Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There

Article excerpt

PARANORMALITY: WHY WE SEE WHAT ISN'T THERE by Richard Wiseman. London: Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 340. $20.87 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-230-75298-6.

Richard Wiseman is well known (at least in the UK) as a psychologist, magician, and nowadays Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology. Wiseman's latest book, Paranormality, happens to differ from all my other books in two ways: first because on its spine is printed the word "Professor," and second because on its back cover is a quote by the biologist Richard Dawkins, a former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. The book's subtitle, Why We See What Isn't There, clearly indicates Wiseman's stance and the equally skeptical Dawkins thinks that the book "... blows away the psychic fog and lets in the clear light of reason."

Paranormality is a highly selective popular scientific treatment of psychological and parapsychological research as seen from a skeptic's perspective. According to Wiseman (2011b) this was not what the major American publishers wanted (although one wonders whether Prometheus Books in New York was contacted since they would likely love to publish it). Wiseman thus decided to produce it as an e-book and let his British publisher ship hard copies to America. Furthermore, he has actively promoted the book with popular articles that derive from the book (e.g., Wiseman, 2011a, 2012), and I daresay it sells well, because Wiseman is a good writer. His latest and several of his previous books also reveal that he

possesses a sense of humour. Getting the facts straight is, however, more important than writing style, and those well read in the parapsychology literature are unfortunately bound to get more than a bit annoyed more than once.

Initially Wiseman tells us that he became interested in magic when just 8 years old and that he, like most magicians, was deeply skeptical about the existence of genuine paranormal phenomena. The latter is an oft-repeated claim by skeptics, and what they (including Wiseman) fail to mention is that the results of surveys with magicians around 1980 did in fact reveal that the majority of them believed ESP exists. Although the results of more recent surveys, including Wiseman's (2008) own (still unpublished?), indicate that magicians as a group have become more skeptical with time (see Truzzi, 1997). However, about 1 in 4 of the magicians that participated in Wiseman's survey thought that they had had a paranormal experience, and several of them while trying to fool others with their tricks! Magicians have also now and then been involved in parapsychological research, and some have endorsed paranormal phenomena (e.g., see Hansen, 1990). Wiseman does not mention any of this.

In his first chapter, Wiseman gives a short account of his, Smith's, and Milton's (1998) experiment with the dog Jaytee, who according to witnesses reliably signaled his owner's homecoming by going to and staying at the window. Wiseman manages to discuss the experiment, which consisted of a total of four trials, without mentioning Rupert Sheldrake's extensive research with "dogs that know when their owners are coming home" (Sheldrake's book is, however, mentioned in the chapter's notes). Furthermore, despite Wiseman's having acknowledged that "... the patterning in my studies is the same as the patterning in Rupert's studies. That's not up for grabs. That's fine. It's how it's interpreted" (Tsakiris, 2007), the reader is left with the impression that "psychic pets" have been debunked--a proper explanation of the heated controversy would have been more appropriate. Furthermore, it is hardly appropriate to draw conclusions based on the results of just four trials.

In the following chapter, Wiseman describes the skeptics' figurehead, the magician James Randi, as "the most notable investigator" (p. 16) of mediums and psychics, and not a word is dedicated to the more scientific research with mediums by, for example, Gary Schwartz and Julie Beischel. …

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