Non-Fiction Reviews

A History of Bxllocks Theories
and How Not to Fall For Them

Tom Phillips & Jonn Elledge (2022) Wildfire, £16.99 / Can$32.99 / US$26.99,
hrdbk, 373pp, ISBN 978-1-472-28631-4


This book does exactly what its title says but, not only that, is also an absolute gem!

I have reviewed a number of 'fake science' (for want of a better term) books over the years, including John Grant's Bogus Science and Corrupted Science as well as books by others such as The Geek Manifesto, Uncertain Science: Uncertain World, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction and Michael Gordin's On the Fringe: Where science meets pseudoscience. However, most of these have been written over a decade ago and since then we have had things like the Trump US Presidency, CoVID vaccines deniers, Brexit lies, 5G brainwashing, Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis, among a fair bit else. At the same time, the past decade has seen a decline in traditional media (principally newspapers and public service broadcast news audiences that have contrasted with the seemingly unstoppable march of internet growth and the rise of social media. It is therefore timely to have another book on conspiracy theories that looks at them with a contemporary lens.

All the books I have mentioned above have their own foci and strong points: make no mistake Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge too have produced a solid contribution. Not only is this very well researched – any book on conspiracies needs to be to counter the persuasive fairy tales that abound today – but its is delivered in a very readable way with a sprinkling of knowing dry wit.

Chapters include defining what is a conspiracy theory, conspiracy theories and pop music stars (Paul McCartney's death to be replaced by William – Billy – Shears and other stuff and nonsense), UFOs, lizard rulers of humanity, diseases as well as an explanation as to why we are plagued with conspiracy theories and how to tell them apart from reality. They also debunk and explain specific conspiracy theories as they go along.

For example, this past year I had followed an excellent BBC Radio 4 series on QAnon which was very good at revealing the history of this US phenomena which basically says that a small band of plucky folk including Donald Trump are covertly fighting a battle against criminal, seΧ perverts who secretly run the USA. However, Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge, gave a succinct explanation as to the motivation and attraction of QAnon to it supporters. Long story short, Trump 'seemed' to be a bumbling, if not deranged President and 'the wall' was not getting built, America was not getting great again, Hillary (Clinton) was not locked up, etc., etc, etc. For Trump supporters it was potentially all a bit of a let down but not so if there was an explanation: Trump is part of a secret war which folk are not seeing (because it is secret) but he is doing good work and so worthy of public support. It is as if, Phillips and Elledge say, Batman was play-acting Bruce Wayne.

Chapter 6 on UFOs is illustrative of what you get (and is on a topic close to the heart of scientists into science fiction – as well as SF aficionados who are also into science – as we know the difference between science fact and its fictional counterpart). It begins with James Everell in 1639 near Boston when he and two companions saw a great light in the sky. This experience is – we are told – generally the first recorded UFO sighting in colonial America… but was not the last. Apparently, over 30% of US citizens believe that aliens visiting Earth are behind UFOs. We then are given more 17th century examples as well a 15th century instance from Europe and a 17th century one from Asia. Several categories of explanations (natural phenomena) are then provided before a dive into the broad sweep of UFO belief that swept the 20th century. The authors go on to explain that the US military had deliberately muddied the waters so as not to worry the public about its interest in monitoring the skies for foreign human incursion as well as its own testing of prototype aeronautical technology. There are then segues into black helicopters (not so much men in black but that a number of federal agencies really do use black helicopters), chem trails and fake Moon landings, before ending on the note for the human for pattern recognition as a set-up for the next chapter that looks a virus (pathogen) conspiracies starting with the cholera conspiracies (and riots) of the eighteenth century.

As mentioned, the sprinkling of sardonic dry wit that peppers chapters really does lubricate the authors' already very readable style. This and that the book rests on a substantive body of literature research by the author, makes this both an enjoyable and worthy offering. In the mix there were conspiracies of which I was unaware such as the aforementioned McCartney one (you may find some of which you were unaware yourself) and this provides even more added value. And then there were the conspiracies about which I did wonder but could not be arsed to investigate (Cambridge Analytica deliberately manipulating elections as part of a formal conspiracy – they were just an attempt at providing a tool).

Problems? Only one, but it is a bit of a big let down. While there are plenty of footnotes and well as Chapter notes, there is no subject index. This is a huge lacking as this book should not be just for a single read through but for dipping into and for reference. I do hope that this book runs to a second (expanded) edition, but for goodness sake, let us have a subject index!

Greatly recommended, this book deserves to do well.

Jonathan Cowie


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