GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
If you believe 9/11 was an inside job, or that Neil Armstrong's moon walk actually took place on a Hollywood set, or that a bunch of Jewish elders gathered in Europe at the end of the 19th century to plot the takeover of the world, well, this next story's for you. Because if you do, David Aaronovitch, a columnist for the Times of London, thinks you're, at best, deluded and, at worst, dangerous.
He spent six years looking into the details behind some of the best-known conspiracy theories and he set out to debunk all of them. The result is a book called "Voodoo Histories." And David Aaronovitch says he got the idea while working on a BBC program in Tunisia.
Mr. DAVID AARONOVITCH (Author, "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History"): I had a very, very good young producer/director with me, a guy in his early 30s, very sensible. And we were having to drive down from Tunis to an amphitheater. And on the drive, he just turned around to me and said, I've prepared nothing really. You know the moon landings? And I said, yes, I'd seen them as a kid on television. He said, well, you didn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AARONOVITCH: I said, what do you mean I didn't? He said, well, didn't happen.
And he then told me the thing, which everybody gets told, you know, about the photographs that don't make any sense, and the stars that aren't there, and the flag flapping in the nonexistent breeze, and so on - all of which was conclusive evidence, he said, that this moon landing hadn't taken place.
RAZ: And this was an otherwise reasonable guy. I mean, he wasn't sort of a wacko. He wasn't out there.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Absolutely not a wacko at all. And the notion that a large number of people who believe in conspiracy theories are just wackos, I think, just simply doesn't fit. I mean, really what this book is about is why perfectly intelligent people can believe perfectly ridiculous things.
RAZ: Let me ask you about the famous document known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This is supposedly is of a meeting of Jewish bankers and other powerful figures in Europe at the end of the 19th century. They're planning to take over the world. People believe this then. And in many parts of the world, people still do, right?
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Absolutely. I mean, we now kind of would regard such a theory, I think most of us, as being utterly ludicrous. But in 1920, my own newspaper, the Times of London - I mean, and what more prestigious paper could you get? At least it wasn't till I worked for it - had an editorial, which said look at this pamphlet. It raises these incredibly disturbing questions and then said about the First World War, have we fallen out of the pasture escape to pasture moniker? In other words, it was the prospect of a German victory - only to find ourselves in a Pax Judaica.
Now, it's about a year later that the Times redeems itself a bit because its correspondent in Constantinople that discovers that the original book for the Protocols is, in fact, a French book from the 1860s. And this has just been lifted, key passages taken out, the words Jews - you know, we Jews and this is what we're going to do - put in and then circulated around Europe in the period after the First World War. And we know the consequences that that lead to in terms of it being so widely believed, particularly in Germany.
And as you quite correctly say, the Protocols are still now widely cited in the Middle East.
RAZ: And you describe how in some of your travels in the Middle East, you see it all over the place in bookstores and book shops, and it's just sort of regarded as a normal historical document.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Totally normal, and it has had a parallel with 9/11 theory. If you were to travel in Pakistan, for instance, you will find that the significant proportion of the educated Pakistanis, including the military class, believe fundamentally that George Bush brought down the Twin Towers; that it was an inside job.
And that makes dealing with, let's say, the Pakistani Taliban quite difficult for them because they actually fundamentally don't believe the premise upon which the battle against terror was waged. And quite often, what they will cite in these circumstances in support of their theories - journalists, academics and others - are theories that have been come up within America, in Europe and so on, and they cite them as authority.
RAZ: And I want to ask you about that, because the former Malaysian leader, Mahathir Mohamad, recently said this publicly that 9/11 was carried out by Zionist elements and so on. There are many people in this country, in the United States, who believe that 9/11 was an inside job. How did you go about debunking those claims?
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Mahathir Mohamad incidentally also said that one of the key signs that it could be done was the making of the movie "Avatar," if you remember.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: In other words, if you're clever enough to make the movie "Avatar," then you were clever enough to do 9/11.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: And he also effectively said something really kind of rather insulting, which he said the Arabs in a sense weren't well-organized enough to do something like that.
The thing about dealing with conspiracy theories is you can't just assume right from the beginning that any conspiracy theory is automatically wrong because it seems to violate common sense. I mean, you're absolutely right. You have to go back to first principles and say, what is the evidence for this?
RAZ: David Aaronovitch, I'm wondering if the belief in conspiracies today have real world consequences. I mean, why should we take them seriously?
Mr. AARONOVITCH: I talk about quite a lot of conspiracy theories in the book and some of them are actually not that damaging. It's really not so terrible if people look at the front of "The Da Vinci Code" where Dan Brown tells you that the Priory of the Sion is real, which of course it isn't. It was invented in 1956.
Nobody's going to die as a result of that. Although I gather it has been fairly irritating for people in some French cathedrals and so on as a consequence of tourists coming up and asking them about it.
But when you get something like the 9/11 story, the protocols, or its latter version, which is that the Zionists or a kind of super version of the Jewish lobby is continuously operating. These things actually do have real world consequences. I mean, it allows the people who are - who may have bear some responsibility for some of these events to evade that responsibility by suggesting that it's conspiracy.
Look, for instance, of the way in which the Iranian government deployed the notion that it was the British and the Americans behind their demonstrations. Now, this just in the last couple of weeks, they have begun executing people who were involved in the demonstrations in Tehran. And one of the elements that allows them to do that is this if you like this conspiracy theory element.
RAZ: Before I let you go, I have a question for you. Aren't are you part of the conspiracy, you know, given that you work for the establishment media?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AARONOVITCH: I've had this said to me on a number of occasions. Like after a discussion in London about the book, this guy came up to me afterwards, one of the 9/11 truth people. He looked me in the eyes and he said, why are you doing this?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AARONOVITCH: I had to say, look, you know, I've done the work on this. This is what I think to be true. But of course, it's exactly what a lot of people in the conspiracy movements are going to say is he's just one of them. I mean, look at his name.
RAZ: David Aaronovitch is a journalist and author. His new book is called "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History."
David Aaronovitch, thank you so much.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Thank you.
RAZ: And you can find more conspiracy theories and David Aaronovitch's list of the characteristics that help them spread. That's in our Web site, npr.org.