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.
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?
on 22 February 2011
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.
on 18 February 2004
To criticise Wheen's book for straying from a targetted attack on mumbo jumbo is to miss the point. Wheen's problem is with irrational thought in all its guises and on that he is spot on. The great blubfest of diana and the banality of self-help books are the easy targets, but media friendly empty phrases such as "the third way" etc are equally deserving. Sure he gets carried away. He has a 2 page diatribe against Professor John Gray which amounts to not much more than: "he is wrong because he keeps changing his mind" (Gray's argument isn't against rationalism, it is against the unthinking humanistic belief in progress), but Wheen can be forgiven the occasional vitriol. I'm sure he wouldn't want you to accept all his conclusions verbatim. After all, that's what he is telling you. Think for yourself. Don't follow the herd. A simple epiphet, worthy of a self-book perhaps...
on 11 January 2005
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.
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.
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.
on 13 February 2006
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.
on 19 November 2006
It's a great book in many ways, of course. Francis Wheen is consistently amusing and shares a breadth of knowledge comparable with another journalistic polymath of our times, Christopher Hitchens. However, a few caveat emptors. Mr Wheen was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq. As the war has gone increasingly tits-up for the invaders, Wheen and other supporters from the left-wing, such as Nick Cohen, have been getting more and more agitated about the rightness of their cause. The result of this is that their concerns about the war, by a process of what could be termed guilty hysterical osmosis, are leaching into nearly everything they write. Mr Wheen and Cohen could be prosing about anything from shower caps to sangria these days, yet still manage to get a couple of sly digs in about the islamo-fascist-appeasing nature of the left. Just a warning, that's all.
I have to take issue with his criticism of Noam Chomsky in this book as well. Not only does Francis Wheen swallow the tired old canard that Chomsky supported Pol Pot, a slur which I recall (doubtless erroneously) was invented by dear old William Shawcross, it would also seem incumbent upon Wheen to correctly identify the ideology of those he seeks to mock. In other words, in this book which celebrates the spirit of enlightenment, he seems to have Chomsky down as some unreconstructed Maoist/Stalinist, a charge which is so laughably misguided, I can only assume the exquisitely educated Mr Wheen has never read a damn thing by Chomsky, who, as any fule kno, is a self-proclaimed libertarian socialist/anarchist, primarily influenced by Rudolf Rocker. Doh! You may as well accuse him of being a Jehovah's Witness. Chomsky's acerbic dislike of Leninists and other state socialists is very well known. He also rather applauds the spirit of the enlightenment in many of his works, namechecking von Humboldt among others as his intellectual heroes.
Hey ho, apart from these little gripes, it's still a bloody good read and one in the eye for those who still insist on the validity of creatonism, Deepak Chopra, Kabbalah, and other fairy tales for the terminally ignorant. Mind you, they're not going to be reading this sort of thing, are they?
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.