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Sunday 27 February 2011

Debunked! (Book Review)

Richard RoeperImage by rexb via Flickr

Pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and superstition hits the general public at many different levels. However, despite a growing amount of excellent books used to argue the case for rationalism, logic and freethinking, they are easily outnumbered in the populist section of any bookstore or newsagent. So although the Michael Shermers, James Randis and David Aaronovitches of this world might be just about holding their own with middlebrow readerships and above, it is unlikely that your average reader of “Nuts” or “Heat” is going to be interested in their work. Even “Counterknowledge” by Damien Thompson and “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” by Francis Wheen seems more like short intellectual distraction than books intended for a typical undemanding readership. It is here where Richard Roeper truly triumphs with “Debunked”.

Roeper’s book is not concerned with the history of popular beliefs or the psychology behind why people believe nonsense. He isn’t really interested into recruiting you to the sceptical cause either. You won’t find much about Ockham’s Razor, logical fallacy arguments, explanations of the scientific process or psychological insights into confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and blind spots either. And it is unlikely you will find Roeper banging his drum in the company of the New Atheists either – he’s a moderate Christian, like Damien Thompson, and therefore takes what statistically might be considered the middle and more popular stance. This doesn’t mean he takes a softly, softly approach; far from it. He gives the preposterous claims that regularly infect our email inboxes, documentary cable or satellite channel listings, newspaper stands, movie-viewings and social get-togethers all the unvarnished contempt they deserve.

For example, his chapter on the wildly disparate 9/11 terrorist attack conspiracy theories, after tearing apart all the popular “theories” put forward, including a thorough debunking of the internet documentary “Loose Change”, Roeper provides a conversational list of frequently made claims. They balance humour with simple substantiated fact, often exposing the absurdity of the claim. For example:

“CT [Conspiracy Theorist]: The holes in the Pentagon aren’t big enough to accommodate the wingspan of a Boeing 757.
RR (Richard Roeper]: As experts have pointed out, this wasn’t a Road Runner cartoon. A plane crashing into a reinforced building like the Pentagon isn’t going to leave a friggin’ silhouette. The truth: neither wing reached the building. Both were impacted and damaged before the bulk of the plane hit the Pentagon. The left wing ripped off and smashed when it hit the ground, and the right wing – being made of material not as resistant as the Pentagon – shattered on impact.”

 “Debunked!” is best looked upon as a straight forward fact-filled resource book that gives you the quick reasons why and how 9/11 wasn’t an inside job, Pop Idol isn’t rigged, the Clintons do not have an assassination hit list and there is no proof that people can communicate with the dead.

The book is divided up into nine sections and reads much like your regular pulp non-fiction work, although Roeper is clearly above just about all authors that fall into this category in that he is clearly not a hack who has been employed to cover a sensationalist topic. He is clearly very entertained and intrigued by pop phenomena and urban legends – his two prior works are “Urban Legends” and “Hollywood Urban Legends”. His writing style is very light and intentionally crude at times, occasionally using bad language for humorous effect in much the same way as you will see in regular media guides and populist magazines.

The theme of the book is dominated by conspiracy theories and supposed evil plots, which is why I bought it. Being a sceptic and a fan of history, I have noticed that there isn’t enough material available to counter this infectious rubbish that seems to be replacing supernatural beliefs among credulous friends and pseudo-academics. There are more books being written to expose New Age quackery and silly ideas about astronomy, as well topics that fall within the realm of science, but very little on the stuff that distorts history and feeds potentially dangerous paranoia. We need more books like Roeper’s to be vying for attention in discount book stores and supermarkets against the usual drivel being pumped out there.

The conspiracy theories aren’t all the obvious ones. For example, rather going after the 1963 JFK assassination conspiracy theories, he goes after the remarkably even more absurd JFK Jnr conspiracy theory of 1999. At least all the 1963 “buffs” get half of the story right – he was assassinated. With JFK Jnr it’s like Diana Part 2! He also looks into conspiracy theories that have become so much a part of cultural thinking that we often consider them in the same light as specific supposed governmental plots. These include the long-held claims regarding sports fixing and the truth behind the way casinos are set up. They also include conservative Christian conspiracy theories that argue Christmas is being purposefully taken away by the heathens and political beliefs that there is a global left-wing conspiracy plot. 

There are other irrational topics covered aside from conspiracy theories and evil plots, such as the infamous self-help book “The Secret” and a short section on “Miracles”. As enjoyable as these chapters are, they often seem a bit out of the place with the theme of the book. There are links in that they are all illogical and irrational ideas, but they are motivated by a different type of credulity.

The final section of the book contains a fun chapter, which could only work in this format, on conspiracy theories in film. Roeper lists the best, the worst and a three “Guilty Pleasures”. I am happy to see that Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and the 2006 reimagining of “The Wicker Man” made it on the worst list!

In conclusion, “Debunked!” is a fun easy reference book, full of scientific facts and simple rational arguments that will hopefully steer level-headed individuals who aren’t heavily into scepticism make reasoned based judgments on bizarre claims and crazy ideas.  

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