Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality: A good, but fundamentally limited book?

I guess people who pay attention to my writings elsewhere will know they I am currently reading Richard Wiseman‘s latest book, Paranormality: why we see what isn’t there. I have read and enjoyed The Luck Factor, which I always saw as a response to Broughton’s suggestion that psi could hide in plain sight in every day life as luck; I recently enjoyed 59 seconds, or whatever the title was, and intriguing hotch-potch of modern psychology research a bit like the BPS homepage, where unlikely sounding research findings that are demonstrably true (at least among a population of second year psychology undergrads –so predominantly middle class white women aged 19-21???– seeking  course credit) are entertainingly presented in the worlds first under a minute self help book with some degree of empirical justification.  While I much prefer Wiseman’s interesting academic papers, these pop-science self help potboilers (there is another one equally good, I forget the title)  are splendid reads where Wiseman’s impish sense of humour is given free rein.

Yep, you should buy and read them. I bought Paranormality from Waterstones for £13 – you can get it on Amazon for £6.49  (EDIT: now £5.84, getting cheaper!) ; if what follows appears grouchy, unreasonable and ill argued, then paying twice the cost I could have bought it for may be a significant factor.

So my review? Good book, fundamentally limited. Worth reading – but it would fail any Advertising Standard Authority check if someone reported the claims on the cover as an actual advert. Wiseman effectively claims to dismiss the paranormal, vanish it like a ghost at cock crow; here is the real science that replaces our wacky world of the paranormal. So sayeth the book; yet in fact, it does nothing of the sort. Instead what it does is scout around the edges of the current parapsychological debate, taking potshots at the fatally wounded, the stragglers, but in the main just shooting up the corpses left by the onslaught of Hyman, Alcock, Blackmore, Randi et al.  The huge column of psi researchers making positive claims and producing high quality papers are marching off unscathed off over the hills – nothing as complex as a real peer reviewed parapsychology paper is even assailed in this books first two parts.

What do I mean?

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman   disappointed me: nothing anyone with a decades acquaintance with the parapsychological/sceptical lit would find surprising, and bizarrely much on how mediums cheat, but NOTHING on Roy and Robertson (2001;2004) – which is the research that needs addressing as it seemed to point to mediumship that actually worked. Nothing on the VERITAS project; nothing on the Windbridge Institute. Serious academic work on mediumship is ignored – instead we get a mention of nineteenth century attempts to weigh the soul, a well written tribute to Faraday, and an account of how Wiseman pulled off Victorian seance tricks.   It’s very well written and fun, but it ignores the utterly bizarre positive evidence of that series of modern well controlled mediumship experiments, and hence is worthless, as the methods we read about simply do not apply in those double blinded trials.

However Wiseman does score marks for first ten words: “‘As I gazed deep in to the eyes of Jaytee’... Quite Mills & Boon, but if know who Jaytee was (a rather splendid purportedly psychic dog) you can see why that gave me a good laugh, almost certainly intentionally. Wiseman has a fantastic sense of humour and is a great bloke – but this book simply fails to address the stand out research published in the JSPR, despite Wiseman’s excellent knowledge of the literature. Why? I mean Jaytee makes a passing appearance – but to actually find out what is going on with the Jaytee case, you would have to be familair with quite a literature, and be aware that Dr Rupert Sheldrake and others still utterly resist Wiseman’s analysis of the case — if you feel like making the effort might I suggest

The background

http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/dog_video.pdf – Sheldrake’s paper

http://www.richardwiseman.com/Jaytee.html is Wiseman’s account

http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/wiseman.html is Sheldrake’s response

Listen to the participants speak

Skeptico podcasts on the issue featuring Wiseman & Sheldrake on the dog experiments
http://www.skeptiko.com/11-dr-richard-wiseman-on-rupert-sheldrakes-dogsthatknow/
http://www.skeptiko.com/35-dr-steven-novella-and-dr-richard-wiseman-on-dogs-that-know-research/
http://www.skeptiko.com/rupert-sheldrake-and-richard-wiseman-clash/

Read much more on the issue, and take part in designing replications Open Source Science
http://www.opensourcescience.net/index.php?title=Experiments:_Can_Dogs_Anticipate_Their_Owner%27s_Return%3F

Short Bibliography

Sheldrake, R. (1998). A dog that seems to know when his owner is returning: Preliminary investigations. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 220-232.
http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/dogknows.pdf

Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (1998) Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology 89, 453-462.
https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/2299/2285/1/902380.pdf

Sheldrake, R. (1999a) Commentary on a paper by Wiseman, Smith and Milton on the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon. JSPR 63, 306-311.
http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/comment.pdf

Sheldrake, R. (1999b) Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. London: Hutchinson.

Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (2000) The ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon: A reply to Rupert Sheldrake. JSPR 64, 46-49.
http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/wiseman/papers/psychicdogreply.pdf

Sheldrake, R, Smart, P (2000) A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Coming Home:
Videotaped Experiments and Observations, Journal of Scientific Exploration 14, 233-255
http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/dog_video.pdf

Sheldrake, R., and Smart, P. (2000b). Testing a return-anticipating dog, Kane. Anthrozoös, 13(4), 203-212.
http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/dogkane.pdf

Carter C (2010) Heads I win, Tails you lose, or how Richard Wiseman nullifies positive results in parapsychology, and what to do about it JSPR 74, 156-2007
http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/Carter_Wiseman.pdf

Now this pop science treatment instead gives the impression all was quickly shown to be explicable; in fact I tend to agree with Wiseman’s points, but the important thing is that it was a very complex argument, and ultimately what you choose to believe about Jaytee comes down to which methodologies you employ. It raises questions about the nature of Science, and how we know stuff – all here dismissed in a pat way?

Avoiding the uncomfortable research?

I have no time for mediumship personally, but Robertson/Roy needs explaining – their PRISM research remains utterly unrepudiated, apart from some discussion of the appropriateness of the binomial distribution used at one point, which does not alter the outcomes significantly? Or have I missed something??? Attack the best not the worst. As I said, reading through references cited in the endnotes make it sound like a pretty interesting book:not the one I was expected; but the first few chapters are marred by the “how to cold/warm read” material rehashed for the umpteenth time. Wiseman is writing by numbers here; who does not recognise a Barnum effect these days? Now this is the thing – I have mentioned a couple of examples, and again sceptical NDE research gets a quick taster – but I don’t recall seeing much on recent stuff like Dr Sam Parnia’s (negative) research, and this is NOT a guide to the current state of parapsychology or paranormal research. Ironically if you want that you should turn to the person the book is dedicated to, Wiseman’s partner, Dr Caroline Watt, who is head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University, Perrott-Warrick Senior Researcher in parapsi, a parapsychologist with over 50 publications including with Irwin the current standard textbook for parapsychology students. (Alternatively I would recommend Etzel Cardena (ed.) Varieties of the Anomalous Experience

Along Comes Dawkins

Still I’d encourage people to read it, despite the annoying little positive testimonial by Prof Dawkins on the back – unlike Wiseman, French, Hyman et al, Dawkins is probably not an authority on the subject so why have him endorse it? Why not ask someone from Anomalous Psych or Parapsychology, a sceptic if you want, or someone like Broughton or Cardena or even more amusingly Caroline Watt?  Richard’s partner certainly knows a thousand times more about the subject than an ethologist like Dawkins does?

Of course the reason is simple – market forces. There is a sceptic culture in the UK, which manifests in various ways, partly in Sceptics in the Pub, and it’s a healthy, interesting and praiseworthy phenomenon, perhaps a bit like the Workers Educationalist Movements of the late 19th century. This culture seems from my limited participation in it over the years (I’m a moderator on www.rationalskepticism.org again, the website founded by the members of Richard Dawkins forum when he close it) intelligent, left-libertarian, and centred around 30 to 40 year old men, and slightly younger women. Good folks, fun folks, intelligent folks – they enjoy the works of Dennett, Hitchens, Dawkins, Sagan and Ben Goldacre among others. (I’m a fan of the last two, and not of the first three as it happens).  There are some excellent sceptic podcasts, and much good work is done by the sceptics in consciousness raising, especially about health scams etc. They also represent a big enough market among the “people who read books” market in the UK to be targeted, though their tastes are perhaps a little ideologically driven – the excellent Counterknowledge, a good sceptical book I read last year, may not have recieved much attention as the author happens to be the Editor of the Catholic Herald? A lot of sceptics are atheists, rather than as one might assume agnostics, but more on that another time. So shove a Dawkins endorsement on the cover, you sell books.

And this is who the book is written for — people who love science, but ultimately don’t have the time to read through the thousands of pages of journal articles that would be needed to try and get a full picture, so rely on pop science books to keep them abreast of latest research in disciplines other than their own – in fact people exactly like you and me I suspect.

The strange case of Anomalistic Psychology

Now I happen to know the parapsychological research pretty well, and I am therefore aghast as I read and see Wiseman take down easy targets, and lead us through not parapsychology but a tiny subsection of it – Anomalistic Psychology, and somehow imply that represents the whole field, and reason has triumphed over the forces of superstition, in a way so shameless that a 19th century Edinburgh philosopher might feel a little too smug proposing it to his Athenaeum.

Because you see, Anomalistic Psychology is not entirely the whole story. It’s barely a fraction. I fist heard the term a few years back, when a friend said they were putting “Anomalistic Psychology” on their research applications tehse days, as that was the current acceptable code words for “parapsychology”. “What’s the difference?” I asked. “About 50K a year and tenure” came the reply. 😦

Most scientists KNOW parapsychology is nonsense. They have not actually read the research of course, or much of it, but as the mainstream has so thoroughly rejected it (well, actually not, as the current resurgence in parapsychology departments and PhD’s in the UK shows) they don’t have time to waste on it. That’s fair enough, and I must admit I often equally fail to give what I regard as dingbat theories much time, unless someone presents really strong evidence, and slaps me around the face with it.

Now most parapsychology seems to have been done since the 1950s in psychology departments, owing to the influence of JB Rhine (who was of course a biologist) though there are of course physics engineering and sociology departments who have turned out landmark studies as well. But over the years two things happened, both involving highly intelligent and interesting women who  changed the field forever. The first was Dr Rhea White – she coined the term Extraordinary Human Experiences, and started studying the phenomenology of the anomalous experience – Hufford of Hag research fame and others are very much in this tradition. You study the experience itself – Becky is doing this right now with her grounded theory study of the apparitional experience.  Then, secondly round about 1987 (my SPR membership has lapsed and I can’t afford to renew so I can’t check on LEXSCIEN) Dr Susan Blackmore called for something fascinating – a new parapsychology, which looks at why people hold paranormal beliefs, and what explains the phenomena they were experiencing. I knew Sue in the early 1990’s and I was enthused by her – this was after all an approach I was very familiar with from own background in a Religious Studies and later Cultural Studies background.

Nowadays you can find people pursuing this third wave parapsychology (the first wave was Psychical research, the second Rhine’s parapsychology; the third Anomalistic Psychology) everywhere. I attended a parapsychology mini-conference at Derby University last year, and I suspect made myself deeply unpopular – there were some brilliant research projects there, yet there was a weird sense of “reinventing the wheel”, with very little knowledge it seemed to me of the last four decades work on religious experience and Sociology of Religion from those present -well, it was an inter-disciplinary conference so that was fine, but huge amounts of work have been done in my field of Religious Experience that simply seems to be ignored – the honourable exception being Christopher Moreman, who stands firmly in that tradition.  This is perhaps part of the wider malaise in the UK of subsuming religion departments in to Sociology departments – but again, another time.

Phenomenological approaches look at the experience, not its validity, and it’s impact on the subject (not to be confused with the philosophical Phenomenology of Husserl et al.) Anomalistic Psychology can not tell us if the ghost was real; it can tell us what is likely to happen in a ghost experience. It explains what mechanisms make people believe what a psychic tells us, not if the psychic is really psychic. Professor Chris French, Prof Richard Wiseman, Dr Caroline Watts, Dr Susan Blackmore ,there are many who can tell us a huge amount about what it means to have these experiences – my girlfriend’s PhD studies puts her in this category. There is progress being made, interesting work done (as I can vouch having been to the aforesaid Derby mini-conference) and much to be optimistic about — yet there can be at times an assumption that creeps in to third wave parapsychology that everything can be explained, that ultimately there is no paranormal, and that everything will be explained away as tricks of the brain — something alien to Rhea White, alien to Becky and me, who are far less sure, but something Richard seems to imply on the back cover of this book

“Professor Richard Wiseman is clear bout one thing; paranormal phenomena do not exist”

Technically, a third wave phenomenological approach should remain neutral on the existence of the entities, at least from my fields that is the case – here however leading lights dismiss them, abandoning all objectivity. Anomalistic Psychology in its desire for respectability and funding has split itself from the wider parapsychological discourse: and if this book is an indicator, it may even be ready to denounce parapsychology and psychical research as chimerical, something Sue Blackmore might approve of but Rhea White certainly would not.  The tendency here is to forget that actual interesting and productive work is still being done in parapsychology – even where the work is controversial, like say micro-PK studies, I think you will look in vain in this book for a reference to PEAR; as to Schmidt, forget it.

And sometimes the case is made more by the faintly ridiculous nature of the examples, rather than much more – the chapter on Gef the talking mongoose for example, which while a very succinct and well written précis of some of the main events, fails to give some of the more interesting facts, like the many testimonials from sceptical islanders who heard funny things, or the actual phenomena claimed by Price’s investigators as unexplained, or indeed anything much from the “defence” perspective. A much fairer and wider ranging article on Gef was the recent on in the Fortean Times. But modern poltergeist cases? Wiseman is not interested in anything so crudely physical it seems?

I have run out of time – if people are interested I shall continue tomorrow. The danger I foresee – if Anomalistic Psychology becomes “parapsychology done for sceptics” an ideological enterprise every bit as faith driven as theology done by Catholics for a seminary. That would disturb me, badly. This book suggests to me this is not an unreasonable fear.

Have you seen a ghost???

Have you ever had a weird possibly “paranormal” or otherwise deeply strange experience, while healthy not under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Rebecca Smith still needs more responses for her PhD study. Please help, both by publicizing her research by telling friends you know have had this kind of experience (it’s grounded theory so does not need a random sample) or by sharing her questionnaire address on your Facebook or similar. So if you can help, the address is www.strangesurvey.com

cj x

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science, Social commentary desecrated and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality: A good, but fundamentally limited book?

  1. Sir Gannayev says:

    Pretty interesting review!

    But why do you think that Sam Parnia’s research is “negative”? The results of his AWARE study haven’t been published yet.

  2. Nemo85 says:

    Thanks for the review. Your blog seem worth following given our mutual interests. Good luck with the blogging.

  3. Trystan says:

    Hi CJ – with reference to Windridge…isn’t Beischel’s protocol somewhat flawed given its forced choice scoring system? This seems to be, given what I have read, the best evidence for the survival hypothesis but seems very light indeed. What do you make of Sheldrake’s dogs?

    Hope to see you soon!

  4. Jason says:

    It’s very well written and fun, but it ignores the utterly bizarre positive evidence of that series of modern well controlled mediumship experiments, and hence is worthless

    In other words it’s intended as a populist distraction from reality and/or a sermon to the converted. The idea of ‘3rd wavers’ being neutral is not worth a second of anyone’s time and never was. Not if you can read! 🙂

    Nice review; I like the fact that you give your own views but seem able to rise above them. Refreshing. I also wasn’t aware of Rhea White and her influence on Hufford, so thanks for that.

    I had a question: you mention the work on religious experience, whom are you talking about? Wayne Proudfoot etc. and back to William James? I want to see if I can fill any more of my own gaps. I would include Jenny Wade and Mark Fox I guess, is that the sort of thing you meant? Thanks for the mention of Christopher Moreman, though, whom I didn’t know.

    BTW a problem with the ‘religious experiences’ thing is the current cultural separation of religious from spiritual in some minds. You know that I’m sure.

    something Richard seems to imply on the back cover of this book

    “Professor Richard Wiseman is clear bout one thing; paranormal phenomena do not exist”

    “SEEMS TO IMPLY”? 🙂

    I’ll be reading if you keep this stuff up, useful for me, thanks again.

  5. Will Stevens says:

    Isn’t it the essence of your criticism that Wiseman fails to consider certain research into the paranormal which you think is important? If so, then couldn’t exactly the same criticism be leveled (by some critic or other!) against absolutely any book which attempts to debunk the paranormal? For, of course, no book could possibly cover every piece of research into the paranormal which has ever been done; accordingly, every book on the subject will be exposed to this criticism.

    Surely, to give teeth to your criticism, you need to demonstrate that Wiseman /ought/ to have considered this or that piece of research and failed to do so. Suppose, for example, that somebody had actually won the JREF million dollar challenge – and Wiseman ignored it. Or suppose that there was some real dispute amongst eminent scientists about whether some applicant, whose claims the JREF had dismissed, had been treated unfairly. Evidence like this (if it exists) would give your personal opinion some solid backing.

    What I’m, respectfully, suggesting is that to make your criticism ‘stick’, you have to go beyond your personal opinion and show that Wiseman has been perverse or unscrupulously selective in his approach.

    On a minor point: I think that your contention that Wiseman has been influenced by market forces – that there’s money to be made from scepticism, but not from the genuinely paranormal – is a brave try, but, surely, it flies in the face of all experience. You only have to look at publishers’s lists or television schedules to see this! Claims for the paranormal have a constant popular appeal, and it’s the sceptics who have to fight to get a hearing.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hi Will, great to see you commenting here. As always I have been tardy in responding, for which I apologise! You write — “If so, then couldn’t exactly the same criticism be leveled (by some critic or other!) against absolutely any book which attempts to debunk the paranormal? ”

      Yes, absolutely. The problem is not that the book deals with a narrow area – Anomalistic Psych – and we all know Wiseman could write just as good a critical and sceptical book on the mainstream of the parapsychological discourse, as he has plenty of research under his belt, much of it first rate. My issue is that the claims used to market the book and in the blurb simply do not mention much of that debate, which gives a lop sided, one sided impression. I’m not asking for journalistic impartiality here, or objectivity, or anything — I simply think what the book claims to do goes further than it actually does.

      Will writes “What I’m, respectfully, suggesting is that to make your criticism ‘stick’, you have to go beyond your personal opinion and show that Wiseman has been perverse or unscrupulously selective in his approach.”

      I don’t think we have to establish that. Paranormality is a book about Anomalistic Psychology, cognitive biases, etc, etc. My problem is with the impression it leads the reader, that all is debunked, and its game over for the parapsychologists, and that all that is left is the “third wave” stuff. That is simply not true in my opinion.

      “On a minor point: I think that your contention that Wiseman has been influenced by market forces – that there’s money to be made from scepticism, but not from the genuinely paranormal – is a brave try, but, surely, it flies in the face of all experience. You only have to look at publishers’s lists or television schedules to see this! Claims for the paranormal have a constant popular appeal, and it’s the sceptics who have to fight to get a hearing.”

      Wiseman is an engaging, exciting author. However market forced DO influence what is produced, and Wiseman signed a five figure book deal at Frankfurt. Good for him! However I fail to see how we can argue that sceptical books outsell paranormal ones now. Let’s take two excellent sceptical books — Paranormality and Bad Science — both Amazon Top 10 bestsellers. Currently it is at 206. Bad Science, two years after its release is at 281. The best selling psychic woo book is at 1,206! The first actual parapsychological book I find, on NDE, is at 43,319, and though much woo can be found before, and the first hard core academic parapsi book manages Irwin & Watt’s Parapsychology (despite heavy plugging by me) comes in at #13,472. I think this tells us something about the influence and market for sceptical books in the UK, as opposed to the market for woo and academic parapsychology??? The fight for sceptics to be heard has long since ended, and I would say among readers is done and dusted?

      cj x

  6. Alfster says:

    I’m sure for someone ‘in the field’ the book is less than ‘complete’ and exhaustive. However, that isn’t the audience the book is aimed at.

    I’ve read a few books around such subjects and it goes over familiar ground as well as new ground.

    What it does do is give a great overview of many areas of ‘paranormal’ aeras with references to give a springboard for further reading.

    It is very much a ‘primer’ text and it does it very well.

    I felt the Gef the Mongoose episode was left open ended for the reader to work out how it was done…not exactly a brain-stretcher of a solution really.

    I’ll be trawling through the links yuo agve at some point.

    Thanks for the work you put into the review.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Thanks Alfster. Yes that is why I gave it a 5 star review on Amazon, and keep telling people to read it. It really is a very good book — my concerns are basically that it may go to far in its marketing claims, rather than anything to do with the actual book: it simply does not address the wider picture. This is true of any book — the problem here is that the cover blurb etc do suggest it really does just dispel all doubts, and kill all woo dead 🙂 Nice to meet you btw!

      cj x

  7. Pingback: While I’m Judging Books I Haven’t Read… « Back Towards The Locus

  8. BenSix says:

    Great review! I wasn’t so keen on Counterknowledge, though.

  9. Those interested can find an examination and explanation of Robertson and Roy on my blog at
    http://barenormality.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/modern-mediumship-research-robertson-roy/

    A simple explanation of the psychic dog affair is also available at
    http://barenormality.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/rupert-sheldrake-and-the-psychic-dog/

  10. Newton Green says:

    I admit to not having read this book by Prof. Wiseman. The tenor of most of the comment above seems to be that he is re-working a number of good old ‘sceptic’ themes which have served well in the past and, perchance, will continue to serve in cases where the ‘easy’ targes for scepticism are duly demolished and the whole scope of the paranormal / supernatural (please see my Facebook blogs for my own view of the difference) is, by implcation, held to have been swept away in the process. As someone writing above perceptively remarks.. to kill off a few sentries is not to gain possession of the castle!
    As a member of the Society for Psychical Research I have, over the years, come across all shades of opinion about strange areas of human experience, and it is clear to me that there is a huge amount about ouselves and our universe of which we are wholly ignorant. I suspect we bark up the wrong trees out of habit, and all.
    Please keep minds open, avoid dogmatic rejection of views which seem ‘impossible’ to consider, and be courteously tolerant of the work done by serious researchers. Also, when investigating and considering strange occurrences or reportsof them, DO NOT dodge the hard questions which often need to be confronted. Newton Green

  11. Thanks Chris for an excellent review.

  12. Pingback: Notis 178 – Prof. Richard Wiseman, en välkänd skeptiker, har skrivit en ny bok

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