Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Omission, Misrepresentation & Oversimplification: How Dave Reitzes Gets it Wrong Part 1

Last year, the clearly misnamed Skeptic magazine published an article titled "JFK CONSPIRACY THEORIES AT 50: How the Skeptics Got It Wrong and Why It Matters". The article was written by Dave Reitzes, himself a conspiracy theorist until he "saw the light" a few years ago. Having read the piece, it is abundantly clear to me that its purpose was not, as was claimed, to remind us "that the job of a skeptic is to use critical thinking to properly assess the evidence", but was simply to lump all of those who don't believe the official story of the Kennedy assassination together for ridicule and marginalisation. Being one of those who firmly believes that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination, some might expect me to begin this response by attacking and belittling Reitzes himself. But as I believe the man who pops up on JFK forums every now and then solely to patronize and provoke—or "troll" to use the popular vernacular—would only enjoy it, I have no intention of giving him the satisfaction. Instead I shall concentrate on his most important arguments (such as they are) regarding the evidence.

The Grassy Knoll Witnesses

Since virtually day one, critics have suspected, based on eyewitness accounts, that a shot or shots were fired at President Kennedy by a gunman stationed behind the fence on top of the now infamous "Grassy Knoll". So it's really no surprise to see Reitzes begin his anti-conspiracy rant here. It has been estimated that there were up to 700 witnesses in Dealey Plaza that day and, as Reitzes admits, their opinions as to the source of shots were very much divided. Long-time researcher, Stewart Galanor, compiled a  survey of 216 known witness accounts and reported that, of those with an opinion as to the source of gunfire, 48 believed the shots came from the Texas School Book Depository whereas 52 thought they came from the Knoll. Many would argue that this suggests shots were fired from both directions but, for obvious reasons, Warren Commission apologists and anti-conspiracy buffs like Reitzes choose to explain things differently.

Reitzes makes reference to the "confusion, shock, and pandemonium at the scene of the crime" and "the fragile nature of eyewitness testimony—particularly during moments of highly elevated stress". He also notes that a "bioacoustics expert conducting experiments in Dealey Plaza for the House Select Committee reinvestigating the crime in 1978" noted that there were “strong reverberations and echoes”. And he provides a quote from the "authoritative textbook" Firearms Investigation Identification and Evidence which states, “It is extremely difficult to tell the direction [from which a shot was fired] by the sound of discharge of a firearm.” Reitzes adds, "The authors go on to note that 'little credence' should be placed in such testimony."

That last part is, for me, the most immediately interesting because it reveals a lot about Reitzes' methodology and intellectual dishonesty. Despite the impression he tries to convey in the main text of his article, Reitzes has not read what he nonetheless assures is "the authoritative textbook", Firearms Investigation Identification and Evidence. His footnote reveals that the quotes he provided from that book actually came to him second-hand via Vincent Bugliosi's awful lone nut screed, Reclaiming History. But Reitzes unsurprisingly chose not to use the complete second quotation which reads, "little credence...should be put in what anyone says about a shot or even the number of shots. These things coming upon him suddenly are generally extremely inaccurately recorded in his memory." [my emphasis] (Bugliosi, p. 848) Reitzes was careful to eliminate the highlighted part about the number of shots. Why? Because he wants to have his cake and eat it.

Because it falls in line with the Warren Commission findings, Reitzes makes a big song and dance about the fact that "81 percent of the witnesses who expressed an opinion believed there had been precisely three shots". So, whilst doing his best to convince readers that eyewitness testimony about the sound of gunshots is inherently unreliable and, therefore, the number of witnesses who thought they heard shots from the Knoll is essentially meaningless,  Reitzes nonetheless implies that the fact that a large number of witnesses thought they heard three shots is still to be considered significant. Obviously, quoting his chosen experts on that particular point would not have helped his case. So he carefully excised the inconvenient parts of the quotation.

Given the "strong reverberations and echoes" that Reitzes mentioned, the large number of people reporting hearing three shots is actually more odd than it is compelling. Last year, NOVA's Cold Case: JFK special featured acoustics expert, Professor Michael Hargather. He explained to viewers that "Multiples buildings, multiple locations that the shockwaves reverberate off of can give us multiple sound signatures...In a complicated geometry like Dealey Plaza in Dallas, you could get multiple shock reflections in that geometry. And so someone could hear multiple sounds from a single shot." That being the case, it is reasonable to suggest that, if they were working from their own uninfluenced memories, a good percentage of the Dealey Plaza witnesses should have reported hearing more shots than they did. So why did so many recall hearing three? As it turns out, the Warren Commission provided the most reasonable explanation: "Soon after the three empty cartridges were found, officials at the scene decided that three shots were fired, and that conclusion was widely circulated by the press. The eyewitness testimony may be subconsciously colored by the extensive publicity given the conclusion that three shots were fired." (Warren Report, p. 100-111)

Reitzes also fails to tell the whole story when discussing the "bioacoustics expert" who informed the House Select Committee on Assassinations of the aforementioned "strong reverberations and echoes" observed during test shots fired in Dealey Plaza. In actual fact, there was not one but three psychoacoustic experts present for the on-site tests; Dr. D.M. Green, Dr. Dennis McFadden and Professor Frederick Wightman. Whilst three sequences of test shots were fired from the Texas School Book Depository or the Grassy Knoll, the experts placed themselves at various locations in the plaza and recorded their impressions as to the origin of the sounds. The results were unambiguous. Shots fired from the TSBD sounded like they came from the TSBD and shots from the Knoll sounded like shots from the Knoll. (see HSCA Hearings & Appendix Vol. 8, p. 144) It is difficult to say precisely what relevance this has to a study of the assassination witnesses since, as the experts noted, "The emotional condition of our observers during the test and the emotional condition of the people during the assassination were undoubtedly quite different." (Ibid, p. 146) But there can be little doubt that it undermines Reitzes' attempt to dismiss all reports of shots from the Knoll as simply echoes or reverberations. And this is especially true in light of the visual observations Reitzes was careful to make no mention of.

Several witnesses, including S.M. Holland, Richard Dodd, James Simmons and Thomas Murphy, reported seeing puffs of smoke coming from behind the picket fence atop the Knoll during the shooting. When called to testify by the Warren Commission, Holland recalled hearing "four shots", the third or fourth of which was accompanied by "a puff of smoke" coming "right out from under those trees". (6H244) Simmons, who was not called to testify, told author Mark Lane in a filmed interview that he had heard a sound like a "loud firecracker or a gunshot" coming from behind the wooden fence "and there was a puff of smoke that came underneath the trees on the embankment". Almost immediately after the shooting stopped, both Holland and Simmons ran to the area behind the wooden fence, apparently to see if they could find the shooter, but it took them a minimum of two minutes to reach the area and, as Holland noted, "They could have easily have gotten away before I got there". (Mark Lane, Rush to Judgment, p. 35) Consequently all they found, according to Simmons, was "footprints in the mud around the fence, and...on the wooden two-by-four railing on the fence" as well as "on a car bumper there, as if someone had stood up there looking over the fence". (Ibid, p. 34)

Lone nut authors like Gerald Posner and Vincent Bugliosi—both of whom are cited by Reitzes—have claimed that what witnesses like Holland and Simmons saw could not have been smoke from a rifle because modern ammunition is "smokeless" and, in Posner's words, "seldom creates even a wisp of smoke". (Posner, Case Closed, p. 256) This is not so, however, according to firearms expert Monty Lutz who told the HSCA that it would indeed have been "possible for witnesses to have seen smoke if a gun had been fired from that area". Lutz explained that "both 'smokeless' and smoke producing ammunition may leave a trace of smoke that would be visible to the eye in sunlight. That is because even with smokeless ammunition, when the weapon is fired, nitrocellulose bases in the powder which are impregnated with nitroglycerin may give off smoke, albeit less smoke than black or smoke-producing ammunition. In addition, residue remaining in the weapon from previous firings, as well as cleaning solution which might have been used on the weapon, could cause even more smoke to be discharged in subsequent firings of the weapon."(HSCA Vol. 12, p. 24-25) Thanks to the internet, we don't need to rely on dishonest authors like Posner and Bugliosi, or even experts like Lutz. It is a simple matter to find videos like this one showing a single rifle shot creating a considerable amount of smoke.

Reitzes ends his "discussion" of the Grassy Knoll witnesses by pointing out that "of the dozens of witnesses who described the sound of the shots, very few (you could count them on one hand) said that they came from more than one direction", which  is very true. But although Reitzes obviously hopes to leave the impression that this somehow supports the official story, in light of the "confusion, shock, and pandemonium at the scene of the crime" to which he alluded—and the results of the HSCA's psychoacoustic tests which he ignored—it is difficult to know precisely how much significance to attach to it. It is certainly reasonable to suggest that, for many of the witnesses, their impression as to the source of the shots was informed by only one of the shots they heard and they naturally assumed that the other sounds were coming from the same direction.

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