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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

How Mumbo-Jumbo
Conquered the World

(Idiot Proof)

Francis Wheen

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Idiot Proof

Title: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
Author: Francis Wheen
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 287 pages
Availability: Idiot Proof - US
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World - UK
Idiot Proof - Canada
  • UK title: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
  • US title: Idiot Proof
  • UK subtitle: A short history of modern delusions
  • US subtitle: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense
  • Note that British edition comes with a much fancier Index; see Philip Hensher's article in The Independent on Dishonourable mentions (6 July 2004). The apparently more sober American Index doesn't even have an entry for "God" -- and does contain numerous mistakes and omissions.

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining, if not particularly helpful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 12/2/2004 .
The Guardian . 7/2/2004 David McKie
The Guardian . 16/10/2004 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 30/1/2004 John Gray
New Scientist . 27/3/2004 Martin Ince
New Statesman . 26/1/2004 Suzanne Moore
The New Yorker . 26/7/2004 .
The Observer . 1/2/2004 Tim Adams
The Observer . 17/10/2004 Tom Templeton
The Spectator A 31/1/2004 Philip Hensher
Sunday Times . 1/2/2005 Ferdinand Mount
The Telegraph A 9/2/2004 Will Cohu
TLS A 13/2/2004 E. S. Turner
The Washington Post . 22/6/2004 Chris Lehmann

  Review Consensus:

  Entertaining, at least

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a great deal of nonsense talked in the world, and this panoramic book is an entertaining guide. It is best read as a series of individual essays, of sharply varying interest. Some of them are excellent, some overstated and some more nonsensical than their targets. Which chapters fall into which category will depend on the reader's political, religious and cultural outlook." - The Economist

  • "Sometimes you think he must be making it up; but he's not. (...) Some of the evidence Wheen quotes here goes way beyond parody (.....) But if Wheen's book succeeds in starting to shift the balance between reason and sentimentality, between the lavish prompts of the heart and the colder ones of the brain, between rigorous analysis and twaddle cloaked in obscurity, then I think the ghost of Jefferson will have every right, and reason, to be proud of him." - David McKie, The Guardian

  • "The tide of ignorance may be irreversible, but at least we can go down fighting." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "In the end, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is a book of nostalgia. Baffled and unnerved by a world in which his judgements lack authority and his hopes are mocked, Wheen has produced a plangent lament for the days when bien-pensant thinkers were figures of some importance, cultural authorities to whom the rest of society deferred. One suspects that few of his readers will share his angst. Still, even at his silliest he is never dull." - John Gray, The Independent

  • "Francis Wheen's book has the index of the year." - Martin Ince, New Scientist

  • "The reason Wheen never tries to understand why people believe the daft stuff that they do is because of his innate faith in argument and reason. If he knows something is nonsense, why doesn't everyone else ? (...) Nothing makes sense any more and it bloody well should. Wheen's indignation is righteous and well worth reading. It will greatly appeal to those who are as reasonable as him. I'm not, and that's probably because I am a different star sign." - Suzanne Moore, New Statesman

  • "Itís hard to quarrel with the foolishness of some of Wheenís targets. But his larger thesis -- that Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher spearheaded a retreat from the values of the Enlightenment back toward those of the Middle Ages -- is so thinly reasoned as to seem to warrant its own entry in Wheenís encyclopedia absurdica." - The New Yorker

  • "Wheen has a Swiftian relish for exposing the cant that attends the 'new irrationality', particularly when it is allied with corporate or political greed. His enormous range of arcane gossip and obscure biographical fact, product of many years fossicking at Private Eye, informs much of this contemporary history" - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Wheen is doing his valiant (and hilarious) best for the rational." - Tom Templeton, The Observer

  • "His examples are powerful, and rather frightening. (...) This amusing, intelligent and elegantly argued book is as good a demonstration of the values it defends as could be imagined." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Francis Wheen takes a hugely enjoyable sweep through the tangled thickets of superstition and gullibility in which modern man likes to ramble. He takes particular delight in reminding us how easily fools are parted from their money and how many of them there are." - Ferdinand Mount, Sunday Times

  • "Wheen presents his argument as a series of chapters on religion, economics and so on, but in practice the book is a brilliant, extended satiric essay." - Will Cohu, The Telegraph

  • "In an earlier day this book might have been burned by the public hangman. It is great fun to read and is likely to defeat any early-to-bed resolution." - E. S. Turner, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Idiot Proof, while certainly given to extended bouts of polemic glee, is actually a pretty sober work of criticism masquerading as a rant -- which, when you think of it, is itself a sobering criticism of what it takes for reasoned debate to get noticed in our new millennial literary marketplace." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (re-titled for the American market as Idiot Proof) is, as the British sub-title has it: A short history of modern delusions. The annus horribilis for Wheen is 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini's establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran and the beginning of the Thatcher era in Great Britain the jolt that should have woken up people to the fact that the ideals of Enlightenment definitively no longer had much of a hold or influence. Add the election of the always chipper gipper, Ronald Reagan, as president of the most powerful nation in the world a year later and it was pretty much all over.
       Wheen focusses on the past quarter century, though he does acknowledge occasionally that common sense has previously suffered devastating blows as well. But the contemporary and proximate obviously resonates more clearly -- and is concern for considerably worry.
       Wheen's book is a maddening quick dash through much of the idiocy so popular in the world now. From astrology- and new-age-consulting world leaders to deconstructionists, from doom-sayers (grandly (and repeatedly) announcing the apocalypse which still hasn't come) to New Economy defenders (who believe the rules -- and basic market fundamentals -- are somehow different now) Wheen shows that common sense is often in short supply -- and often especially so when important things are at issue.
       It's a fun tour. Wheen cuts through all the bullshit, and cites a dizzying amount of gloriously misguided nonsense: it would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic. From the leaders to the followers, the Left to the Right, from academia to the finance sector he skewers easy targets everywhere.
       Astonishing gullibility, an unfounded faith in superstition, and, above all, continued belief in the super-natural (including, but not limited to, belief in deities), as well as politicians' craven pandering to loud and influential yet ignorant segments of the population (such as those who want children to be taught Creationsism) have far-reaching (and negative) consequences touching almost all aspects of modern life. Common sense seems to hold little sway any longer. (Okay, that's only how it seems in the face of all of these examples, but the prevalence of delusion and irrationality is still quite stunning.)
       Occasionally, Wheen goes overboard. He makes proper fun of someone named Deepak Chopra who, among much else, apparently believes: "Aging is simply learned behavior", and suggests a life-span of 130 years shouldn't be that much of a problem. But Wheen goes on to claim:

Why the longevity formula failed to work for Princess Diana, with whom he lunched shortly before her death, remains a mystery.
       Surely not: even Chopra would surely acknowledge that any life can be pre-maturely cut short by an accident (which, as we understand it, was what happened to Princess Diana); indeed, deaths like hers are the one sort of counter-example that don't really serve to weaken Chopra's case. (When he dies of natural causes before he reaches triple digits, then Wheen will have a proper counter-argument.)

       How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World / Idiot Proof is entertaining -- but not particularly helpful. It doesn't suggest how people can be brought to their senses. Wheen offers a few explanations for the incredible popularity of (and faith in) mumbo-jumbo -- "The new irrationalism is an expression of despair by people who feel impotent to improve their lives and suspect that they are at the mercy of secretive, impersonal forces", etc. -- but no real ways to counter it. It seems unlikely the believers will be swayed by his merciless exposure of their foolishness. The truth is always right, but the truth doesn't always hold that much appeal.

       Note that the Notes -- at least in the American edition -- are selective, at best, with many direct quotes given without proper attribution.
       Note also that British edition apparently comes with a much fancier Index. (In his review Martin Ince praises it as "the index of the year", while Philip Hensher, in his review in The Spectator (31 January 2004), says it is: "worth the cover price on its own".) Philip Hensher also describes it in part in The Independent in his article, Dishonourable mentions (6 July 2004). The American Index doesn't even have an entry for "God" -- and does contain numerous mistakes and omissions.

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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: Reviews: Francis Wheen: Other books of interest under review:
  • Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (UK title: Intellectual Impostures). The notorious article, and a lengthy explication of what Sokal was trying to prove.
  • Alan Sokal looks Beyond the Hoax

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About the Author:

       British author Francis Wheen is deputy editor of Private Eye.

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© 2004-2008 the complete review

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