Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I expected to like, enjoy and agree with Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (retitled Idiot Proof for the American market). I really did. Unfortunately, however, while I certainly agree with a broad array of his conclusions, Wheen significantly undermines the value of his book by turning it into a catalog of things he disagrees with, which only partially overlaps with scientific consensus. Specifically, Wheen arrogantly treats debatable political questions as if they were skeptical issues, that is, he condemns Francis Fukuyama in the same terms as Deepak Chopra, equates supply-side economics and homeopathy, thinks Margaret Thatcher no better than a quack, treats Samuel Huntington no better than a postmodernist and so on. This, I will argue below, is dubious at best and is hubristic in the extreme. Before we get to my criticisms, however, some praise is due and Wheen’s argument needs sketching.

Wheen is a big fan of the Enlightenment; a devotee of Kant, Voltaire, Jefferson, Diderot, Hume, d’Alembert, and their ilk. (Hooray to that!). These thinkers, contend Wheen, may have been diverse but they all shared a characteristic ethos: “a presumption that certain truths about mankind, society and the natural world could be perceived… and that the discovery of these truths would transform the quality of life” (2004: 3). What is more, these thinkers ‘insisted on intellectual autonomy, rejected tradition and authority as infallible sources of truth, loathed bigotry and persecution, were committed to free inquiry and believed knowledge is indeed power’ (p. 5-6). The Enlightenment’s legacy, Wheen goes on to argue, was enormous: it resulted in “the waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of secular democracy, the understanding of the natural world, the transformation of historical and scientific study, the new political resonance of notions such as ‘progress,’ ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’” (p. 6). Assuming these achievements are desiderata (as seems reasonable), it would certainly be undesirable were the Enlightenment values forgotten – indeed, the purpose of the book, Wheen says, “is to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned or betrayed, and why it matters” (p. 8). And it matters because "[t]he sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore… the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation" (ibid.: 7). The villains in Wheen's piece include "holy warriors, anti-scientific relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical post-modernists, New Age mystics or latter day Chicken Lickens" (ibid.: 311-312).

Mumbo-Jumbo is explicitly modeled on Charles Mackay's classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and succeeds admirably in some respects, particularly when he turns to manias such as the dotcom bubble. The book as a whole is well written, clear, decently researched, funny in places and right on target with quite a few issues. Indeed, if only Wheen had steered clear of political questions and social science problems, his book would have been very good. His attack on the business self-help movement (Ch. 2) is sound, his chapter on post-modernism (Ch. 4) is superb (the best part of the book I’d say), his skewering of doomsday nuts, UFO-believers and quacks (Ch. 5) is admirable, and even his rant against breaches of the wall of separation between church and state (Ch. 6) is good. In fact, I would recommend the book – with some reservations – if it consisted only of the just-mentioned chapters and the introduction. Wheen, however, overlooked this felicitous possibility.

As I mentioned above, despite his book’s several merits, Wheen significantly undermines its value by arrogantly consigning every political ideology and every interpretation of social phenomena but his own to the same category as the genuine pseudosciences. While it is appropriate to condemn, perhaps even ridicule, positions that are anti-science, that fly in the face of scientific consensus (e.g. creationism, psi) or that are manifestly silly (e.g. cerealogy), it is not cricket to do so on issues about which reasonable people can disagree. When there is no scientific consensus (or any other kind of consensus) on some issue, that is, when intelligent, thoughtful people occupy a large range of different positions, it is plainly hubristic to condemn, or ridicule or accuse one’s opponents of obscurantism and irrationality. Fallibilism, we should remember, is an important virtue for any thinker: certainty (about empirical questions) is epistemologically unsound and confidence is appropriate only when there is consensus among the relevant experts. Having a strong opinion on a currently controversial question is perfectly acceptable, of course, but you should understand the arguments in the debate and realize that you could be wrong. That is, it is perfectly acceptable to take sides in current debates if (a) you know the relevant literature and have (what you think are) good reasons to prefer one side and (b) you don’t pretend to be infallible. It is patently ridiculous, though, to be certain when (a) there is nothing remotely resembling consensus and (b) you don’t even provide solid reasons for your own position. Wheen, I submit, is so arrogant he appears to be certain his and only his narrow set of political opinions (basically, unreformed Keynesian Labour with a dose of muscular foreign policy focused on opposing Islamic fundamentalism) is the only reasonable position and is in no need of real, systematic defense.

Take, for example, Wheen’s treatment of Margaret Thatcher: he begins the book by comparing her to Ayatollah Khomeini, and then goes on to pan her economic policies (and monetarism and supply-side economics generally) as ‘Voodoo economics’, accuse her of supporting terrorism, being a crazy religionist, and much else. Indeed, he has nothing whatsoever positive to say about her. (Nor, I note, any other politician save Ralph Nader. Not even Clinton or Gore is spared: Wheen calls Gore an “expensive mountebank” [p. 106] and says Clinton is “a sexual predator and alleged rapist [and] a man of no discernible moral scruples” [p. 198]). Now, while no one should think Thatcher was perfect or an unmitigated blessing, as The Economist notes in its review of Mumbo Jumbo, reasonable people – some of them experts – credit Thatcher with turning the British economy around. Let’s not forget that, for all of the post-war period before Thatcher’s rule, Britain was ‘the sick man of Europe’: other European countries consistently outgrew it, to the extent that its GDP per capita rank position began to drop. One of the primary reasons for this economic lethargy, many others and I think, was a radical, highly organized and irresponsible special interest group: the labor unions. (For background, see Olson, 1982). During her first and second terms, Thatcher won a bitter and protracted battle to reform the labor market. This, together with a series of other important economic reforms, is widely credited with injecting dynamism into the economy, resulting in a long period of fast, sustained economic growth. You may or you may not agree with this analysis, and I won’t here try to convince you, I’m only highlighting the fact that there is a reasonable argument to be made, endorsed by many clever people and some experts, that Thatcher’s rule, for all its faults, had some positive effects. Once we acknowledge reasonable, intelligent people think, for reasons that aren’t crazy, that at least some of Thatcher’s economic policies were beneficial, Wheen is utterly exposed. It is simply untenable to equate ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Reaganomics’ (supply-side economics, monetarism and so on) with homeopathy, Iranian fundamentalism, or the irrational exuberance of the dot-com era. And do so without real argument! Frankly, this sort of uninformed arrogance doesn’t merely annoy me, it outrages me. (I am not saying, of course, that supply-side economics hasn’t been taken too far, or stretched too thin, I’m saying it’s not pseudoscience or anything close to it. If Wheen actually knew something about, say, the Laffer-curve, he’d know it’s more than “discredited superstition” [p. 18], there is a lot of research behind it. Politicians have indeed misused it, as is their wont, but that doesn’t invalidate the notion.)

I said above that, had Wheen restricted himself to genuine pseudoscience (quackery, self-help and so on) I would have recommended his book, but with a few reservations. And the reason I would have reservations even then is that Wheen regularly makes small but annoying factual mistakes, worryingly often commits logical errors (erecting straw men and making ad hominem attacks being most common), sometimes employs very weak arguments, occasionally descends to ugly pettiness and plays hard and fast with evidence on a number of occasions. I won’t try to substantiate all these charges, I’ll simply illustrate a few of them.

Firstly, an example of childish pettiness: in the midst of a discussion of Tony Blair’s political ideology, known as the “Third Way”, we find the following: “Blair also revealed that the Third Way was ‘vibrant’ and ‘passionate’, rather like Bill Clinton’s libido, but also ‘flexible’ and ‘innovative’, like Clinton’s definition of sexual relations” (p. 227). What? Does Wheen really think it is a good idea to intersperse a purportedly serious discussion of the most important political movement of the 90s with weak jokes about Clinton’s sex life? Secondly, a couple of examples of small but annoying factual errors: Wheen thinks Dwight D. Eisenhower was a four star general (p. 172) when he wore five, thinks the “linguistic turn” was a postmodern phenomenon (p. 85) when it was a mainstream philosophical development, and believes Francis Fukuyama is a historian (p. 70) when he’s a political scientist. While these mistakes are of course innocuous individually, cumulatively they undermine one’s hope that Wheen cares about evidence and checks his facts. Thirdly, an example of Wheen playing hard and fast with evidence: “By then, Thatcher’s application of Friedmanite principles – restricting the money supply, cutting public spending – was indeed producing results. During her first year inflation surged from 9 per cent to more than 20 per cent; interest rates and unemployment both rose sharply” (p. 18-19). While inflation did double in the first fourteen months of Thatcher’s first term, it is utterly disingenuous to attribute it to her policies. Thatcher took office in May 1979, after the Iranian Revolution (which culminated in February 1979) set off the Second Oil Crisis, during which the crude oil price more than doubled. Now, either Wheen knows this and he’s deliberately withholding information from his readers to score points (which is bad) or he doesn’t know and is thus ignorant of basic international history (which is worse).

I could carry on multiplying examples of Wheen’s errors or defend Fukuyama, Paul Kennedy, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Friedman and others from the charge that they’re comparable to charlatans like Deepak Chopra, and so on. But I don’t want to try my readers’ patience. I think the take-home message is clear at this point: maybe a third of the book is decent, the rest is poor to appalling. Rather don’t read this book, you have better things to do.


Olson, M. (1982) The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Wheen, F. (2004) How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (London: Harper Perennial)

(Other reviews: Complete Review, Guardian(a), Guardian(b), Telegraph, and Washington Post).

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