First, let me say this: I love me a good conspiracy theory, and I picked up Among the Truthers, by Jonathan Kay because I love them.
I don’t often (read: never) believe in conspiracy theories, good or otherwise, but there’s something incredibly fascinating about learning about them, mostly thanks to the internet. More times than I can say I’ve found myself, at 2 in the morning, reading through conspiracy theory websites. Time and time again, I find myself down peculiar rabbit holes (warrens, more like) on various subjects. I find though, that instead of considering that any of the theories I read about are true, I tend to view them as some form of fiction – an alternative universe like Narnia or Middle Earth where these things are true, but not in the real world where I inhabit. It’s fun to read and visit, but you turn the website off, put the book away, and you’re back in the real world.
I realize that many people who are exposed to consipracy theories have that tug on them that what they’re reading might just be true. That’s why we have Birthers and Truthers and people who think the Xfiles is a real story. In a world where we have the Internet, and where anyone can be an expert, it can be hard to develop or even deploy critical thinking skills in relation to what we see and who is presenting it. This is why I think Among the Truthers by Jonathan Kay is important. In it, he looks at a number of conspiracy theories – most notably “Trutherism,” the idea that the story we are told about 9/11 is not the true story – and pulls out what exactly it is that makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories, and why some perpetuate despite reason.
I won’t lie that this is an easy book to get through. Unlike The Poisoner’s Handbook, which I recently wrote about, I didn’t stay up late reading. In fact, I couldd only take the crazy that Kay writes about in chunks, and had to put it down many times. This isn’t because its a badly written book – in fact, if anything, Kay’s writing and description make you glad HE took the journey through modern conspiracy theory instead of someone else. It’s that there is a lot to take in – even for someone who knows a LOT about the conspiracies presented in the book – and some of what he calls conspiracism (particularly in the latter chapters) I simply thought of as politics, so it took a lot of mulling over too.
While I don’t agree with every conclusion Kay makes in the Among the Truthers, particularly in the latter chapters of the book where he discusses some modern trends that he labels (somewhat) conspiracism, I do agree with this: That teaching critical thinking and media literacy to young people is a great way to inoculate against perpetuating a climate of conspiracy theories. It really got me thinking about how I’d love to teach others to critically examine what they read and see online, and how to teach my son how to examine what he reads or is presented critically.