Sunday, February 11, 2007

Book review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I am currently reading Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, and am about 250 pages into it. Normally I would write a review of a book before finishing it (or giving up on it), but I think that I can safely assume that my impressions so far will not be changed when I've finished the book.

As the title shows, the book purports to explain how mumbo-jumbo got so widespread the last couple of decades. In a way it does, but only in the trivial sense of describing the mumbo-jumbo fads since Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher came into power in their respective countries - events that Wheen think led the way for irrationality. However, the book doesn't go much into the deeper "how" of which mechanisms actually made it possible for those fads to get so widespread, even though they make so little sense.

I can't say I am too impressed with the book for a number of reasons. First of all, I think it lacks the dept necessary for such a book to stand out - as it is, it's just a long list of descriptions of mumbo-jumbo fads, most of which had little impact on anyone else than a select crowd of people. Second of all, I think Wheen fails to make the case for mumbo-jumbo being any more prevalent now than in the past - given that this is the basic premise of the book, I find that failing rather problematic.
Last, but not least, it contains undocumented comments like this one from page 198:

In August 1998 he [Clinton] bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan to distract attention from Lewinsky's testimony to the Starr inquiry

Such statements doesn't exactly inspire me to trust the research and scholarship behind the book in general.

All in all, I would only recommend the book as a brief introduction to the numerous rather irrational fads from the last decades, but not to people who wants a deeper understanding of either the fads themselves or the reasons they became so popular.

Does anyone have a suggestions for similar books, that go deeper into the mechanisms (be they psychological or otherwise), and dwell less on the fads?



Blogger Kaethe said...

Have you read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay? It is the best place to start. I don't think there's been a lot of good research on why people go for mumbo-jumbo. I'm sorry this book wasn't it.

You might try reading some of the research on affective forcasting. It turns out that people are really bad at predicting the future: we overestimate the positive and negative effects of specific choices or events, and underestimate the positive and negative effects of more minor, chronic conditions. I think that has something to do with it, as does our tendency to see patterns where none exist, and our really bad (collective) understanding of probability. When you add in early training in the acceptance of crazy ideas (tooth fairies, gods, egg-delivering bunnies) and a willful belief in anything that makes life seem prettier or better (auras, angels), I think you find that humans are great at believing mumbo-jumbo. The wonder is that we ever have periods of enlightenment.

Delighted you're blogging. It's so much easier than looking elsewhere for your comments.

February 12, 2007 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are quite a few books in the skeptical press which attempt to explain why people invest so much time and energy into mumbo-jumbo.

Off the top of my head, I'd recommend Shermer's 'Why People Believe Weird Things' and The Amazing Randi's 'The Faith Healers'. Both of which are worth reading. I confess that I haven't yet read Carl Sagan's 'The Demon Haunted World', but that one also gets pretty good reviews.

Another book which may be worth persuing is Robert Levine's 'The Power of Persuasion'. This particular book attempts to discover some of the psychological basis for establishing trust, which then can be miss-used by the mumbo-jumbo salesmen.

And, of course, kaete's comments and recommendation is very apt. I used to hand out copies of Mackay's book at every opportunity. The attribute his book as the reason I could identify and get out of the stock market in 1999.


February 12, 2007 5:34 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Thank you for your kind words and recommendations Kaethe.

I haven't gotten around to reading Mackay's book yet, but since it's a classic on the subject, I have it on my reading list.

Flex, those books all sounds interesting, I'll certainly try to get hold of them.

February 13, 2007 9:52 AM  

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