The older I get, the less I suffer fools gladly. One obvious sign of this ever-growing lack of patience is my burning hatred of ridiculous conspiracy theories. Concocted by the ignorant and self-deluded and quickly disseminated via the Internet, our intelligence is assaulted almost daily by fantastic tales of 9/11 conspiracies, Obama foreign birth cover-ups and Princess Diana assassination schemes. It never ceases to amaze me how some people are so willing to believe just about anything, no matter how outlandish it might be. Therefore, when I saw David Aaronovitch’s 2010 book Voodoo Histories: The Role the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History a few weeks ago during one of my frequent trips to the library I eagerly pounced on it. Much to my satisfaction, Aaronovitch does a great job not only chronicling most if not all of the major conspiracy theories of the last hundred years, but most importantly he methodically and intelligently debunks them.
Starting with the anti-semitic fin de siecle tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and ending with the American far right “Birther” movement, British journalist and London Times columnist, Aaronovitch traces the evolution and influence of the most significant conspiracy theories of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Much to my satisfaction, it’s a pretty comprehensive selection of conspiracies encompassing assassinations (real or perceived) of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, former Clinton White House official Vince Foster and British anti-nuclear activist Hilda Murrell; state-sponsored involvement with the attacks associated with Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the London Underground; and the far right’s character assassinations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Aronovitch does a pretty good job not only chronicling the history of these various conspiracy theories but also analyzing them in detail to prove why they are complete hogwash. But there’s more. I really appreciated the author’s keen ability to look at the similarities between many of these theories. For example, more often than not many of the champions of these theories are not detached and objective investigators of the truth but instead are ideologically driven, with many of these individuals hopping from conspiracy to conspiracy. Some, while on paper might appear to have impressive educational credentials, in reality many if not most of these advocates have strayed outside the areas of their chosen and accredited disciplines and as a result cannot be considered as subject matter experts. Lastly, conspiracy theories by their very nature tend to be giant illogical fallacies with their respective believers employing far greater skepticism on the logical and accepted explanation of events than their own improbable pet theories.
While a few of the book’s chapters might be a little dry and uninteresting, thankfully the chapter on 9/11 conspiracies is top-notch. In addition to methodically dissecting the various claims bit by bit and exposing their glaring fallacies, Aaronovitch also examines the credibility of the personalities behind these improbable theories, especially the self-proclaimed 9/11 “Scholars” for “Truth”. David Ray Griffin, one of its more visible spokesmen, has no background or experience in physics, Middle Eastern studies or aeronautics but is a semi-retired theology professor from Claremont College. Another of these scholars believes JFK’s brain was swapped after his assassination and the Zapruder film was faked while another scholar believes the US government is secretly bombarding the planet Jupiter with antimatter weapons. Lastly, an academic who claims that 9/11 must have been an act of the US government because no cell phones could have functioned while the planes were in flight (meaning that all those final phone calls were faked) is a middling engineering professor who also believes suicide bombers are really agents of Western intelligence services. Credible experts? I don’t think so.
While a bit dry and slow in some places, the strong parts of this book far outweigh the weak ones. For the 9/11 chapter alone I’d probably recommend this book. While I’m at it, I would also recommend Michael Shermer’s outstanding and engaging Why People Believe Strange Things since it makes a perfect companion piece to Aaronovitch’s book. Both books do a pretty good job debunking much of the bullsh*t that’s out there. And sadly, there’s a lot of it.