readily available skeptical guides on conspiracy theories, make such an appeal to credulity.

Fast-forward a few days, and my wife was looking to round out an Amazon order to get the free shipping. A book called Amazing…But False! had been floating around my “saved items” section of the Amazon cart for a year or three, and had recently dropped below $7. It seemed like exactly what I’d need for examples to stimulate critical thinking skills–there’s a foreword by James Randi!–and so forth, so I had her add it.

The book arrived today, and I started flipping through, reading items here and there. Most of them have been pretty good, although a lot of them were already pretty familiar. I was intrigued by one teased on the back of the book–“All Crop Circles are Hoaxes”–but it was presented there under the “True or False” header. The article was a whole lot less ambiguous, unfortunately. Author David Diefendorf gives a decent overview of the crop circle phenomenon, but cites “some experts” claiming they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and goes on to make a distinction between “true crop circles” and hoaxes. “There is a long list of characteristics that make it unlikely if not impossible for the ‘natural’ crop circles to have been fabricated by humans,” he says, then lists eight bullet-pointed traits of “genuine” crop circles that seem an awful lot like credulously repeating believers’ anomaly-hunting. Among the reasons are that “the leaves and stems of the plants manipulated in genuine crop circles are woven together in a fashion so intricate as to be impossible for pranksters to duplicate” and “of the legions of crop circles scattered all over the world, many are far too complex in design to have been fabricated by pranksters.” Most of them are like that: anomalies that make it “impossible” for any human to have crafted them. As St. Peter said, “You’re right, no human being could stack books like this.”

It’s disheartening to see such a failure of skepticism in the face of typical woo-woo tactics, but it’s especially galling in a book endorsed by James Randi.

I guess the takeaway is the same one that one should get from Snopes’s “Lost Legends” page: you can’t believe everything you read, even from otherwise skeptical sources. Unfortunately, it puts me in the position of having to independently research every entry before I present it to anyone else.

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