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Richard Wiseman


Why We See What Isn't There

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
The author is a well-known sceptic who often appears on television in that capacity to pronounce on claims for the paranormal. He has also worked as a professional magician so is well placed to detect fraudulent claims. In this book he examines various kinds of alleged paranormality and concludes, as one would expect, that none of them stand up to critical examination. The book is aimed very much at the general reader, being light in tone and even facetious at times. The publishers state prominently that it is written by Professor Wiseman, no doubt to prevent anyone from supposing that he doesn't have a serious point to make.

The general position on which Wiseman bases his explanations is that belief in the paranormal depends on normal psychological processes which we all share. An important element is the tendency to perceive patterns in random events. This has evolved because it is advantageous for survival: better to act on the suspicion that there is a tiger in the bushes than to wait around to make sure. But people vary in how easily they detect patterns; those who do so with greatest facility are also more likely to believe in the paranormal. An ink blot, in which you are invited to look for patterns, is provided at the start of the book to make the point.

The first topic discussed is fortune-telling, which Wiseman says depends on a combination of 'cold reading' and the natural human propensity to attribute vague statements to one's own situation. Next we come to out-of-body experiences, which can be explained by anomalies of perception and construction of body image; some simple experiments are provided which allow readers to experience curious effects for themselves.

A number of ways in which professional magicians produce their illusions are described, and the relevance of these to spoon-bending and similar tricks is explained; the reader is told how to appear to bend spoons. This involves destroying the spoon, which may not do much for one's popularity as a dinner guest. Next comes mediumship, which leads to a discussion of ghosts and why people think they see them.

There is an interesting account of dreams, with particular reference to those that apparently foretell the future. Abraham Lincoln is famously supposed to have dreamt of his assassination shortly before it happened. Wiseman finds that there is nothing very surprising about this coincidence: Lincoln was very aware of the risks he was running so might well have dreamt about being killed without the need for any paranormal input. In general, Wiseman thinks that apparently prophetic dreams can be adequately explained as chance coincidence (everyone has several dreams every night, though they may not remember them, and, by chance, some will have dreams that correspond with subsequent events).

One of the most intriguing topics discussed here is Michael Persinger's claims of having induced strange or even mystical experiences in volunteers by means of magnetic stimulation of their brains. When Swedish researchers tried to replicate the experiments they found that the magnetism was having no effect; their volunteers did have strange experiences but these could be attributed to suggestion. Persinger has disputed the validity of this research. To me, the idea that mere suggestion can produce extraordinary experiences is more impressive than the induction of such experiences by magnetism would be.

A curious experiment reported here, for which there is currently no explanation, consists in staring for some time at your reflection in a mirror in a dim light. Apparently this produces bizarre and rather alarming-sounding distortions of perception. This was new to me, but otherwise the book covers ground that will be familiar to most readers who have taken an interest in claims for the paranormal. It seems to be mostly aimed at people who have taken many of the claims in popular television shows, articles, and books more or less at face value.

In other words, this is an uncompromisingly debunking book. Wiseman has plenty of fun with the more absurd aspects of the subject but he ignores the large amount of scientific research in the paranormal that has been carried out over the last hundred years. He would no doubt say that none of this has proved anything, which may be true, but at least it has assembled a case that needs to be taken seriously. At times this attitude leads him to take a positively tendentious approach, as in his brief discussion of the poltergeist study by Alan Gauld and A.D. Cornell (Poltergeists).

Wiseman describes these authors' experimental investigation of the theory that poltergeist phenomena can be explained by vibrations in buildings. They applied vigorous shaking to a house that was about to be demolished without producing appreciable movements of objects inside. From Wiseman's brief account you would suppose that Gauld and Cornell did this to disprove the paranormality of poltergeists, but in fact the experiment did the opposite, by showing that one proposed explanation didn't work. In general, their serious scientific study concluded that there does seem to be something genuinely unexplained in at least some reports of poltergeists.

References are provided for the author's statements but there is, regrettably, no index; this reduces its value appreciably.

21 March 2011

%T Paranormality
%S Why We See What Isn't There
%A Richard Wiseman
%I Macmillan
%C London
%D 2011
%G ISBN 9780230752986
%P 340pp
%K parapsychology

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