If you’ve listened to any skeptical podcasts worth listening to, you’ve no doubt heard of Professor Richard Wiseman. And if you haven’t heard of him, you should remedy this shortcoming as soon as it’s convenient. Let me just say he more than lives up to his surname.
So after hearing him interviewed on podcasts and seeing him as the token skeptic on various TV documentaries, I finally got around to reading one of his books. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There doesn’t waste any time trying to argue against ridiculous paranormal claims. Instead, the book takes it as read that these phenomena simply don’t exist. In this sense, Wiseman knows his audience. I’m well aware that the Fox sisters were frauds, and I know that dreams don’t have the power of prophecy. What I find interesting about this book is the way it explores the psychology behind these beliefs. Why are some people so willing, even eager, to believe in such things as UFOs, mind control and ghosts? How might they be tricked and taken in by charlatans?
Wiseman is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, and with Paranormality he has indeed given the public a popular psychology book that is well worth reading. It runs the gamut from fortune telling, to mediumship to the always popular ghost hunting, and to many strange places in between. While Wiseman does take the time to offer brief explanations as to how different con artists can pull off some of these “supernatural” feats (for example, how mediums and psychics use cold reading in order to speak to the dead or predict your future), the purpose here is not to debunk; there are plenty of other books out there that can lay claim to that feat. Instead, Wiseman focuses on the psychological reasons why some people so easily fall for this stuff (and why others are, in the words of Pascal by way of Hitchens, “so made that they cannot believe”).
To make his points, Wiseman avails himself of case studies and research, all of which are presented in layman’s terms. He even includes some experiments that the reader can perform in order to show, for example, how an afterimage can be mistaken for an apparition, or how easy it is to succumb to change blindness. There are even QR codes throughout the book that you can scan with your smartphone in order to be taken to extra, interactive content on Wiseman’s website.
The book is very interesting and makes for a quick read. It’s also quite funny. The only real complaint I had (and this is probably pretty minor to most people) is that he is always very careful to make sure and point out that he is only talking about “fake” psychics and “fake” mediums. My assumption is that this has more to do with the U.K.’s absolutely insane libel laws, and less about whether Wiseman believes there is such a thing as a “real” psychic or “legitimate” medium. (I guess here I should insert the obligatory challenge to any of you totally-real, 100% non-fraudulent psychics and mediums out there: why don’t you go win yourselves a million dollars from the JREF? Not only will you prove to the world that your abilities exist, but you’ll be a millionaire! Already a millionaire? Give it to charity! Everyone loves a charitable person. You know, the kind of person who gives selflessly to those in need . . . instead of fleecing them.)
Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There is that rare skeptical book that might actually convince a few believers, if they’re actually willing to keep an open mind (something which they seem to constantly accuse skeptics of not doing) and look at the evidence. Because so much of the evidence comes from experiments the reader can actually perform, it takes a certain amount of stubbornness to stick to the “I know what I saw/experienced/heard/felt/smelled” story. If you still want to believe that the figure you saw out of the corner of your eye that night when you were alone in the apartment was a ghost, even after reading about afterimages and infrasound, then there is probably nothing capable of swaying your mind. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to admit that maybe there’s a perfectly logical explanation to that prophetic dream you had, rather than a supernatural one bereft of any shred of supporting evidence, but you just don’t know what it might be, then please give this book a read.