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How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions Hardcover – 2 Feb 2004

3.7 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; 1st ed. edition (2 Feb. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007140967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007140961
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.8 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 606,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'Wheen wears his considerable learning about Marx's career with the lapidary lightness of a fine columnist, and can be as witty and quotable as his subject.' Terry Eagleton, Observer

'Has such a passionate energy and commitment that made me cheer as I read it … Wheen's study is great fun, a bravura performance – well done yourself, I want to tell him.' Tom Paulin, Guardian

'Unmitigated delight.' Niall Ferguson, Mail on Sunday

‘I’ll read anything by Francis Wheen, and my trust was not misplaced: The simple elegance of the writing and Wheen’s ability to winkle humour out of the most unpromising subject, results in a book which is far more pleasurable than anyone had the right to expect.’ Nick Hornby, Guardian

About the Author

Francis Wheen is an author and journalist who was named Columnist of the Year for his contributions to the Guardian. He a regular contributor to Private Eye and is the author of several books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Karl Marx which has been translated into twenty languages. His collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, won the George Orwell prize in 2003.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: 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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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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Format: 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.
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