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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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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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VINE VOICETOP 50 REVIEWERon 23 October 2011
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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on 6 August 2016
A very inteelligent study of some of the most fascinating theories of all time - includes those that have gained mythical status alongside the more obscure but just as fascinationg lesser known conspiracy beliefs
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on 19 November 2013
It is a nice simple little book which neatly puts all those nasty conspiracies to bed. So basically no conspiracy ever existed. Phew thanks Aaron I can go back to sleep now. But hold on a minute is it that straightforward? I am curious now. I thought a conspiracy was two or more people working together to get some kind of gain from someone else's demise. Well if that is the case then conspiracy definitely goes on in my family, at school and at work but I guess nobody in history has ever made use of conspiracy for political gain.

My advise to anybody would be to seek your own truths regarding conspiracies. Look for who gains politically from someone else's demise and you will be close to the truth. This means carefully studying events leading up to and post the event rather than simply looking at the event itself. For me this book is too simplistic and knocks down the conspiracies with straw man arguments.

I have given three stars so that people would read this review rather than dismiss it. In reality it is not a serious analysis of conspiracy unless of course your world view is constrained by the BBC.
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on 30 December 2009
Conspiracy theories are generally associated in the public mind with individuals. For example, the theory that the death of President Kennedy was not due to a gunman working alone or that of Princess Diana was not caused by a drunken chauffeur but were the results of organised Mafia/Communist/Royalist / establishment premeditated conspiracies.

But Aaronovitch goes way beyond the high profile individual conspiracies to look at the major impact of conspiracy theories on world history.

In 1897 "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion" were popularised, purporting to report on the secret conspiracy hatched by world Jewish leading financiers, politicians, businessmen and academics to organise for Jewish world domination. The Protocols gained credence - they were serialised in the British reputable press, Henry Ford in the USA gave great coverage in his own newspaper and Hitler wrote about the Protocols in Mein Kampf. Although by the 1920's the Protocols were exposed as being fictitious, the conspiracy theory of Jewish world domination remained in the public psyche and was part of the rationale that led to the Nazi death camps.

Again with Stalin's show trials in the 1930's of supposed conspirators against the Soviet state. Today it seems incredible that, by and large, the western diplomatic and intelligence services swallowed hook, line and sinker the guilt of the conspirators. At the time these conspiracy theories were widely believed, with the resulting massive effect on millions of soviet people.

Aaronovitch weaves together the conspiracy theory that Pearl harbour was allowed to happen by President Roosevelt to allow him to bring the USA into the War, with the development of McCarthy's witchhunts by the America First diehards in the 1950's. McCarthy's conspiracy theories had a major impact on US thinking subsequently.

Other examples follow - one of the most entertaining, but least historically influential, was the Da Vinci Code and the Holy Blood and Holy Grail that preceded it. But did these works of fiction really cause tremors in the Catholic Church?

Throughout the book, Aaronovitch debunks conspiracy theorist's selective use of fact and rejection of inconvenient evidence. But what drives so many to construct conspiracy theories? Aaronovitch attributes a certain amount to the experience of disenfranchisement "history for loosers". But he maintains, conspiracy, at bottom, is a symptom of paranoia. We need to create a story in the absence of information and it can be reassuring to suggest that human agencies are powerful and there is logical order rather than chaos.

A new look at history sometimes too complicated to be easy reading but well researched and interesting.
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on 6 March 2011
This book challenges many of the conspiracies that pervade modern life. Aaronovitch dismantles the various conspiracies to show that the more logical explanation is the likeliest. He highlights some of these conspiracies can lead to terrible evils being committed. I would agree with the other reviews that one needs a knowledge of some of the periods covered in the book before reading them such as the chapter on Soviet show trials. If you know someone who believes the Da Vinci code is real or that Diana was murdered, buy them this book and challenge their views.
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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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on 10 January 2014
First of all, this book is really easy to read. It is quite a tome in hardback (the format which I read it in) and the title gives it the polished air of an academic study (which it is in part) but its also highly amusing as Aaronovitch does get quite cross in places and you can see him in your minds eye, waving his arms about in frustration!!

It was really very interesting as a lot of the conspiracies written about I had never heard of. Even so, they are explained well enough and in good detail so that anyone wishing to learn about Russian politics or the myths surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe can do so quite easily.

I have seen some of the referred to online theories about 9/11 so it was interesting to see another take and I suppose, an unraveling of what has been put out online. Aaronovitch has researched hard for this book and I feel has covered all the bases when he is discrediting the theories of the present and those of the past.

It was interesting to see that one particular theory (which actually came from a very unlikely source) became the basis of the hatred of the Jews and is cited as being fact and lead to a number of world crises.

Its very difficult to review this book without spoiling it but I would say that its a really good read for anyone interested in 'what really happened', to have the theories, however plausible, looked at in depth and debunked.

Again, I read this book for fun (not for research, but I would recommend it for research purposes as there is an extensive bibliography and footnotes for the student to be able to find out more) and spent many an evening laughing at Aaronovitch's exasperation and at times very blunt telling's off! It worth a look just for that!

I borrowed this from my local library and enjoyed it so much I was reluctant to return it. I will buy a copy at some point and read it again ( I read it about a month ago and therefore have forgotten things) because it not only is a good read in itself but is also a very good tool for pointing out to friends the real facts. Highly recommended.
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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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