Creating Patterns out of Chaos: a review of Voodoo Histories

We’re pattern seekers. We want there to be order in the world. We humans want order so much that we’ll see an organizing force where, in reality, there is none. That was how I explained “Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History” to a friend of mine when I was half-way through it. But, even knowing that, I’m not immune from the seductive draw of the conspiracy. In fact, I love a good conspiracy. Conspiracies, as David Aaronovitch points out, make it all fit. Where we’re overwhelmed with sadness or loss when a president or princess is killed, we seek, perversely, some sort of comfort in the idea that they had it all planned out — that there was a bigger purpose behind it all instead of a lone gunman or a drunk driver who could cause the world so much harm. Aaronovitch starts Voodoo Histories by explaining that the application of Occam’s Razor to every conspiracy theory he writes about will show that there is some far simpler explanation for what happened than a hidden, all-powerful hand. And he succeeds, showing us that a skeptical approach to the larger conspiracy theories, such as JFK’s assassination, Dan Brown‘s novels, the Truthers on the left, or the Birthers on the right, reveals that a more mundane, simpler explanation of the facts is better at explaining what happened. And just in case these conspiracy theories are too close to your heart, this British writer produces a couple of British MPs who’ve championed theories saying “someone” had murdered people and then covered it up. Watching his dissection of these and other conspiracy theories I hadn’t heard of showed how much in common all these conspiracy theories have with each other. And, in the end, it makes it easier to accept that, maybe, just maybe, my pet conspiracy theory is just benign happenstance rather than a very successful plot. History may be written by the winners, but in the final chapter Aaronovitch makes a good case that conspiracy theories are the attempts of the losers write history. “We didn’t win,” they seem to be saying, “because the winners are so devious, conniving, and powerful. They’ll do anything to win.” So we’re comforted that if we didn’t persuade people that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were really nefarious individuals, at least we kept our morals, at least we were ethical. They were successful because they managed to deceive the sheeple.

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