Like Michael Shermer in Why People Believe Weird Things (1997), or Damian Thompson in Counterknowledge (2008), Aaronovitch tackles the intriguing question of why people accept as factual things that are patently (and provably) untrue. Most of the popular conspiracy theories are here: 9/11 as an inside job; the faked moon landings; the secret Zionist world empire; the Priory of Scion’s mission to safeguard the bloodline of Jesus; the murder of Vince Foster; the noncitizenship of Barack Obama. Aaronovitch demonstrates where the theories go off the rails (the Priory of Scion was a hoax concocted in the mid-1950s, for instance), and he examines the reasons why elaborate conspiracy theories, despite being so implausibly complex, capture the imaginations of so many people. It’s due to a mixture of credulity, a lack of critical reasoning, a need for an underlying explanation for the inexplicable, and—perhaps most important—an inability to distinguish between the possible and the wildly implausible (for example, which is more likely: that astronauts actually went to the moon, or that thousands of people, including the astronauts themselves, perpetrated, and are still perpetrating, a mammoth hoax?). The author also examines the role the Internet now plays in disseminating, and lending apparent validity to, crackpot theories. The book is an evenhanded, lively, and fascinating look not just at the people who believe these theories but also at the people who promote them: the evidence manipulators, the liars, the con artists, and the almost pathetically gullible and uninformed.
This review originally appeared in Booklist, February 2010.