Book Review: Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

There are many books on the paranormal, horoscopes, mediums, NDEs, OBEs, haunted houses and other such areas that make us think that there is something going on in the world that science cannot explain. On the other side there are many citing scientific evidence that it is, really, just a load of old rubbish (which most of my readers will know is my view).

Most of us, though fairly rational most of the time, will have some element of the metaphysical to which we cling. It might be religion or belief in ghosts or overpriced apparent magic water that we use instead of conventional medicine. For most, it is the idea that the alignment of balls of rock and gas hundreds of light years away from this tiny planet somehow dictates our character or what sort of day we are going to have.

But how many of those books look at these phenomena as manifestations of human psychology, pointing to a desperate need to believe in these things that detract our mundane lives? Very few outside of psychology text books and this one is the most well known. Another, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is on my shelf too.

The introduction gives us the example of Jaytee the ‘psychic’ dog who appeared in Paul McKenna’s TV show, and the experiment to determine whether he was able to determine when his owner was coming home from work, the pub, the supermarket etc. As expected, the test proved the truth was nothing of the sort. There is a brief biography of James Randi and how he became the world’s most famous sceptic, starting at an early age and established JREF, including that prize fund of $1m. So far despite many claimants, none has stood up to scrutiny.

The first chapter looks at mediums and some of the characters that Randi and others have exposed over the years. Sobering was the test that took a control sample of photographs and showed them to a group of people who claimed to have psychic powers and a group that made no such claim. Each were asked to make assumptions about the person in the photograph. The hit rate was no different between each group and neither group had results of particular note. It then goes on to demonstrate the psychology and tricks employed by such people and how easy it is to pull the wool over our eyes. It explains how such people play on natural egocentrism and selective memory in spreading word of their success. There are even practical exercises you might try yourself.

The following chapters cover OBE’s (out of body experiences), NDEs, (near death experiences), Mind Over Matter, ghosts and prophecy. All of them are given a full examination and dismissal as Wiseman painstakingly highlights the common tricks such people employ, failed scientific experiments and even anecdotes that are repeated over and over again in paranormal books – Wiseman gives us another side of the story and they are often vastly different from those presented in the mystical writers tales. The exercises add an element of fun and the references to open-source papers means that you can really investigate these things for yourself. Want to know how to experience your own Out of Body Experience? This books shows you how and it also explains how the phenomenon works and dismisses any suggestion that it is paranormal.

I found the section on ghosts to be the most interesting; specifically how the overwhelming majority can be put down to hypnogogia and the associated mysteries of what happens to our bodies and in our brains when we are sleeping. Very fascinating in that this process is still not fully understood even if the effect are.

The most compelling theme for me in this book is the shockingly awful reliability of ‘eyewitness testimony’ so frequently cited in tales of the paranormal, and particularly in religious experiences where we already have a large group of willing believers. This is incredibly eye-opening from the standpoint of how the ideas examined in this book rely so heavily on anecdote and the problems of human memory.

If you are fans of Derren Brown or James Randi, this book is for you.

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