There’s a reason it’s called a “conclusion”

I’ve had this subject sitting in the folder for some time, waiting for the right mood to tackle it, and diving down a rabbit hole earlier prompted me to give it the full treatment. Okay, that was all rather vague, wasn’t it?

The thing that provoked this was running across a reference to James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr, and realizing that I knew very little about the situation, so I did a quick check to fill in my knowledge. Or intended to, anyway – it appears that, like the Kennedy assassination, there are more than a few conspiracy wild-ass-guesses floating around out there. No, I am not using the word “theory” because it in no way applies, to either situation; a theory is a potential explanation that fits all of the known facts and usually serves to predict further findings, and nothing that I have come across, in either of the named situations and countless other ‘conspiracies’ as well, even comes close to such a thing.

For brevity, here’s the basics: while all evidence points to Ray working alone as a disgruntled and openly racist lifetime loser, one with a superb track record of being a criminal dipshit mind you, King’s family is insistent that he didn’t actually pull the trigger, and was not working alone. Interesting enough, of course, and worthy of looking into. Except, no source that I have yet located managed to produce anything more than hearsay and witness statements from decades after the killing – ones, moreover, that suddenly sprung up when it appeared that media would pay good money for a new spin on the story. The real guilt, according to the King family, lies with the FBI, that masterminded a program of discrediting and even extortion over King, and eventually manipulated the events to unfold as they did.

There are numerous problems with this, among them the great remove in time from the actual events, the wildly variable stories from all of the supposed eyewitnesses and players, and the bare fact that no incriminating physical evidence of any kind seems to have been presented at all. I could go into it in more detail, but before I did that I’d want to do a lot more research than a couple of hours worth of second-hand accounts; right now I’m concentrating on a different aspect, because it seems distinctly relevant in this case as well as plenty of others. In fact, it seems a key factor in just about every claim of conspiracy that exists (which is why the subject has been awaiting my writeup.)

In short, an awful lot of people seem to settle on the idea of a ‘conspiracy,’ and then go about trying to find evidence for it, or factors that support it. Just stating it this way makes it obvious, I suspect, but somehow it’s not that obvious to the myriad people that engage in it constantly. I’ve seen it often enough to know that, all too frequently, there’s a fixation on the idea itself, way out of proportion to the evidence that suggested it in the first place, and this fixation is the impetus to keep pursuing it and finding ‘clues’ that, objectively, aren’t very supportive of the WAG and could easily be explained in other, mundane ways.

Moreover, when faced with a lack of supporting evidence in a certain quarter, evidence that should certainly be present if the conspiracy really did exist, the ubiquitous response is that the conspirators destroyed or covered up the evidence. This is nothing more than a feeble excuse; while it remains possible, it goes without saying that there is no evidence of such actions either, and being ‘possible’ isn’t something to pin any kind of investigation on. As I am fond of pointing out to people, it is also possible that there was no evidence to destroy in the first place, because no conspiracy actually happened. Ya gotta do better than that.

And it’s not just conspiracies that rely on this, but far too many esoteric, supernatural, mystical, paranormal, and suchlike ‘explanations’ rely almost entirely on such a feeble tactic. If you’re dedicated to finding support, you’ll be able to drum it up out of the weirdest and most unrelated events. “I heard strange creaking noises from my house! It must be a ghost! I wonder if someone died here?” Well, depending on the age of the house, the chances are halfway decent that someone did, because people do die – it’s a habit. If we extend the criteria to the plot of land throughout history, then the chances become virtually guaranteed, and if we relax them even more to count people that lived there even if they died elsewhere – in a hospital, for instance (which should be rights be the most haunted edifices ever,) then we sure gots that evidence that we was after.

It seems to be a combination of confirmation bias, where we pay attention to the factors that support a viewpoint and ignore all of those that fail to, and a very relaxed set of standards for evidence. Starting from a premise and working backward to find the ‘clues,’ especially when we have a very loose idea of what should constitute a clue in the first place, will virtually always yield results, but that’s hardly how an effective investigation should be run. There are always lots of possibilities, and all of them should be weighed without bias or preference, just to begin with. And anything considered ‘evidence’ should, of course, have a distinct connection to the premise. But the part that’s most frequently missed is something that the majority of people have no exposure to unless they’re actually working a degree program in college: how many other ways can a result be produced? The suspect may claim someone else was involved because there’s a sinister cabal – or because he’s an inveterate liar who doesn’t want to be executed. Or because it’s simply amusing. Scientific studies, and proper investigations, will attempt to account for as many scenarios that thwart the premise as possible, not just producing positive evidence but ruling out alternate explanations. Which is often a pretty tall order, and certainly not half as affirming as simply finding support for one’s favored conspiracy. However, if there really is a conspiracy, then it should be able to stand up to such exacting scrutiny, and if it can’t, then there’s no reason to be supportive of it in the first place.

That line about affirmation, above, has a lot more impact than many people give it credit for, because the more we like any potential explanation, the more weight we give to anything that could support it, and the less likely we are to recognize flaws or alternatives. This occurs so frequently that there’s actually a little proverb within scientific circles: if you get the results you were expecting, be very suspicious. What this says is, you’re too likely to be missing something, or not testing rigorously enough. And it’s easy to see how this is almost diametrically opposed to most conspiracy enthusiasts, who can find support in a total lack of evidence…

There’s another common trait that should be telling all by itself, but somehow gets overlooked constantly. Almost every time that some conspiracy is claimed, there is a plethora of supposed culprits or parties, a wide variety that no one can ever seem to agree on. Now, it is the discovery of a potentially guilty party other than the original suspect that should suggest ‘conspiracy’ in the first place – the concept of a conspiracy should not precede who is actually conspiring. You’d think a huge disagreement on explanations would be pretty damning to the whole idea, but apparently not. It suggests rather strongly that it’s the idea that’s so compelling, and not any evidence itself.

Along similar lines, there’s the common practice of nothing ever weakening the idea of the conspiracy, no matter how many dead-ends spring up, and this is a very common trait among UFO proponents and anti-vaxxers as well. Each and every bit of ‘evidence’ that turns out to be wrong, or failing to support the premise, should by all rights weaken the case, but conspiracy enthusiasts rarely ever seem to doubt themselves or the premise, and simply move on to the next possibility, and even when all of their stated reasons have died out, they will usually remain adamant that there’s something else remaining to be found (or, like anti-vaxxers, fall back on idiotic little proverbs and egregious misunderstandings of chemistry.)

The solution is simple: favor any given scenario only after the bulk of the evidence is pointing in that direction. Start out with no preconceptions. Question everything, including your own motives/desires and whether you were rigorous enough in considering alternatives. And remember (as so many forget,) that the goal is to produce an explanation that could, for instance, stand up in court, rather than creating the plot of a novel or proving one’s own cleverness.

And if it helps, know that virtually no conspiracy claims have ever proven viable. Which is a pretty shitty track record.

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An additional word about the Martin Luther King/James Earl Ray case that I started out with. There is more than ample evidence that Ray operated alone and without assistance or guidance, and no investigations have turned up anything to the contrary, save for some distant ‘eyewitness’ testimony, which wasn’t even detailed enough to merit criminal court attention. None of those eyewitnesses ever produced even a shred of physical evidence backing their claims, and weren’t even consistent in those claims. Not only is eyewitness testimony about the weakest that can be admitted, there’s also the distinct motivation of getting paid handsomely for just the kind of stories that conspiracy enthusiasts so dearly love in the first place. It’s a lot like psychics and astrologers, really: people will pay good money to be told what they want to hear.

King’s relatives had some reasoning behind suspecting the FBI, true enough: there has been ample evidence that the FBI had an active campaign of discrediting King and trying to reduce his influence, mostly due to Hoover’s policies, but some consideration can be given to the idea that race riots were a distinct possibility. This is not to excuse such actions, merely in recognition of motivations. However, the very same documents that outlined these activities failed to make any mention whatsoever of assassination, or indeed any other machinations. Assuming that “if they did this, they certainly could do that” is a common fallacy, known as the slippery slope argument; it’s the same as arguing that, because you lied to your parents about which friend you were out with, you could also be lying about your lack of involvement in child pornography. When it comes to accusations of assassination, it would help tremendously to have just a little bit better evidence than inferences…

I could certainly talk at length about suspected motivations behind the King family and their pursuit of this premise, but that has little merit and no educational or professional support, and proves nothing anyway. The point is, without some really solid evidence, as well as some damn good explanations for all of Ray’s actions and statements, there remains no rationale behind their support of this premise; anyone may view various details with suspicion, but to go beyond that should, reasonably, require a lot more supporting evidence than has ever been presented. And it is exactly that kind of evidence that should be well in hand (as well as the rigorous attempts to rule out alternatives) before anyone even utters the word, “conspiracy.”