The JFK 'Head Shot' Paradox


As a philosopher of science with a keen interest in the nature of scientific knowledge, I have been fascinated by the recent book by G. Paul Chambers, Head Shot: The Science Behind the JFK Assassination (2010). I have found several aspects of his discussion of interest, including his conclusion – that the fatal shot to JFK's head seen in the Zapruder film was caused by a shot from the right-front ("the grassy knoll") – which he affirms on the basis of his competence as a physicist. He does not seem to notice that JFK's brains and blood are blown out to the right-front in the Zapruder film, which he takes to be authentic and unaltered. But that means there is a paradox in his analysis, since, if the film is authentic, the blow-out to the right-front contradicts his conclusion that the shot that caused this effect was fired from the right-front, which is founded on elementary laws of physics. This, in turn, implies that he has not taken into account all the relevant evidence and thereby violated a basic principle of scientific reasoning, which may be appropriate for politicians, editorial writers, and used-car salesmen, but not for him.

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Chambers' discussions of the Zapruder film, whose authenticity he endorses, and of the medical evidence, which he disregards as corrupt, are especially interesting. Perhaps if he had read Assassination Science (1998), Murder in Dealey Plaza (2000), and The Great Zapruder Film Hoax (2003), which are devoted to taking rumor and speculation out of the case and placing its study on an objective and scientific foundation, he might have a different outlook on both. Not the least puzzling aspect of this book is that, while his credentials as a physicist are advanced as the reason we should believe him (based upon his analysis of the motion of JFK's head under the impact of the bullet), no one who has ever observed the film could have any serious doubt that it was fired from the right-front. The back-and-to-the-left motion of his body, which was accentuated in Oliver Stone's JFK, makes that much obvious. You don't have to be a Ph.D. in physics to notice.

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Indeed, it is precisely because the back-and-to-the-left motion of his body provides such a simple proof of a shot fired from the right-front that those who have written extensively about it, such as Robert Groden and Josiah Thompson, have been adamantly opposed to acknowledging that the film is a fabrication, which was recreated using original footage which was subjected to sophisticated techniques of optical printing and special effects. A brilliant tutorial concerning how we know this was done has been presented by John P. Costella, another Ph.D. in physics with electromagnetism, the physics of moving objects and properties of light, among his areas of specialization. Previous arguments of David Wrone and Rollie Zavada, which Chambers presents, have been refuted by the publication of Inside the ARRB (2009) by Douglas Horne, whose key arguments about the film are summarized in an article of mine for those who may not have time for all five volumes!

As Horne has explained, there are five physical features that distinguish the original film, which was developed in Dallas, from the film that is available to us today. As he also remarks, the original was brought to the National Photographic Interpretation Center on Saturday, 23 November 1963, and processed by one team of experts, while a second film was brought to the NPIC the following day, Sunday, 24 November 1963, and processed by a different team of experts. We not only know that the films are different based upon their physical properties but from the occurrence of content anomalies found in the extant film. Some the most revealing content features that indicate it is a fabrication include the driver's head turns (looking back toward JFK and then forward after he has been killed), which, as Noel Twyman, Bloody Treason (1997), has reported, occur twice as fast as humanly possible; that no witnesses reported the back-and-to-the-left motion seen in the extant film; and that Secret Service agents were nauseated to see JFK's brains and blood across the trunk of the limousine in Washington, which has been "tidied" up in the film.

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Roderick Ryan, a Hollywood expert on special effects whom Noel consulted about the blow-out to the right-front, explained to him that it and the blood spray had been painted in. A new group of Hollywood experts has now concluded that the blow-out itself was painted over in black to conceal the massive defect, as Horne explains in Volume IV of Inside the ARRB. But while there are many indications that the film is a fabrication, the most important proof is the inconsistency between the impact damage to the cranium, which is the film’s most stunning feature, showing brains and gore bulging out to JFK’s right-front, and the medical evidence, which shows a massive defect at the back of his head just to the right of center.  Indeed, Escort Motorcycle Officer Bobby Hargis, who was riding to the left-rear, was hit so hard by the blown-out brains and debris that he thought he himself had been shot.  Jackie told the Warren Commission that, from the front, he looked just fine, but that she had had a hard time holding his skull and brains together at the back of his head. The question thus becomes how a massive blow-out of brains and gore to the left-rear could be shown bulging out to the right-front in the film.

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Recent research by another physicist, David W. Mantik, who is also an M.D. and board-certified in radiation oncology, has demonstrated that the JFK autopsy X-rays have been altered to conceal the blow-out to the back of the head. The alteration of the film and the alteration of the X-rays thus constitute mutually reinforcing deceptions complemented by the publication of frame 313 in LIFE magazine with a caption saying that the bullet had entered the back of his head and blown out the right-front – a caption that was rewritten twice after breaking the plates, an event unique in the history of American journalism – and the televised appearance by Abraham Zapruder the very evening of the assassination, during which he placed his hand to his right forehead to described a blow-out to the right-front, which did not occur. By dismissing the medical evidence as corrupt and endorsing the authenticity of the film, Chambers violated the requirement of total evidence, which insists that reasoning in science must be based upon all the available relevant evidence.

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No doubt, most of us would have a difficult time mastering the use of the technique of optical densitometry, which Mantik borrowed from physics and applied to the X-rays when he studied them at the National Archives. Since David's report of his research, which established that the X-rays are fabrications and that there was a second shot to the head, were published in Assassination Science (1998), which Chambers cites, I have a hard time understanding why he did not discuss it in this book. He does cite Mantik twice (on pages 188 and 192), but does so in relation to his article on the Zapruder film and not in relation to his work on the medical evidence. Rather than addressing Mantik's work on the Zapruder film directly, as would be typical for disagreements between physicists, Chambers instead simply accepts the verdict of an historian on the work of a physicist – which may be another unique event. He claims the medical evidence forms an "unstable data set", which was true before Mantik sorted out the authentic from the inauthentic, as he has done in a brilliant synthesis that was published in Murder in Dealey Plaza (2000). Indeed, there are no indications here that Chambers is familiar with the most important objective and scientific studies of the medical evidence or of the fabrication of the film, especially in The Great Zapruder Film Hoax (2003) and in Horne's multiple volumes.

The study of the assassination has drawn the attention of physicists at least since David S. Lifton's Best Evidence (1980). As Lifton explains, he showed photos of Zapruder frames to Richard Feynman at CalTech in 1965, where the Nobel Prize laureate pointed out that there is forward movement from frames 312 to 313, which, when the back-and-to-the-left motion observed in the film is taken as proof of a shot from in front, implies that JFK was hit at least twice in the head – once from behind and once from in front – a double-hit that was meticulously diagrammed in Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas (1967). Chambers dismisses JFK's forward movement as an effect of William Greer, the driver, slowing the vehicle. More than 60 witnesses have reported that Greer slowed the vehicle dramatically or actually brought it to a halt, which is not seen in the film, but only he moves slightly forward at that point in time. The vehicle is shown as accelerating immediately thereafter, making it anomalous that the occupants' bodies – Governor and Nellie Connally and the Secret Service agents – are thrown forward following frame 313.

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Since we know that, if the shot was fired from the right-front, then his brains should have been blown-out to the left-rear and not to the right-front, which is what we observe in the film, the conclusion that the film has been faked clearly follows. Chambers cites work by Wrone and Zavada that has been refuted in books with which he should be familiar, but does not report that proof of something wrong with the film is present in the film itself. It occurred to me that those who were falsifying the film might have paid so much time and attention to the head shot and its effects – as we see them now in frames 313-316 – that they might have overlooked the head wound in later frames. And, indeed, I found that it is visible in frame 374, among others, where its cashew-nut-like shape corresponds very closely to "Area P" (for "patched") in Mantik's analysis of the lateral cranial X-ray, as I have explained and demonstrated in "Dealey Plaza Revisited: What Happened to JFK?"

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Perhaps if he had read more of Assassination Science (1998), which he cites, Chambers might have learned that Robert B. Livingston, M.D. – a world authority on the human brain and also an expert on wound ballistics, having supervised an emergency medical hospital for injured Okinawans and for Japanese prisoners of war during the Battle of Okinawa – had concluded that the diagrams and photographs of the brain stored at the National Archives cannot be authentic photographs and diagrams of the brain of John F. Kennedy. He compared the multiple reports from experienced physicians at Parkland Hospital of cerebellar as well as cerebral tissue extruding from the blow-out at the back of the head with the photographs and diagrams at the National Archives – the brain itself is mysteriously missing – which show a wholly intact cerebellum. Since Chambers does not know the medical evidence any better than he knows the photographic, he precluded drawing inferences about those who were involved in the cover-up and the crime itself.

The mafia, for example, could not have extended its reach into Bethesda Naval Hospital to falsify X-rays that were under the control of medical officers of the US Navy, agents of the Secret Service, or the president's personal physician. Neither pro- nor anti-Castro Cubans could have substituted another brain for that of JFK. And the KGB, which may have had an ability to fabricate films comparable to that of the CIA and of Hollywood, would have had no opportunity to gain access to the original Zapruder film. Once we know the breadth and depth of the cover-up, which was implemented in great detail to effect mutually-reinforcing forms of deception, we begin to appreciate that those who had the motive, the means and the opportunity to bring them about were at the highest levels of our own government, as James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable (2008), explains.

It not only troubles me profoundly that Chambers violates a basic principle of scientific reasoning and that evidence internal to the extant film refutes his presumption that the film is authentic but that Jefferson Morley endorses the book with the following claim: "He dismantles the bad science at the core of Vincent Bugliosi's flabby Reclaiming History [2007] and politely punts the fantasy that the Zapruder film was altered." While I agree that Bugliosi's work is indefensible, to the best of my knowledge, Morley has never studied the film and is not in a position to know whether it is authentic or not. This is not the first time Morley has proven to be unequal to the demands of serious research about the assassination of one of the Kennedys. Science, as we have seen, can enable us to sort out authentic from inauthentic evidence, but we have to think things through and not let ourselves be misled by pseudo-science masquerading as genuine in the search for truth.

Thanks to David W. Mantik, John Costella, and Morgan Reynonds for their feedback.

November 30, 2010