, , , ,

Arlington National Cemetery

You know I’m writing a book called Infamy. I wanted to have it ready for the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, but it didn’t work out that way. Another thing that didn’t work out was my original plan for the book. It was supposed to be a simple annotated bibliography, with excerpts from Amazon reviews. At its most ambitious, the design called for a review of the literature by me, to comment on what has occurred in the field of Kennedy assassination research in the last decade or so.

You also know from reading Infamy posts here at The Jeffersonian that the project’s scope broadened over time. That’s the way our minds work, I guess. I still read Amazon reviews occasionally, but I don’t expect to see any in the book. Have you found yourself reading reviews there, with the feeling that you should do something else? You come across interesting comments. Moreover, you can read a review in a lot less time than it takes to read a book.

Here’s a question one Amazon reviewer pressed, in a dialogue with Stephen Courts: even if we held a book with correct answers to questions about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, how would we know it? The questioner implies that we already have so many contradictory ideas, hypotheses, conclusions, evidence, scenarios, possibilities, educated guesses, criticisms and counter-proposals on hand, how could we ever sort through it all to know if we had reached the truth?

Example of a pathway hard to follow.

That’s a pessimist’s agnosticism, to be sure. Researchers can offer a couple of ready responses to the agnostic’s position. One is to agree with its premise: treat it as a rhetorical question. Agree that in fact we can’t sort through everything, and know for sure that we have the truth, even if we hold it in our hands. After all, history does not give us definitive results, nor does it give us definitive tests we can use to judge contradictory results. The pathways of historical inquiry are more obscure than the pathways of, say, scientific inquiry.

The second response to this question yields more optimism about our ability to discern truth. It argues that we can use contradictory results to our advantage, to make comparisons. We make judgments in light of those comparisons. Out of many comparisons and judgments come conclusions. These conclusions are imperfect and lack the definition we might wish for them, but they contain more resolution than existed at our points of departure. Pathways of progress may be hard to see or follow, but they exist.

Researchers and analysts continue this process of comparison and judgment, conscious of what we know and do not know. Perhaps we see a boundary between what is clear and what is obscure, perhaps we see a large, incomplete puzzle with disordered and missing pieces. However we organize our research results, we can use uncertainty about the truth to ask better questions, to motivate our reasoning toward better judgments, and to reach conclusions superior to those we had before. If we are careful and persistent, we’ll recognize valuable pieces of knowledge as they come into view.

Can online groups collaborate with the same effectiveness that face-to-face groups do?

Note how the process described above depends on we. Individuals who work apart from each other cannot achieve the same results they can achieve if they work collaboratively. To illustrate, observe the effectiveness of collaborative teamwork in scientific and technological advancement. Though historical inquiry is different from scientific inquiry, the comparison is useful. Scientists have always recognized that their research proceeds best when colleagues share data, methods, and results. That speeds the process of comparison on multiple fronts, and brings multiple skills, methods, and minds to bear on a problem.

The same holds for historical research, all the more so when evidence is fragmentary. A spirit of collaboration and respectful criticism advances our knowledge immeasurably. Antagonism binds people to their positions, ridicule excludes them, and hasty judgments make people overlook so much. With respect, trust and confidence, independent researchers can accomplish a lot. Without those elements of collaboration, impediments arise that slow progress, to such a degree that participants in the enterprise can become discouraged.

We can’t afford to become discouraged as we try to uncover the nature of these crimes. A great deal rides on this project. We have to maintain fidelity to the truth. Too much is at stake not to persevere.