Wednesday 18 February 2009

Francis Wheen: How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Anyone who is likely to read my blog will not need it pointing out to them that the modern world is full of mumbo jumbo. Irrational beliefs seem to be the norm, whether they be pseudoscience, new age mythologies, quackery, astrology, conspiracy theories, mediums or turbo charged religious fundamentalists.

Can we trace all this mumbo jumbo back to a point in time where the world was primed for the spread of these unfounded beliefs over rationality. This book suggests that a likely candidate might be 1979. I have always associated 1979 with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the Clash’s "London Calling”, but maybe I should try and look at the wider world. Francis Wheen identifies two key events in this year whose consequences, he competently argues, are major contributors to paving the way to today’s world of woo. The first is the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran on the 1st February 1979, and the second is election of Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister on 1st May 1979.

Wheen obviously doesn’t argue that 1979 is a clear demarcation point where such nonsense previously did not exist. He does however take a left-wing political perspective to show how the policy changes set the scene for a series of unrelated beliefs to challenge modernity and enlightenment. Taking a political viewpoint rather than a scientific viewpoint allows this book to encompass a wider remit than say Carl Sagan. Wheen therefore muses on some of the following items:

What turned Britain into a nation of blubbering idiots following the unfortunate accident with a Mercedes, a Parisian tunnel and an over pampered Princess?

How could America’s mid 80’s foreign policy be influenced by the President’s wife’s astrologer?

How did the stock market manage to float dot com companies consisting of nothing much more than a concept on a the back of fag packet for a ludicrous amount a money before a single penny of revenue had been received?

Why are people religiously following the authority of dodgy self appointed life style Gurus and self help books?

Why did people become so attentive to the ravings of Nostradamus and attempt to match up any random convoluted coincidental fact they could dig up

Why has science become so mistrusted?

I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions in the blog, but read the book as it makes a decent and amusing attempt at answering them

The back of the book lists the standard series of glittering reviews. I did however find it quite ironic that it included a rather nice review from the Daily Mail, as I’m sure they’re not completely blameless.

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