Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

Lowdown: The real world reasons for the paranormal.
Prof Richard Wiseman's name should be familiar to anyone following the skeptic movement, and for pretty good reasons. This magician turned academic sure is witty, and reading his stuff over the web - YouTube videos, blog and Twitter - offers that rare mix of education and entertainment.
If that wasn't enough to tempt me to read Wiseman's latest book, Paranormality, then the story of its publication was. Paranormality was published in the UK to became a nice best seller, but no American publisher would agree to take it under the weird assumption that books claiming there is no such thing as the paranormal will not sell. Wiseman took the challenge and self published his book in the USA, at least electronically. Not only was proving the stupidity of American publishing a good enough reason for me to want to support him by buying his book, there were added bonuses: First, by buying a self published book I know my money goes where I want it to go the most - to the author. Second, because the book was self published in the USA it was actually cheaper to buy than everywhere else (Wiseman himself confirmed this to me over Twitter).
That is not the only unique fact concerning Paranormality. The book is quite an interactive read, with numerous video quotations. Yes, videos are quoted, via both conventional URLs as well as bar-codes you can photograph with your smart phone; both will take you to the videos Wiseman prepared for you, like this one:

I read the book on my Kindle and used my iPhone to watch the videos (and listen to several audio clips), but it definitely does look like this is a book best read on an Internet enabled tablet.
Now that we're done with the introductions, let's talk a bit about the book itself. Paranormality is a book that sets out to explain the real reasons behind perceived paranormal phenomena. It looks at the lot: ghosts, out of body experiences, talking with the dead, cult mentality, mind readers, palm reading - you name the phenomenon, you'll find it in Paranormality. What you will find are proper, scientifically supported explanations for the phenomenon at hand; do not, however, expect Wiseman to tell you ghosts really do exist (allow me to provide a spoiler and announce there never was non rebukable evidence to support any paranormal phenomenon).
What you should be expecting from Wiseman is a thorough discussion on the psychology behind the paranormal. In doing so Wiseman not only tells us what the psychological reasons for us falling for the paranormal are, but also what the psychological reasons for the existence of this so called paranormal are in the first place. He does it in the same witty, dry humor like manner I know Wiseman to sport on a regular basis over his web pages; that good old British dry sense of humor that won him my Twitter fellowship wins the day for Paranormality, too.
Wiseman's achievement there merits emphasis. Throughout my university studies I have been the victim of a line of professors who saw me and my fellow students as mere distractions to their "proper" work. They treated us accordingly with boring lectures that forced us to look for enlightenment elsewhere. Wiseman is different: his style helps the reader appreciate the subject; his humor makes the reading a joy; and his use of simple language makes the often complex subject matter easily comprehensible. In short, Wiseman is a gifted educator, one of those rare people whose destiny it is to popularize science with the wider public.
If you are looking for a caveat with Paranormality then here it is. For someone like me, a relative veteran in the skeptic ranks, it did not tell much I did not know before. There are notable exceptions, like the insightful discussion on the illusion of free will and the way consciousness works there, but in general I knew the paranormal to be bullshit before. I would therefore recommend Paranormality mostly for people who genuinely think the paranormal is real; people like the bulk of my family.
Overall: A fun and educational interactive read at 3.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. Given the context, I also have to recommend Lawrence Leung's ABC show, Unbelievable. The subject matter is essentially the same and so is the outlook. Wiseman himself appears on some of the episodes.

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