The Gospel According to John McAdams
The Gospel According to John McAdams
The Gospel According to John McAdams--a Review of JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy
by Pat Speer
Above: John McAdams as depicted in Time Magazine, 2014.
In the fall of 2011, John McAdams, an Associate Professor of Political History at Marquette University, released JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy, a much-anticipated book on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As McAdams has, for many years, run a prominent website on the assassination, and has for many years been pushed as an expert on the assassination, one might think the release of his book would trigger an inordinate amount of praise from certain quarters, and an inordinate amount of venom from others. But its arrival almost went unnoticed. In this review, then, I shall try to examine both the problems with the book, and the reason it has been met with such little interest.
But first, a bit of background. I am a conspiracy theorist, in that I have come to believe more than one person was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. John McAdams is not. On his website, and on the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup he moderates, he vehemently defends the 1964 findings of the Warren Commission, and argues that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. He also rejects any thought the U.S. Government framed Oswald or covered-up the true nature of the assassination. And yet, even so, I don't believe our different perspectives precludes my ability to effectively review his book. You see, while I am most certainly a conspiracy theorist, I also reject much of what other conspiracy theorists believe, and am a frequent contributor to the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup moderated by McAdams, where I find myself agreeing with McAdams nearly as often as not.
There's also this. While many long-term assassination researchers settled into their ways of thinking decades ago, I am a relative newbie, with an ongoing interest of just 8 years. When I first became interested, moreover, I sought out websites such as McAdams' website, in hopes I would find there the answers to the many questions I was asking. And yes, I found some. This, then, makes me fairly unique in the world of JFK Assassination research, in that my views have been shaped by both the many volumes of conspiracy literature, and the somewhat lesser amount of Oswald-did-it literature, in nearly equal doses.
I have, in fact, long been hoping for a book that I could whole-heartedly recommend to those just beginning to study the assassination, one that could help them identify some of the problems with the many conspiracy theories on the assassination, without simultaneously washing over the many problems with the Oswald-did-it-all-by-his-lonesome conclusion. I had some hope, in fact, this would be that book.
My hopes, however, were misplaced.
Now, to be clear, this is not a terrible book, just a tremendously disappointing one. When one reads through it with a generous eye, moreover, one can find sprinklings of the book it could have been. Beyond that there are a number of impressive discussions regarding the witnesses most frequently used by conspiracy theorists to prop up their theories, there are, at times, moments of rare generosity, when McAdams steps back from the nastiness so prevalent among similarly-themed books, such as Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, and gives conspiracy theorists some credit. At one point, he even acknowledges that most of the arguments against the veracity of the more controversial conspiracy witnesses have come not from prominent conspiracy debunkers like himself, but conspiracy theorists. He also displays more independence than one might expect. On page 182, for example, he denounces the so-called "Jet Effect" theory pushed by Dr. Luis Alvarez and Dr. John Lattimer to explain the back-and-to-the-left movement of Kennedy after being struck in the skull, which other Oswald-did-it theorists cite as compelling evidence the fatal shot was fired from behind. On page 286, far better, he once again surprises, and rejects the simple-minded but nevertheless popular among Oswald-did-it theorists argument that the evidence Oswald killed Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit is the "Rosetta Stone" proving Oswald also killed Kennedy. McAdams, to his credit, even lists the supposedly non-existent reasons Oswald might have killed Tippit, even if he hadn't fired a shot at the President.
McAdams' use of sources is also worthy of praise. As the owner/operator of one of the top internet sites related to the assassination, McAdams knows full well that many of the important documents and discussions related to the case are now available online. Not only does he give credit, in his Acknowledgements section, to conspiracy theorists Jim Lesar and Rex Bradford for their "splendid work" in making so many of the documents available, he actually goes a bit further, and provides links to the documents mentioned in his end notes.
But the good in the book is far-outweighed by the bad. Chief among its flaws is its hypocrisy. While McAdams, time and time again, returns to his theme that one must think about claims of conspiracy in a detached, cool-headed, logical manner, he almost entirely avoids the other side of this proposition--that one should think about claims there was no conspiracy with this same cool head. As a result, while there is chapter after chapter on the unreliability of "conspiracy" witnesses such as Jean Hill, one will find nothing, and I mean zip, zilch, nada, on the unreliability of the many equally problematic witnesses propped up by the Warren Commission. While McAdams gives himself an out, by claiming that witnesses are inherently unreliable, and that the strongest case against Oswald comes from the scientific evidence, he fails to reveal to his readers that the Warren Commission in its report propped up the statements and testimony of a number of clearly unreliable witnesses, such as Howard Brennan, Charles Givens, and Mary Bledsoe, to convict Oswald in the public eye, and this opened the door for conspiracy writers, such as Mark Lane, to present the statements and testimony of witnesses such as Jean Hill, S.M. Holland, and Julia Mercer to tell a different story. McAdams' failure to acknowledge this obvious fact--that the Warren Commission, through its transparent and clearly politically motivated efforts to sell the American people Oswald acted alone, created the pool in which conspiracy theorists swim--is, in fact, a specter haunting every page of his book.
For me, as a reader and researcher, this is a serious problem. The book's approach is a novel one. It presumes not to tell its readers what to think about conspiracies, but how to think. So why not take the next step back and discuss conspiracies within their proper political context? McAdams teaches political science. A book on the political context of the Warren Commission, and how this led to its over-selling the case against Oswald, and how this led to a backlash, even though (in at least McAdams' opinion) the scientific evidence demonstrates Oswald's obvious guilt, would be far more interesting, in my opinion, than a book singling out some of those doubting Oswald's sole guilt for their sloppy thinking, and over-reliance on unreliable witnesses.
This failure to look at the bigger picture condemns the book as a failure, in my opinion. While one can only assume the book is assigned reading in McAdams' course on the assassination, and perhaps other courses nationwide, it fails to meet the standard one hopes to find in college texts. Would a book entitled How to Think About the Civil War, which examines Sherman's March to the Sea and the evils of Reconstruction--but rarely mentions slavery--be an acceptable college text? I suspect not.
And there's an even bigger problem. While the word "logic" is right there in the title of the book, one of the "logical" arguments repeated throughout the book is not logical at all. Not even close.
Which brings us to...
On page 39, Professor McAdams discusses Sylvia Odio's claim Lee Harvey Oswald came to her front door about a month before the shooting. This appearance by Oswald, if it actually happened, is quite intriguing, both in that the supposedly pro-Castro loner Oswald was in the company of two anti-Castro militants, and that one of these men was purported to have called Ms. Odio the next day and talked about Oswald, telling her Oswald thought Kennedy should be killed. In what is far from a surprise, McAdams claims it's irrelevant, as Oswald's visiting Odio, at worst, only suggests something we already knew--that Oswald was trying to infiltrate the anti-Castro movement. Before moving on to discuss Ms. Odio's claim on its merits, however, McAdams makes a comment that is positively strange. He writes "The sheer number of Oswald sightings argues for Odio being just another outlier that can be excluded."
Unfortunately, this is not the last such sighting in the book.
On page 185, while discussing the many men confessing or having been accused of participating in the shooting in Dealey Plaza, McAdams similarly claims "Since the vast majority of people on the list must be innocent, it's easy to believe that all but one are."
Well, where does he get that? There is no correlation whatsoever between the number of people confessing to, or being accused of, a crime, and the number of people actually involved in the crime. If twenty mentally ill people confessed to being the Hillside Strangler, and thirty sex offenders were accused of being the Hillside Strangler, does that in any way cut into the possibility there were actually TWO stranglers, Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, working together? Of course not.
But that doesn't stop McAdams from repeating this kind of argument. On page 187, while discussing the many news reports in which the assassination rifle was described as other than a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, McAdams writes "Given that most of these reports must have been mistaken, we can reasonably dismiss all of them..." Uhh, no, you can't. If thirty witnesses accuse thirty different people of a crime, does that lessen the probability that one of them committed the crime? No. Afraid not. Unless one is willing to make a proper argument--that only one rifle was seen, and that photographs show this to have been a Mannlicher-Carcano, for example--one can not push aside the reports of other rifles, and McAdams' pretending he can do so based purely on the large number of reports is just, well, strange.
But not without its purpose, I'm afraid. Having used this style argument to support that most of those supposedly involved in the shooting were probably not involved, and that most of the rifles supposedly used in the shooting were probably not involved, McAdams then uses this style argument to push a point most readers would otherwise find laughable. On page 190, he pushes that having "too much" evidence for a conspiracy not only means that much of the evidence is contradictory, but cuts into the probability there was a conspiracy of any kind. He writes: "The vast majority of reports of extra bullets and missed shots must be bogus, else there were four to five shooters in Dealey Plaza blasting away with abandon...And if the vast majority must be bogus, it's easy to believe they all are."
Well, this is just embarrassing. While it might be "easy" for McAdams to believe having a mountain of evidence at odds with the official story is reason to believe the official story is correct, few people not pre-disposed towards accepting the official story would come to such a conclusion. I mean, one can't succumb to the "I'm tired of thinking about this stuff, and refuse to waste any more time on it" impulse and call it a logical conclusion, can one? I sure hope not. It seems apparent from this, then, that McAdams' approach to the assassination is what's wrong...that he approaches it, and apparently all purported conspiracies at odds with his worldview, not as possibilities to be considered, but as distractions to be rejected, no matter how silly the reasons given for this rejection.
This tendency on his part, unfortunately, has long been apparent. While I had hopes his book would be a good one, my own experience with Professor McAdams had led me to worry it would display the same inconsistent use of logic he's displayed at times on the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup. And my worries were not misplaced.
Towards the end of his book, McAdams instructs his readers on how to "think" about the single-bullet theory held in near-religious reverence by single-assassin theorists such as himself. This theory, in short, holds that a bullet passed through President Kennedy's back and neck and hit Governor Connally, sitting in front of Kennedy, in his right armpit. It has long been argued that the trajectory of such a bullet, if fired from the supposed sniper's nest, fails to correspond with the positions of Kennedy and Connally at the time they were supposedly hit, and that the wound on Kennedy's back was too low for the bullet to exit his throat and go on to hit Connally.
McAdams hides much of this problem from his readers, however. On page 220, he cites the qualifications of the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel: "the Forensic Pathology Panel consisted of nine forensic pathologists, all among the most eminent in the nation who had been responsible for more than a hundred thousand autopsies." At a number of points throughout his book, for that matter, McAdams cites the conclusions of this panel in order to show how conspiracy theorists often propose theories at odds with the supposed experts.
This is far from a two-way street, however, as he fails to tell his readers where his own claims are at odds with these "experts." On page 222, he cites the expertise of the HSCA panel and claims the back wound by their measurements "was consistent with an entry at T1, which is high enough for the single bullet trajectory to work." This is not exactly true. The HSCA panel to which McAdams defers proposed that Kennedy would have to have been leaning sharply forward for the trajectory to work, and Kennedy is not leaning sharply forward when McAdams proposes he was hit.
It's actually worse than that. On his website, and on the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup, McAdams has long claimed that the HSCA pathology panel was incorrect when they claimed the bullet hit Kennedy's back at a point slightly below the exit on his throat. He has long claimed, moreover, that they were mistaken to claim Kennedy must have been leaning sharply forward when hit in order for the bullet to exit on the trajectory from the sniper's nest, and hit Connally in his armpit. Instead, he has pushed, with little apparent hesitation, the conclusion of a non-pathologist, Dr. Robert Artwohl, that the bullet descended sharply in Kennedy's body.
In 2010, when I confronted him on this apparent inconsistency, moreover, it led to a prolonged discussion, in which he denied his claiming the bullet descended sharply within the body meant he failed to share the HSCA panel's conclusion regarding the location of the entrance wound on Kennedy's back.
He was thereby pushing that the entrance location proposed by Dr. Artwohl was where the HSCA panel claimed it was, at the level of the T-1 vertebra of the spine.
The sheer lunacy of his position is demonstrated here:
And if that wasn't bad enough, when I pushed McAdams on this issue, and asked him where the sharply descending bullet exited, should it have really entered at T-1, as claimed, he refused to say it exited at a point lower on Kennedy's body than claimed by the HSCA pathology panel. This put him in the awkward position of denying, on a public forum, that a bullet fired from up above and entering the back of someone who's sitting up, and not leaning forward, and then hitting no bone, would most logically have exited the body at a point lower than where it had entered.
John McAdams' vision is not to be trusted. Nor is his thinking ability. Nor is his book.
And I think I know why.
Now, what I write next will reveal as much about me as McAdams. But I can live with it.
I was a buyer in the music industry for 13 years. I bought thousands of labels for thousands of stores. I knew the likely customer base for a record--who might buy a record and why--as well as anyone in the country. I was awarded 25 gold and platinum records from appreciative record labels for my efforts. And one of the things I discovered while working in the music industry was that some genres of music rarely sold in record stores, because the only people buying this music were not interested in the music so much as the culture behind the music, and this culture was better represented by stores catering to a specific lifestyle.
Here are but two examples: some new age artists sold primarily in crystal and candle shops, and some punk rock bands sold primarily in skate and surf shops.
But this wasn't absolute. No, the closest thing to an absolute that I recall was a particular genre of white Christian gospel music. This genre was virtually never carried in neighborhood record stores. Not because it didn't have a customer base, but because its customer base refused to set foot in stores where secular rap and rock music were also sold.
Now, get ready for the punchline. John McAdams is an ardent devotee of this genre of music: Christian a Cappella. He even has an internet radio station devoted to it, playing it exclusively.
And so the man of faith wrote a book on logic, and revealed his inability to rise above his faith.
He BELIEVES the Warren Commission was correct, and refuses to offer the unbelieving heretics among us the unthinkable out that there are legitimate reasons to doubt.
McAdams' embrace of faith over--dare I say--logic, moreover, is readily apparent once one looks behind the curtain. In 2010, after noting his habit of calling men like Mark Lane and Jim Garrison liars, I asked him on his newsgroup why he never called men like Dr. Michael Baden--who'd made many shockingly inaccurate statements about the assassination over the years--liars. His response was jaw-dropping. On 9-19-10, he replied: "If somebody misstates a strong case against Oswald, we would have to assume he's mistaken and/or confused. If you don't *need* to lie to find Oswald guilty, it's not plausible to believe somebody did."
He then further excused Baden's persistent mis-statements and exaggerations by repeating "People don't lie when the truth serves their purposes just as well. He should have checked things out. The fact that he didn't actually shows he was not lying. People who are lying usually calculate carefully what lies they are going to tell (at least if not caught off guard). If he actually sat down to write thinking "I'm going to lie about this," he would check the HSCA material to see what lies he could tell and possibly get away with. But if he checked the HSCA, he would find he didn't need to lie."
Well, great googly moogly. The LOGICAL inconsistency in McAdams' position is breath-taking. HE decides what TRUTH is, and then excuses people who regularly and repeatedly make inaccurate statements supporting his truth as being simply mistaken, and not liars, whilst simultaneously damning those who make inaccurate statements attacking his TRUTH as liars. Well, heck, that's like saying torture is okay when it's performed by good guys on bad guys, but downright evil when it's performed by bad guys on good guys. Only someone completely immersed in their faith could believe such a thing, and push such a thing.
I might be wrong about him, and his book. But I doubt it.
McAdams' Back Pages
On April 11, 2012, Professor McAdams responded to a post on his alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup in a manner suggesting he thought scientists proposing "global warming" were every bit as kooky as JFK assassination conspiracy theorists. I teased him about this, seeking clarification.
Here is his response: "I'm skeptical of the global warming stuff, but it's not nearly as bogus as the JFK buff stuff." Wait... Not nearly as bogus? That means...he still thinks...it's bogus?
The thought that McAdams, who presents himself as a man of science and logic--while providing indications he's really a man of faith--was himself a conspiracy theorist, claiming the world's top scientists and politicians had teamed up to sell that global warming is real and man-made--when there are good reasons to believe it isn't--honestly hadn't occurred to me. I mean, here was the author of a book combating conspiracy thinking subscribing to one of the wackiest conspiracy theories of recent years, a theory at odds with the thinking of most every independent scientist to study the issue.
This led me to search through the alt.assassination.JFK archive. From doing so, McAdams' cognitive dissonance became quite clear. Frighteningly so.
On March 11, 2009, on the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup, he derided the "fascist tactics" used against "global warming skeptics," and insisted that "It's perfectly obvious that there is plenty of room for debate on the issue."
He linked this post to a series of posts on his personal blog.
In the first of these, from June 25, 2008, he assailed those claiming the world is getting warmer as a result of man's behavior as "environmental jihadists," and derided their attempts to make oil industry executives who knowingly spread disinformation about global warming accountable for their acts.
He then wrote: "They, of course, invoke the precedent of the tobacco companies, who supposedly lied about the negative effects of smoking. But the looting of the tobacco companies was a shameful episode in the history of American jurisprudence. Leaving aside the fact there is plenty of room for skepticism about global warming, and plenty of reputable scientists who reject the hysteria, deciding your opponent is “lying” and therefore should be prosecuted for saying things you disagree with is simply way too convenient a way of silencing dissent. The prevalence of this sort of fanaticism actually casts doubt on the scientist judgment of the scientists trying to shut up the debate."
The other posts, from January 18, 2007, February 6, 2007, June 29, 2007, July 27, 2007, and August 29, 2007, were of a similar bent, denouncing global warming activists and the scientists who support them as "fanatics" on a "moralistic crusade" designed to squash "heretics," and decrying the lack of access of "global warming skeptics" to the "mainstream media."
The June 29 post was especially revealing. McAdams applauded the Canadian National Post's own "crusade" to give voice to "global warming skeptics," but failed to acknowledge that this paper was created in 1998 to provide a voice for Canadian business interests, including those pressing for the development of Canada's enormous oil sand deposits--the development of which has since led Canada to pull out of the Kyoto protocol regarding global warming. He also failed to acknowledge that this paper was founded by Conrad Black, a controversial media magnate who was at that time under indictment for fraud--and who was subsequently convicted of both fraud and obstruction of justice. McAdams did admit, however, that "We don’t claim to have the scientific knowledge to judge the 'global warming due to human activity thesis.' But we do know enough about science to know that groupthink, careerism and political ideology have often distorted scientific findings. Indeed, these things have often created a consensus that has later proven to be nonsense."
The July 27 post was also enlightening. McAdams wrote: "When one side in a debate is reduced to intimidation, it becomes pretty obvious that they doubt their ability to win in the marketplace of ideas. We think it is relevant here that liberals have a strong tendency to be secular, and that scientists among liberals have an even stronger tendency to reject religion. But if one decides that there is no God, the craving for personal righteousness does not go away. The desire to see ideas that are Good and True expressed, and conversely to silence what one considers evil heresy does not disappear. Thus it is no surprise to find, among environmentalists, the sort of fanaticism that has marked religion at its worst." He then welcomed a prominent "global warming skeptic" to the "new Inquisition."
Let's stop and think about this... Here, on his blog, is the author of a book entitled "JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy," in which he expresses great skepticism about the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and says that instead we should rely upon scientific evidence (as interpreted by government-supplied experts), admitting that, when it comes to global warming, we should doubt the government-supplied experts, because "groupthink, careerism, and political ideology have often distorted scientific findings." Here is an academic, a supposed man of letters, invoking Orwell's 1984, and fear of Big Brother, in an ardent defense of the biggest of brothers, Big Oil and Big Tobacco. And here is a man of faith, a proud Christian, musing on the secular mind, and how the lack of faith among liberal scientists has led them to conduct a new Inquisition...
And he writes all this while acknowledging he has little understanding of the issues actually under debate...
Such sophistry is rare indeed...
The Gospel According to John McAdams...