Combining historical anecdote and psychology research, Brotherton endeavors to explain how the human mind concocts conspiracy theories and the effects of these theories on society.
The author is a clear and sober writer, and he describes a host of far-fetched plots in sociological context. He summarizes the origins of the Illuminati, The Protocols of the Wise Elders of Zion, the so-called “Umbrella Man,” and the Bilderberg Group, demonstrating how each phenomenon triggered rumormongering and even mass panic. Brotherton also includes current examples, connecting the “anti-vaxxer” movement and disappearance of Flight 370 to earlier instances of vaccination fears and missing aircraft. Setting aside complex neurology, the author cites simple studies and real-world examples, breezily explaining how the brain takes confusing information and “connects the dots.” He argues that conspiracy theories are the brain’s natural attempt to create order in uncertain times. Some of these conspiracies are harmless or amusing, such as Elvis Presley faking his own death. Others are far more serious and have led to libel, hysteria, and death. By fringe standards, Brotherton is conservative in his assessments of popular theories: he doesn’t seem to believe that the moon landings were faked, that vaccines cause autism, or that shape-shifting lizards control the world. However, the author shows empathy for people who want to believe: “Given what we know about the FBI spying on anyone they think is subversive; military plans to assassinate foreign leaders and innocent civilians; and recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s unprecedented snooping abilities, we can all perhaps be forgiven a little prudent paranoia.” The world of conspiracy theory is a minefield of manic personalities, but Brotherton uses a measured scientific tone to explain our more creative anxieties. His writing style is inviting and even cheeky, and the book is a page-turner.
A thoughtful, general analysis of conspiracy theories arguing that belief in secret plots is neither new nor unusual but a time-tested part of the human experience.