Years ago I asked Richard Wiseman why he was so interested in the paranormal. If it's nonsense, as he believes, then why spend time investigating and writing about it? "Because it's fun", he said emphatically. For all his ardent disbelief he has an enthusiasm that's rare in debunking sceptics.
So I expected to find Paranormality a lively read and in that respect it doesn't disappoint. The jokes are frequent and funny, and it's mercifully free from the finger-wagging sarcasm that can make sceptic critiques so heavy-going. Wiseman doesn't seem to find paranormal belief morally reprehensible - at least, not much. He just thinks it's mistaken and delights in revealing the tricks. The book blends serious psychology - conveyed with a light touch and enlivened with "how-to" panels that show readers how they too can pretend to be psychic or have an out-of-body experience - with comical episodes drawn from the literature of psychic research, of which there is a rich supply.
Throughout history,Wiseman says,
a handful of researchers have dedicated their lives to discovering what supposedly paranormal phenomena tell us about our behaviour, beliefs and brain. Daring to take a walk on the weird side, these pioneering mavericks have carried out some of the strangest research ever conducted, including removing the head of the world's top thought-reader, infiltrating several cults, attempting to weigh the souls of the dying, and testing a talking mongoose. Just as the mysterious Wizard of Oz turned out to be a man behind a curtain pushing buttons and pulling levers, so their work has yielded surprising and important insights into the psychology of everyday life and the human psyche.
Wiseman says he was inspired as a first year psychology student by hearing Susan Blackmore talking on television about the value of investigating paranormal claims, not to find out whether they are genuine, but rather to understand the psychology that lies behind people's beliefs and experiences. Here he focuses on psychological studies that can help explain, for instance, why people think they have seen a ghost or had an out-of-body experience. In one experiment carried out by statistician James Houran, two groups of people were asked to walk round a disused theatre, which had no reputation for being haunted, and ask to describe how they felt. One group, having been told that the building was haunted, reported ghostly sensations, while the one that was told it was simply undergoing renovation reported nothing of the kind, an indication of the role played by suggestibility in these situations.
In this chapter I enjoyed the account of a farcical ghost hunt at Hampton Court Palace, when Wiseman was invited to investigate ghostly sightings of Catherine Howard, one of Henry VIII's doomed wives. The proceedings kicked off with a press conference in which a palace official talked about the history of the haunting, followed by Wiseman describing his forthcoming investigation. There was a brief break before Wiseman went on, and he had just stepped out to get some fresh air when a strange thing happened.
A car containing two tipsy teenagers drove slowly past me. One of the teenagers wound down the window and threw an egg at me. The egg smashed on my shirt. Unable to change, I tried to remove the worst of the stains and then returned to the press conference. A few minutes into my talk one of the journalists noticed the marks on my shirt and, assuming that it was ectoplasm asked whether Catherine Howard had already slimed me. I replied 'Yes. This is going to be a tougher investigation that I first thought.'
Besides ghosts, there's a section on fortune-telling, in which we learn that "for over a century researchers have tested the claims of mediums and psychics and found them wanting". This contains a very full description of the cold-reading method, with no fewer than six different techniques revealed by a phony psychic (although many psychics use them without being aware of it, the author suggests).
Susan Blackmore's speculations are given an airing in a chapter on out-of-body experiences, although typically this begins with the decidedly odd episode of an American physician Duncan MacDougall comparing the weights of terminal hospital patients immediately before and after their deaths in order to establish the weight of the human soul (21 grams, he decided). In a chapter on mind over matter there's a good deal about James Hydrick, who pretended to move pencils and turn pages of a directory by mind power - he actually did it by blowing on them as demonstrated by James Randi on television. Wiseman also describes a trip to India to investigate "Godman" Swami Premenanda and his gift for materialising vibhuti, the fine ash used in Hindi worship (it dried up when a clear plastic bag was placed around his hand).
The Fox sisters figure largely in a chapter titled "Talking to the Dead", with Margaret Fox explaining that the mysterious "raps" heard in their Hydseville home in 1848 were actually caused by she and her sister bumping apples tied to string on the floor (to fool their mum). There's also a full description of the experiment carried out by Michael Faraday, demonstrating that the phenomenon of spirits moving tables was actually caused by sitters themselves, applying pressure to the surface of the table. Other chapters cover Harry Price's abortive investigation of a talking mongoose, the damaging effects of brainwashing and how to avoid it, and the phenomenon of precognitive dreaming (it's merely an appearance caused by coincidence).
In sum this is a decidedly light confection, with the emphasis as much on entertainment as on serious psychology. It will confirm sceptics in their view that the paranormal is just a bit of nonsense, not at all true, but "fun to talk about at parties", as Wiseman says. That's fine, but I'm afraid it will also convince many people who haven't thought about the subject much that Wiseman really has, as Richard Dawkins suggests in his typically rhetorical back-jacket puff, "blown away the psychic fog and let in the clear light of reason".
I'm often irritated by book reviews that criticise authors for not writing the book the critic thinks they should have written. On its own terms Paranormality brilliantly does the job it sets out to do - a cheerful popularisation in the style of Wiseman's previous books like Quirkology and 59 Seconds, and which could do well.
But in the wider scale of things it matters if an author selects material in such a way as to create a deeply partisan picture of his subject. The really remarkable thing about this book is the absence from it of any mention of research, of which there is a great abundance, that supports the genuineness of the ideas that Wiseman takes to be false. He doesn't argue with them, he just ignores them.
Blackmore and Wiseman have some claim to be serious investigators, but there's no mention of parapsychologists such as Stanley Krippner, Charles Honorton or Dean Radin, nor of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, one of the most active scientists in the field, let alone late nineteenth century figures such as Myers, Hodgson, Gurney or William James, who presumably are all included in the statement: 'For over a century researchers have tested the claims of mediums and psychics and found them wanting'.
For instance the book begins by presenting Wiseman's encounter with Jaytee, the telepathic dog, as debunking a media claim, yet without once mentioning Sheldrake's far more extensive work nor the complexities involved in this research. Under pressure, Wiseman seems to have conceded that his meagre data actually confirms Sheldrake's and that they merely differ over the interpretation, but that is not at all how it appears from his account. Sheldrake isn't allowed a look in.
Nor is there any mention of the very considerable remote viewing and ganzfeld telepathy experiments. Wiseman has been involved in this work as a critic, and as I understand it has run out of objections to the point where he now agrees remote viewing and ganzfeld have been proved, at least by the standards of other sciences - he just considers that to be insufficient. There's an discussion to be had about that, to be sure, but it's a long way from the "all-in-the-mind" thesis adopted here.
Some of the studies Wiseman describes seem potentially relevant, but others look trivial and their application uncertain. I've no doubt that suggestibility plays a part in ghost episodes, but is it really surprising if people who have been asked to describe what they feel while walking around a supposedly haunted building reward the experimenters with what they seem to be angling for? And isn't that process itself richly confirmed by psychological studies?
Traditional ghostly hauntings actually play a rather small part in serious psychic research, whereas there has been some interesting work on apparitions, a topic dismissed here in two sentences. So-called poltergeist episodes are hardly mentioned at all. How would an event like the Miami disturbances investigated by William Roll in 1967 - in which more than 200 movements of objects were logged by competent witnesses, with no person nearby, and no evidence of vibrations, strings or mechanical contrivances whatever - fit into a book like this?
Again, if one was exposed to the history of the Fox sisters, instead of the sanitised myth that crops up in all sceptic books, and which Wiseman faithfully reproduces here, one would soon start questioning how two little girls bumping apples on the floor could induce panic among hundreds of people, with many witnesses giving signed statements about their inability to trace the cause. It would only require a tiny bit of critical thought.
How ironic, too, given the huge importance attached by critics to the distortions of memory as a means to explain away troublesome claims, that in this instance they ignore statements made barely two weeks after the onset of the disturbances while accepting at face value one that was made 40 years later.
Faraday spun another illusion with his explanation for table-turning, which for all its ingenuity doesn't remotely explain what was widely reported. But if your author isn't telling you that, how will you know?
"When people with strong beliefs are presented with ambiguous information relevant to their views, they will see what they want to see". So says the author in the chapter on fortune telling, referring to the phenomenon of selective memory. Absolutely so. Psychology affects all of us, sceptics included. Oddly, although they are often psychologists themselves, they just don't seem to be aware of it.