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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

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Sadly, the reality-based community has lost control of the world.

According to Francis Wheen, the values of the enlightenment are in full retreat in the face of religious fundamentalism, ivory-tower ideological nonsense, misty-eyed sentimental idiocy, and vacuous new-age twaddle. And if western civilisation is to survive, all of this nonsense needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Unlike the crusty conservatives who think the world went to pot somewhere about 1963, Wheen dates the downfall of rational civilisation to 1979, the two pivotal events being the Iranian revolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher. One saw the ugliest face of religious fundamentalism, a retreat into medieval barbarism. The other saw the economic policies dominated by wingnut ideologues that plunged the nation into deep recession, and the beginnings of politics where style and presentation was considered more important than substance, something which was to get even worse under Tony Blair

The whole book is a first-class rant; very little of today’s world escapes unscathed. For example, in the chapter ‘New Snake Oil, Old Bottles’, Wheen attacks new-age management gurus and all those ludicrous self-help books full of ‘Hallmark greeting card platitudes’. In ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’, he skewers the deconstructionism of the recently-deceased Jacques Derrida. Wheen suggests that once you start regarding history as being about ‘conflicting narratives’ rather being about what actually happened, it’s a slippery slope that ends with Holocaust denial.

And once these lunatics get their hands on science, well. A hilarious section tells of the hoax played by Alan Sokal, a physics professor who submitted a paper called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. Although the article was complete and total nonsense, it was filled with enough quotations from various deconstructionist academics that they all completely fell for the hoax. Much egg on faces when Sokal revealed it was a hoax a week later.

The chapter ‘Candles in the Wind’ reminds us of the terrifying collective insanity that gripped Britain following the untimely death of Princess Diana.

On that Sunday afternoon I was telephoned by a neighbour, a ferociously conservative columnist on the Daily Mail: ‘I can’t bear any more of this, fancy a drink in the pub’. He had just been given a week’s holiday from the paper after informing the editor that he couldn’t participate in the national ululation and genuflection; having watched several hours of hyperbolic homage on TV, he was beginning to fear that he was the only sane person left in the country.

Then we have the next moment of collective insanity, the madness of the dotcom bubble, when everyone thought the normal rules of business no longer applied. We’re reminded of how investors gullibly wasted their money on ludicrous schemes like boo.com. Sadly he neglects the equally ridiculous Clickmango.com. I worked briefly for the software house that build this “woman’s health and beauty” site, and saw the deeply frightening database model. Where else would there be entities called ‘Horoscope’ and ‘Celebrity Endorsement’? Needless to say, the Mango went pear-shaped in a very short space of time.

Then there’s Enron. Part corporation, part religious cult, part confidence trickster’s shell game. In a fully reality-based world Enron could not have happened; but such was the scale of their hubris that money-worshipping politicians and financial analysts alike completely failed to see through them before the inevitable collapse.

The last half of the final chapter deals with the total failure of too much of the left to understand the world after the end of the cold war, and especially after 9/11. Wheen doesn’t have any kind worlds for the ‘Enemy of my enemy is my friend’ brigade, and the likes of Micheal Moore and particularly the loathsome Noam Chomsky, who appear to be prepared to side with nihilistic fanaticism rather than admit that an enemy that attacks the west is in fact an enemy against which we have to defend ourselves. Perhaps wisely, although supporting the overthrown of the Taliban, Wheen avoids getting into any discussion on the contentious issue of whether or not it was a good idea to invade Iraq.

Wheen’s final words reminds us what will happen if we allow mumbo-jumbo to prevail.

but those who refuse to learn from experience, and strive instead to discredit the rationalism that makes such enlightenment possible – whether they be holy warriors, anti-science relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical post-modernists, New Age mystics or latter-day Chicken Littles – are not only condemning themselves to repeat the past. They wish to consign us all to a life in darkness.

Altogether a brilliant rant, taking blunderbuss shots at the sacred cows of both left and right. An essential read for everyone who doesn’t like the direction the world is heading, and wants us to change course before it’s too late.

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About Tim Hall

  • Bryce Eddings

    Listed on Advance

  • I missed your post when it first came around – fortunately, it was cited by Tony Dalmyn. Thanks for the strong overview of the author’s rants!

  • >>Sadly, the reality-based community has lost control of the world. << Some might say that those who insist on calling themselves the 'reality based community' haven't lost control of the world, but have lost touch with reality. When reason no longer drives their positions, and when emotion and irrationality take over, they're not the 'reality based community' anymore and that passes on to someone else who does still value truth. There may have been a time when liberals had a grip on reality, but that's long gone. Just look at the way thye're behaving in Congress these days or at their choice of arch-fantasist Howard Dean to head the DNC. This doesn't mean that the religious conservatives have more of a grip on reality, but religion isn't the only route to looniness and irrationality. These days those who still hold to reason are somewhere in the forgotten middle of the political spectrum. Dave

  • gonzo marx

    oh boy..this is a GOOD one..

    i tend to agree with the base assessments here..even if i disagree with some of the details

    take “supply side economics” as opposed to the “law of supply AND demand”

    note the difference..one Postulates both sides of the Equation the other Postulates the “trickle down” Theory..

    any student of Algebra or Calculus can clearly state the inherent Fallacy…but that didn’t stop the rise in popularity of the “trickle down” Theory during the 80’s , which can be Argued lead directly to the dot com bubble of the 90’s

    add in a heap of unAdulterated Greed to the Equattion and you get your Enron and Worldcom ad nauseum…

    but hell..i am currently an electronic technician by trade…i fix things…no amount of Opinion, spin, wishful thinking, or mystical awareness can make a piece of equipment work when it is broken…on the contrary..Knowledge and Logic coupled with some amount of physical skill is required to make it work again…

    Robert A. Heinlein wrote..
    “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the FACTS? Shun wishfull thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell”, avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future, facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

    ineffable Words of Wisdom indeed…this baseline Postulate lead to the “Age of Reason” which our American Founding Fathers were disciples of and from which our Constitution and Declaration of Independance were created..

    and yet, Antonin Scalia…a Supreme Court Justice…sitting on the bench for the current “Ten Commandments” case up in front of the Supreme Court stated on the record: “our Laws come from God”

    welcome to the Second Dark Age

    me?..i have a Candle here…and a soapbox…i’m gonna hold that Light up high..and shout as much as i can

    how about you?


  • Bennett Dawson

    With a few of us willing to speak out, facing this storm of insanity becomes possible. Think global (blog global) and act local. Attend your town’s selectboard and planning comission meetings. It’s only an hour or two less of TV crap, or the great book that will be there when you get home.

    Ask questions. Make them explain their decisions, or anything else you don’t quite understand.

    Visit the elementary school library and look through the books. Are the books you remember vividly still on the shelves? Why not?

    Make o list of the ten books that gave you the most pleasure and inspiration as a child and DEMAND that the library have them available for todays youngsters.

    Now, what else can we do? I think about this stuff, and am acting on my ideas.

  • gonzo marx

    the Library bit is excellent…also check in with the local school librarians…

    spam yer congressmen and senators…every day

    send em porn links too

    did i say that out loud?



  • >>Visit the elementary school library and look through the books. Are the books you remember vividly still on the shelves? Why not?<< And while you're at it, look at the pablum they've replaced your favorite books with. I was absolutely horrified when I went to my daughter's school library some years ago - not long before I took her out of public school - and found that their edition of the Brothers Grimm had all the stories changed to saccharine happy endings. Dave

  • Jordan Lacey

    Ive just read the book, and in all Im happy people like Fracis Wheen are out there. If you like him its worth reading Thomas Franks “One Market Under God” another illuminating attack on the wank of modern economics. As a sympathiser with postmodern critique and healing approaches that do not meet the rigour of the double blind method I consider Wheens excessive intelligence and martyr like defence of the values of the enlightement cause him to miss some vital trends in modern Western society. With the demise of Christianity, people are looking for a new spiritual framework in which to place the experience of life. Reason is incapable of providing this for the vast majority of humanity. The best it can manage is the coldness of materialistic determinism or the silent scream of existentialism. Any attempt to take Reason into this domain (i.e. what the bleep do we know, the tao of physics) is dismissed. Irrational outlooks on life are a manifestation of this basic human need and the masters of Reason, including Wheen himself would be wise to start showing some compassion towards this need rather than ridiculing it. Otherwise ‘snake oil merchants’ really will capture the popular imagination and the so called dark age will be upon us.

  • The other saw the economic policies dominated by wingnut ideologues that plunged the nation into deep recession,

    Um, but Thatcher pulled England out of a recession and launched one of the few strong and enduring economies in Europe. It’s one thing to rant, but that claim just flies in the face of all fact.