History and Uncertainty: The Umbrella Man

This video by Errol Morris is the story of ‘The Umbrella Man’, a conspicuous figure present at the assassination of JFK. It’s  told by the author of one of the many books on the assassination, but Josiah Thompson seems to be a class above the average conspiracy nut. He talks about the process of spotting this man in the film – holding an incongruous black umbrella open on a beautiful sunny day – and after a process of investigation he appealed to the man to come forward and explain himself to the senate committee investigating JFK’s assassination. The explanation was so “wacky” and so bizarrely out-of-left field that one could, quite literally, never invent it – so it must have been true. From this Thompson concluded something very important about the limits of our knowledge of historical events:

“…if you have any fact which you think is really sinister… is really obviously a fact which can only point to some sinister underpinning – hey, forget it man. Because you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister perfectly valid explanations for that fact.”

Which is a fantastic point, and which Thompson calls a “cautionary tale”. If only it were heeded more often.

In response to ‘The Umbrella Man’ John Updike, in a piece for the New Yorker, allegedly came to the following conclusions about history and historical research:

“We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth.”

Go watch the video – it’s only 6 minutes long, and well worth watching if only for how bizarrely tangential the Umbrella Man’s reasons are.