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on 16 April 2017
Great book, very entertaining.
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on 9 August 2017
Arrived as described
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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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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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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 original UK version of Aaronovitch's book, which includes the conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of Dr. David Kelly and Hilda Morrell, doesn't disappoint - though it might have had more bite. 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 attended 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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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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on 16 December 2014
The only book I've ever read which places conspiracy theories (in democracies) firmly in the looney tunes box. Superby researched and pointing the finger accurately at the paranoid, the sad, the lonely, the corrupt and the plain barmy, this is the book to put organised conspiracy in its proper place.
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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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on 18 November 2009
Well clearly Aaronovitch's book already has a number of conspiracy theorists slathering at the mouth at the debunking of a number of their sacred cows. I guess it's just further evidence to them that the world's media is run by giant lizards from Zarg bent on galactic domination via the printed word. Anyways, let's be grateful for a well researched and readable work which carefully dismantles a number of well know conspiracy theories (Diana, 9/11, JFK) and lesser known ones (e.g. Hilda Murrell). It also usefully provides thoughts on how these theories come about, both in general and in their specific context and what drives people to believe in them despite all the evidence and even post revelation (e.g. Priory of Sion).

So why only three stars?

Well mainly because he carefully selects targets that whilst well known, can also be easily dismantled - a quick check on Wikipedia would probably do enough for the average individual to throw these theories in the bin. So a book on these alone just isn't enough to my mind. A key thing here should be, to my mind, the extent to which governments and companies conspire in far less serious ways and therefore give credence to the possibility of these theories. As such, he doesn't touch on the many day to day collusions, frauds and deceits that governments and companies carry out all the time. These clearly range from the very minor (e. recent Parliamentary expenses), through the domestic (e.g. wire-tapping of political opponents like Scargill), to the international (e.g. French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior) and to the global (e.g. US support for Suharto in the 1960s). Whilst these are very different to traditional conspiracy theories, surely they form part of the broader spectrum, especially in terms of giving a reason to believe - "Well if they can blow up peace protestors' boats then surely they might bump off a peace activist". What makes a conspiracy theory a conspiracy theory? When do little collusions become big ones? How far would a government go to protect its interests?

Dismantling the big theories is easy. Understanding the detail is harder.
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on 16 September 2010
We all love a great conspiracy, and I was prompted to buy this book when its author appeared on a 9/11 conspiracy debunk on TV in 2010. We all know that every story has two sides and this helps to look at conspiracy from the other side if you like. You will still be left none the wiser, but at least a little better informed. It is good to be well read and this book will assist in your arguements down in the pub, when you talk about did we land on the moon, was Princess Di killed by Prince Philip and all the rest... you'll probably enjoy it.
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