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Stuff Read

Posted by Matt on July 15, 2011

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History of Modern Delusions,
by Francis Wheen

When I decided to read Francis Wheen’s polemic against irrationality, I made the (understandable) error in thinking the majority of the book would sock the major players in the world of quackery and supernatural bollocks, something that I read on a regular basis and quite enjoy. That’s not to say the gang wasn’t all there: Wheen went after homeopathy, UFO conspiracy theorists, creationism, astrology, motivational speakers, and false prophets both ancient and modern in good order. But all these things, all relatively easy targets as widespread as they are, were simply the symptoms of something greater, Wheen says, and repeatedly traces it back to one decade: the 1980s. I think you know where this is going.

The thesis of the book seems to be that the 1980s, and the election of the Iron Lady in Britain and the Gipper in the US, ushered in a new era, a “counter-enlightenment”, whose primary goal was to undo the scientific rationalism that began to spread with the work of the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and the American founding fathers. The search for truth those great thinkers advocated was derided as the source of the world’s woes, and various forms of political and economic mysticism were invoked to get the world back on track. Wheen tracks the movement to every aspect of life: the massive deregulation of businesses and the subsequent overzealous businessmen who rose and fell in the manic trends (which we’ve seen even more of since the book was published), America’s search for a new post-Cold War archenemy (which was, apparently, Japan for a very short while), the takeover of academia by post-structuralist and postmodern thinkers who take healthy skepticism of authority to unheard levels by rejecting reality itself, and the massive outbreak of overemotional hysteria that reached its apex with the death of Princess Diana in 1997. What all these have in common, Wheen argues, is that they all derive from an ideology that rejects every advance made by Enlightenment 200 years earlier, putting emotion and belief ahead of thought and understanding. Even worse, he writes, the people who should be fighting back, the so-called progressive thinkers, have succumbed to the same illness, firmly planting themselves in their own opposition ideology of anti-Western fervor that they rarely see the forest for the trees.

It’s a powerful, eye-opening argument, and one that Wheen does an excellent job supporting. That the stories of dot-com era businessmen putting all their money in websites that literally make no money somehow end up being more damning of the deficiencies of the modern world than stories of fear-stricken dunderheads making preparations for California-destroying earthquakes caused by a rare planetary alignment is definitely a point in the book’s favour. Of course, we would all think to point and laugh at the latter and wonder what’s wrong with people, but to consider that the former and latter (and many more instances of both institutional and cultural insanity) derive from the same sweeping epidemic of anti-inquiry? That’s frightening.

So, a book that would initially seem to be an amusing look at snake-oil salesman and their marks (and Wheen’s style is definitely still quite amusing, even as he dives into the bleakness of the situation) turns into an examination of a world that has turned its back on critical thinking, and won’t stop it’s retreat to the dark ages even as it’s endeavors fail again and again. It was a bit of a surprise for me, but that only made the read more rewarding. The connections between all these irrational things hold up, and creates a disturbing realization of just how embedded these inanities are in our culture.

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