Customer Review

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
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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Location: Whitehaven, UK

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