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Interview With Professor Richard Wiseman

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

August 10, 2011

Richard Wiseman

I was fortunate enough to see Richard Wiseman, a popular figure on the skeptical scene, present in Australia as a part of National Science Week during the launch of his book Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. Wiseman started his professional life as a magician before graduating in psychology from University College London and obtaining a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh. He recently presented at The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.

His latest book, Paranormality, has been published for the United States in rather unusual circumstances, as Wiseman writes on his website:

I am going to self-publish an unashamedly skeptical book in America and see what happens. The book launches on Kindle and my UK publisher will ship physical editions into America (and it will appear as an iBook very soon).

Kylie Sturgess:  Has this book been in the works for quite a while, because it has so much in it?

Richard Wiseman:  It has! I think around about, oh, fifteen years ago, I actually suggested the idea of doing a book about the psychology of the paranormal. I think I got as far as writing a proposal for it. It got kind of passed around a little bit, and we could never get the angle quite right on it. And then, The Luck Factor came along, which was a much bigger book, so the paranormality thing got put onto the back burner. Then, only recently, I thought, “Maybe there’s different ways of doing this rather than a straight debunking book.” So, I have returned to it, but the idea has been around for a very long time.

Kylie:  It’s wonderful. Now, for those who might not be familiar with your career, you’re professor of public understanding of psychology at Hertfordshire University [and] do a great amount of research and writing and present at a variety of science festivals. Do you think that improving the public understanding of psychology promotes a skeptical outlook, and, maybe more importantly, helps reduce uncertainty and unease about paranormal claims?

Richard:  Well, certainly, it’s very difficult to be sort of rational and scientific about the paranormal and not be skeptical to some extent. I mean, lots of the things which we consider to be paranormal have been “debunked.” We now have a normal explanation for them. So yeah, I think it does. And part of my work is going around, as you say, to various festivals. So yeah, I’ll go and pop around the country and occasionally the world talking about all sorts of things, mainly psychology [that] is relevant to people’s lives. So one of the reasons why I was excited about Paranormality is that lots of people have these weird experiences and it’s nice to explore them.

Kylie:  In the book, you discuss questions like, “Why should our sophisticated brains have evolved to detect nonexistent ghostly entities?” and [you] investigate several different theories—which theories do you think are credible?

Paranormality book cover

Richard:  Well, the ghost research has always been quite close to my heart. We carried out investigations at Hampton Court Palace, which is a royal palace not very far from London, and also in the Edinburgh Underground Vaults. And we’re always looking at the psychology of it; in fact the whole theme of Paranormality is not so much, “Are these things true or not?”—in fact, they’re not. Instead, it’s “What does each one tell us about our brains, our behavior, our body and so on?”

If you take ghosts for example, or the notion that you wake up and you see an entity at the foot of your bed, and you can’t move, and you think the entity is pulling you down, it in fact tells us a great deal about sleep. When we’re asleep and dream, we’re paralyzed, so we don’t act out our dreams and hurt ourselves as we drift through into a waking state. Some of the bizarre imagery, and the sense of paralysis that can lead to thinking that you’re having a ghostly experience, is a good example of, I think, what Paranormality is about.

In terms of haunted places, there are some theories that it’s to do with the infrasound, very low frequency sound waves that can be caused by rumbling traffic or wind against an open window, which then vibrates the body. There might be something to that. I have conducted some experiments that have looked at that. I don’t think that’s going to explain a lot of the cases, I think most of it is down to suggestion. There are suggestibility tests in the book and people vary on those.

Or, when you take people that are suggestible and put them into a place that’s allegedly haunted, particularly if they believe in ghosts, they will start to experience this stuff. It’s the psychology of it all that I find fascinating.

Kylie:  Testing claimants and the stories behind many of the cases are absolutely fascinating and I just love reading all the stories that you have. Is there one particular case that you think you’ll always be remembered for, for your involvement [in it]?

Richard:  I think there are several, because they’re always quite colorful. The book opens actually with J.T., the psychic terrier, which is the notion that the dog knew when its owner was returning home. We investigated the dog and couldn’t see any evidence of that, and another parapsychologist called Rupert Sheldrake looked at it and we got into a big argument about it. What’s interesting about the book is that I don’t really talk about mainstream—to the extent that there is a mainstream—parapsychology. If you’re trying to keep an audience on board, as soon as you start to go into methodology and stats, and so on, it gets very dull very quickly.

So, a lot of the time I throw to footnotes and with J.T., for example, I sort of throw toward the work that we’ve done with him and the arguments we’ve had with Rupert that are on the web. But I’m hoping that there [are] different levels for different readers. So some people will go there and look at that additional material.

But I suspect in terms of one case that was the most fun, J.T. would be up there. Although some of the work in India with some of the gurus who claimed to be able to materialize objects at their fingertips, that was fun as well. It’s all been a blast!

Kylie:  I guess that leads on to my next question. What’s the difference between pop psychology and psychology? I mean, it’s not very easy to get across some of the more complex concepts without losing the essence of the scientific findings. How do you strike the balance?

Richard:  It is a difficult balance. I don’t think complexity is the issue. I think it’s where the complexity is inherently interesting. I think the problem with a lot of the paranormal stuff, where you were talking about really fine-grained issues about methodology, I just don’t think it’s interesting except to a handful of people and so that’s why it’s not in the book. However, I think the basic idea of the scientific method, which is that you have at least two groups and you’re comparing them in order to find out how people think and behave differently between the groups and therefore that tells you something about what influences behavior and thought—I think that is interesting to people and there are countless examples in the book where that has revealed something interesting about our brains.

I think an underlying theme of the book is that it’s very easy to trip yourself up. It’s very easy to buy into these kind of psychic illusions unless you have the scientific method at your fingertips. So I think pretty much in every chapter there’s an example of how an experiment or several experiments show us more about out-of-body experiences, or psychic readings or whatever.

Kylie:  As both a psychologist and a paranormal researcher, I’ve got a two-parter here, because parapsychology intrigues me and I wonder sometimes about the attitudes that people might have. What can the science of psychology gain by a fuller understanding of parapsychology and what can the science of parapsychology gain by a fuller understanding of psychology?

Richard:  Well, it depends how you cut the cake there, because if by parapsychology you’re talking about Psi, this notion [of] sort of a small, fairly unreliable signal, that’s when you put the results of lots of people together in an experiment and that’s when that allegedly emerges. That’s one type of parapsychology. Some people use it in a much broader sense to mean, “Oh, no, it’s an out-of-body experience,” going to a psychic, talking to the dead as well, so it depends what you mean by the question. But if it’s the former, which is this small signal, then I think we’re going to be learning a lot about methodology.

When you try and conduct an experiment, you want it as clean as possible. You don’t want artifacts in there. And so if you get evidence for Psi, you need to be certain you’ve got a squeaky clean experiment. I think we are learning a lot just in terms of randomization and controls and stats and multiple analysis and all those things that psychologists get excited about and a few other people do. So I think there will be a sharing of the knowledge there.

In terms of the broader picture, the sort of normalistic experiences and so on, I think we can learn a huge amount. I mean, if you take out-of-body experiences, in the book I talk about how the brain constructs a sense of where it is. Using modern day experiments, you can make people think they’re three or four feet in front of themselves. You can throw that sense of where they are all over the place, once you understand how the brain constructs where you are. That comes directly from studying out-of-body experiences, so it is absolutely fascinating. Not because it might be true—we don’t actually leave our body when we have an OBE—but because it tells you so much about how your brain works.

Kylie:  Would you change the definition or the subject matter of parapsychology?

Richard:  No! I think it’s just weird experiences, whether it’s déjà-vu or whatever. A surprisingly large percentage of people have those experiences. In terms of going to a psychic, for example, in the U.K., around about 12 or 15 percent of the people go to a psychic or a medium. You can’t ignore this; this is a large percentage of the population. We just conducted a survey; 25 percent of people claim to have experienced a ghost—I mean, one in four people. There is something going on—you can’t deny that. The question is, “What?” So I wouldn’t change what parapsychology is about. I’m a fan of it, in that sense.

Kylie:  In the U.K. and in Australia, we’ve become very interested in consumer rights affairs in regards to pseudo-scientific topics, and you might know of the Nightingale Collaboration, who are being very active in regards to challenging some of the advertising claims online about pseudo-scientific claims, particularly ones by homeopaths or chiropractitioners. You’ve also talked about the possibility of there being consumer rights claims in regards to psychics?

Richard:  Absolutely, and I think that’s a really interesting issue. One of the sort of touchstones of the book is this idea that when you go along to a psychic or medium, they tell you all about yourself and advise you for the future. What I find fascinating is how it seems that within the media, there’s a real attempt not to tell people about things like the psychology of the situation, and cold reading, and how some psychics fake it, and so on because they want to put out a program saying this stuff is true.

So there’s a whole chapter in Paranormality that talks about all of those methods. I think it’s the first time they’ve been out there in the public domain in that sense. That’s proving the most controversial part of the book. There are a lot of psychics that really don’t want people to know that stuff. So that’s part of it.

I’m saying to people, “Look, when you go along to a psychic, be an informed consumer.” You wouldn’t go along to buy a second-hand car knowing nothing about cars; that would be mad. You’d either find out, or you take somebody with you. And yet, you’re prepared to do it when it comes to other aspects of your life.

Secondly, as you say, there are a lot of organizations who are going to the Office of Fair Trading in the U.K., that are saying, “Hold on a second. You’re claiming these amazing abilities. Let’s see the evidence that you could do it.” That would be a huge shift if that happened, because obviously they can’t actually do these things. They’re only pretending. And then, the third element is the idea that these people should be sort of legislated the same way that counselors are. There should be some sort of counseling qualification that each of them should be required to have because that is essentially what they are doing.

You know, I’ve been involved in countless programs where the skeptical point of view doesn’t get an airing because—I remember one producer years ago saying to me, “It’s like blowing up a balloon … your audience for the most part don’t buy into the claim. You have to keep on pushing and pushing and blowing and blowing to get your balloon inflated. And then, it only takes one skeptic to come along to act like the needle and burst the whole thing.” And that’s why the skeptics don’t get a fair hearing, because actually their argument is pretty powerful.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.