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94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small voice of reason
From the first page this book promises a great deal: Francis Wheen sets out to show how society, both Western and Islamic, has determinedly squandered the benefits of the Enlightenment and has developed an astonishing hostility towards contemporary science and rational thought.
Wheen paints a picture that is both amusing and chilling: our citizens and leaders are in...
Published on 17 Mar 2004 by Timothy De Ferrars

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered Francis Wheen
This is an OK sort of book and actually Francis Wheen is excellent when he focuses his mind on the more abstract aspects of the 'history of thought'. The problem is that Wheen cannot help misusing or misapplying the term 'mumbo-jumbo' to people or things generally that he doesn't like, as opposed to bona fide mumbo-jumbo (which is to say, things that are obscure in...
Published 21 months ago by T. T. Rogers


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94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small voice of reason, 17 Mar 2004
By 
Timothy De Ferrars (France) - See all my reviews
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From the first page this book promises a great deal: Francis Wheen sets out to show how society, both Western and Islamic, has determinedly squandered the benefits of the Enlightenment and has developed an astonishing hostility towards contemporary science and rational thought.
Wheen paints a picture that is both amusing and chilling: our citizens and leaders are in the thrall of hocus and spin; educated people consume with gusto the diet of drivel served up in the media; an entire nation loses its grip after the death of a Sloaney princess; and post-modernists conjure with words to question the reality of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
This would have been a better book if Wheen had built on its early momentum and resisted the lure of diatribe, but there is such a surfeit of material to support his thesis, and so much nonsense routinely peddled by famous people who should have known better, that he seems unable to stop. The result is erudite and funny, but in the end this is a string of good journalism, rather than the serious manifesto that it might have been.
I recommend this book, and I hope that Wheen will soon produce another edition that not only updates us on the progress of this human ship of fools (which seems daily to surpass itself in its vainglorious stupidity) but also lingers more on the questions why, and what needs to be done.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered Francis Wheen, 18 Jan 2013
By 
T. T. Rogers - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
This is an OK sort of book and actually Francis Wheen is excellent when he focuses his mind on the more abstract aspects of the 'history of thought'. The problem is that Wheen cannot help misusing or misapplying the term 'mumbo-jumbo' to people or things generally that he doesn't like, as opposed to bona fide mumbo-jumbo (which is to say, things that are obscure in meaning or content, or both). In fact, some of the things covered here aren't mumbo-jumbo at all. I suspect this book began as a genuine attempt on Wheen's part to cover aspects of contemporary life, including recent events, that are mumbo-jumbo or in that rough category, and to explain in theoretical terms how we arrived there. That would have been a worthy topic and there are lots of real examples of mumbo-jumbo that Wheen could have cited, but there is very little coverage of mumbo-jumbo in this book, despite its title.

For the purpose of this review, let's examine one example of what Wheen considers to be 'mumbo-jumbo': the popular reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Wheen focuses on the fake sentimentality and self-pitying qualities of Diana as a public persona and the highly-charged and emotional - and irrational - reaction at her death. To that extent, his observations are accurate, but there is an important aspect to the Diana affair that he overlooks. Yes, the general public reaction to Diana's death was neither classy nor sophisticated and much of the behaviour we witnessed at the time, on the part of the public and journalists alike, was pretty odd, not to mention that a pile of treacly sycophantic nonsense was said and written on TV and in the newspapers. But that doesn't add-up to mumbo-jumbo. In fact, one point about the whole Diana affair that Wheen and others missed, and still overlook, is that much of the emotional reaction was driven by a very strong belief among ordinary people that the newspapers and media in general are disrespectful and intrusive. In effect, the emotional spasm was a form of political protest, an inarticulate but keenly-felt expression of rage and anger mixed-up with the feelings and confusions that Wheen identifies. I would suggest that the media during this period worked cynically and reactively to control public opinion and present what, in effect, was a mass public protest as instead a paroxysm of vicarious grieving. The problem is that journalists such as Wheen only recognised and commented on this phenomenon at the surface and failed to identify the true reasons for the strong emotional reaction, i.e. that many of the public believe the media should have greater respect for human dignity. Wheen and others criticised the emotional dominance, believing that in doing so they were engaged in a kind of 'dissent', yet they were only reacting to the media's own narrative and their dissenting views simply extended the media's cynical agenda by embodying its antithesis.

This book is really for the smug. If you enjoy sneering at 'unsophisticated' people who might lay flowers at the grave of a dead celebrity, then you'll enjoy this. Wheen has not explicitly written in that spirit, but that's his constituency. For those with a genuine interest in mumbo-jumbo, skepticism and how people generally believe in odd things, I would recommend serious writers on this subject like James Randi, Richard Wiseman and Michael Shermer, not to mention Mungo Park's own travel journal that popularised the phrase 'mumbo-jumbo'.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Satire passed off as a scholastic work., 22 Feb 2011
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This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
I bought this book after listening to Wheen speak at the Melbourne writer's festival and I was interested to learn more. As other reviews have stated, Wheen starts off well, targeting quacks, snake oil merchants, post modernists and the like to much amusement. The first half is entertaining but it loses its way about half way through and ends up failing to answer the main question. After it all, you'll have some glib remarks but you won't know how mumbo jumbo conquered the world, just that Wheen says it did.

The trouble with the book is 2 fold. Firstly, Wheen gets into areas about which is passionate but no expert and makes a lot of very smart remarks about men like Noam Chomsky & others which are clearly the result of cherry picking isolated statements. These comments don't stand up to any scrutiny if you've read their works or follow Wheen's own references. By the end of the book he was just firing shots at anyone and everyone who happened to have two sound bites which could be shown to be at odds if you ignored the context. Some of it is accurate (Thomas Friedman gets some scrutiny) but much is just satire passed off as logical argument. He's clearly a sharp journalist rather than a scholar deconstructing an argument.

I say he's no scholar as the second issue is that the book does not at all say HOW mumbo jumbo conquered the world, just that in Wheen's view it did. If he submitted it in support of a PhD the very academics he derides would throw it out. Not for failing to use high sounding language which doesn't mean anything, but for the simple fault of not pulling it all together and answering the question that it proposes. It leaves the book with no thread and you'll be no wiser about how we let our leaders get away idiocy or as a society fall for homeopathy, just that we do. I had hoped for some idea, given the title.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More funny than informative., 12 Jan 2008
This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
I thought long and hard about this review before making up my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing since it appealed to my nihilistic nature, but it left me somewhat disappointed. It pokes fun at all the right targets - lefties without any discernable critical faculty, self-serving politicians, the relious dingbats, heartless big business, philosophers with all the common sense of a dead whelk and vacant-minded new agers - but somehow it seemed to miss the bulls eye. I suppose because it fails to offer any answers. Yes, mankind is superstitious, ill-educated and, for the most part, incapable of original thought, but the question remains - what can be done about it? My own feeling is that the answer is nothing, but if you're going to write a book on the subject then some sort of conclusion should be attempted. All we get is a sort of advertisement of Mr. Wheen's availability as an after-dinner speaker. I kept thinking about Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long in his novel "Time Enough for Love" - the story of an immortal who spends much of his time getting as far away from his fellow man as possible. Anyone want to sign up for the first colony on Mars?
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A much better book than its title suggests, 15 Jan 2010
This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
The title and the unhelpful "hilarious" quote from Paxman on the cover suggests this is all laugh a line, "news quiz" level of frippery.

Well it ain't. It's a fierce and cogent defence of enlightenment values and should be mandatory reading for this dim-witted age.

To be fair to Paxman - it is also hilarious, it's just that's not the point of this splendid work.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in parts, but flawed, 11 Jan 2005
This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
This is a book that starts off well, with some right-on-the-button assaults on charlatans and snake-oil merchants, though in some places I feel he does not really sort out the harmless eccentrics from those who need to be stopped.
This book does start to fall down towards the end. His criticism of supply-side economics and the "weightless economy" is sharp, but more political polemic than the satire he started out writing. When he gets on to 9/11, though, he shows his own susceptibility to mumbo-jumbo. in accusing all those on the left who tried to offer explanations for the attacks of sympathising with the terrorists, he betrays rationality. Though he rightly attacks Huntington's thesis in "The Clash of Civilizations", Wheen offers no better explanation.
Understanding is not the same as support. Indeed, it is incumbent on us to try to understand what drives people to join organisations such as Al Qaeda (or, closer to home, the British National Party), if we do not want them to gain strength and influence. The leaders of extremist fundamentalist and far-right groups seize on the despair, alienation and anger felt by many people around the world, whip these feelings into hatred and then offer them a target for this hate. it is only with this understanding that something can be done to remedy the causes and deprive the leaders of their support.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A little too flippant, 19 April 2008
By 
James Duckworth (England, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
This book is undoubtedly a good read. It is generally witty, irreverent, and Wheen's voice is both down-to-earth and yet learned. However, it is clear that this book is not meant to be a profound and academic investigation of history and philosophy, as both the title and cover make clear. But Wheen frequently attacks thinkers and academic texts with a flippant superficiality that does not do them justice. Sometimes, Wheen's tone is not too far away from that of Jeremy Clarkson. Most of the thought that he tries to demolish has required masses of academic criticism, yet Wheen thinks he can knock them down in a couple of pages. And while it would be admirable if he succeeded, I do not think he does.

For example, he discusses Francis Fukuyama (End of History), Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilisations) and Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), to name a few. While I'm not too confident on the first two, I have read After Virtue - the text Wheen criticises - and it struck me how silly Wheen's evaluation of it was. You cannot hope to dismiss this book in the space of two pages. MacIntyre makes a very intelligent case against Enlightenment philosophy, but Wheen's seemingly knee-jerk reaction to the book is to dismiss it as 'mumbo-jumbo' merely because any attack on the Enlightenment is inherently stupid. When you realise how superficially Wheen has analysed MacIntyre, you begin to wonder how strong an analysis you are getting of those other texts that you haven't read, and are trusting Wheen to evaluate well.

In fairness, when Wheen attacks the "catastrophists", for example - those who persist in predicting the end of the world - his analysis is cutting and clever. But I think there is a fair amount of discussion in this book that deserves a more academic approach. For the most part, I enjoyed this book, but the more I read of it, the more I began to see it as airport reading.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent in parts but has serious flaws, 2 May 2006
By 
Marshall Lord (Whitehaven, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
There is no doubt that, despite the huge advances which have been brought by reason and science, an alarming number of people, many of them highly educated, have turned away from reason in favour of new age nonsense or the most simplistic forms of old-established religions. Although Francis Wheen's book has some very serious flaws, it does provoke a great deal of thought about why.

Let's get the negative comment out of the way first. Francis Wheen is a Guardian journalist and allows his left-liberal prejudices an entirely inappropriate degree of latitude given the sort of book this is supposed to be. It completely fails to make any distinction whatsoever between mainstream views which the author does not happen to agree with and the genuine 24-carat nonsense which the book claims to be about. For example, the entire first chapter of the book is a Guardianista polemic against Thatcherism and Reaganism, during which he attacks Nobel prizewinning academics like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek in similar terms to those which he uses to dismiss the views of the American presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

My problem with this is not that Wheen disagrees with Friedman and Hayek - I don't share all their views myself. My problem is that, in a book which is supposed to be about the flight from rationality, he writes about highly rational people who arrived at their views by scientific sifting of the evidence on subjects which they have studied far more intensively than he has, as if they were in the same league as the nutters, fraudsters and snake oil salesmen of whom his criticisms are far more justified.

At a risk of labouring the point, Friedman's study of the economic causes of the Great Depression which won him the Nobel Prize, and his speech in 1967 correctly predicting that the relationship between unemployment and inflation which had worked for the previous century was about to collapse, are recognised as brilliant by many economists including plenty of left-wing or Keynsian views. Friedman had previously said that "we are all Keynsians now" and one of the world's leading economists, a prominent Keynsian, meant it as a complement to Milton Friedman when he said in response "we are all monetarists now." My first economics tutor, a left winger, once started a critique of Friedman the remainder of which Francis Wheen would have entirely agreed with, with the qualification that he thought Friedman richly deserved his Nobel Prize for Economics.

For Francis Wheen to write of Friedman and Hayek in the same way as he writes of anti-rational religious fanatics like William Jennings Bryan does not enhance his case. This has nothing to do with whether you agree with them, it is that they don't belong in a book about the flight from reason. I would make exactly the same criticism of any right-wing author who wrote a similar book, began it with a chapter suggesting that all lefties are irrational, and included equivalent misplaced criticisms of the late John Kenneth Galbraith.

I am not sure why Francis Wheen does not present any distinction between views that a rational person could hold but he doesn't and views which could only be held by someone seriously adrift from reality. I hope it is because he did not think it necessary.

I came very close to throwing this book in the bin towards the end of the first chapter, which gave me the impression that I can been conned into wasting money on a bog-standard left-wing denunciation of all views to the right of Roy Hattersley (including New Labour) rather than the critique of new age irrationalism promised on the cover.

However, I am glad I persevered, because after the first chapter Mr Wheen starts to present a more balanced approach, cover a much wider range of material, and produce evidence to back up his charges of irrationality which I found far more convincing. From this point the book does begin to qualify as a serious attempt to chart some of the irrational views which have emerged or re-emerged over the past 20 years on both left and right. Subjects covered by the book include fundamentalist attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution, management gobbledegook, astrology, academic fads like "deconstructionism," flying saucers and Alien abduction, and quack medicinal ideas such as Homeopathy.

An example of one of the many good sections in the book is that which considers the development and influence of "The X files". Apparently this TV programme is frequently quoted as a source by American university students, and when their tutors point out that it is fiction they reply "Yes, but it's based on fact." The programme's creator, Chris Carter, is quoted as saying that he originally intended that the programme would have episodes that exposed hoaxes and that "I wanted Agent Scully to be right as much as agent Mulder." But going with the paranormal explanation every time got better ratings.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out, if you had a detective series which had a white suspect and a black one every time, and the black person always turned out to be the guilty party, if would be totally unacceptable, and you could not excuse by saying this was just entertainment and that result produced better ratings.

If Scooby-Doo, a humorous cartoon show, can be a big hit with children when the "supernatural" events always get exposed as a hoax, why can't the X files ? Are the people who make that show less talented than the creators of Scooby Doo ? Possibly yes.

Taken as a whole I would recommend this book to anyone interested in trying to understand why so many people have turned away from reason. Readers to the left of Gordon Brown will enjoy the beginning of the book, readers from Tony Blair and rightwards will lose nothing but a boost to your blood pressure by starting at Chapter Two.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very lucid and coherent argument..., 28 Aug 2007
This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
...but there are holes.

Yes, the author does pick some easy targets - but, then again, the King was an easy target when he was riding up the street in the buff.

I'm an Enlightenment junky and a firm believer in liberal democracy and once I heard the interview with Wheen on Resonsance FM's Little Atoms this book was an absolute must-have. And its good. Very good. So why the 4 stars? My main gripe has to do with political affiliation. In the first part of the book one is left wondering how on earth Thatcher came to power in the UK. Why on earth did anyone vote for what she was about to do to Britain (close down coal mining, stop school milk, destroy manufacturing industry, get rid of park keepers, &tc, &tc)? The answer is simple and it's one Wheen avoids:- she wasn't Labour. Let's just remind ourselves that 1970s Britain was a dire place to be in and that was thanks to Labour (believe me all you young strident left-wing politics/sociology/media studies students from De Montfort because I remember it and it wasn't nice).

In 1979 Britain would have elected a sock puppet called Bob rather than have another Labour government. The Liberals were not even on the radar. Yup, for our sins we got Margaret Thatcher. And the same argument holds with Reagan in the US. The US wanted to be led by anyone but a Democrat, given the disastrous time the States was having of it in the late 1970s (culminating, I suppose, with the Iran hostage crisis, or was it energy, or a whole host of other issues???). Interestingly Wheen acknowledges the reason why the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran is clearly because the Shah was so corrupt (the Ayatollah, like Thatcher, provided the alternative).

I also take strong issue with the author's support of conventional medicine. I do not agree that society's flight from conventional medicine is somehow purely irrational. I would suggest that society is taking a flight from drugs and not conventional medicine as a whole. And who could blame us? If I am feeling a bit down is it irrational not to pop a pill when all the scientific evidence gathered by those good people at GlaxoSmithKlyne or Eli Lilly says it is good for me. Erm... no, I'm afraid I'm going to be unscientific and irrational and stick to feeling fed up.

Life just isn't this simple. But this is what makes Wheen's argument so darn good. A good argument should sound simple. And an argument laced with humour is pretty deadly.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Provocative but unsatisfiying, 13 Feb 2006
By 
Mr. P. J. Kimberlee (shrewsbury) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Paperback)
Wheen creates an interesting well written read that rightly attacks many of the follies and delusions that abound in modern life. The fuzzy and uncritical thinking that is ever present in our society needs this criticism. Unfortuantely the attacks are often superficial. Choice examples are used to denigrate his opponents, sadly, at the expense of accurate analysis. I agree with other reviewers who note Wheens delight in imposing his impressive and well developed intellect on others. If you want an amusing attack on subjects you already disagree with then you will enjoy this. If you are looking for properly informed critical thinking on controversial issues you will be dissapointed. The final irony is that the book partly adds to modern mythology therefore somewhat missing the point.
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