Voodoo Histories

Voodoo HistoriesOne of the things that makes us human is the need to create order out of chaos, to seek patterns and shapes where there are none and rational explanations for the inexplicable.

It’s why we are able to make out familiar shapes in the clouds or religious icons in the mundane, like pieces of toast, and also why we are innately superstitious, repeating actions we believe to be lucky and avoiding those that ‘experience’ tells us always lead to ‘bad things’ happening.

You could argue that this natural urge to find reasons for the reasonless was the bedrock for the development of religion. If the earth quaked or crops failed or armies were routed, then perhaps the ‘reason’ was an invisible deity expressing his or her displeasure.

Dan Gardner in his book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, talked about how such early thought processes affect us still. We have our  modern sophisticated mind that can rationalise and analyse, but it is all too easily overridden by our older, superstitious thinking that relies upon fear and irrational intuition.

I wonder if this is also why we fall prey so easily to conspiracy theories? Recently we saw Wendi Deng leap to defend her husband from the mad foam pie man and soon after there were those who saw this as an organised conspiracy to take the spotlight off Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to parliament.

Timely then that I have been re-reading Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History by David Aaronovitch that looks at the worldwide explosion of  conspiracy theories over the last hundred years and why otherwise rational people are so eager to believe in the most unlikely explanation of events.

From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion through to Pearl Harbour, political assassinations, the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Diana, 9/11,  the ‘black-ops murders’ of David Kelly and Hilda Murrell, The Da Vinci Code and whether Obama is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya. All are covered by Aaronovitch and while he debunks the theories, his central question is: why are we so ready to believe?

And why are we selective in the conspiracies we subscribe to? Florida law professor, Mark Fenster compared the many conspiracy theories about the Clinton and Bush administrations and while he dismissed them all as wild and fanciful, he reflected that the Bush accusations seemed ‘more grounded in logic and fact than those about Clinton’.

As Aaronovitch observes: ‘It is difficult to see why the idea that Bush should have connived at the 9/11 attacks is more grounded in logic than the notion that Bill Clinton used murder to cover up a series of financial scandals.’

Personally I enjoy a good conspiracy in works of fiction, but like to think that I’m rational enough to see through those found in real life. And I found that easy to do as Aaronovitch examines the conspiracies of yesteryear, but there was a nagging doubt of, “Ah yes, but what if…” even as he debunks those of a more recent vintage.

Having read the book twice, I thoroughly recommend it and if there is a moral to the tale, it is surely: Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • rhymeswithplague 4th August 2011

    The favorite voodoo factoid here in the U.S. for years and years was that there was a well-guarded room in Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, where a single light bulb was always on, the conspiracy being that in that room was none other than a very much alive President John F. Kennedy. As he would now be 94 years old, I think we can put that one to rest.

    Reply
  • john g 4th August 2011

    Julia Hartley Brewer said an interesting thing about conspiracy theories

    2believe me there are more fuck ups than stitch ups”

    Reply
  • Mr Parrot 4th August 2011

    Thanks RWP. I hadn’t heard that one!

    I agree with John. If we think government is incompetent on the whole, how do they suddenly become criminal masterminds?

    Reply
  • Roger Green 9th August 2011

    I suppose conspiracy theories thrive because, occasionally, they are true, such as when black people in the South in the 1930s were injected with syphillis and the like. And on 11 Sept 2001, why DID building 7 collapse hours later?

    Reply
  • Mr Parrot 9th August 2011

    I don’t doubt that conspiracies have happened, but the issue here is ‘conspracy theory’, an alternative version events that denies the obvious and looks for hidden motives.

    To accept the conspiracy theory explanation for WT7, you have to buy into all the others — a government that would murder its own citizens, planting enough explosives in the Twin Towers to bring them down and WT7 some time later etc. All very tricky from an engineering perspective since the explosives would have to be sufficiently inert not to be triggered by the impact or thousands of gallons of burning aviation fuel and especially as there was no precedent for a civil aircraft crashing into a 1,ooo-foot skyscraper!

    Occram’s Razor principle here I think.

    Reply

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