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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
You can be reasonably confident in advance that a book will be worth reading if it has conspiracy theorists in rant-mode and foaming with indignation: a raw nerve has obviously been poked. Such a book is David Aaronovitch's `Voodoo Histories' which exposes the delusional ideological framework at the heart of conspiracy-theorist psychology.

This US version of Aaronovitch's original UK-biased text, which includes the conspiracy theories surrounding Obama's birth, doesn't disappoint - though it might have had more bite. Erstwhile radical anti-establishment journalist Aaronovitch looks into why many otherwise sane and rational people buy into the more outlandish conspiracy theories which litter modern social history. From the fraudulent 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' manufactured by 19th century Czarist police to justify the persecution of Jewish people and enthusiastically promoted by Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford (of all people); to the '9/11 was an inside job' fantasists who employ ignorant pseudo-science to feed dogmatic belief-systems and multiple fringe political-propagandist agendas, Aaronovitch takes us on a fascinating, instructive and frequently amusing ride through a parade of delusional ideologies to be found just beneath the surface of contemporary society, and does a mostly effective job in deconstructing them.

In addition to those cited above, other conspiracy theories examined in the book are:

- the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, where every failure of the Soviet industrial system was scape-goated onto 'conspiracists' singled out for persecution

- the conspiracy theory manufactured by the right-wing 'America First' political lobby to discredit FDR by claiming he had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy in December 1941

- Senator McCarthy's witch-hunts in the 1950s against largely non-existent `communist conspirators' allegedly trying to wreck the USA from within

- attempts to 'conspiracize' the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Munro and Diana POW

- the highly profitable and surprisingly durable fantasy perpetrated by Baigent, Leigh et al about the alleged bloodline of Christ surviving through the Merovingians and the Templars up to modern times (which enabled fiction-writer Dan Brown to become a millionaire), side-tracking into the theories of such diverse and successful alternative-history authors as Erich Von Daniken and Graham Hancock

Aaronovitch is a thorough investigative journalist who takes the trouble to read and study all the pro-conspiracy books and attend the meetings; he understands his source material and has done his research. A list of common CT-components is identified: the citing of historical precedent and employment of flawed logic ("there were conspiracies before in history, so this must be one too"); parroting the weak and lazy "we're just asking questions" and "challenging the official version"; the focus on supposed `anomalies' in the absence of supporting evidence for the CT; and a determination to ignore, bury and discount all evidence which might prove the CT to be wrong. Promoters also ape the academic convention of citations and footnotes, but only cite each other in a closed loop which passes the gullible enquirer from one believer to the next, whilst brushing aside all the really hard evidence as "supporting the official story."

In attempting to explain why some otherwise apparently rational folks fall for this stuff, Aaronovitch has insight enough to see that the superficial subject of the theory (whether the death of Diana POW seen as a `murder by MI6' or `there were no planes on 9/11: it was all holograms') has little to do with the reason people cling to it so zealously. People hold on to these delusions for personal psychological reasons, so adherence to such dogmas cannot be effectively argued with because the normal rules of logic and evidence do not apply in the proponents' world. Like other writers before him (Professor Michael Barkun for example, or Peter Knight) Aaronovitch identifies a proneness to CT-thinking as a characteristic of political and economic losers; there is 'a quantum of solace' in adopting an ideology that 'THEY' (the so-called `New World Order', the Trilateral Commission or the `Bilderburgers', the UN, the `Secret World Government' or whatever) can be blamed for everything. It is more comforting to believe in evil puppet-masters flawlessly executing massive conspiracies to fool millions of people and further their own agendas than to work with the deeply nuanced complexities of the real world: no investment of work or time is needed to become part of a small band of heroes who `know the truth.'

So conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch argues, attempt to impose order on the random chaos of the real world and so `improve on reality.' Whilst inventing a more complex and improbable explanation and ignoring the principles embodied in the Occam's Razor rule, they infantilize adherents by explaining events in terms crafted to force-fit their limited paradigms, offering an easily digestible and dumbed-down narrative which can be sold to `believers'. Look at a website promoting a CT-view of the world, or watch a 10-minute video on youtube, and suddenly you can become privy to secret knowledge and understanding, superior to the 'sheeple' (a common CT pejorative, like 'shill') who haven't wasted their time with these things (or just as likely, have seen through their pretensions) and therefore don't understand the conspiracy like you do. You can now justify your own relative failures because the sinister `THEY' are responsible for everything; you have hate-figures to rail against, suddenly `everything is connected' and makes sense.

Far from heaping (often deserved?) scorn on conspiracy theorists, Aaronovitch exhibits generosity of spirit and seeks to understand rather than condemn. In fact, he lets CT-proponents off much more lightly than might be expected (an exception might be Mohammed Fayed who - together with his brother-in-law and Dodi's uncle, the notorious arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi - were responsible for manufacturing and disseminating ALL the Diana murder-conspiracy narratives to a gullible international constituency).

Even if you have little interest in the propagation of CT-ideologies, 'Voodoo Histories' can be recommended as a commendable piece of writing. It's witty, dispassionate and thought-provoking, and a fine - if not entirely original - analysis of an interesting modern phenomenon. The author does demonstrate that adherence to these delusional ideologies occasionally has serious consequences - i.e. the fraudulent `Protocols' were used by the Nazis to convince people that `(Jewish) bankers, financiers and internationalists' were planning a sinister conspiracy to `erode the borders between nation-states, bring in a single global currency, take over the world and enslave the people': legalized persecution and eventually mass human exterminations as official State policy were thus justified.

Readers genuinely interested in the psychology of the CT-phenomenon might also like to check out `The Nature and Purpose of Political Conspiracy Theories', 'Political Paranoia v. Political Realism: On Distinguishing between Bogus Conspiracy Theories and Genuine Conspiratorial Politics' and `Conspiracy Theories and Clandestine Politics' by Jeffrey M. Bale. Professor Michael Barkun's `A Cult of Conspiracy - Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America' in which the author analyses the historical development of pick-and-mix `Improvisational Millennialism' and categorizes conspiracy theories into distinct types which each perform a different psychological function, also makes a good (and more academically rigorous) companion to Aaronovitch's more populist work.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 5 June 2010
This is an enjoyable trip through many of recent history's most popular conspiracy theories. The recurring theme is the tendency for apparently intelligent people to challenge "official" stories with a deep scepticism, yet fail to apply any level of critical scepticism at all to their own ideas. There are some interesting common themes and tendencies throughout these, and the conclusion makes interesting observations about our need to find neat narratives in an otherwise indifferent and chaotic world, as well as the odd fact that it tends to be people with plenty of academic qualifications who propagate these stories.

Where he really succeeds is in his ability to tell these stories while (largely) holding back on excessive ridicule or ranting, allowing theories to collapse under their own preposterous contradictions with only a bit of prodding. These are strongest where subsequent evidence (e.g. DNA testing) has incontrovertibly disproved a theory that at the time seemed backed by very strong evidence.

These are generally viewed across the political spectrum, although his portrayal of Noam Chomsky as a sensible chap with no time for daft theories is quite surprising. I liked the observation that much of this is "history for losers", explaining why the collapse of popular beliefs isn't really the fault of the believers but of some invisible omnipotent power - it's interesting to see the vehemence of the JFK theories arising from the awkward fact that Oswald was a fairly hard-core leftie.

I would maybe have liked a bit more of an introduction; having ploughed through a thorough exposé of the Protocols of Zion, I launched into the second chapter on Stalin's show trials without really knowing what he was on about, and the sudden explosion of complicated Russian names was quite tough going. And it seemed a shame not to finish off on his opening anecdote about the moon landings, although perhaps now that we have photos of the landing sites with footprint trails, everyone's forgotten that one.

It is also peppered with wonderful little anecdotes illustrating all these points; I laughed at the friend of the author who went to the Louvre and challenged a curator about the wherabouts of some Da Vinci Code painting; the angry response from the curator was, naturally, evidence of a vast conspiracy, not simply the exasperation of a tired curator meeting his 50th aggressive wannabe detective of the day.

So a most welcome de-bunking effort and plenty of food for thought.
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on 30 September 2015
If this book has one failing, it lies with the author suggesting that it might provide the reader with the means to counter the all too familiar, deluded slightly inadequate chap you find yourself sitting next to in a pub, the one who knows that Diana's death was an MI5 plot, and though uninvited proceeds to explain how he knows this, much to your regret.

The book can sadly provide no arguments for these occasions, because the committed conspiracy theorist is not using Occam's razor to underpin their logic but rather a tortured, evidence and probability-oblivious route to substantiate their conclusion.

Mr Aaronovitch neatly and calmly sets out the evidence against a number of household name conspiracy theories and gives a plausible if unprovable theory of his own as to why an acquaintance or colleague who you previously thought sensible, announces that he is convinced that Bush was behind 9/11, and why when you point out that Governments can't even covertly do something simple like secretly plant some uranium in Iraq, even this is somehow co-opted as evidence, the uranium being deliberately 'not planted' so as to make people like me write reviews like this.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 21 November 2013
there was insufficient space in David's engrossing debunking of conspiracy theories to fit in a chapter on the most destructive, costly and deadly CT of them all. It may have slipped his mind, to be fair, since it was a good 10 years ago but try this trillion dollar screw-up on the part of those who followed a ludicrous farrago of half-truths, dodgy dossiers, selective presentation of evidence and downright deception. Here's how it went guys:
Iraq - a largely failed state that can barely feed itself and is currently engaged in no conflicts with its neighbours (or anyone else come to think of it) - has taken it upon itself to build a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons,not to mention making inroads into obtaining nuclear weapons. Why has it done this? Why to "threaten the West", maybe in 45m, maybe not but Saddam Hussein's military are a 'clear and present danger' that must be tackled now! He may also have been behind the 9/11 attacks but we can provide no firm evidence of this. Anyway it is urgent that we invade his country in order to prevent an imminent disaster. It's so important that even though we're already fighting a costly failing war in Afghanistan, there can be no further delay!

Let's be honest, you'd have to be a complete ninny to swallow that hogwash, still less to still cling to the opinion, after 10 years of post-invasion scandal and bloodshed, that it was all a worthwhile enterprise. C'mon Dave, bring your mammoth critical powers to bear on that humdinger - the conspiracy theory that almost wrecked the US economy and destroyed a Presidency! Dave? Hello Dave? Lampoon those credulous fools for us Dave! Who were they? Name them DAVE!!!
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 25 May 2011
There is some interesting stuff here, but I do have reservations. It is hard to see what links Norman Baker's theory about the death of poor Dr Kelly with the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s - indeed, as others have said, it is hard to see the latter as in any way conspiracy theories of the kind we normally hear about. I'm sceptical about conspiracy theories simply because in real life things go wrong, whereas most of the theories seem to rely on perfect accomplishment (the Holy Grail nonsense being a classic of this kind). The author has a nice phrase somewhere about 'the untidiness of reality'. But at times he seems to be straining at a gnat, and once he starts theorising the book becomes too ponderous for its own good. Indeed some of his targets are really not worth the trouble.

Still, I did enjoy some chapters (e.g. the one about the death of Hilda Murrell, drily told) and so a moderate recommendation is fair.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2011
There are some sections of this book that sit incongruously alongside others. I think it's pretty much accepted that Stalin's show-trials were a set-up to get rid of his enemies but modern conspiracy theories where there is debate still on-going about the causes of 9/11 and the death of David Kelly probably merited a book of their own. That said I think Aaronovitch mainly hits the spot: the Kennedy assassination was physically possible from the Book Depositary window, 9/11 would have required organisation on a massive scale (and the mass extermination of possibly thousands of potential witnesses), and Diana was killed by a drunk driver who by pure bad luck managed to crash the car in such a precise way for it to be fatal. Aaronovitch precisely skewers the theorists themselves: Scholars for 9/11 Truth has just two engineers amongst their membership (one who designs dental equipment, the other who believes the world is controlled by a secret cabal run by the British Royal Family) yet a dozen philosophy professors who feel they qualified to comment on matters of aerodynamics and civil engineering. The group of retired medics who persist in believing that David Kelly was murdered have not a single Pathologist amongst their number (and believe me a Trauma Surgeon or Anaesthetist knows nothing about pathology). Aaronovitch saves most of his ire for Norman Baker MP who persistently claims David Kelly was murdered despite not a shred of evidence to support it. Baker should be hounded from Parliament and be made to apologise to Dr. Kelly's widow who he has persistently accused of complicity in the cover up. Also if any of the above conspiracies had been planned by either MI5, MI6, FBI, CIA,NSA surely we would know via Wikileaks by now?
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2012
I bought Voodoo Histories on the basis of the subtitle "How Conspiracy Theory has shaped modern history". I'm fascinated to learn WHY conspiracy theories are so powerful, the sociological, political and psychological drivers behind them and the consequences to society of their prevalance.

In 340 pages, we get less than 10% on this.

Voodoo Histories is an interesting, case-by-case, attack on many modern conspiracy theories, although Aaronovitch far too often resorts to the "isn't it more likely that..." argument that is as weak as the arguments of the conspiracy theorists.

It would have been much more interesting if the author had read or incorporated Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions,Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts or any of a number of behavioral psychology books.

In short, if you want your conspiracy theories debunked, this is a great book. If you want to understand why they emerge, why they take root in the human/social psyche and why they matter, Voodoo Histories is, unfortunately, disappointing.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2014
In an article in The Times David Aaronovitch admits that he conspired with others to post fake 5 star reviews of his book on Amazon. This is not one of them.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2011
Very readable account of a range of conspiracy theories. The current obsession with conspiracies can be ammusing, but it's at times quite frightening; the pseudo-intellectual backing for 9/11 conspiracy theories, for example, summed up very well by an commentator in The Australian newspaper:

"In this scholarly mirror universe, where truth and fiction are equally interesting so long as they titillate the creative intellect, and where a generalised hostility to Western interests can pass as a proxy for political progressivism, the old hard Left and the new far Right join together in a splendid danse macabre, Black and Red carolling in joyous euphony."

My only complaint is the subtitle: "How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History". That sounds too much like something a conspiracy theorist would say!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 December 2011
Voodoo Histories is an interesting book on conspiracy theories to say the very least. It was quite an eye opener, even for someone who has read quite a bit on conspiracy theories, though I don't believe most of them and have changed my views on a couple of them as a result of reading this. The only thing not convincing is the debunking of JFK assassination conspiracy theories which get nowhere the same amount of spent on them as many of the other theories in the book. Writer David Aaronovitch not only disproves many theories (with nothing more then facts and a good dose of logic which is desperately needed) but show's the dangers of them. He shows how belief in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has fueled anti-Jewish conspiracy theories not only in the past (where it helped cause the rise to power in Germany of the Nazis) but into the present day as well and how some theories seem suited only to a certain time period. For anyone seeking not just a good debunking of many of the outrageous, the not so seemingly outrageous conspiracy theories or a look at what power these theories can have, I heartily recommend Voodoo Histories.
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