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Guest James H. Fetzer

How to Think Like John McAdams

A Book Review by David W. Mantik


How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy

by John McAdams


Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.

—Bernard Baruch—

Note: Italics identify quotes from the book; for my own emphases, I use underlining here.


Despite his pompous claim to teach all of us how to think critically, McAdams offers not a single reference to standard works on logical fallacies. Nor does he ever present his unique credentials for this task. After all, why would a professor of “American politics, public opinion, and voter behavior” automatically possess such superior skills in critical thinking? On the contrary, in this rather narrow-minded book, he demonstrates all three of these political disciplines. In order to persuade the reader to vote for his dubious conclusions, he uses the standard tools of manipulation and commits a variety of crimes against logic—the straw man, the invalid analogy, begging the question, special pleading, the false dichotomy, and the moving goalpost. Numerous examples of these fallacies are presented below. Fortunately, although his online persona is sometimes less than admirable, here he does not often resort to ad hominem attacks.

Given the subject matter, this is a remarkably brief book (254 pages). McAdams therefore frequently dispenses with critical issues in a sentence or two, often based on feeble (anti-conspiracy) sources. An example is Zapruder film tampering (p. 193). Even if McAdams is technically unable to address the luminous work on the Zapruder film by optical physicist John Costella, why not at least cite a more detailed and current source, possibly even from his own turf—such as Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History? (My decidedly negative reviews of Bugliosi’s two recent books are here and here.)

My chief objections to the book, though, are its numerous sins of omission. Paradoxically, although McAdams claims to loathe these transgressions in others, he often forgets to adjust his own mirror. For example, in his Preface, he states:

Everybody knows that writers, newscasters, and producers of documentaries can

mislead their audiences by leaving out certain information. The reader of this book may be dismayed to discover how often these omissions happen.

But McAdams frankly tells us why he himself omits data (p. 250):

To actually solve a crime, you have to throw away most of your pieces of “evidence.” You have to conclude that this sighting of the suspect where he could not have been is bogus, that the crackpot witness is not to be believed, and that a juicy-looking “connection” actually leads nowhere. When you do that, you are left with reasonably hard and reliable evidence, and with some luck, you can break the case. If you refuse to cull your evidence, you end up with suspicions out the ears, and no solution to the crime.

McAdams cites no textbook on evidence for this method—nor does he provide a general framework for such culling. In fact, he violates a fundamental principle of scientific reasoning: the requirement of total evidence, which insists that conclusions must be based upon all the relevant evidence. On the contrary, McAdams’s goal seems extraordinary: he strives for a conclusion at all costs, even if it is the wrong one.

Curiously enough, McAdams had earlier (p. 12) stated that evidence should not be discarded:

Scientists will sometimes throw away observations that are considered outliers. When the data points will fit a neat pattern and one observation sticks out far from the rest, scientists often discard it. Scientists throw such observations away on the ground that they reflect a measurement error of some sort…. One should not be too cavalier about deleting this information, since an outlier can be valid information and may in fact be the tip-off to something interesting.[The 6.5 mm object, discussed below, plays precisely such a role.] When scientists throw away an outlier because it doesn’t fit the model and because they can’t explain it, they are making an ad hoc assumption. [The measurement of electron charge is an excellent historical example.]

This is a sensible statement, but McAdams prefers outliers that do not threaten his case. Unfortunately, as occurs too often, he makes these selections behind the scenes. This means that his reader is actively blind folded, i.e., he is stripped of the opportunity to decide for himself what evidence is authentic.

In her essay, “Trajectory of a Lie,” Milicent Cranor cites a guideline that could apply to any evidence. The author was a forensic pathologist, Alan R. Moritz, M.D., in “Classical Mistakes in Forensic Pathology,” American Journal of Clinical Pathology 1956; volume 26, p. 1383:

. . . it is better to describe 10 findings that might prove to be of no significance than to omit one that might be critical. The purpose of a protocol is twofold. One is to record a sufficiently detailed, factual, and noninterpretive [emphasis added] description of the observed conditions, in order that a competent reader may form his own [emphasis added] opinions in regard to the significance of the changes described. Thus, a region of dark blue discoloration in the… may or may not be a bruise. To refer to it as a contusion in the descriptive part of the protocol is to substitute an interpretation for a description, and this is as unwarranted as it may be misleading….

Dr. Moritz was a member of the Clark Panel (1968), which reviewed the JFK evidence. As Cranor observed, Moritz and his panel violated this principle when, based on their examination of poor quality photographs taken from a distance, they pronounced JFK’s throat wound as “characteristic of that of the exit wound of a bullet” (Clark Panel Report, p. 9). On the contrary, because it was a small, round wound, it was in fact typical of an entrance wound. As Cranor notes, they gave no description of its appearance, and gave instead "an interpretation for a description.” For decades now, defenders of the lone assassin theory have fine tuned such skills of misdirection, and John McAdams here similarly proves to be an apt student of this technique.

For more, go to http://www.ctka.net/reviews/McAdams_Mantik.html

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