Book Review: Among The Truthers by Jonathan Kay

Today’s book review is a guest post from Mike MacKay. Mike is a long-time skeptic who, when he’s not practicing law or chauffeuring his children, reads and writes voraciously on skeptical topics. He can be contacted or followed via twitter @Michael5MacKay

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Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  As a counterpoint (some would say mockery) of the widespread remembrance ceremonies including the dedication of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York, Sunday will also see the conclusion of the so-called Toronto Hearings into the events of 9/11, organized by the grandiosely-named International Center for 9/11 Studies, and held at  (but not endorsed by) Ryerson University. The Truthers are in Toronto.

All of which makes Jonathan Kay’s recent book, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground (New York:  HarperCollins, 2011), as timely as ever.  In fact, a goodly portion of the Toronto Hearings’ participants are featured in Kay’s book, including Lance DeHaven-Smith, Paul Zarembka, architect Richard Gage, Toronto’s own Michael Keefer, and David Ray Griffin, perhaps the king of all the Truthers.

Among the Truthers does not deal solely with the 9/11 Truth movement.  By way of background, Kay begins with a somewhat meandering history of conspiracism, particularly in the United States.

The best part of this book is the middle:  Kay’s wry description of his personal encounters with various 9/11 Truthers.  He does not shy away from meeting prominent Truthers in person, and providing first-hand accounts of their protests and meetings.  Fortunately, Kay remains among the Truthers, but clearly not of them.  More Tom Wolfe than Hunter S. Thomson in his degree of engagement with his subject matter, Kay doesn’t swallow the blue pill to see “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Kay’s journey caused him to rethink some of his initial preconceptions.  He was surprised to find that few 9/11 Truthers were insane in the clinical sense. Nevertheless, he did perceive psychological roots for the Truthers’ embrace of conspiracy theories, which he broke down into various types, including:

  • The Midlife Crisis Case, where “conspiracism offers middle-aged men a sense of revitalization and adventure”;
  • The Failed Historian, for whom conspiracy theories explain why history has not unfolded in the way his ideology would suggest;
  • The Damaged Survivor – in the case of 9/11 Truthers, a relative or spouse of a 9/11 victim.  Interestingly, Kay’s model for this type is someone who believes that vaccines cause autism or an alternative medicine proponent who might also believe in chemtrails, the dangers of fluoridation, or “that wi-fi computer signals are eroding our children’s brains.”
  • The Cosmic Voyager, the “hippie” of the conspiracist movement, for whom conspiracism is but part of a larger spiritual quest towards self-actualization
  • The Crank, an easy to anger, self-identified superior intellect, who won’t accept anyone else’s word because he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room – often because, in fact, he is.  “Typically, the crank is a math teacher, computer scientist, chess player, or investigative journalist.”
  • The Evangelical Doomsayer, who sees in current events signs of an imminent apocalypse;
  • The Firebrand, a charismatic leader who revels in public attention.

While I personally love reducing other people to cultural stereotypes – I’ve actually read Jung’s Psychological Types and many more popular equivalents (Thirty years later, I can still tell you six differences between a Sloane Ranger and a Mayfair Merc), I now know that such exercises are more comic than scientific, and represent an enduring human desire to categorize that has existed at least since the invention of astrology.

Kay notes that conspiracy theories have another non-rational cause:  they “provide believers with many of the same psychological comforts as religion.”

Among the Truthers argues that conspiracism is so prevalent now because the following trends are eroding “our society’s collective grasp on reality”:

  • the internet, which, in creating a global village, has allowed us to form our own tribes of like-minded persons, who can avoid opposing viewpoints and contradictory facts;
  • the popularity of postmodernism and deconstructionism, and their denial of objective truth, particularly in academia; and
  • the continuing appeal of anti-Semitism, which has certainly been a popular thread in conspiracism since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 19th century.

Kay cites former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the effect that the “main, if not sole purpose of education” is to teach how “to detect when a man is talking rot.”  His solution to the problem of growing conspiracism is a modest, but achievable one: education in debunking uncritical thinking, using a conspiracy such as the Protocols or Holocaust denial as the subject matter.

Kay’s attempt to draw some grand conclusion from his raw material is the least successful aspect of the book. Summing up, Kay mixes cause and effect, excludes some middles and draws some false equivalences: such as conspiracism with skepticism (which is odd, considering his emphasis on the irrational causes of conspiracism), and ends with a call for – if not religion itself, then something; anything other than conspiracism – that can provide “the same psychological comforts as religion”:

[Unlike the new atheists Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris], Voltaire understood that man cannot survive on skepticism alone – that society requires some creed or overarching national project that transcends mere intellect.

To which conclusion, I render the Scots Verdict:  Not Proved. Kay’s broader political and cultural conclusions are awkwardly grafted on, like the art deco façade of the old Toronto Stock Exchange, which is beautiful in itself, but looks a blemish when pasted awkwardly across one tower of the elegant modernism of Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre.

I rate* Among the Truthers:

  • ★★ (out of 3), for degree of interest to skeptics;
  • 7/10 for readability; and
  • for effectiveness of argument, a C.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  You can read excerpts from Among the Truthers here, here, and here.


*The rating for degree of interest to skeptics parallels the Michelin Guide:

★★★ worth seeking out – should be of great interest to all skeptics

★★   worth picking up – contains novel material of general interest to skeptics

★ interesting – fills a niche that may interest some skeptics

Readability means clarity of writing and expression, and is scored out of 10

Quality of argument is given a letter grade, because it occurred to me that most non-fiction books are simply long arguments, like some college honours thesis.  For comparison’s sake, I rate Darwin’s Origin of Species as ★★★ for interest to skeptics (it’s a must-read); 5/10 for readability (19th century prose is somewhat verbose), and A+ for quality of argument – it’s even-handed and masterful.

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