How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World : A Short History of Modern Delusions, Paperback

How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World : A Short History of Modern Delusions Paperback

3 out of 5 (7 ratings)


An entertaining, impassioned polemic on the retreat of reason in the late 20th century.

An intellectual call to arms, Francis Wheen's Sunday Times bestseller is one of 2004's most talked about books.

In 1979 two events occurred that would shape the next twenty-five years.

In Britain, an era of weary consensualist politics was displaced by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, whose ambition was to reassert 'Victorian values'.

In Iran, the fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set out to restore a regime that had last existed almost 1,300 years ago.

Between them they succeeded in bringing the twentieth century to a premature close.

By 1989, Francis Fukuyama was declaring that we had now reached the End of History.

What colonised the space recently vacated by notions of history, progress and reason?

Cults, quackery, gurus, irrational panics, moral confusion and an epidemic of mumbo-jumbo.

Modernity was challenged by a gruesome alliance of pre-modernists and post-modernists, medieval theocrats and New Age mystics.

It was as if the Enlightenment had never happened. Francis Wheen, winner of the George Orwell prize, evokes the key personalities of the post-political era - including Princess Diana and Deepak Chopra, Osama Bin-Laden and Nancy Reagan's astrologer - while charting the extraordinary rise in superstition, relativism and emotional hysteria over the past quarter of a century.

From UFO scares to dotcom mania, his hilarious and gloriously impassioned polemic describes a period in the world's history when everything began to stop making sense.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: General & world history
  • ISBN: 9780007140978



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Showing 1 - 5 of 7 reviews.

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I agreed with much of this book, with it's debunking of new-age medicial practices, flying saucers, fundamentalism, et al, but therein lies the problem. The people who will read this book will probably hold many of the same opinions already, while the people who won't, and should, read it will see it as an unbalanced attack by a left-wing journalist. (It should be noted that Wheen's politics doesn't stop him attacking people and beliefs on the left).Because of it's polemical nature the book lacks is balance, occasionally it would have been useful to hear the other side of an argument, and not everything he tackles is mumbo-jumbo.Economics is the book's weak point. Wheen dismisses economists like Milton Freidman for putting forward a monetarist approach. Also, why did certain economists believe that if you taxed the rich more there would be a trickle down effect that would enrich the rest of society? Especially in light of the efforts the rich go to avoid paying tax in the first place. Was this belief political or economic, and if it was political, is that not a betrayal of the 'science' of economics? Whichever way you look at it though, holding a different economic belief is not believing in mumbo-jumbo.There is a problem with his approach to alternative medicine, as well. Homeopathy, and a number of other 'treatments', have been proven to be bunkum as medicine but they do work as treatments because of the placebo effect. It appears in certain circumstances if a patient believes something is working then it does. Although of course, there is a limit to this effectiveness - it doesn't heal bullet wounds, for example. Acupuncture is a different matter, there are studies showing that it may have be effective in some areas - in China, you can get cheaper operations if you use acupuncture instead of conventional anaesthetics, and it appears to be working. Other than that, the usual suspects get the treatment they deserve - alien abduction, anti-evolutionists, homeopathy, Diana worship, etc. The book can't help but highlight how gullible and foolish sections of the general public can be. Despite Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files" stating it was only a tv show, a number of viewers were not fooled by him and realised that his creation was indeed an oracle of truth. (Carter is also quoted as saying that he wanted the show to expose hoaxes as well but that idea got shelved in the end because the paranormal explanation got better ratings - or was it because you can't hide the truth?). It is disappointing he didn't question why aliens, whose science must be significantly more advanced than humanities, keep kidnapping humans in order to anally probe them?Of the gullible and foolish sections of society it appears that one of the most gullible, and certainly foolish, are managers, who will latch onto any theory. Jesus Christ, CEO, anyone? Tom Peters made a fortune selling the idea of excellence to managers only to made another fortune later when, after changing his mind and stating there were no excellent companies, he sold the idea of managing chaos. My personal favourite is Edward De Bono and his [[Six Thinking Hats]], which posits the idea of wearing a different coloured hat for a different style of thinking - red hat for emotions/feelings, green hat for alternative thinking, and so on. After developing this idea, De Bono then likened himself to Plato, Aristotle, & Socrates. This book can be added to a number of recent works that are debating the enlightenment - romanticism schism, the rational against the emotional. It's credo, and the enlightenment in general, can be found in George Santayana's "The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it".

Review by

Really quite good. Not always the easiest read as much of the language is quite intellectual and references a lot of people I have never heard of. Nevertheless it presents an interesting point of view. (read most of it on the train)

Review by

The world is a scarily illogical place. Francis Wheen has some ideas on why that is, and while I don’t completely agree with him about everything he has to say, I definitely enjoyed the ride.

Review by

Interesting in places, but the arguments don't always follow through in places. Some topics could be discussed in greater detail. Disjointed.

Review by

Francis Wheen is the enemy of unreason. All believers in homoeopathic medicine, post modernism, creationism, crystals, horoscopes, management gurus, (or ANY company or market that has the words New Paradigm associated with it) prepare to be sneered at, not only that, but sneered at with footnotes and suggested reading.He divides his book into various targets and dissects the absurdity of this post-enlightenment age. On post-modern anti-scientific relativism he points out that a fact, once asserted to be a fact, remains a fact. The result of this 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' philosophy is that it remains a FACT that the earth is the centre of the universe until Copernicus, only post-Copernicus is it a fact that the earth rotates around the sun.On the the new liberation-through-celebration-of-victim-hood culture he quotes Linda Holt, "That Diana's therapist victim-speak could turn her into a feminist role model is a bad joke..." and then goes on to lay waste to Elton John, Tony Blair, William Hague and all the others joining in the nauseating outbreak of fawning sycophancy over a "simpering Bambi narcissist". How I cheered, what a perfect summation of Diana "simpering Bambi narcissist" is. A little known fact is that, in the days after the crash the BBC switchboard was overwhelmed with calls from people demanding less coverage, but the media feeding frenzy had begun and this wasn't anything anyone in the media wanted to hear.I also really enjoyed the chapter Old Snake-Oil, New Bottles. I suffer from guru management overload myself, and this, from an enquiry into the prison service, struck a chord: "Any organisation which boasts one Statement of Purpose, one Vision, five Values, six Goals, seven Strategic Priorities and eight Key Performance Indicators without any clear correlation between them is predictably a recipe for total confusion and exasperation." Also, in this chapter, he sets up all the famous management gurus then demonstrates how their pronouncements fail to stand the test of time (and it is remarkable how many ended up broke, in prison, or both. The pointless aphorisms of Antony Robbin come in for particular mockery, lesson 364 (in self mastery) from Giant Steps "Remember to expect miracles ... because you are one" - didn't David Brent use that one?I liked this book, but then I agreed with it. It is not always well constructed and his targets could have been better grouped, but it is a much needed book.

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