As people struggle to make sense of the horrific bombing that took place a week ago in Boston (as if sense could made of such a tragedy), a number of conspiracy theories have sprung up around the Internet. As I mentioned in my previous post, Snopes and The Skeptical Libertarian have done a great job of debunking many of these. I’d like to focus on the speculation surrounding “the man on the roof”. (see the picture below)
The above photo was taken by Dan Lampariello, a marathon spectator just as one of the bombs exploded. He then posted it to his Twitter account and…well, the Interwebs took over. It’s easy to make fun of the people who get caught up in such conspiracies…but I’m not really interested in that. I’d rather try to understand why our minds are so prone to make connections where none exist.
This is not the first time a random person in close proximity to a horrific event has led to such wild speculation (it’s also, sadly, unlikely to be the last). I recently watched this beautiful short film by Errol Morris, titled “The Umbrella Man”. (see below)
In a number of photographs, as well as the Zapruder film, a “mysterious” man can be seen holding an umbrella near the Stemmons Freeway sign during the Kennedy Assassination. Via Wikipedia:
A person popularly dubbed “The Umbrella Man” has been the object of much speculation, as he was the only person seen carrying and opening an umbrella on that sunny day. As President John F. Kennedy’s limousine approached the umbrella man, the man opened up and lifted the umbrella high above his head, then spun or panned the umbrella from east to west (clockwise) as the president approached and passed by him. In the aftermath of the assassination, the umbrella man sat down on the sidewalk before getting up and walking towards the Texas School Book Depository.
The above film does a much better job of explaining the story than I ever could. The Umbrella Man turned out to be Louie Steven Witt, a Dallas warehouse manager. In 1978, during his testimony before the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations, Witt said, “I think if the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, I would be No. 1 in that position, without even a close runner-up.” (For the record, this Umbrella Man explanation doesn’t satisfy everyone. Ahh, the Internet).
All of this leads me to this thought (which is, admittedly, not that profound. Give me a break, it came to me in the car.): A picture may be worth a thousand words (or even more), but there’s no guarantee any of those words are true. Something to keep in mind (of course, I said it so I’ll be keeping in mind…you do what you want). It seems that we are “wired” to see patterns where they don’t exist. Michael Shermer has talked about this a lot. He calls it patternicity. I’ll leave you with his TED Talk on the subject.