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Idiot Proof – by Francis Wheen

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Francis Wheen, an English columnist and writer, wrote a book published in 2004 under two titles. In England it was “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions”. In the US it was: “Idiot Proof”. Tim Hall reviewed it once before for Blogcritics in November 2004 – I like his review but I have a few things to say about this book myself.

It’s funny and fun to read. Wheen has taken a series of stories from business, economics, politics and popular culture and brought them together in a way that makes connections. His stories are about people who persuade other people to accept dubious truths, and people who let themselves be persuaded to make bad decisions, people who obey or enrich ruthless, greedy and grandiose people, people who are drawn into mass hysteria. Part of the value in the book is the collection of stories, and part of it is the sheer glee he takes in exposing the vanities and the gullibility of the rich and powerful.

Most of Chapter 4, “The Demolition Merchants of Reality”, deals with the increasing popularity of post-modernism in academic settings. He discusses Sokal’s hoax and various excesses of post-modernism. He explains the intellectual weaknesses of post-modernism and the inversion of post-modernism, which has turned from being a skeptical process to a set of arguments to support pluralism of theories in the sciences. He makes (as did Wendy Kaminer in her book “Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials”) a reasonable point that post-modernism has become foundational to the claims of creationists to offer “alternative theories” of geology and biology in the public schools of America. However he ends with an anachronistic discussion of the Scopes trial in Tennessee as an example of post-modernist rationalization of religion against the facts.

He has a good chapter on the public response the death of Lady Diana and the contorted efforts of various intellectual feminists to recreate her as a metaphor of repressed femininity in modern society. In that chapter, he has some insights into the absence of great unifying social myths and rituals in modern society and the fascination with celebrities and other seemingly random transient mass events. He has good opening and closing chapters which address the way Thatcher and Reagan promoted their economic policies, by sheer persistence, repetition and power, and how the media were complicit in lulling the public into accepting the logic of dishonest arguments as if they were fundamental economic truths. There is another somber chapter on the way that globalization has become a an irrational rationale for letting global economic policy be driven by the capricious and irrational mass moods of the world capital markets, which is not especially good for global justice. Wheen is well-read in politics and business, and he brings his knowledge to bear, comparing the dot.com and Enron bubbles to the South Sea bubble and other manic swings of the capital markets.

His book is driven by a powerful moral sense of truth and justice, and sense of outrage at the exploitation of human frailty by charlatans and tricksters. He identifies people who avoid the truth and moral obligations in their work. Corporate ad men and executives artists hire entertainer-writers like Thomas Peters, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra to facilitate corporate solidarity, sell products and raise capital. In fact these entertainers have become apologists for corporate values of consumption and self-gratification, and, like various sports and entertainment celebrities, minor deities in the pantheon of capitalism. Politicians, like corporations, dabble in the New Age and alternative practices to project an image of sensitivity and modernity – and some of them seem to let it influence policy (Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, and assorted gurus tied to the Clintons and the Blairs). Advertising and entertainment are the art of illusion. Post-modernism and process philosophy have legitimized belief in improbable, artificial and illusory belief systems. People are gullible. People don’t have time to learn the truth and need to defer to credible advice. People defer to authoritative stories and believe well-packaged stories that fit their feelings and preconceptions. People get caught up in mass movements. People are prone to believe myths and stories on slight evidence and to rationalize their irrational feelings.

He overreaches himself in one area. The book is about truth, bullshit, humbug, mumbo-jumbo and plain lies. He tries to discuss the problem in terms of rationality and his understanding of the central ideas of the European Enlightenment, which he describes as the revolution of reason against the repression of knowledge. He refers to a 1999 article by Roger Scruton published in City Journal for his central thesis that the Enlightenment and “our entire tradition of learning” are at risk in a counter-revolution by a coalition of post-modernists and primitivists, New Age and Old Testament. He claims reason, logic, empirical science, objective reality and a belief in moral truth as the property of the Enlightenment, and he dismisses all religious believers as irrationalists.

His thesis is pretentious and tendentious. To begin, he doesn’t deal with the fact that most of the people he trashes are intelligent, rational people. The problem isn’t that they are irrational. The problem is that they rationalize. In some areas they rationalize the unknowable, but in some areas they rationalize bullshit. Second, he dismisses all systems except (atheist) empiricism as a legitimate method of discerning truth and making rational moral choices. He ought to be more tolerant of other systems that value objective realism and truth over pure imagination. Third, his assessment of Romanticism as the mere emotional colour of the Enlightenment is way off. Romanticism is the moving force of the Enlightenment and the modern age. The myths of Romanticism – the noble savage, liberation from the restraints of culture and tradition, the truth of instinct and the heart, the will to power – are the central myths of modern popular culture.

He fails to address the Enlightenment’s attack on authority and the Romantic movement’s celebration of the irrational and the personal. The former underwrote the debasement of scientific and technical knowledge, and the latter is foundational to the erosion of reason, morality and ethics. He doesn’t seem to understand that the Enlightenment has liberated the powerful, the persuasive and the dishonest from any standards of objective truth in their dealings with the public. He makes a connection between the Romantic movement and post-modernism and the New Age, but he doesn’t want to see the New Age as a legitimate descendent of the Enlightenment.

It’s a great entertaining book, and if read with an open mind about Wheen’s flawed thesis, a useful one.

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About Brave Kelso

  • alienboy

    fascinating post, if at times a little conceptually crowded.

    one question: why is wheen wrong to dismiss all religious believers as irrationalists? I would have thought it was a basic necessity…

  • Tony Dalmyn

    It depends on how a believer or a belief system manages to work with reason and intuition – or call it insight or revelation. Believers who can deal with the idea that their intuitive faith in revealed mysteries or myths has to be reconciled to reason can live in the reality-based world. The thinkers of the Enlightenment seemed to think that if people could let go of (organized) religion, we would progressively get smarter and evolve a more just society. It doesn’t work that way. People are rational, emotional, selfish, social and religious all at the same time. I think Wheen showed that some religious or quasi-religious beliefs rationalize narcissism and selfish behaviour, and failed to credit the value of religious beliefs that encourage honourable and just behaviour, altruism, and trust.

  • Stuart Whyte


    “Believers who can deal with the idea that their intuitive faith in revealed mysteries or myths has to be reconciled to reason can live in the reality-based world.”

    Firstly, this strikes me as a contradiction. Faith cannot be reconciled to reason; that’s it’s whole attraction in a complex and changing world to those needing succour.
    Secondly, everyone lives in the reality-based world regardless of their beliefs. A child covering his eyes is not invisible despite what he might believe.

    I think people letting go of religion HAS led us to be progressively smarter. Eg the cosmogonies of Ptolemy and Copernicus were compared and rationalised by the evidence available to Galileo, but unfortunately this soon resulted in his torture by the inquisition! The current pope would concede that the earth does revolve around the sun, but I wouldn’t say he had fully reconciled his faith to reason.
    Refuting the belief of one system by the empirical evidence of another has brought the world huge benefit in so many ways and will continue to do. The results of Faith are in no way as tangible.

    I think Wheen’s book is timely. The adoption of a lot of utter crap into the the unused space left by ‘organised’ religion or a person’s ignorance is deplorable. The world is a better and more just place explained rationally than otherwise.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks as always Tony, great distinction between “irrational” and “rationalize”

  • andrew

    where the mother atom came from? all miguided folks(while many are clueless of what they are talkin’ about) believe that said atom produced and designs perpetually the big bang and silly darwinian logic and all existing life and matters? what a pitiful fallacy! read and understand a simple THREE MOMENT EQUATION and have a feel of it.

  • david

    if agnostics are dead right, then nothing will ever be right. and i don’t want to be a monkey.

  • david

    organic creation is irrevocably the best answer.