The Zapruder Film as a Gettier Problem

Alternative Title: Review of Robert Sanger, “Gettier in a Court of Law” (Part 1)

Now that I am back from my short beach vacation, I want to turn my attention to Bob Sanger’s beautiful 2018 paper “Gettier in a Court of Law,” available here (via SSRN), which I read for the first time a couple of months ago. I forgot how I first found Sanger’s excellent paper, but I am glad I did because it explores the intersection between evidence law and epistemology, specifically something called the “Gettier problem.” (Update: I now remember how I discovered Sanger’s paper. When I first heard that philosopher Edmund Gettier had died earlier this year, his death had revived my interest in his ideas and Google Scholar then led me to Sanger’s Gettier paper.)

As Sanger (2018, p. 409) himself notes in the opening of his paper, following the publication in 1963 of Edmund Gettier’s landmark paper, available here (via JSTOR), this special problem has perplexed scholars for decades, and an “incredible amount” of literature has been devoted to it. Stated as simply as possible, a “justified true belief” is not always sufficient for knowledge, an unusual state of affairs that occurs when one holds a belief that is justified and true, but the justification for one’s belief turns out to be false. For his part, Sanger does two cool things in his 2018 paper, two things that makes his paper well worth reading. He provides a simple hypothetical involving a shepherd to illustrate the Gettier problem, and then he shows how this example would be dealt with under the modern rules of evidence in a court of law. Here is Sanger’s pastoral example (2018, p. 412, footnote omitted): “A hypothetical problem that illustrates [the Gettier problem] … might involve a [shepherd] claiming knowledge that a sheep was in the field.”

But what if the shepherd’s belief was based on seeing a dog that only looked liked a sheep? And what if an actual sheep was, in fact, in the field out of sight behind a hill? Given these facts (i.e., a dog that looks like a sheep and an actual sheep that is not visible), this hypo presents a Gettier problem because, in the words of Sanger (ibid., emphasis omitted), “how can this [the shepherd’s justified true belief that a sheep was in the field], count as knowledge where the empirical basis for that belief was not accurate?”

Before I proceed to the second part of Sanger’s paper, however, I want to provide a more compelling and controversial example of the Gettier problem: the Zapruder film of the assassination of JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963. (One of the frames of this infamous film is pictured below.) Although this home movie is not the only photographic evidence of the JFK assassination–Abraham Zapruder was one of at least 32(!) witnesses in Dealey Plaza who captured this tragic event on film; see, e.g., Bugliosi, 2007, p. 291–his 26-second film provides the most complete picture of the ambush and contains crucial evidence. Yet at the same time, despite being one of the most studied films in history, it is open to multiple interpretations. How many shots were fired in Dealey Plaza on that fateful day? How many of those shots hit President Kennedy? Were all of those shots fired from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building? Was there only one gunman, or two? Etc., etc.

To the point, you can watch the Zapruder film many times and at many speeds, with or without sound, and reasonably conclude that the fatal shot to President Kennedy in frame 313 of the film was either fired from behind (consistent with the lone gunman theory) or fired from the front (the two gunmen or Grass Knoll theory). Worse yet, on either interpretation of the Zapruder film, the alleged role of Lee Harvey Oswald can still be subjected to further scrutiny. Some serious conspiracy theorists (Garrison, 2012; see also Wrone, 2003), for example, believe that Oswald was innocent, that he was either set up by rogue CIA agents or framed by the Dallas police.

In other words, the Zapruder film provides a compelling demonstration of the Gettier problem because this infamous film appears to generate not just one set of justified true beliefs about what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, but a whole gamut of such justified true beliefs. With this further example in mind, I will turn to the second part of Sanger’s paper in my next post …

Zapruder film - Wikipedia

Works Cited

Vincent Bugliosi. 2007. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Norton.

Jim Garrison. 2012. On the Trail of Assassins: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Murder of President Kennedy. Skyhorse.

Edmund L. Gettier. 1963. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6, pp. 121-123.

Robert Sanger. 2018. “Gettier in a Court of Law.” Southern Illinois University Law Journal, Vol. 42, pp. 409-420.

David Wrone. 2003. The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination. University Press of Kansas.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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