Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mumbo Jumbo Wheen Ween and Guff

As you may well know or suspect, Great Men enjoy a good book. I thought it would be a nice idea to throw a few recommendations at you that we've read recently. I asked R-Man for 2 or 3 reviews; in fairness I did not specify a word limit and in typical thoroughness received the following:

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

The technological and democratic advance of humanity and the associated benefits we enjoy are according to Francis Wheen, under attack. For the most part these assailants are predictable and obvious. Although Wheen counters their challenges with humourous √©lan you do wonder if the defence of reason against religiosity and the Modern Hippies of Complementary Medicine has been done better by messrs Dawkins and Goldacre. If you enjoyed Bad Science, The God Delusion or God is not Great – you won’t find a lot new in these chapters, but Wheen’s language is not as strident as Dawkins and I didn’t get any shivers of smuggery that Ben Goldacre (nice guy that I’m sure he is) provokes.

The fascinating element of this book is that in Wheen’s view perhaps the most dangerous foe of science and reason is the very modern thought prevalent in almost every single western university.

The explosion of Post Structuralist Relativist literary criticism would seem to be an odd place to look for an enemy of reason. However, Wheen explains with clear irritation that the academic fashion for considering almost any interpretation on any subject as valid, erodes our ability to understand the absolute truths that Science deals in. Starting with the original thinkers Derrida and Foucault, the idea that a text could be re-interpreted from a myriad of points of view and that each of these views brings further insight into this text is a strong one. It is how I was taught history as these ideas spread throughout academia. Comparing Marxist and traditional explanations of an event of the past did indeed bring greater insight into why that event happened.

I do recall the moment of realisation of their limitation, however. Someone, deeply in earnest tried to convince me that all Darwin had done in his Origin Of The Species was to re-interpret the natural world through the eyes and beliefs of a mid-Victorian white establishment figure and was more of an act of hegemony than it was biology. The idea that his years of exhaustive research had led him to these findings or even the fact that he was right, simply didn’t occur to them.

Wheen quotes Professor Alan Sokal (then of NYU) who sums it more perfectly.

“…anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Glib as this sounds – it is a fundamental issue for post-modern thought when it is considering scientific truths. Absolute Zero is just that, absolute, everywhere, forever. Scientific ideas are not constructs but provable. For example the idea of supersymmetry in particle physics rather nicely solves many of the issues that Dark Matter creates for the standard model of the universe. It has interpreted the universe in a way that makes it work and has been accepted as a useful way to explain the natural phenomena we experience.

There is one issue with this theory - It probably isn’t true. Latest results from the LHC have cast huge doubt on supersymmetry and as physicist are not post-modern they do not argue that their construct de-constructs their own concept of self, relative to the cultural signifier* and therefore still equally as valid. They throw it away and come up with a better idea.

This started me wondering about how post-modern thought had affected other areas and affected me directly. Music and fashion now seem caught in a loop of retro-interpretation with bands seemingly spending more time splicing their “influences” (do you really all listen to Can all day on the tour bus, really?) on press releases than actually learning to play. Irony has been reduced from the subtle discipline so cherished by Kierkegaard into a brash dumb monster for the use of people to insulate themselves from real life. The actual irony of reality TV is that it is probably the least real thing available. But that’s OK, cos it’s “it’s so bad it’s good”

In letters to a young contrarian Christopher Hitchens advised the budding polemist that it is not what you think, but how you think that is important. Wheen’s book is good just because it encourages you to do so, it is accessible, witty and enjoyable to anyone who enjoys the provocation of their enquiring mind.

*I have simply no idea what this is supposed to mean – I merely copied and pasted a couple of lines from the post structuralism Wikipedia page. It is a queer addiction of post-modernity to wrap itself in un-intelligible guff.

You've probably read enough for one day, so I'll save my own choices for later. Instead, in keeping with the above, here's my favourite Ween: