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Francis Wheen


A Short History of Modern Delusions

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

Francis Wheen is always a stimulating writer and in this book he sounds off magnificently against a wide variety of targets. He has plenty to choose from in today's world and no doubt everyone will find some omitted that they would have liked to see included, but Wheen covers a pretty good range, including politics, economics, alternative medicine, and post-modernism among others.

A book of this kind needs a guiding principle if it is not to become shapeless, and Wheen finds it in the betrayal of the idea of the Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton laid its foundations and their aims were taken up and developed by others in the eighteenth century, notably Thomas Jefferson, who is cited a number of times in these pages. Wheen regards the Enlightenment as not so much an ideology as an attitude. It was "a presumption that certain truths about mankind, society and the natural world could be perceived, whether through deduction or observation, and that the discovery of these truths would transform the quality of life."

The ideals of the Enlightenment, Wheen finds, are being betrayed today in many ways. Reason is in retreat. "We have reached the point at which a British prime minister who styles himself as a progressive moderniser (and who recites the mantra 'education, education, education') can defend the teaching of creationism rather than evolution in school biology classes with no apparent shame or embarrassment." The book is essentially an extended illustration of how this betrayal is being brought about. As such, it is difficult to summarize, since it is really an assembly of examples. Wheen's technique is largely to let his targets speak for themselves and so convict themselves out of their own mouths.

Anyone who has felt enraged at the trivialization of intellectual life by post-modernists or by the inclusion of astrology columns in even 'serious' newspapers will take heart from the treatment such irrationalisms receive here. The book is certainly great fun to read, but the overall impression the reader is left with may not be far from despair. We seem to be overwhelmed by an irresistible wave of insanity. When supposedly intelligent people can be impressed by pronouncements such as Deepak Chopra's claim that 'people grow old and die because they have seen other people grow old and die. Ageing is simply learned behaviour.', what room is left for satire? But at least Wheen's book can help us to laugh even as we drown.

%T How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World
%S A short history of modern delusions
%A Wheen, Francis
%I Fourth Estate
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0-00-714096-7
%P xiv + 358 pp
%K sociology

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