I expected to just read this book by Francis Wheen as a reference (and therefore for it to be a bit boring). I thought it would be like a Ben Goldacre book, super interesting, but not necessarily written to entertain a large audience.
The beginning of the book is almost the opposite. I was immediately absorbed in it and couldn’t put it down. It’s much more Harari than Goldacre.
The book is not just interesting though. It’s also devastating and if the news today isn’t enough to make you feel like we’re screwed, this book might do it.
Wheen starts out by explaining The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This is a movement that started in the 17th century and was based on the idea that “rational inquiry leads to objective truth”.
After this upbeat start of the book, Wheen uses the remainder of the book to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned since 1979. 1979, incidentally, is the year in which I was born but I promise I had nothing to do with this betrayal of reason.
The late 20th-century movement that rejects objective facts, science, reason, and logic is called post-modernism. The movement was popular among progressives and made it a hip thing to talk nonsense and be as vague as possible. Few progressives who didn’t subscribe to this epistemic relativism dared to criticize it for fear of being ridiculed. This feeling was justified as it’s almost impossible to argue against bogus ideas if notions of truth and falsity no longer have any validity. It’s scary and depressing that this seems to be just as relevant today and that we still haven’t found a way to counter it.
What shocked me is the totality with which the world has seemed to reject reason. World leaders whom I have looked up to all my life (even if I might not have agreed with some or even most of their policies) turn out to have been enthusiastic believers in the power of mumbo-jumbo. If world leaders fall for the charms of charlatans, it’s not hard to imagine that entire communities can fall under their spell.
The personal beliefs of these world leaders have led to a lot of spending of public resources and money on all sorts of nonsense and to vulnerable people being exploited.
I expected the book to mostly be about alternative medicine and spiritual beliefs, but a lot of it is focused on economic mumbo-jumbo. The book describes examples of how the west in general, and the US and the UK in particular, have used and are using their power to extend their own power and wealth and to slow down the growth of developing nations. Leaders like Thatcher and Reagan were among the first firm believers in the “trickle-down” effect”, meaning that when the rich get richer, they will share their wealth with the poor, without intervention through taxes and the government. I don’t think anyone still believes this today. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing at an ever greater speed and the further the poor fall behind, the harder it becomes to catch up.
Wheen also explains how the stock markets have gone crazy, especially over internet start-ups. A company nowadays can be worth many millions on the stock exchange without having made any profit and in some cases without realistically being expected to ever do so. As in this case value is literally “in the eye of the beholder” that value can also be diminished if people decide to start selling their shares. This means that people and companies trading stocks can gain a lot of money in a short amount of time, but they can lose it just as easily.
History shows that most people are unable to believe that a large group of people would follow someone who would use violence to oppress opponents, people of a certain race or of a different religion. Even when it happens right under our noses it’s very hard to believe it. Until it’s too late. We all think we wouldn’t fall for it and things will work out in the end. After all, we can clearly see that Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were despots. Surely we are able to spot the next one coming along and prevent similar atrocities from happening again. Unfortunately, we are too gullible and because of that at risk of letting history repeat itself.
If you are willing to have your mind blown and if you think you are able to stomach reading all about how mumbo-jumbo conquered the world I’d urge you to read this book. It provides an eye-opening background story to recent history and hopefully if enough people become aware we can work together on a more reasonable future.