Category Archives: Scepticism

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

I was at the library yesterday and picked up this marvellous book, which was especially good timing in light of the decision today by the Attorney-General not to order an inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly.

Aaronovitch, whose work I have always liked since his Independent days, has written a marvellous book, seeking to debunk some of the most prevalent conspiracy theories and, more importantly, understand why people seem attracted to them and the dangers this can pose for society.

He travels from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that infamous forgery, by way of the Stalinist Show Trials of the 1930’s to the USA of the 40’s and 50’s, with the America Firsters, the “Roosevelt knew about Pearl HArbor”-ers and the McCarthyites.

The deaths of JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana fall under his microscope.

The cases of Hilda Murrell and the Belgrano are followed by the “Da Vinci Code” type nonsense, before he finishes with the 9/11 Truthers and the Iraq/WMD/Dr Kelly “conspiracies”.

If a new edition comes out, then perhaps the theory that President Obama was not actually born in the US, despite all the evidence, might get a mention too.

Aaronovitch manages to make many wise points about the middle class love for these theories in an in and funny way, whilst never letting the reader remain aware of the huge risks that propagation of these ideas can bring.

“Never let the evidence get in the way of an opinion” could be a sub-title for the book, though I appreciate it is not a very snappy one!

When the news broke today that the Attorney General was not ordering further inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death, I tweeted Mr Aaronovitch to ask if he was running a sweepstake on how long it would take for there to be demands for a judicial Review of Mr Grieve’s decision. His reply “By now, I should think”.

Turning immediately to Google, I typed in “judicial review David Kelly Dominic Grieve”. To my complete non-astonishment Mr Aaronovitch was right – a link to a Daily Mail piece condemning the decision and calling for further process. Indeed the article referred to one of the doctors agitating for an inquest complaining that “four successive governments” were now party to the conspiracy. As was tweeted to me, were  these “Blair, Brown, Cameron and King Zarg of the secret lizard dictatorship”?

In the same way that I believe that the Daily Mail is in fact a satirical publication, like “The Onion”, I cannot help but to think that some of the conspiracy theorists must in fact be conducting a thought experiment to follow this book and see how far they can go.

As Aaronovitch makes clear, conspiracy theories have existed since long before the Internet, but clearly the fact that “a lie can be halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on” to quote Terry Pratchett makes them more likely to propagate . It is easier than ever for “like-minded” individuals to be in contact and to have their ideas feed off each other.

interestingly, even where, as with the Priory of Sion, or the Protocols, there is an admission or proof that the whole thing is a fake, forgery or contrivance, there remain adherents who take the “admission” of fakery by the creator of the idea as in fact more proof of its existence.

Thank you Mr Aaronovitch for an excellent, thought provoking and timely book.

I am now inspired to re-read “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” by Francis Wheen and the marvellously titled “Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail” by Christopher Dawes.

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