Subversive Interview
Patrick Moore

Book Review: Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, by Richard Wiseman

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.


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I get the feeling this book is largely a recruitment drive aimed at easily influenced, young adults and teenagers who perhaps don't yet have the maturity to realise that a controversial topic such as this can be portrayed in very different ways depending on an author's position in the debate.

Too bad the skeptics are blown over like a paper doll...

Girl with X-Ray Eyes can see inside bodies and diagnose illness -- passes the tests of Western scientists -- 1 hour BBC doc.

There is quite a bit of material for concocting amusing stories in psychic research, and in many other fields for that matter (including physics and other scientific disciplines).

Unless Dr Wiseman has ignored the vast amounts of evidence gathered over the last century or so, or has suddenly discovered some way to show how it is either fraud or error, then I fear he may have done his readers a disservice.

from drew hempel
date Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 6:55 PM
subject Chunyi Lin energy master, Mayo Clinic confirmed

hide details 6:55 PM (0 minutes ago)

Dear Dr. Wiseman:

Please consider and publicly comment on the new peer-reviewed, randomized controlled research from the Mayo Clinic confirming "external qi" healing by Chunyi Lin, energy master.

Also Chunyi Lin has x-ray eyes.

Take care,

drew hempel, MA

Well I won't be buying it, which is a shame as I would love to get hold of a properly rigorous attack on paranormal experiences that engaged fully with the evidence, and did so in the context of the current theories in Cognitive Science. Such attacks, and how parapsychologists responded to them, would develop the subject and raise its game in a way no amount of this kind of sneering criticism could ever do.

In that respect I will say this for Susan Blackmore, in that in her book The Dying Brain she did attempt to come up with a coherent physicalist explanation for NDEs. Yes, these have been effectively attacked, notably by Chris Carter in his recent book on the subject. But she was at least engaging with NDEs positively from her position.

Robert, thank you very much for this excellent review. I wasn't going to comment, but after I went away, the issue kept nagging at me. So here I am, commenting. I find myself more disturbed than you seem to be. The impression I get from your review is that Wiseman aims his guns at knocking down the popular side of the paranormal, while acting like the scientific side doesn't even exist. I find that disturbing. Imagine that happening in some other domain that has been investigated by science. Imagine a book, for instance, that explained away global warming by showing that people subjectively rate this summer's heat as higher than past summers simply because they are feeling the discomfort of this summer now. Meanwhile, this book ignored the relevant science to the point where the reader might assume that this science did not even exist. It's hard to imagine such a book being written, let alone being taken seriously by anyone. Why is it so different in the case of parapsychology? Why isn't everyone, including the skeptics, taking Wiseman to task on this?

Are you sure Wiseman doesn't mention Sheldrake? I read the book last week and i thought he did but i would have to look again.

I agree with Robert Perry above. This is an abysmally bad overview of paranormal science. Wiseman even teaches a version of how to have an OBE which sounds absolutely nothing like an OBE experience, more like an exercise in imagination. It is almost as if he is asking for criticism.

Another thing i found strange was that in the book he says that the amount of dreams we have each night as we pass through the sleep stages explains deja vu or precognition. However, nobody who passes through those stages remembers any except the last period dream when they wake up. So this explanation of his fails miserably. If you are unconscious of all those REM dreams except the last one in the morning before rising there is no sense in which to "remember" any of them. I don't know about anybody else, but i remember my dreams fairly often and most of them are not precognitive. When they are precognitive the quality of them is so different to the degree that years after having them they are still extremely vivid in my memory.

Robert, I think there will be quite a strong critical reaction from the parapsychology community, if the messages I've been getting are anything to go by. They hate the feeling that their work is being misrepresented.

But Wiseman is well known as a sceptic, and his book can hardly have been a big surprise. The interesting thing for me will be to see how the British media reacts. If it gets lots of uncritical reviews, without giving the other side of the story, that would bother me. But who knows, it might just stir things up and get a bit of a debate going.

I was quite encouraged by the response to his piece and mine in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Amid all the ignorance and snark there were some quite insightful comments, and people looking for real information.

David, I don't think the book mentions Sheldrake or any parapsychologist, but there's no index, so no quick way to check.

Ok, so RW was on BBC breakfast news talking about Paranormality. His views seem to be aimed at explaining the weakest cases. This is fine, it works. 'Ghost experiences' that amount to hearing a creaking floorboard in an old Tudor mansion can be explained by suggestion and expectation in quite a reasonable way. And the rise of TV programs like Most Haunted probably have much to do with the latest survey results.

But viewers deserve a more accurate picture. I wish that a parapsychologist with positive views were given prime air time to talk about the really interesting paranormal experiences. They would not focus on the weakest cases, thats for sure.

Stanton Friedman likes to suggest that debunkers of the UFO field use 4 main tactics. I think the first tactic applies equally well here:

"What the public doesn't know, we're not going to tell them"

I'm just sitting here imagining how debunkers' lives would change if they were rigorously consistent, and attributed EVERYTHING in their lives to alternative causes. :-)

Does wiseman address the compelling evidence in reincarnation cases.or multiple witnesses for paranormal events?Also does wiseman attemp to debunk good examples of electronic voice phenomena of which i engage in( direct radio voice)which is an advanced form of EVP,two way communication between the spirit world and this world.It is real enough.

I have read the book but now I shall go back and have another re read. It's funny or not really funny how different eyes see different aspects of the same thing........


Magical Witch Spells

what like for example?

Ok, i checked out the matter. Wiseman speaks about Sheldrake in his footnote to chapter 1 (and the first footnote of the book). So Robert, you may not have checked out or remembered this.

Interestingly, if you look at the link in Wiseman's footnote to his website about Jaytee the dog, you can see that not only Rupert Sheldrake has the last word on the matter but if you click on the link to SHeldrake's opinion about it he thoroughly debunks Wiseman. It is worth looking at just to double check the evidence.

Briefly, Sheldrake says that he did hundreds of tests of Jaytee then plotted the data on graphs to get the statistical analysis. Whereas Wiseman and his "friends" only tested Jaytee 4 times. But the crucial point to notice is that Jaytee often went to the porch (to signal his psychic ability to know when his owner was returning home) many times in the first hour of the owners' absence. From the data collected by Wiseman it would appear that Jaytee visited the porch many times irregardless of when his owner was returning home and therefore the whole thing is proof that psychic phenomena doesn't exist.

Now we can see how Wiseman lies.

'Wiseman speaks about Sheldrake in his footnote' - it's true, and I should have referenced that. On the other hand most readers won't go past the main text, so they won't get the full picture.

These omissions are an issue for both sides. Eg sceptics rightly complain that in many historical accounts of the birth of spiritualism no mention is made of the fact that the Fox sisters debunked themselves.

'From the data collected by Wiseman it would appear that Jaytee visited the porch many times irregardless of when his owner was returning home' - This data was also collected by Sheldrake, who states:

'In the three experiments Wiseman did in Pam's parents' flat, Jaytee was at the window an average of 4% of the time during the main period of Pam's absence, and 78% of the time when she was on the way home. This difference was statistically significant. When Wiseman's data were plotted on graphs, they showed essentially the same pattern as my own. In other words Wiseman replicated my own results.'

The point was not just about visits to the porch, it was time spent at the porch. It's puzzling that Wiseman didn't understand this when he embarked on his experiment, which I suppose was down to insufficient communication with the family, or lack of clarity on their part.

Shelrake's experiments demonstrate the correlation, even when the owner's journey times are randomised. Wiseman's experiments didn't disprove this correlation, they merely obscured it in the way they were reported.

Wiseman did succeed in showing that there is no clear unambigous effect, as there would have been if the dog had sat quietly in its basket for four hours and then jumped up at the exact time when the owner got into a taxi to come home. But this was not Sheldrake's claim - it was the claim made by TV presenters who had misunderstood the evidence.

The problem here is that Wiseman understood all this quite well. It was much easier for him to debunk the media claim than to debunk Sheldrake, who he didn't even mention (as is also the case in the main body of his chapter). But it didn't stop him from then implying that his experiments had also negated Sheldrake's, when they had done nothing of the kind. As I understand he, he himself concedes this, and argues now that the two merely differ over the interpretation.

I'm not sure what you mean by Wiseman letting Sheldrake have the last word. The last paper that Wiseman lists on his website states his "concerns" with Sheldrake's experiments, in which typically he buries them under negative conjectures and speculations. This works for debunkers far better than when they try to do experiments themselves.

Finally, it's hard to see what scientific merit Wiseman's experiments have over Sheldrake's. Sheldrake at least was clear that he was performing a statistical study. Wiseman by contrast was trying to make a direct observation. But this is not what parapsychologists generally do in telepathy experiments. No parapsychologist would claim to have demonstrated telepathy in four experiments, just as no critic can claim to have demonstrated its absence in four experiments.

As I say, it's fair for Wiseman to raise criticisms about Sheldrake's experiments, but for his supporters to argue that Wiseman's experiments were superior is entirely misconceived.

Unlike you, Robert, who try to be as fair as possible in your own book, the skeptics are not honest dealers.

On the one hand, I am behind you in trying to see the good in these guys. As fellow human beings, they deserve to be treated as such. But behind the smiling media masks, they are, in fact, recalcitrant liars and vicious propagandists. They need to be called out on it.

Wiseman's book may have fun and wit, but that's the whole point, isn't it? To make the propaganda go down with a spoon full of sugar.

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