Skip to main content

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman ****

The subtitle here is ‘Why we believe the impossible’ or ‘Why we see what isn’t there’ (depending on your edition) emphasising that this a book not so much on parapsychology – the study of paranormal capabilities of the mind – but what you might call metaparapsychology – the study of why human beings incorrectly think that they have paranormal capabilities of the mind.
This is a very entertaining, lightly written book that takes a storytelling approach to introducing some of the strange and wonderful claims that people have made for supernatural mental abilities, only to pull them apart.
We begin with that most dubious of paranormal topics, psychics, with a UK psychic roundly failing in controlled tests and another psychic admitting exactly how he used cold reading tricks to fool his clients. Many books have debunked cold reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen before such a clear list of the six key techniques with a demonstration of how they were used in a specific reading. It’s superb.
Next under the microscope are out of body experiences (and for some reason the spurious idea of a body losing weight on death), which prove rather dull, and then moving things with the mind. There is interesting material on a specific case, though I found the ‘five psychological principles’ that make people believe this kind of act a touch heavy handed after we’d already been through the six for cold reading, especially as by the time we get to the fifth there is not one, but two asides in the middle of explaining it.
Next up is the table shifting/rapping/Ouija board style of spirit medium. There’s some nice historical introduction with the Fox sisters (who made ‘raps’ by clicking their toes) and some practical guidance on the do-it-yourself use of involuntary movement effects to jiggle tables or spell out Ouija messages (with perhaps a bit of cheating thrown in). We then move swiftly on to some entertaining ghost hunting tales (and thoughts on why we imagine ghosts exist), mind control and future gazing. All very readable, entertaining and often enlightening.
Although as a whole I liked the book, there was something about it that put me off a little (otherwise it might have made 5 stars). It was a touch gimmicky – I’m not sure, for instance, I particularly liked the used of QR codes to direct the reader to find out more online. In principle this should be a good thing, but these 3D barcodes were so large and obtrusive that they ruined the look of the page every time they were introduced.
The gimmickry also extends to some extent to the way the book is written, with chapters jumping around their subject and introducing little ‘tests’ that are supposed to show the reader the effect being discussed. (I’m pleased to say I avoided choosing the shape combination most people come up with when asked to think of one geometric shape inside another*.)
However, that’s just a personal thing – I think many people would like this kind of messing about in format, so it shouldn’t count against what I think is a really interesting book on a topic that isn’t really called metaparapsychology, but ought to be. If psychics, ESP and the world of the paranormal interest you, this book is an essential balance to your library – and if you are a sceptic, it will give you plenty of chances to raise an eyebrow and have a chuckle at the gullibility of the rest of the world.
* The usual choice is apparently a circle in a triangle or a triangle in a circle. I went for a triangle in a square.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …