A Wilderness of Delusion

I recently finished watching Marc Smerling’s docuseries A Wilderness of Error on the FX network. This series is based on the book of the same name by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, published in 2012. The book relates the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two little girls when the family lived on-base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one cold and rainy night in February of 1970. MacDonald was a captain in the Green Berets at the time.

It’s an amazing story, in that it’s particularly amazing that anyone has ever believed that MacDonald could possibly be innocent. And yet Federal appeals courts have heard MacDonald’s case in the years since his conviction on several occasions, whenever some supposedly game-changing new evidence came to light. Appeals related to the case have even ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court—-twice. It is in fact the most litigated and longest running criminal case in U.S. history.

But every alleged piece of new evidence that prompted another appeal by MacDonald and his lawyers always related to the same old discredited story that the convicted family annihilator has been peddling from the very beginning: That a band of drugged out hippies forced their way into the townhouse where the MacDonalds were residing and butchered the family as they chanted, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” (That little flourish in MacDonald’s tale would be laughable if not for the immensely tragic circumstances.) Colette MacDonald and little Kristen and Kimberly were all viciously stabbed and beaten multiple times, while the crazed hippies apparently left MacDonald with only a handful of wounds that were mostly superficial, with the sole exception of a neat, sharp puncture in his chest that collapsed one of his lungs.

I have not read the book but from what I understand Morris seemed strongly inclined at the time of its publication to believe that MacDonald is innocent; he seems much more reticent and ambivalent in the new TV series.

One of his best known documentary films is The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The film covers the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas and subsequently sentenced to death. In the course of making the film, not only did Morris discover that Adams was innocent, but that the young man who had actually committed the crime testified against Adams at the trial, helping to convict him. The appalling miscarriage of justice makes for a compelling story. Adams was eventually released from prison and spared the electric chair at very near the 11th hour, in large part due to Morris’ film.

But if Morris has been obsessing over the MacDonald case since the early 1990s, as he says he has, then surely it must have dawned on him at some point that Jeffrey MacDonald is no Randall Dale Adams. The only person who has ever ventured to suggest that she could possibly corroborate MacDonald’s story, a very troubled young woman named Helena Stoeckley, proved to be wildly unreliable. Though she had reportedly told several people that she may have been in the MacDonald home that fateful night and witnessed the carnage herself, upon taking the stand during the 1979 trial she denied ever being there, much to the dismay of defense attorney Bernie Segal. (Smerling’s fascinating companion podcast to the series, Morally Indefensible, provides additional background not included in the FX series that casts even more doubt on Stoeckley’s initial claims.)

Since the marauding-band-of-drug-crazed-hippies story consistently falls apart under just a modicum of serious scrutiny, that leaves only one possibility as to who is the guilty party: Dr. MacDonald. It is tragically obvious. That someone as smart and educated as Errol Morris could seriously believe otherwise is a testament to the limits of human intelligence. Intelligence is often compromised by belief, and we are all vulnerable.

My wife and I once attended a talk given by Morris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago about two and a half years ago. He was not promoting a film at the time, but another book, The Ashtray: Or the Man Who Denied Reality. The book is highly critical of the theories of the famous philosopher of science Dr. Thomas Kuhn, under whom Morris had studied for awhile at Princeton University.

At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to politics. Morris informed his audience that he fully expected Donald Trump to launch a nuclear first-strike on North Korea. Granted, this was during the time of Trump’s rabid “fire and fury” tweets aimed at the Hermit Kingdom, but it also happened to play into the absolutely worst assumptions that his blue state audience had regarding Trump. It was a little too simplistic, this mutually reassuring belief Morris and his audience shared that night, and it turned out to be incredibly wrong. Not only was Morris’ morbid and apocalyptic prediction mistaken, but it turned out to be the exact opposite of what Trump actually did, which was to sit down and talk to Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. That approach was a very far cry from slaughtering the people of North Korea with nuclear fire.

But that didn’t matter at all, of course, for the historic summit that occurred, with its signed agreement for more peaceful relations between the two countries, then conveniently served as a yet another example of Trump’s ongoing affection for totalitarian dictators. But at least everyone has reverted back to their typical apathy toward the U.S.-North Korean relationship ever since it slipped back into its usual bellicosity.

However misguided Morris may be in the views that he may (or may no longer) hold regarding the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, he at least deserves credit for encouraging his audience to question their assumptions, and to remind them that the truth is usually not so easily gained.

A Wilderness of Error is imminently watchable, suspenseful, and fraught with dramatic tension throughout, and told through the eyes of memorable real-life characters—-some of them tragically so. This kind of soul searching, however, may be put to much better use than speculating on the decades long, overly indulged protestations of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

Feynman’s Answers

This is quite popular online:

Feynman Questions

The late American physicist Richard Feynman started his career as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. government project to develop the atomic bomb. He would go on to win a Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which he shared with two other physicists. I couldn’t tell you much about quantum electrodynamics, but I know that Feynman also attracted a lot of attention as a member of the U.S. government’s Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragic Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.

It was Feynman who figured out what went wrong: the rubber “O-rings” that were used to seal the joints of a solid rocket booster failed to expand at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature at the time of the shuttle’s launch on Jan. 28th, 1986, was right around 32 degrees F. Due to the O-rings’ failure to expand, gas escaped and turned into flame, heating the fuel tank until it ruptured and released liquid hydrogen into the atmosphere and exploded. Feynman and the commission also found a variety of other problems related to the O-rings.

In his own seperate report appended to the commission’s main report, as well as in media appearances, Feynman criticized NASA officials, who, he said, should have known about the O-rings, but they had ended up fooling themselves. They had not previously suffered any problems with other launches and so, reasoned NASA’s managers, things would continue to be hunky-dory. This blinded them to obvious flaws that had not previously led to disaster thanks only to mere chance.

They really should’ve known better, said Feynman. That nothing had gone wrong before was no excuse for those men of science, whose knowledge should have been their guide.

Those views did not win him many friends in Washington, where the unquestioned expertocracy rules all. No doubt these final words from his addendum to the commission’s report rankled the feathers of a D.C. bureaucrat or two: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

“Nature cannot be fooled,” implying, as emphasized by the bit about public relations, that human beings most certainly can be fooled, including scientists. We are all gullible and naive to some extent, and we all have our blind spots and shortcomings, including those with PhDs in physics who are employed by NASA.

Naturally, when people see the quote at the top of this post, they nod their head in agreement. For they instinctively understand that nobody has all the answers to everything and so there is always room for doubt and skepticism, for some more critical examination of people’s claims and ideas. And doesn’t agreeing with this very sensible insight show everyone just how open-minded you are, how liberal and tolerant you are toward contrasting and dissenting views?

But let’s be honest. A cursory glance across social media on any given day tells you that an overwhelming number of people really believe that it’s only other people’s claims that should be questioned, not their own. There are many, many people who sincerely believe that they really do have it all figured out, and there’s no amount of logic or evidence that could possibly persuade them otherwise.

“It’s all those morons out there who are polluting the world with silly and destructive notions,” goes this mindset, “and fortunately I’m far too intelligent to fall for any of them, and so I’m always prepared to set them right.”

Such people are a little too damn sure of themselves, in my opinion, and unfortunately they seem more numerous than ever. Even worse, they’re a little too intoxicated with their own moral righteousness. There’s no telling how much havoc such people can wreak on the world–indeed, how much havoc such people have already wreaked on the world throughout human history. It’s damn scary.

You can’t convince me otherwise.