Book review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

(Harper Collins, London, 2004)

In this well-argued and enormously entertaining polemic Francis Wheen sets out to analyse one of the most disturbing intellectual phenomenona of recent times – namely the all out assault on the fundamental ideas of reason, progress and science currently being carried out by an unholy alliance of religious fundamentalists, New Age quacks, primitivists and disciples of post-modernism.

Perhaps best known for his award-winning biography of Karl Marx, Wheen is well equipped to take up the challenge of, as he puts it, showing “how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned and betrayed, and why it matters”. And as he points out, it is not just the far right that has been taken over by the purveyors of unreason – the modern-day left has also (with a few honourable exceptions) allowed itself to be swept along in the tide. Whether it be the rural anarchist group the Coalition Against Civilisation who proclaim in their manifesto that “the revolt against reason is the seed of insurgence” or Tony Blair announcing his support for “faith-based schools” teaching creationism as a major part of the education curriculum, the malaise is everywhere in evidence.

While Wheen’s approach is somewhat haphazard and scatter-gun his wit is always penetrating and razor-sharp. In one memorable passage he describes how an American professor of physics submitted a paper to the pre-eminent US cultural studies journal, Social Text, in a bid to see if they would publish an article which made absolutely no sense scientifically but nevertheless flattered the editors’ post-modern predilections. Sure enough, in the spring of 1996 the editorial board obliged by publishing the paper in a special issue entitled “Science Wars”, which aimed to “uncover the gender-laden and racist assumptions built into the Euro-American scientific method” (such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, which apparently privileges the speed of light over other “less masculine” qualities). The paper itself (“Transgressing Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”) contained even more obvious howlers such as denying the idea “that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humankind as a whole” and denouncing the “(so-called) scientific method”, yet not a single member of the editorial board suspected a hoax until the author revealed it a week after publication.

Elsewhere in the book, Wheen brilliantly draws our attention to post-modern fallacies which require no effort to send up, such as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s infamous claim that the first US invasion of Iraq did not happen since for most people it was experienced through the medium of television and not directly. However, as Wheen also points out such absurdities mask an altogether more serious and dangerous phenomenon. Having “accepted the demise of socialism and the success of capitalism as immutable facts of life”, he argues, post-modern thinkers such as Baudrillard, Foucault and the rest of the so-called “New Left” have given up on any attempt to change material reality for the better and have instead concentrated on bringing about “revolutions” in the sphere of text and language. The end-result is of course endless semantics and in many cases utter nonsense, and it is for this reason that Wheen labels the post-modernists the “demolition merchants of reality.”

When it comes to contemporary world events Wheen is perhaps less sure of his ground – in the case of the current occupation of Iraq he draws a big = sign between US imperialism on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other, and in his criticisms of the anti war movement he shows himself to be an ideological fellow traveller of the renegade ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens (with whom he also claims friendship). Despite this his book should be recommended reading for all lovers of reason, science and progress besides being great fun (the chapter on the mass hysteria that broke out following the death of Princess Diana is simply hilarious). A welcome antidote to the anti-humanist wave of many of the GE free protestors, animal rights activism and moral panics that sometimes almost threaten to totally engulf the revolutionary socialist movement.

– Tim Bowron

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