Magician, psychology professor reveals tricks and truths behind paranormality

Robert Starr

A man takes your hand, tells you to relax and then traces the lines on your palm to uncover the mysteries of your past, present and future. He tells you that you’re a kind person. That the line over there means that you’re a devoted friend, though you can be a little bit selfish. He even knows about your recently deceased uncle. Is the man an honest, true-to-life psychic, or is he using some sort of trick to make it appear as though he is? And, more importantly, how can we tell the difference?

Richard Wiseman was, at one time, a teenage magician and one of the youngest members to be inducted into The Magic Circle, a London-based magician group, but has now grown up to become a psychology professor in the United Kingdom at the University of Hertfordshire. He’s made a career out of investigating paranormal claims and the psychology behind them and has compiled some of what he’s found into his latest book, “Paranormality,” where he explains why the evidence for these claims is sorely lacking. He also describes how to test for the paranormal and, as a man trained in both the art of magic and the science of psychology, is in a perfect position to explain both how the tricks are pulled off and why they work.

The palm reader, for instance, knows that people generally have a pretty high opinion of themselves and that if he starts by saying something you want to hear (kind person), you probably won’t object. If he uses vague statements (devoted friend, but sometimes selfish), they’ll always be true, to some degree. And he can also fish for information (“I’m sensing somebody close to you that is no longer with you.” “Yes, my uncle — he died last month!”), counting on you to fill in the details of his ambiguous statement.

Wiseman debunks palm readers and psychics in his book and also describes his investigations of out-of-body experiences, telekinesis, talking to the dead, ghost hunting and several other paranormal subjects in quick, easy-to-read and often very funny prose. Despite the breadth of topics discussed, the book comes across as a coherent whole rather than as a scattershot overview.

Unfortunately, as a result of the subject matter, Wiseman had a difficult time bringing his book to America. Originally released in Great Britain, “Paranormality” couldn’t find a publisher in this country because nobody saw it as marketable. Books in support of any of the subjects debunked in this one generally don’t have any difficulty finding a place on shelves, though “Paranormality,” with its more critical outlook, wasn’t given a chance. Fortunately, through the magic of e-books and self-publishing, Wiseman has released the book himself on Amazon, making it available both on the Kindle and in the more traditional paperback form.

And while this will allow people access to the book in the U.S., it’s a tragedy that it won’t receive a wider release since it provides an excellent introduction to skeptical thinking and how to test paranormal claims. Aside from explaining the hows and whys of each of the tricks, Wiseman includes a wealth of interesting historical information and, like any good teacher, makes his lessons interactive. He does this by incorporating several links to video and audio files on his website (and also via QR tags, allowing you to watch or listen to them on your smart phone) in addition to providing specific ways for you to apply what you’ve learned to appear to possess supernatural powers.

“Paranormality” is not without its faults, though. Wiseman can, at times, be a little too cutesy for his own good, and the e-book has a few weird typos and misprints, though nothing terribly distracting or confusing. And even though the video and audio content is appreciated, it may have been more effective if it was placed on a single web page accessible at a later time in addition to within the book.

Still, these are minor gripes and don’t impact the book’s message, which is that though it would be amazing to live in a world where some people could see into the future or bend spoons with their minds or raise spirits from the dead, it doesn’t appear as if we do. Instead, we live in a different amazing world with mysteries we’re still unraveling and new discoveries made every day. We don’t need to look to the preternatural world to find wonder — it already exists right here in the natural one. 

Printed on August 30, 2011 as: Magician, psychology professor reveals truth behind paranormal claims in book