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Debunking Conspiracy Theories In 'Voodoo Histories'

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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