Diary - Francis Wheen

It's a treat to be accused of splenetic grumpiness by John Gray, the Screaming Lord Sutch of academe

I am indebted to Kathy Cox, the schools superintendent for the state of Georgia, who has proposed banning the word "evolution" from science textbooks. It evokes "the monkeys-to-man sort of thing", she explains, and might thus distress pupils and their parents. If she didn't exist, my publisher's PR department would have had to invent her. In my new book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, I suggest that millions of apparently intelligent people have gone bonkers in the past 25 years, and one of my many exhibits for the prosecution is the revival of creationism. Because of the year-long gap between delivery of a manuscript and production of the finished book, there's always a fear that one's argument will seem ever so slightly passe. No danger of that now, thanks to Kathy Cox. Whether we'll ever be able to enlighten her - or the fundamentalists whom she appeases - is another matter. To accuse these people of reverting to the Dark Ages is to forget that this is indeed where they want to live.

When the Kansas board of education voted in 1999 to remove evolution from the curriculum, the local Topeka Capital-Journal carried the following reader's letter: "I am writing in response to the poor souls out there who believe that the state board of education has taken education back to the Dark Ages. I say it's about time! . . . Take my children back to the Dark Ages, where truth was taught and they received the education they deserved." It may have been a hoax. Having read similar comments from citizens of Georgia in the past fortnight, I'd say that was a rash assumption.

From Denning to Hutton - via Widgery, Bingham, Franks, Scott, Hammond and probably several other grandees whom I have forgotten - official inquisitors never deliver a knock-out blow. There's no reason to suppose that milord Butler will be any different. Chaired by trusty babus and boxwallahs, these investigations always conclude that cabinet ministers and Whitehall mandarins are essentially honourable chaps who can't have done anything seriously wrong. They are reminiscent of the fellow-travelling British lawyer Dudley Collard QC, who returned from the Moscow show trials of 1937 convinced that the defendants' confessions were all genuine. As he explained in his book Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others, to say that the confessions were extracted under torture would imply that Comrade Stalin was not a gentleman - a possibility so manifestly absurd and insulting that Collard dismissed it at once.

Nevertheless, public inquiries aren't wholly worthless, even if their verdicts are. In my garden shed I still have a well-thumbed pile of documents and testimony collected by the Scott inquiry, which shed a brilliant light on how ministers and senior officials behave when they think the public can't see them. The same applies to Hutton: however inadequate and flimsy his conclusions, the actual evidence he elicited (and posted on his website) means that the old booby didn't entirely waste our time. If it hadn't been for the death of David Kelly, many years would have passed before we could read those revealing e-mails that pinged back and forth between Downing Street and the Joint Intelligence Committee.

What we need is an inquiry in permanent session, never reaching any conclusions but continually gathering and publishing confidential information that illuminates recent history. There are, for example, still many frustratingly unanswered questions about the Westland affair: almost two decades on, it's hard to believe that security considerations and commercial sensitivity can be used as an excuse to keep us in the dark. Better still would be a proper Freedom of Information Act that enabled us to discover the truth for ourselves. But that is about as likely as a rave review of my new book from Carole Caplin.

Actually, many reviewers have been remarkably generous - notably Suzanne Moore in the NS, who paid me several handsome compliments even though I take a swipe at her in a chapter on Princess Diana. More astonishing was a full-page eulogy in the Daily Mail, a newspaper described in my book as the chief British purveyor of mumbo-jumbo. No such surprises from Professor John Gray, the Screaming Lord Sutch of academe. His review for the Independent complained that the book was a "rambling and bilious tirade" against "ill-assorted hate figures" such as Milton Friedman, Deepak Chopra and Ayatollah Khomeini. It's a treat to be accused of splenetic grumpiness by a man whose own jeremiads make Victor Meldrew sound like Milly-Molly-Mandy. But he omits to mention that another target of Wheen's spleen is, er, Professor John Gray, whose bizarre intellectual odyssey is chronicled in chapter eight. Mightn't a brief declaration of interest have been in order?

At parties I'm always the last guest to depart, and my book launch was no exception. Noticing the presence of Lynne Truss, whose Eats, Shoots and Leaves tops the bestseller list, Ian Hislop suggested that I should now write my autobiography. The title? Eats, Drinks and Doesn't Leave.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: a short history of modern delusions (Fourth Estate, £16.99)