Monday, November 18, 2013

A thought about thinking about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

There are several models of decision making that are often treated as separate:
  • Kahneman's model suggesting that some decisions are made quickly and intuitively while others are made more slowly and analytically;
  • The subjective probability model in which probability estimates are updated with new and additional information;
  • Decision making to maximize expected benefits or minimize expected costs;
  • Psychological models, such as "cognitive dissonance" in which people use internal values to alternatives in decision making that may not correspond to external realities but to "psychological" values 
  • Processes that lead to confidence in one's decision that may or may not be justified in rational terms. (Thus some people may attribute high confidence in an intuitive response that other people would reserve for a decision based on extensive analysis based on considerable theory and evidence.)
Obtaining information and conducting analysis are themselves costly. It may be quite rational to conclude that one is willing to live with a level of ignorance or uncertainty, rather than to work to make the effort to reduce that level. On the other hand, we are curious beasts and we find pleasure in satisfying our curiosity; sometimes that pleasure is itself sufficient to justify the effort. To some degree the decision to continue the search for information depends on one's estimates of the facility of the search. One may wish to know what exists in other galaxies, but recognize that we will not know much in our lifetimes given the distance to those galaxies.

We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. I am old enough to recall hearing the news of the assassination on the day it happened, listening to the radio to obtain the news as it broke. Clearly in those first days as we learned of the shooting, the death, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald's assassination by Jack Ruby, we were using intuition rather than detailed analysis. 

There has been an industry grinding out findings on these events for half a century. Notably:
  • The Warren Commission which reported in 1964 that Oswald had been a lone assassin;
  • The U.S. Senate's Church Committee which reported in 1975 which reported that senior officials in the FBI and CIA may have decided not to reveal information which might have been important relevant to the assassination; and
  • The House Select Committee on Assassinations which reported in 1979 that the assassination was probably the result of a conspiracy.
Obviously there is a wide range of decision making approaches that have been applied. Some experts have applied their professional skills and instruments to examine direct evidence from the crimes. Legislators and lawyers have used secondary data and considerable analysis from their backgrounds to come to (contradictory) conclusions. Most of us will never exhaustively examine the evidence, even that available to the public. but will have modified our initial intuitive response to the events on the basis of reports from various sources that have come to us over the years.

One thing seems clear. People with more tolerance of uncertainty seem likely to be less confident in their current conclusion as to whether Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman acting alone or as the result of a conspiracy (and if the latter, what kind of conspiracy).

I recently watched a panel discussion dealing with the assassination. It included someone who worked in the Warren Commission, and it occurred to me that the cost to him of rejecting the conclusions of that Commission were quite different than the costs to other panelists who had quite different personal experiences with respect to the assassination and its aftermath.

It also occurred to me that the credence that I tend to give to various reports on the assassination depends on the credibility that I ascribe to their sources. If I think that the House of Representatives is relatively unreliable in its committee findings, then I am less likely to think the Select Committee on Assassinations finding was true.

I am fairly comfortable living with uncertainty on why Kennedy was killed 50 years ago, so I am fairly comfortable with relatively little confidence in my conclusion that he was probably killed by a lone nut. This may be because I don't see much benefit or cost to me of the different alternatives.

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