Conspiracy theories made up by Martians
Not really, of course – but you d be amazed what some people believe. Bridget Galton speaks to David Aaronovitch (below) whose latest book delves into the world of paranoid delusions IF YOU RE one of those people who think the Kennedys killed Marilyn, t
Not really, of course - but you'd be amazed what some people believe. Bridget Galton speaks to David Aaronovitch (below) whose
latest book delves into the world of paranoid delusions
IF YOU'RE one of those people who think the Kennedys killed Marilyn, the CIA killed the Kennedys, and Prince Philip bumped off Diana, then look away now.
David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories brings scathing rationality and rebuttal to the pseudo-science and amateur revisionism of conspiracy theories.
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He also delves into the psychology behind our paranoid delusions that dark forces control our lives, and explains why conspiracy theories are harmful.
"I was doing something for the BBC in Tunisia and the producer, who was a very bright guy in his early 30s, suddenly started talking about how the moon landings were all faked in a film studio," says the Hampstead-based journalist.
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"I was fascinated that someone so clever could believe something so preposterous and I realised there were a large number of different conspiracy theories, serving different functions but springing from similar psychologies."
Aaronovitch, who has an ongoing interest in "how people choose their beliefs and how their beliefs choose them", set out to explore the truth behind the most prevalent conspiracy theories, why people wished to believe them, and what impact they had - or as he puts it: "Is it just a bit of fun or is there a bigger implication?"
"After one talk about the book, a young woman came up and said being told at 16 that the moon landings hadn't happened had shattered her illusions about life. You could argue that they were a bit precarious in the first place but these things do have an impact."
In one chapter, Aaronovitch deals with the theories surrounding dead celebrities, including the vexed questions of Marilyn Monroe's barbiturate enema and Princess Diana's drunken driver.
"Marilyn, JFK and Diana spring from a common desire to have a higher explanation for the death of our icons. These theories are about the unsatisfactory nature of reality which is messy, arbitrary and unfair. It makes us better to feel that someone planned their murders rather than to think that accidents or mistakes can randomly take people away."
He also investigates the commercial currency of Dan Brown-style "pseudo-history" that led to the BBC broadcasting a purportedly serious historical programme with "fact slapped all over it" about the urban myth of the secret bloodline of Christ.
But he rightly devotes more serious study to two theories he believes have had most impact in distorting the past and the present; stories surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - a hoax 1903 document supposedly describing a plan for world domination by the Jewish people.
"The pseudo-history of Dan Brown doesn't kill anyone but it's an interesting phenomenon, whereas when most of the Pakistani establishment believes George Bush was behind 9/11 it makes dealing with the Taliban an added problem and throughout the Middle East, where conspiracy is preferred to the historical overview, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still widely quoted as factual evidence of a Jewish conspiracy."
Aaronovitch points out there are numerous cases of conspiracy theories following fashion or serving political purposes.
"In the 1980s there were a slew of films like Silkwood and the China Syndrome about some nexus between the American and British states and the nuclear industry," says Aaronovitch.
"In the UK, it went around that anti nuclear protestor Hilda Murrell had not been killed in a botched burglary but in a freelance operation by the intelligence services. Twenty years later new DNA evidence showed a 16-year-old was guilty of the murder."
He adds: "Conspiracy theories aren't new. The witchcraft trials are classic conspiracy theories, there were anti-Catholic ones about the illuminati in the 18th Century, but since the mass communication of the 20th Century they are more widely circulated. In the internet age it takes no time for theories to jump around the world so that one about swine flu being created by the Tamiflu companies to sell their product has developed within a week into it being an Israeli company that Dick Cheney had bought shares in. The problem, as we saw with the MMR scare, is that these things are quick to go around but very slow to rebut."
Aaronovitch accepts these theories offer a pleasure in passing on a piece of gossip as someone "in the know about what really happened". But he thinks they fulfil a deeper need in our secular society to believe in a higher order.
"We increasingly do not believe in God or an overarching intelligence and we want a more ordered universe than the one that really exists. My theory is that men are more likely to see overarching structures which don't exist because they tend to believe it to be more their responsibility to order the external world."
Although Aaronovitch does an excellent job of demolishing most of the supposition that passes as fact, he wearily notes that it will do nothing to convince the conspiracy theorists themselves.
"Conspiracy theories are a watertight belief system that turns rebuttal into further proof of conspiracy.
"They abnormalise the normal and normalise the abnormal so down is up and up down, they presume a situation where everything is planned and nothing happens by accident. Theorists won't believe anything an official body said but they will unsceptically believe anything that criticises officialdom."
o Voodoo Histories is out this month in America and in paperback in the UK in May. David Aaronovitch talks about the book with journalist Francis Wheen at Jewish Book Week on March 2 at 7pm. Bookings and further details can be found at www.jewishbookweek.com or 0844 8472274.