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on 8 August 2017
Bought this in 2005. The way the world is going it seems more relevant than ever and keep recommending it to people. I've lent it to my daughter to read - she's 20 - and that has been interesting. I thought she might not have the cultural references to hand, but it's served as something of a history lesson and eye opener for her (e.g. Thatcher prepping the miners strike). Only hope is we don't mess things up too much before her and her generation can see collective sense and pull it round....
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on 19 April 2010
I thought his a wonderful book, and entirely apt in our era of populist, trite, stupid 'democracy'.
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on 19 September 2015
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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 April 2012
I was reading this and liking it a lot as it attacked commonly believed nonsense like the myth of free markets, postmodernism and other silly stuff. Then I got to the criticism of Chomsky saying that he supported Pol Pot.
A quick googling on the net suggests it's not true and is in fact part of a smear campain against him. The author needs to fact check before saying such things.

I was happy to accept the criticisms of things I did not like without fact checking, it was only when he criticized somebody I admired that I got in a huff and decided to research it myself, which leads to the thought: the stuff that he said that I accepted without fact checking (because it fitted into my belief system) might be wrong as well.

Of course maybe Chomsky did support Pol Pot and I am just refusing to accept it because I am a Chomsky fanboy, but as I far as I can tell this is not correct.

Despite that, this is a good read and highlights the crazy stuff some people in positions of power believe but you might want to do some fact checking on what is says before believing it.
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on 17 March 2004
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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on 19 April 2008
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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I had to stop reading this book on the Tube as I was laughing so much at times that people must have thought I was mad! Having had to endure quite a bit of mumbo jumbo myself at various times in my life - from a couple of young lecturers at university who informed us earnestly that they were going to 'deconstruct the canon' and that 'value was all relative so one couldn't make any value judgements or say one piece of music was better than another', and from various people in the performing arts world addicted to self-help books with pastel or violently pink or blue tinted covers, including one who informed me that 'everything' in 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus' was correct and that the only reason I didn't like the work of Eckhart Tolle was because I was 'unenlightened', to name two instances - I fell on this book eagerly. It doesn't disappoint. Wheen provides a deft, well-written analysis of modern culture and politics, showing quite how much silliness and charlatanry there is in our times. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Post Structuralists (above all Lacan's pronouncement that his sexual desire - or something similar- equalled the square root of minus 1, and the hoax played by mathematician Robert Sokal on various French theorists when he wrote a paper claiming that he was inventing a new Post Structural gender based mathematical thinking), the chapter 'The Catastrophists' (whoever knew so many people believed in aliens? And there's some superb writing about group hysteria), the account of the deeply disturbing mania that gripped the country after the death of Princess Diana (the analysis of Elton John's song is priceless!) and the chapter on 'snake oil' and 'gurus', which includes a side-splittingly funny analysis of the modern guru Deepak Chopra - I have rarely laughed so much in my life! Elsewhere there are some interesting, often quite frightening analyses of the Middle Eastern situation, American paranoia, how Britain in some ways fell apart under Margaret Thatcher, of a new school of thought that claimed that the late 20th and the 21st century is 'post history' and so history no longer has meaning, and of the seemingly insane dotcom mania which swept the world with the launching of the internet. Along the way there is much interesting writing about the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers - these get far too much bad press in the modern world, and Wheen is brilliant at showing the positive sides of the Enlightenment movement, and how increasing 'hokum' and 'mumbo jumbo' are making the world a much darker place. If I had a criticism of the book it is that Wheen is a bit black and white in his views at times - surely Noam Chomsky and Jacques Lacan deserve a little credit for their thinking, however daft some of their theories - and that, ultimately, the book doesn't offer quite enough advice (bar a couple of excellent quotes from the brilliant George Santayana) about how modern thinkers can bypass mumbo jumbo, and perhaps point us in the direction of a saner culture! It is sometimes easier to criticize a society than offer an alternative, and I feel that Wheen could have provided just a few more suggestions about how we could combat mumbo jumbo.

But on balance I'd still give this book five stars: it offers a timely, and at the same time most entertaining, warning about the dangers of not thinking for oneself, and bypassing logic, and provides a brilliant analysis of the somewhat crazy times in which we live. Definitely recommended.
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on 12 January 2008
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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on 15 January 2010
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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on 2 April 2012
The Dark Ages prevail. It never ceases to amaze me how millions continue to demonstrate the complete inability to process situations, events, and general quackery with rationale and logic. Sky fairies, little grey men, magic needles, spook water, healing hands, mantras, you name it, many thousands of humans are at it. Just what is it that makes so many of us act this way? As we continue deep into the scientific age many just dont seem able to use their god given brains (sorry, the god bit is a joke). Wheens book is full of the bizarre practices and beliefs of the worlds craziest fools. Simple as. And what makes it all the more shocking is that these fools are in our goverments and ruling our lives. American presidents and the English Royals obsess themselves with woo and claptrap, maybe this comes from being so far removed from daily reality you just dont have anywhere else to go. I honestly marvel at how well peasantry thrives among us, Black Adder trudges through the pigs swill of Christian angels, accupuncture, reflexology, spacemen, homeopathy, and a hundred other mental ideas. I really dont know if we will ever entirely shake off the things we believed back in the cave, but luckily some of us have evolved beyond those days. Until then we can only hope that more village idiots start reading books like this rather than ufo weekly like Prince Phillip.
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