Book Review: Paranormality

In an earlier post, I refuted a handful of responses to an interview of Richard Wiseman after the release of his new book, and now, I have finally had the chance to read the book itself. Let’s just say that those who need this book the most are the ones who are likely finding every excuse not to read it.

What?Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There by Professor Richard Wiseman is a handbook of the ways that our perceptions are easily fooled. Anyone familiar with Wiseman’s website knows that he often engages his readers in experiments, and this book is no exception. In fact, it is the first I’ve seen of an interactive book, in that he not only provides some exercises for the reader, all very easy to perform, but intersperses QR codes throughout, which provide smartphones enabled with appropriate applications the ability to go directly to video demonstrations and interviews – for the readers without a Star Trek tricorder, the links are provided alongside. Since he could not find a publisher willing to bite on this subject matter in the states, a truly ridiculous state of affairs considering some of the total schlock I’ve seen printed, it is also available as an e-book, able to be read on any of the e-readers that can load the Kindle format, or (as in my case) Kindle software for the PC. For any web-enabled reader, these links are clickable.

Wiseman investigates the type of curious phenomena that usually get labeled as paranormal, mystical, or spiritual, but this leads him into the more down-to-earth disciplines such as psychology and perception as well – in fact, he demonstrates that these are often inextricably linked. There is a difference between what we experience and what we think we experience, all too often, and his goal is to provoke the reader to understand this. Magicians exploit this all the time, and the funny thing is, we accept it in those circumstances; virtually no one believes that the sudden appearance of a coin or the rejoining of snipped rope occurs through supernatural powers. Curiously, though, many people cannot apply this knowledge to television psychics and ghostly encounters – disbelief is not only avoided, it is often considered to be close-minded and stubborn, thus the negative connotations of the word “skeptic.” Wiseman examines how often we are mistaken about what we experience, from historical through present-day examples, and includes several reader exercises to demonstrate how easy it is to fool our senses – he even instructs the reader how to have an out-of-body experience, or engage in lucid (controlled) dreaming! This helps establish that such phenomena cannot simply be put down to the intensely gullible or to elaborate hoaxes, much less actual paranormal experience, but are symptoms of human perception and mentality. In addition, he shows how testing these cases sometimes requires both creativity and insight.

Those remain the most interesting portions of the book, despite the participatory exercises. Michael Faraday’s method of testing subconscious muscle movements, later to be termed “ideomotor actions,” was quite clever, and more importantly, required the consideration that table tipping might, just might, be caused by something other than spirits. Belief is one of humanity’s most damaging traits, because it halts all examination into something curious – the people who discover not only the hoaxes, but the peculiar functioning of both body and mind, could only do so by questioning the given explanations. Wiseman does a great job in allowing the reader to see for themselves how many peculiar functions our bodies and minds really have.

In some ways, however, this may backfire. Some of Wiseman’s demonstrations work better in groups of people, where the average results can show the point better than a single example, which may fall outside the predictions. Also, my guess is that the reader is typically going to be on their guard against thinking traps from the very nature of the book, and thus make some effort not to be among the “average” respondent. In one case, he asks the reader to memorize a set of words, and later on asks for these to be recounted, giving some key words as reminders. The point is to show how simple cues could help spark our memory, but in my case, I had already memorized the list through mnemonic structure solely to dodge the thinking trap that I suspected was coming. I also don’t go to parties, which is where many of Wiseman’s exercises would be most effective (and entertaining.)

Another small issue I had is with the overall tone. The writing style that comes through has a hint of simplification to it, as if Wiseman was addressing middle-school students, which isn’t usually necessary even with middle-school students. This wasn’t bad, certainly not condescending, but it seemed to result in the subjects being treated more superficially than was warranted, and could perhaps be frustrating to those who really want more information about such topics. I am probably a bit prejudiced, in that I have studied these topics for a while and know of other works that treat them with greater detail, such as James Randi’s Flim Flam!  Readers familiar with psychics and scam-artists (I know, I said that as if they were two different things) will not find a lot of new information here, but it’s still a handy book, and fun. Wiseman’s approach is open and nonjudgmental, not cynical at all, and he succumbs to the urge to slip some humor in here and there. Readers convinced that psychics and ghosts are real, however, might find too many openings to exploit, and remain unconvinced by the demonstrations.

Now, Wiseman is British, and so isn’t as influenced by US culture, which explains something that I regretted not finding in the book: detailed explanations of the bullshit that is regularly seen in popular shows about psychics and ghost hunters. The aforementioned difficulty with finding an American publishing company would have doomed such a book even more, but one is badly needed here. Some aspects are indeed covered, so don’t let me give the wrong impression; ‘impression’ is in fact just the right word here, since among other examples, Wiseman relates the ease in which mysterious encounters can be induced with suggestion. For those open-minded enough to question the accounts, this is enough to invoke some healthy suspicion, but those who believe that EMF meters must produce hard scientific evidence (because it sounds so technical) are not going to have their boat rocked very much.

As an introduction into critical thinking, perception, and skepticism, this book does a great job, proving to be both informative and entertaining, and even adding some useful tools to the arsenal of the public skeptic. Going straight to video clips is indeed a nice bonus, and Wiseman’s narration is engaging and charming. Additionally, there might be a distinct benefit to allowing a group of people to participate in a table-tipping séance, where any believer must be outside of their comfort zone of supportive websites, and instead within an open atmosphere where the labels of “skeptic” and “debunker” are not a constant mantra. It changes the idea of mundane explanations from the abstract to the demonstrated, with the added emphasis of others saying, “Wow, that was easy!” A well-known trait, also related within the book, is how often the responses of those surrounding us can influence our doubts. While it is easy to consider this just another side of the same coin – bowing to group dynamics that either favor or disfavor the idea of supernatural powers is still the same flaw – the idea of doubting or questioning any aspect of belief is a valid start on the road to critical thinking.

As a dedicated skeptic, however, I found the book a little too much like an appetizer rather than a main course, and wanted it to be longer and more detailed. Moreover, I suspect the subtitle, “Why We See What Isn’t There,” is likely to chase off some of the people that need to read it the most, by openly announcing its skeptical approach. I think Wiseman could do a great job with a more in-depth book on the topic, but it might need to be a wee bit sneakier in its approach.