2013-11-27

Believing the Unbelievable

Glad to see this article by the always worthwhile Michael Shermer:
'Why We Believe the Unbelievable' in the Los Angeles Times. Shermer examines the role of cognitive dissonance, monological system of belief, and confirmation bias in the never-ending stream of far-fetched conjectures about the Kennedy assassination.

I'm glad to see Shermer's mention of a facet of these things I've also observed: cognitive dissonance. The emotions have their own irrational 'logic.' One feature of it is expecting big shocks to have big causes.

When JFK is killed millions of people were thrown into shock.

Realistically, it makes all the sense in the world that a lone assassin could make that happen. The fewer people in on the plot, the better his chances of success. Anonymity works to his advantage while fame works to the disadvantage of his target. The imbalance enables him to gather information about his prey's whereabouts while his prey remains unaware that he even poses a threat.

But emotions rebel at the imbalance. A single malicious, insignificant person has the power to throw the world into such chaos? No way. Great pain must have great cause.

It's much more acceptable—even consoling—to the emotions to believe it takes all the king's men—Mafia, Communists, CIA, political rivals, Evil Overlords from the Middle Ages—plotting for months to get a thousand unlikely things to come together and make such a thing happen. One may cling to the feeling that events, if not under the control of good people, are at least under the control of someone somewhere. With luck, maybe our shadowy overlords won't let things like this happen every day. After all, these things are so much work to plan.

So hope the emotions. The universe, though, is notoriously indifferent to our emotions and does not respond readily to supplications.

Reality: the world is run by a giant committee that never meets and has no mutually held goals. Each one of us is on that committee. So is each person we meet. So is each animal, rock, and cloud.

In 1963 JFK was on that committee, as was Oswald, as was everyone on the parade route. Each individual knew the big picture about as well as you or I. And each affected it.

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