Monday, July 11, 2011

The book they didn’t want you to read

Richard Wiseman has written a book about the psychology of the paranormal and why we’re so inclined to jump to paranormal explanations of fairly mundane phenomena.  It’s called Paranormality and you can read Richard’s description of it here.

It covers a lot of ground.  It has psychics, spiritualists, ghosts, out of body experiences, prophecy…  It begins each subject as a well-researched story about the claims or practices of some individuals claiming paranormal abilities, then describes some of the psychology behind why those claims can be so satisfying.  Well, the structure is actually a bit more chaotic than that.  It appears to go off at tangents from time to time.  But those apparent tangents are skilfully woven back into the central point and are shown to be devices to help us understand a psychological trait that we might not otherwise have connected with the subject at hand.

This all works very well and is done in a chatty and engaging style as usual.  Experienced skeptics will likely have a broad understanding of the subjects already.  I think few of us would struggle to describe cold reading for example.  But Richard takes the approach of describing cold reading as psychological techniques and then explaining how to manipulate these techniques for cold reading.  This is an interesting approach, which he uses throughout the book.

The book was described by Rebecca Watson as a kind of modern version of Flim Flam by James Randi and that was exactly the impression I got too.  Flim Flam is great, but would benefit from a modern retelling and Richard’s book does a good job of it.

Paranormality has been doing well in the UK and has been taken up by publishers throughout Europe.  However, publishers in the US have declined on the grounds that there’s no market there fore debunking nonsense.  How sad.  Fortunately, Richard is publishing the book himself in the US and it’s now available on Kindle there.

The book also comes with quite a lot of additional material presented as QR codes for those of us with barcode scanners on our phones and URLs for those of us who prefer to use a larger screen.  This includes things like interviews with some of the people referred to in the text.

Read it if you’re a hard-core believer in the paranormal and it will make you feel uncomfortable.  Read it as someone curious about the paranormal and you’ll learn a lot.  Read it as a hard-core skeptic and you’ll still learn something and you’ll be entertained on every page.

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