Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories' For almost every major world event — from the Apollo moon landing to Hurricane Katrina — there's a conspiracy theory to undermine the conventional view of the way things took place. Voodoo Histories, a new book by David Aaronovitch, takes aim at some of the most notorious.

Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories'

Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories'

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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

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Nigel Barklie

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.

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