Recently I read about one paragraph of an article that claimed to have new evidence about the Kennedy assassination. I never read these articles, for five reasons.
First, the evidence is rarely new. Second, there are rarely any footnotes or Web links to verify the supposedly new facts. Third, the authors are usually incapable of writing a coherent paragraph, let alone an entire article. They get bogged down in details — trivia for the reader, or incomprehensible. Fourth, because there is always a rival theory, or multiple theories, which categorically refute the one you are reading . Fifth, because it would take a lifetime to begin to unpack even the basics of the topic. Therefore, I made a decision a long time ago to assume that Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and that the person or persons who did this will never be known for sure, and in any case, they are all dead by now.
One of the best historians I ever knew was William Marina. He was the only historian who was at Dealey Plaza on the day of the assassination. He had brought a group of college students to see the President. He then spent years studying the Kennedy assassination. He taught classes on the Kennedy assassination. He got the division of labor working for him, as students found bits and pieces of information that had not been previously discussed. At the end of his life, as at the beginning of his studies 35 years earlier, he believed that Oswald acted alone. But he never wrote the book he always said he would. On June 30, 2009, I wrote an article just for him on how to market his as yet unwritten book. I posted it on my website. On July 7, 2009, he died of a heart attack. I wrote his obituary. It was published on July 8. Such is life.
Marina was a details man, and detail men very seldom finish large projects. They produce bricks, not skyscrapers. The Kennedy assassination is a skyscraper. There are a mountain of bricks: at least 1,000 books on it. These books do not agree.
THE COMPLEXITY OF LIFE
Let me get down to the basics. All of life is irreducibly complex. No matter how far out you aim your telescope, the universe proves to be far more complex than your theory allows. So, in desperation, you go to microscopes, and you find the same thing. No matter how small the object is that you are studying, there are a seemingly infinite number of factors that affect it.
Your get to the electron. You find out in your freshman chemistry class that you cannot know the location of the electron and its velocity. You can know its velocity, but you cannot know its location. Or, you can know its location, but you cannot know it is velocity.
Then somebody tells you that the very fact that you are investigating this electron affects it. The tool (light) that you use to observe it, affects it. Then what can you do? Well, this depends on what you want to do. Basically, you fake it. You ignore most things in your microscope. You hope for the best, but you fake it. You look for a large enough pattern to let you get by with whatever it is you are doing, and you hope that nobody discovers something about the details of your pattern that blows your theory to kingdom come. Or, if somebody does this, you hope that you will be able to find some clever answer that somehow refutes him, so that you maintain your job, your reputation, and your footnote in some obscure future monograph.
There is one thing that every historian has to get right if he expects to be believed. He has to get the chronological sequence right. There is one thing that I can say categorically about the nature of history. If, on a particular date, at 6:23 AM, something took place, we can be assured of this: anything that took place after 6:23 did not cause that event.
This gets us down to bedrock causation. For any historical event, you need a timeline to prove your version of it. If you do not have a timeline that is sufficiently precise and sufficiently documented to make a plausible case for your theory of causation, you might as well not publish the article, produce the video, or be interviewed on late-night satellite talk radio. The timeline is not everything, but it is mandatory. The timeline has got to be accurate enough to support your theory of causation.
The problem is this: the more complex your theory of causation, the more timelines you need.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)