Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories'

David Aaronovitch i i

David Aaronovitch writes a column for The Times newspaper in London. In 2001 he won the George Orwell Prize for political journalism. Nigel Barklie hide caption

itoggle caption Nigel Barklie
David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch writes a column for The Times newspaper in London. In 2001 he won the George Orwell Prize for political journalism.

Nigel Barklie

Five Standout Conspiracy Theories — And How David Aaronovitch Says They Changed History

1. Princess Diana's Death
Shortly after a car accident killed Princess Diana in 1997, rumors began that she was actually assassinated by Britain's secret intelligence services. One of the people who bought into the theory was Mohammed Fayed, whose son also died in the wreck. Books, TV shows and documentaries centered on Princess Diana's death still reel in large audiences — and healthy profits for media outlets.

2. Jesus' Bloodline
If you haven't seen The Da Vinci Code, the conspiracy goes something like this: The Roman Catholic Church doesn't want you to know it, but Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually lovers whose descendants live on today. Dan Brown's mega-best-seller and other books have brought tourists to centuries-old historical sites, such as the French cathedrals that may have been built to honor Mary Magdalene.

3. Sept. 11
Some members of the 9/11 Truth movement claim the United States government was actually responsible for the terrorist attacks. The conspiracy that then-President George W. Bush helped take down the twin towers is also popular outside the United States. In Pakistan, for instance, the belief is so widespread that a large section of Pakistani society takes it as fact.

4. The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion
These texts are often cited as proof that Jewish leaders were planning to take over the world in the early 20th century. The Protocols were at the core of the anti-Jewish fervor that sprang up between the world wars, and the rumors are still alive. Aaronovitch cites an Iranian professor who claimed the movie Meet the Fockers was related, in part, to the Protocols — even though the Protocols have been proven to be a hoax numerous times.

5. The Apollo Moon Landing
Some people still believe that Neil Armstrong's moon walk didn't take place in outer space but on a Hollywood soundstage. A 1999 Gallup Poll found that 6 percent of Americans believed it was staged and 5 percent were undecided. In 2002, the Apollo moon landing conspiracy prompted NASA to grant James Oberg, a Mission Control veteran and well-known space-travel author, $15,000 to work on a book to debunk the faked landing conspiracy. Later in the year NASA pulled the funding, and Oberg has not released a book.

When a co-worker told him that he believed Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon walk actually took place on a Hollywood soundstage, journalist David Aaronovitch was appalled. Aaronovitch had seen the moon landing on TV when he was a kid, and he couldn't believe anyone would think it was a hoax.

"He told me about the photographs that don't make sense, and the stars that aren't there, and the flag flapping in the nonexistent breeze, and so on," Aaronovitch tells Guy Raz.

At the time, Aaronovitch wasn't prepared with evidence to counter his co-worker's claim, but today he is. Aaronovitch spent six years looking into the details behind top conspiracy theories such as the faked Apollo moon landing and has come out with a new book to forensically debunk each of them.

Aaronovitch's rebuttal is called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. In the book, Aaronovitch tackles the intriguing question of why well-educated, reasonable people sometimes believe "perfectly ridiculous things." (Read a list, from Aaronovitch's book, of a few of the common characteristics shared by many conspiracy theories.)

"The notion that a large number of people that believe in conspiracy theories are just wackos just simply doesn't fit," he says.

His personal favorite? Aaronovitch says he always liked the conspiracy that Hitler himself set fire to Berlin's Reichstag building in 1933 so that he would have an excuse to suspend civil liberties in Germany.

Aaronovitch says that while researching the book, he discovered "that the Reichstag was set on fire by the single man who said he did it, said all the way through the trial that he was the only person who did it, and went to his execution saying that he didn't understand why everyone was trying to say it was the Nazis or the Communists."

Aaronovitch points out that this is a classic example of Occam's razor — the simplest explanation was actually true.

Aaronovitch says conspiracy theories are fashionable across the globe. And while the one your neighbor insists upon — that the fluoride in the drinking water is actually a mind-control experiment by the government — might be a harmless variation, some have serious consequences.

"If you are to travel in Pakistan, for instance, you will find that a significant proportion of the educated Pakistanis believe that George Bush brought down the twin towers," says Aaronovitch. "And that makes dealing with the [Pakistani] Taliban difficult because they actually don't believe the fundamental premise on which the war against terror was waged."

The conspiracy that Sept. 11 was an inside job is just one example of a theory that has molded our view of history. In his book, Aaronovitch explores almost a dozen other popular conspiracies, such as the secret Zionist world empire, the assassination of Princess Diana, and the Priory of Scion's mission to safeguard the bloodline of Jesus.

Excerpt: 'Voodoo Histories'

Voodoo Histories
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
By David Aaronovitch
Hardcover, 400 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List price: $26.95

The Ties That Bind

What is evident from these examples is that true conspiracies are either elevated in their significance through exaggeration, or are in reality seemingly dogged by failure and discovery. That Richard Nixon, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, could not even manage to get a few incriminating tapes wiped clean exemplifies most real conspiracies. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are often more successful at achieving their aims. As I researched the dozen major conspiracy theories that form the body of this book, I began to see that they shared certain characteristics that ensured their wide spread propagation.

1. HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

As has already been noted, conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited. These can be as ancient as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and today may include references to Pearl Harbor, the Reichstag fire, and the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident. The plot to murder JFK is first base if you want to convince people that RFK and MLK were also murdered by arms of the American state.

When examining some of the biographies of those involved in the 9/11 Truth movement, I was struck by how this normalization works over time. One energetic woman in her forties, who had become an indefatigable activist in the Californian branch of the lobby, described how she had become convinced of the 9/11 conspiracy. In her youth, she told her sympathizers, she had sailed around the world, but her "political activism" had only begun in 1992, when she saw a film "which disturbed her" and as a consequence of which she began to do her own research on the government and media. The film was Oliver Stone's JFK.

2. SKEPTICS AND SHEEPLE

A conspiracy theory is likely to be politically populist, in that it usually claims to lay bare an action taken by a small power elite against the people. Or, as a Californian professor of theology could tell an audience at the Copenhagen central library with regard to 9/11: "Members of the elite of our society may not think that the truth should be revealed." By contrast, belief in the conspiracy makes you part of a genuinely heroic elite group who can see past the official version duplicated for the benefit of the lazy or inert mass of people by the powers that be. There will usually be an emphasis on the special quality of thought required to appreciate the existence of the conspiracy. The conspiracists have cracked the code, not least because of their possession of an unusual and perceptive way of looking at things. Those who cannot or will not see the truth are variously described as robots or, latterly, as sheeple — citizens who shuffle half awake through their conventional lives.

3. JUST ASKING QUESTIONS

Since 2001, a primary technique employed by more respectable conspiracists has been the advocation of the "It's not a theory" theory. The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth, and the reader is supposedly left to make up his or her mind. The questions asked, of course, only make sense if the questioner really believes that there is indeed a secret conspiracy.

4. EXPERT WITNESSES

The conspiracists draw upon the endorsement of celebrities and "experts" to validate their theories, and yet a constant feature of modern conspiracy theories is the exaggeration of the status of experts. The former UK environment minister Michael Meacher, a leading "disturbing question" figure on the edges of the 9/11 Truth movement, was never a member of the British Cabinet, but in a radio interview on the U.S. syndicated Alex Jones Show was referred to as the "former number three in the Blair government." The theologist academic David Ray Griffin, perhaps the most respected of all the 9/11 conspiracists, feels able to lay claim to a large and rapidly acquired capacity to evaluate arguments made in the areas of physics, aerodynamics, and engineering. How dubious this claim is may be gauged by imagining his reaction were, say, the editor of the science journal Popular Mechanics to claim competence to comment upon Griffin's own work of theological scholarship, A Critique of John K. Roth's Theodicy.

If necessary, theorists become interestingly opaque about the qualifications of their experts. One of the two films made about the London bombings of July 7, 2005, included evidence from a Nick Kollerstrom, who was billed as a "lecturer and researcher." But a lecturer on what, and a researcher in which fields? Kollerstrom, it turned out, lectured on the effect of planetary motions on alchemy, and was the author of a book on crop circles. Another aspect of this fudging is the tendency among conspiracists to quote each other so as to suggest a wide spread of expertise lending support to the argument. Thus, over the events of 9/11, the French conspiracy author Thierry Meyssan cites American conspiracy author Webster Tarpley; Tarpley cites David Ray Griffin; and David Ray Griffin cites Thierry Meyssan. It is a rather charming form of solidarity.

5 . ACADEMIC CREDIBILITY

The conspiracists work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship. The approach has been described as death by footnote. Accompanying the exposition of the theory is a dense mass of detailed and often undifferentiated information, but laid out as an academic text. Often the theory is also supported by quotations from non-conspiracist sources that almost invariably turn out to be misleading and selective. To give one characteristic example, David Ray Griffin's book about 9/11, The New Pearl Harbor, describes Thierry Meyssan as the head of an organization "which the Guardian in April 2002 described as 'a respected independent thinktank whose left-leaning research projects have until now been considered models of reasonableness and objectivity.'" This is a masterpiece in disingenuousness, given the full Guardian quote: "The French media has been quick to dismiss [Meyssan's] book's claims, despite the fact that Mr. Meyssan is president of the Voltaire Network, a respected independent thinktank whose left-leaning research projects have until now been considered models of reasonableness and objectivity. 'This theory suits everyone — there are no Islamic extremists and everyone is happy. It eliminates reality,' said Le Nouvel Observateur, while Liberation called the book 'The Frightening Confidence Trick . . . a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation.' " Not the same thing at all.

Another example of this misuse of the mainstream media is the ascription of final, almost biblical authority to immediate and necessarily provisional news reports of an incident if they happen to demonstrate the inconsistencies that the conspiracists are seeking. Reporters in the West usually do the best they can in frightening and confused circumstances, but early explanations of major disasters will contain much that turns out to be mistaken or speculative. Similarly, the passing opinions of journalists are given the status of indisputable truth. In The New Pearl Harbor, Griffin questions the survival of evidence from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, using an article in the Guardian as support: "As a story in the Guardian said, 'the idea that [this] passport had escaped from that inferno unsinged would [test] the credulity of the staunchest supporter of the FBI's crackdown on terrorism.' " In fact, this was not a report but the passing opinion of a columnist, Anne Karpf, who had no more knowledge about what might or might not have emerged from the Twin Towers than had any other columnist in north London.

A final polish is given to the conspiracists' illusion of authority by the use of what is imagined to be secret service or technical jargon, as though the authors had been in recent communication with spies or scientists. Interesting words and phrases include "psyops" (short for "psychological operations"), "false flag," and more recently "wet disposal," meaning assassination.

6. CONVENIENT INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

Conspiracists are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself. So, embarrassing and obvious problems in the theory may be ascribed to deliberate disinformation originating with the imagined plotters designed to throw activists off the scent. One believer in a conspiracy to assassinate the Princess of Wales claimed that it was the very proliferation of absurd theories concerning Diana that first convinced her that this was MI6 at work seeking to cover up its real role in the killing. Few, however, match the schoolboy ingenuity of Korey Rowe, the producer of Loose Change, a highly popular documentary about 9/11, who, when challenged about the glaring factual mistakes in his film, replied, "We know there are errors in the documentary, and we've actually left them in there so that people discredit us and do the research for themselves."

7. UNDER SURVEILLANCE

Conspiracists are inclined to suggest that those involved in spreading the theory are, even in the "safest" of countries, somehow endangered. During a February 2007 BBC program looking into the death of Dr. David Kelly, the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who had been contesting the verdict of suicide on the former weapons inspector, referred to his suspicions that his e-mails were being intercepted by persons unknown. Some e-mails sent to him, he told his interviewer, had been only partly received by his computer, and he thought this most ominous. Similarly, one of the physicians who began the Kelly conspiracy story by writing a letter to the Guardian disputing the forensic evidence — retired West Country orthopedic surgeon David Halpin — worried that his e-mails were being interfered with. In March 2005, Mr. Halpin sent this letter to the Morning Star newspaper:

Dear Sir,

The firewall on my computer became inactive five weeks ago. Therefore I opened the email system for very brief periods only. However, in those few days every one of my 6000 plus email files was erased or removed. This will have been done by a state sponsored agency and not by an amateur acting singly.

Who might wish to cause me great difficulty? I speak and act firmly for justice in Palestine and against an occupation of indescribable brutality. I have asked, with other specialists, for the law to be upheld in the case of the late Dr. David Kelly; that there should be a full inquest and not the half one that has taken place. I have spoken, marched and written to stop the war crimes committed against Afghans and Iraqis by our government and its odious leader.

So which agency is the most likely culprit? Only one other associate has lost a mass of email files and that is the lay chairperson of our "Kelly Investigation Group" — last Autumn. I have made a formal complaint to my MP and also about delayed email transmission. My right to privacy, association and free speech are ostensibly inviolate in this country — pro tempore.

Yours faithfully David S. Halpin,

MB BS FRCS

From Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch. Copyright 2010 by David Aaronovitch. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

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