Kennedy, Confirmation Bias, and a Cautionary Tale

by Don Boudreaux on November 22, 2011

in History, Science, Scientism, Seen and Unseen, Video

Fact are never isolated, speak-for-themselves phenomena.

Be Sociable, Share!



30 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Jon Murphy November 22, 2011 at 11:04 am

Fascinating (and haunting) piece. And to this point, when I was watching the video and saw the umbrella man, my first thought was “uh oh!”

W.E. Heasley November 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

Excellent example of confirming preconceptions.

Plus the “umbrella man” has been used many times as an enigma character in other situations such as photos, movies, book covers, etc. That is, the umbrella man is an icon of confirming preconceptions.

The umbrella man came forward. However, the “third man on the grassy knoll” has never come forward. He lurks in the world of preconceptions.

Ubiquitous November 23, 2011 at 4:52 am

Above is a link to the Umbrella Man’s testimony in 1978 before a House committee tasked with investigating lingering rumors and theories about the assassination.

Greg Webb November 22, 2011 at 11:59 am

LOL! That’s a great story. It is funny how many people, looking to make a name for themselves, will sacrifice credibility in order to jump to idiotic and erroneous conclusions without any supporting objective, verifiable evidence.

Jon Murphy November 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

That story about the gun in the umbrella was really funny.

nailheadtom November 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

There’s a pretty good chance that Rene Magritte was behind the “man with the umbrella” thing.

Adam Smith November 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I think JFK’s lethal mistake was putting his brother RFK into the position of Attorney General. RFK saw himself as a world savior incarnate as he doggedly attacked every man and organization who didn’t share his unified fascist vision of patriotic capitalism.

“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” RFK.

muirgeo November 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Yeah…. that’s an incredible speech.

kyle8 November 22, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Ha Ha! leave it to you to fall for stupid pseudo inspiration and sloganeering. It was nothing but the stump speech by a career, big government politician.

Methinks1776 November 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

So, Don, are you implying that although the Kochs contribute to the Mercatus Center, you are not doing their bidding?

A whole industry of would-be exposers will die. How very unsporting of you!

Methinks1776 November 22, 2011 at 8:09 pm

posted in the wrong spot. Sorry.

brotio November 23, 2011 at 3:09 am


I thought you might get a kick out of this. You might also be able to add some insight.

Methinks1776 November 23, 2011 at 7:17 am

Yah, I saw that. In “my day”, the middle finger didn’t mean anything in Russia. How things change.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

The ironoc thing about the prohibition on cigarette advertising is that it was the greatest thing that ever happened to “Big Tobacco”, since each and every one could wipe a huge expense of their income statement without fear of losing market share.

And yet somehow, the promises of a smoke-free world haven’t come to pass. Today, the biggest beneficiary of tobacco use is .. wait for it.. wait for it.. GOVERNMENT, yeah government gets big bucks from it…

Invisible Backhand November 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Confirmation Bias Theorist Sees Confirmation Bias Everywhere:

Will November 22, 2011 at 2:09 pm

What is even more telling is the fact that people automatically discredit Witt in their minds as a fraud because it does not conform to their reality based on years of viewing it one way.

Greg G November 22, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Careful, too much of this kind of thinking and some people here might begin to think there are non-sinister reasons someone might be a Keynesian.

vikingvista November 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Sure. Naive people are duped all the time.

Russell Nelson November 23, 2011 at 1:00 am

I am not!

Say, waaaaaait, were you really talking about me? I think you posted this just to dupe me into THINKING you were posting about me, but you were really posting about muirgeo.

J Cross November 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Thanks for sharing Don. I saw this link on NYT and was so close to clicking it so many times today. Didn’t. Then saw your post. Clicked it. I’m glad I did. Thanks for sharing – 6 minutes of reason in an otherwise chaotic day.

-JD Cross

Mr. Blather November 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm

My favorite example of confirmation bias comes from the film The Messenger, The Story of Joan of Arc:

Jon Murphy November 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Is that Dustin Hoffman?

But back on topic, everyone sees what they want to see. I wonder why that is such a scandal?

Mr. Blather November 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Yes, that’s Dustin Hoffman.

It’s such a scandal because it’s everyone else that does it (not me, of course, I see the world how it really is). If everyone else could just see past their confirmation bias and see things my way, the world would be a much better place.

(NB: That’s the attitude, not my belief, by the way. Although, now that I bring it up…)

Jon Murphy November 22, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Haha I figured, thanks.

Methinks1776 November 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm

My psych professor in college was a sex therapist – which made for some very colourful anecdotes.

He once had a patient who was a child of about 6 (if I remember correctly). The kid’s parents were high school sweethearts and dropouts. The mother was a cheerleader and the father was the star baseball player.

Things went pear shaped when the cheerleader discovered she was pregnant. The baseball star and the cheerleader got married, since that was the only honourable thing to do. A son was born. Obviously, the marriage was less than stellar. The husband resented his wife for getting pregnant, couldn’t hold down a job, got in trouble with the law and started drinking. The nagging wife resented her husband for ruining her life The kid was caught in the middle.

The father decided to groom the son to be the major league player he imagined he would have been if things had been different. Unfortunately, he decided to do this before the kid was old enough for his motor skills to have sufficiently developed. Obviously, the lack of motor skills development meant the kid was terrible at baseball which frustrated the father beyond all measure and increased the acrimony between himself and his wife.

One day, the kid stole money from his mother’s purse and went to the neighbourhood store down the block (where back in those days it wasn’t unusual to send a small child to pick up a pint of milk or a carton of eggs). With the stolen money, the kid bought Kotex (sanitary napkins, for those who have never shopped for their wives).

Horrified by the theft, the mother concluded that the kid was a lazy, no good thief, just like his father. The father took the purchase of sanitary napkins (along with the kid’s lack of prowess on the baseball diamond) as a sign that his son was gay. The parents came to my professor’s practice to straighten out their talentless, gay, thief.

After getting the lowdown from the parents, Dr. G sat them in the waiting room and called in the child to speak with him privately. Dr. G asked the young boy something nobody else had bothered to ask – why he stole money to buy sanitary napkins. You see, the kid explained, he’d been watching TV and saw an ad for Kotex. In the ad, women were excelling at all kinds of sports. The kid thought that if he bought Kotex, the product would make him better at baseball and then his dad would be proud of him, his parents would stop fighting so much and they could be happy together.

Ubiquitous November 22, 2011 at 8:51 pm


Old joke.


Methinks1776 November 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Is it? What’s the joke? Dr. G told us this story as a cautionary tale about making assumptions. I assumed it was true.

Ubiquitous November 22, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Just thought some of you might be interested.

There’s confirmation bias, and then there’s garden-variety lying.

Here’s an article about a new round of hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit of University of East Anglia:

The download link is included in the Guardian article.

Ryan Vann November 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Seeing confirmation bias is just a case of confirmation bias.

Paul Marks November 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Umbrella weapons have been used to kill people.

There was a case in London where an anti Soviet person was murdered by Bulgarian agents.

They thought they had everything worked out – fire a small pellet in his leg (no one will see because the weapon is part of an umbrella) and the poison in the pellet will give the effect of heart failure. No one will ever know…..

Trouble is the man (before the poison took effect and killed him) said “someone just shot [actually the word the man used was "stabbed" - but actually he had been shot] me with an umbrella” now normally people would laugh that off – but then the man dies.

So the body is very carefully examined – and a very small hole is found in his leg, and a pellet inside the leg (a hollow pellet and….).

So then there is a big investigation and…….

Complex plans tend to fall apart like that.

Previous post:

Next post: