Paranormality: History, Psychology, and Talking Rodents
The other day I received a book in the mail – it was Paranormality, the latest offering from my friend, Richard Wiseman. I was very excited, because I was on my way to the used bookstore and could use the trade-in value of an unopened book. Unfortunately, I noticed that he had signed it already, thereby cleverly diverting my plans and forcing me to read the thing. Well! I’m glad I did.
I’m often asked by friends and readers to recommend books for those who are just getting into skepticism. The list rarely changes: there’s Sagan’s Demon-haunted World, Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, and for an excellent overview of the way a magician sees things there’s Randi’s FlimFlam.
The only problem with the latter is that the new, possibly unconvinced skeptic may wonder what has happened since 1982. Even Demon-haunted World is now 16 years old, and Why People Believe Weird Things is 14 (though I believe the revised and expanded edition is 8 years old).
Paranormality is very much like the update to Flim-Flam I’ve always wanted, with additional psychological tidbits that, like Shermer’s classic, provide insight into why humans can be so easy to fool sometimes. Wiseman’s background as a magician, a psychologist, and an all-around amusing person serves the book well
The book covers a range of weird topics such as psychics, out of body experiences, ghosts, and prophesy, with a mix of solidly researched history, recent scientific evidence, and tales of Wiseman’s own paranormal investigations involving telepathic dogs and shady gurus.
There also plenty of shout-outs to other researchers, providing a great list for the reader who wants to explore further: Ray Hyman, Barry Beyerstein, Joe Nickell, Sue Blackmore, and of course the Amazing Randi all get love.
For those who have read books like Flim-Flam and followed Wiseman’s career for awhile, some of the book will be familiar territory. I imagine most readers of this site understand cold reading, the Clever Hans effect, and change blindness, for instance. But even I, in my nearly infinite knowledge of all things sceptical (stay with me), found a good deal to discover in Wiseman’s rich retelling of the history of hoaxes, scams and pseudoscience.
For instance, I wasn’t previously familiar with Harry Price, who Wiseman calls a ghost-hunter extraordinaire and personal hero of his. The book lays out Price’s investigation of Gef, the remarkable talking mongoose. “Perhaps rather gratuitously,” Wiseman, writes, “Gef explained that he was quite unlike a normal mongoose.”
Paranormality is a great read for skeptics, and possibly an even better read for that friend or family member you haven’t yet managed to talk into coming to your local Skeptics in the Pub. I, for one, have decided to keep my copy after all.