Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: Debunked! Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century by Richard Roeper

Book Review: Debunked! Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century by Richard Roeper

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The 21st century has already graced us with tons and tons of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and myths. We have the internet to thank in large part for at least the distribution end of these falsehoods, but then we also have Snopes.com, which tries to nip those theories and what-not in the bud. This book, from columnist and movie critic Richard Roeper, covers many such cases very quickly with just a little bit of liberal politics, humor, and film criticism to diversify the product from others.

Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century covers roughly 30 different conspiracies in 236 pages, which makes it rather breezy for non-fiction. The 9/11 chapter is the first largest at 17 pages, which isn't really enough to put the subject to rest, exactly. This makes for a casual, quick, and very entertaining pace of reading, but some of the more convoluted conspiracy theories aren't given enough space to be thoroughly debunked, however that can be quantified. The book works well as it is formatted, but it should be made clear that Roeper dismisses a few things too casually in order to keep the book's pacing on track (The liberal media conspiracy chapter is one page of text, mostly just a list of famous conservative media personalities. Surely you can say more than that on the subject.)

The subject chapters range entirely from too easy, crazy stuff like grilled cheese Virgin Mary, to matters so difficult to judge that they are beyond the scope of a book this size, like the Bird Flu. There's not a whole lot to say about the Virgin Mary sightings besides "Wow, I can't believe someone is worshipping an oil stain" and "Why on Earth would God send us a symbol like that, anyway?" There's not a whole lot to debunk, really, as there isn't really an applicable science to miracles. In the case of the Bird Flu, the chapter focuses on Donald Rumsfeld's financial interest in Tamiflu, which was marketed as a potential solution to the Bird Flu that turned out to be overblown. Did Rumsfeld want to profit from scaring us over Bird Flu? The book's conclusion: Well, probably not, I mean he's already really rich, and he probably isn't that cynical and awful. So, it wasn't really that helpful of a chapter.

Likely the most useful thing you can learn from Debunked! is the common strains between conspiracy theories, which become apparent quickly. In many cases, something bad happens. Then, somebody theorizes that, instead of an accident or a minor but obvious conspiracy, we have all been fooled by a much larger conspiracy. The conspiracy tends to fall prey to two general arguments every time: One, people don't really keep secrets very well. The more people in on the secret (which makes a conspiracy theory easier to come up with) the more people had a chance of following their conscience and telling the truth (which makes debunking that same conspiracy theory easier). Two, the risk/reward ratio will often strain logic. Would President Bush really plant a two-way communicator on his person for one debate without ever having tested it before, just to attempt to echo someone else speaking (apparently, it didn't help him much). These lessons you find from reading about a number of conspiracy theories at once are likely more helpful than knowing the details of the individual ones.

The tone is somewhat off-putting. Somehow, Roeper comes off as overly snarky even when he should be a little bit snarky. There are just a few too many jokes about conspiracy email CAPS LOCK or cheap production values on their DVDs, or something. These conspiracy theorists are usually otherwise normal people who cling onto one or two crazy beliefs without really looking into them, then they argue those points with all their heart. This almost purposeful ignorance deserves a bit of bite, and an entertaining book like this will have a bit more bite anyway. I think the issue is that Roeper's extra little bite isn't quite funny enough, so it comes off as just mean.

Otherwise, Debunked! is an entertaining look at lots of conspiracy theories that should make skeptics of a few more people out there who might have bought a "Nigerian Prince" email in the past.  You'll come away from it with the record set straight on several prevalent theories of today and yesterday (no moon landing chapter, but a Princess Di chapter, not all 21st century). And the good thing is, the powers that be won't whisk you away for reading it.

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