Five books on debunking the paranormal

August 9, 2011 • 4:51 am

Over at the Browser‘s Five Books, site,  Richard Wiseman, a professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, is interviewed about the paranormal and recommends five books (as well as his own) debunking that species of woo:

How important is it to debunk this stuff? Why not humour the people who believe in ghosts and UFOs?

Well it’s up to people what they believe. My feeling is that they’re bombarded with pro-paranormal information, whether it’s from psychic hotlines or broadcasters putting out ghost shows, or in magazines and newspapers. The books we’re talking about and my book Paranormality really just say to people, “Here’s the other side of the equation – at least give it a try before you decide this stuff definitely exists.” I think that’s really important, because certainly when it comes to psychics and mediums people allow them to have a massive influence over their lives. They don’t understand the tricks of the trade. It’s very important to be an informed consumer.

He also refuses to distinguish religious claims from other brands of the paranormal:

Randi also puts religious miracles – the virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea – in more or less the same basket. Should miracles be treated in the same way that the paranormal is?

Good question. If there’s some evidential side to it. If someone is just saying “I believe in God and can’t offer evidence for that”, it is faith and that’s fine. There’s nothing science or psychology can do with that. But as soon as they say “I’ve produced this twinket from the Gods” or “I can part the seas” or “I can cure illness” – as soon as there’s some sort of physical manifestation of that belief – then scientists and psychologists can do some business. Again the results will be the same as the other kind of psychic testing – that people don’t have these abilities.

I’d add “priests” to the list of people who claim that they have paranormal abilities: after all, they claim to be able to forgive you of your sins, and to tell you what you need to do to avoid hell and get to heaven.

I’ve read only two of the books Wiseman recommends, but it looks like a good list for those skeptics (and I think they’re somewhat misguided) who prefer to fight against spoon-bending, ESP, and homeopathy instead of religion.

44 thoughts on “Five books on debunking the paranormal

  1. “… it is faith and that’s fine.”

    What? faith and that’s fine? Why the free pass? Why not, “it is faith, and *faith is obviously stupid*.”

    Obviously, faith is not a good way to go about “knowing” things. Most of the people who use faith think that the majority of other people who use faith have arrived at the wrong answer. Faith doesn’t work most of the time even according to the faithful.

    Faith needs to be given the reputation which it deserves, not a free pass. Deliberately attempting to be more certain of something than the available evidence warrants is not “fine,” it’s idiotic.

    1. I tend towards your view but we must accept a number of rational people would be in agreement with him. It is a sort of view that it is fine for the milksop.

      1. I think Wiseman is saying that many specific claims about religion are testable whereas vague, slippery notions are not. I thought for a moment that he was implying that therefore claims about the existence of god are out of science’s reach, but I now think what he’s actually saying is something like:

        “I personally deal with stuff that can be tested. People can believe idiotic things if they like, but my job is to test stuff I can test.”

        I’ve seen several talks and performances by Wiseman. I don’t think he’s saying we should accept religious claims until we can disprove them or otherwise giving a free pass to religion.

        But it does read a little bit like he is.

        1. From what I have read of Wiseman I think you are correct. From what I can recall he does not value belief without evidence.

    2. I doubt Wiseman means to give religion a free pass; I think he has the attitude that people are free to believe their brand of bullshit but he will oppose any claims that their fairies have some effect on our world. In the interview he’s talking about testing claims; if you say you believe simply because of ‘faith’ then there is nothing of substance and nothing to test. I don’t see any point in him switching the focus of the interview to discussing the evils of faith.

  2. Very nice link! thank you.
    I had the pleasure of listening to Richard Wiseman at last years AAI-conference in Copenhagen. Definately worth it.
    I’ve re-postet the reference to the article (with link) – and with thanks to this website (not blog!) – on Copenhagen Skeptics in the Pub fb-site. Thanks again

  3. I could not see one, so HERE is the link to the first page of the 4-page FiveBooks Wiseman interview

    For amusing, short illusions Wiseman’s Quirkology channel over at YouTube HERE is worth bookmarking

    THIS is Derren Brown’s list of book titles, software and DVD’s “for helping you to boost your brain”. It is a treasure trove of rational thinking & I’m 60% of my way through

  4. Joe Nickell is a skeptical investigator of paranormal pheonomena. I’ve heard him speaking about his investigations on Point of Inquiry, and he’s a good presenter. You can find his interviews (he’s been on Point of Inquiry several times) in their archives or by downloading the podcasts to iTunes. Wiseman was interviewed on Point of Inquiry (Point of Iniquity as Robert M. Price jokingly calls it) by Karen Stollznow on July 11.

  5. I’ve read only two of the books Wiseman recommends, but it looks like a good list for those skeptics (and I think they’re somewhat misguided) who prefer to fight against spoon-bending, ESP, and homeopathy instead of religion.

    I perfectly understand this sentiment, but I think there’s a difference between the different societies here. In a fairly secular society like the Danish, it becomes VERY evident, that though traditional religion is not powerful or widespread, there are still an enormous amount of people who believe the weirdest things. And I must say that it does make me mad, when I see people paying heaps of money to simple quacks and frauds. (I don’t give a damn about spoonbending though 😉 )

    1. I’ve heard that when the people of Iceland were converted to Christianity in 1,000 CE, they were permitted to continue with private pagan worship, although the private worship was eventually banned.

      Nevertheless, pagan beliefs persisted. An Icelandic colleague of mine told me that when unexplained events happen in Iceland, it’s not uncommon to attribute the events to elves or other supernatural creatures.

      1. While this is definitely true, it is not clear (at least to me) whether the people actually believe this or if it is more of a running gag, especially when foreigners are witnesses.

        1. I don’t think it’s the latter, based on what I’ve heard from people who live in Iceland. Having said that, I’m sure it doesn’t harm the tourism industry.

  6. ” … for those skeptics (and I think they’re *somewhat misguided*) who prefer to fight against spoon-bending, ESP, and homeopathy instead of religion.”

    Major disagree. Belief in these sorts of things are usually grounded in a very similar ignorance about the world, coupled with flawed rational/logical thinking, as religious beliefs.

    If charlatans can convince you that minds can bend spoons and that invisible magical beings are living in your garden and that the dead can speak to you, then you pretty much have accepted the theoretical possibility of everything that any major religion needs you to believe. (Now they just need you to narrow it down to the specifics of their religion.)

    One path to throwing off the shackles of magical, wishful, thinking is discovering/recognizing through analogous thinking what is possible, and what level of evidence is necessary. The concept of “Santa Claus” probably has a net erosive force on religious belief, giving most Xian children a concrete experience of discarding as untrue something that they believed by faith (and were told by authority) was true.

  7. I have been following skepticism forma long time; since the major figures were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Randi. These guys would pull no punches. Asimov wrote a book debunking the entire bible and Randi got his start debunking the eucharist. This accomodationatist obsession is a recent development because the movement has been taken over (with a few exceptions) by PR and IT people and entertainers who want to reach the most amount of people.

    I say skepticism is past its prime and it is time to pass the mantle to science. This XKCD crystalized this concept for me.

    Any scientist would have stopped by now making the same experiment.

  8. There is actually quite powerful evidence here for the “paranormal” and an afterlife.

    These phenomena were multiply witnessed in the UK, Europe and US in front of several UK scientists, qualified witnessess and NASA scientists. A 3 year study, a 300 page Scole Report and statements by 3 highly qualified magicians that they could not reproduce the phenomena. Conclusion real.

    1. I could not find any mention of the scientific peer-reviewed research that will be supporting the claims made. Flash graphics, zero content.

      Why do you think that is ?

    2. I note that your link goes to a site selling a nice expensive DVD (or CD or whatever it is)

      RationalWiki are not as impressed as you are:

      One of the most commonly cited pieces of “research” on séances is the Scole experiment. This was conducted in Scole, England in the late 1990s and involved numerous séances masquerading as a scientific study. Because the experiment failed to find any sources of trickery or fraud, it is often taken as proof of supernatural occurrences. However, the Scole experiment failed to impose any scientific controls, being performed in complete darkness with the mediums in control of the experiment – rather than the investigators imposing their own controls. For example, many of the objects used in the séances were provided by the mediums and not subject to any rigorous testing before or after. The investigators repeatedly stated that they could not find evidence of fraud in the mediums, but having their investigative powers being restrained by the mediums themselves severely limits the validity of that statement. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid explains the problem with the experimental parameters by analogy to analysing stage magic: “If I go to Penn and Teller’s magic show to look for evidence of deception, but I impose the rule that I have to stay in my seat and watch the show as presented, and I’m not allowed to go on stage and examine the performers or the equipment, or watch from behind, or observe the preparations, I guarantee you that I also will find no evidence of deception”

      So the fact that the investigators were severely limited in their ability to examine the mediums would have made it impossible to determine any fraud in the séances. Indeed, the laws of misdirection may have made fraud easier to get away with in this case

      1. “If I go to Penn and Teller’s magic show to look for evidence of deception…”

        Bad example. Penn & Teller are usually very up-front with their deception.

    3. Their laundry list includes Electronic Voice Phenomenon. Woooo. The air around us is filled with mysterious electromagnetic emanations which can occasionally be captured by electronic devices. The most highly tuned such appliances are known as “radios.”

  9. When done right, spoon bending is highly believable and great entertainment. But the spoon benders know less is more. Small and subtle is more convincing than over the top.

    Hmmm… Compare that to: omniscient, omnipotent, personal to every believer living and in the “afterlife”, able to create a trillion galaxies with a trillion-or-so stars each, before time even existed and wait billions of years just for us. Only to wipe out all but one family to start overhang. Then changing the way light refracts through airborne water molecules as a promise never to destroy the earth again, at least until the next time he plans on destroying it. ’nuff said.

  10. Jerry said:
    “a good list for those skeptics (and I think they’re somewhat misguided) who prefer to fight against spoon-bending, ESP, and homeopathy instead of religion.”

    I only just noticed this.

    There is obvious harm done by all these practices: in some cases, physical harm; in other cases financial; and in yet other cases emotional or psychological. I’ve known many people with clear emotional dependencies on this kind of woo, very much to their detriment. I won’t write off these victims as necessarily being screwed over less than the victims of religion.

    I’ve known people who’ve unwisely refused conventional medical treatment in favour of homoeopathy and I’ve known many more people who put so much faith in psychics, astrologers etc. that they base major life decisions on the made-up things they say.

    And these are the *obviously* harmful things. There’s also the argument that if we don’t fight against these silly ideas we might get a culture that’s less skeptical and more open to nonsense. This is really the same idea that if we pander to mainstream religions, we’re probably going to churn out people who do extreme things.

    I applaud those skeptics who go after the woo Jerry dismisses as much as those who go after religion. It’s not the case that we need to pile all our troops on the biggest battle.

  11. Thanks for replies on Scole.

    My interest in this is that I knew two of the researchers, Prof. Arthur Ellison and Montague Keen and spoke with them on their observations – several years BTW.
    Brian Dunning on skeptoid is dealt with nicely by Tim Coleman, the producer of The Afterlife Investigations, “childish” is his words in the comments on skeptoid – just scroll down at

    People often quote Dunning – don’t know why.

    Also see these links.

    These are the researchers.

    As a particle physics postgraduate and having spoken to a senior cosmologist who was a witness I am afraid some are mistaken here.
    Read about the light phenomena, there are many web links, then carefully make up your mind. And there is much more.

    No fraud ever BTW.

    1. I note you still refuse to offer up any genuine scientific evidence.

      I also note you are not bothered about spamming this thread with videos. If you want to link to a video do just that. Do not assume you have the right to waste people’s bandwidth. It is arrogant of you.

      1. To be honest it’s the first time I have posted here and didn’t know the films “pop up” like that! And the “videos” are scientists speaking!!
        But shall we keep this civil?

        The Scole Report is a scientific report, written by an electrical engineering professor, psychology professor and classics scholar, but multiply witnessed internationally. You can get it at
        There is data in there.

        Now many scientists know that these kinds of phenomena can be observed with real value by experiments with trained investigators even if no instruments are present and real scientific conclusions can be drawn. How?

        Some of the phenomena have light outputs which do not blind the eye and have colours, so luminosity and spectral ranges can be deduced – although not measured by instruments.
        Acclerations can also be deduced, within ranges, and maybe even inertial masses from the striking properties of some of the lights observed during Scole.

        My point? Scientific limits with “ranges” can be deduced of masses, accelerations,luminosities. Theories(maybe) can then follow.

        1. As PEAR, Scole is discredited:

          “”Have you heard of the Scole Report? There has not been one word from any skeptic about this. […]”

          For the record, I have heard of the Scole report. I’ve even collected a significant amount of preliminary data for a potential entry in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Also for the record, I don’t plan to look at the articles in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research concerning the testing of another psychic. I certainly will reconsider my position on psychic ability if I’m shown convincing evidence. The e-mailer should do his own analysis, in any case.

          Since it is impossible for me, or anyone else for that matter, to review and critically evaluate every report of psychic ability, I must admit that no matter how many studies I have investigated, there will always be at least one more that awaits investigation. Nobody could examine all the cases for belief in mediums, ghosts, reincarnation, miracles, stigmata, angels, astral projection, out-body-experiences, scrying, etc. There are too many cases, for one thing. More important, even if I examined a thousand cases of each type and found the evidence insufficient in each one, it would still be possible that the next case would be authentic. I call this the problem of the never-ending quest, or NEQ for short. I think Randi calls it the unsinkable rubber duck problem.”

          So there is no genuine science, no scientific evidence on the table yet.

          Could you please take your anti-science pseudoscience bunkum off this science site? It makes us nauseous to wade is so much stinking bullshit at once.

          1. These phenomena were seen by scientists in Europe and the US (NASA scientists, who went on to form their own “groups”)

            This is the Report abstract:

            “This report is the outcome of a three-year investigation of a Group claiming to receive both messages and materialised or physical objects from a number of collaborative spirit communicators. It has been conducted principally by three senior members of the Society for Psychical Research. In the course of over 20 sittings the investigators were unable to detect any direct indication of fraud or deception, and encountered evidence favouring the hypothesis of intelligent forces, whether originating in the human psyche or from discarnate sources, able to influence material objects and to convey associated maningful messages, both visual and aural.”

            These phenomena were seen by scientists in Europe and the US (NASA scientists, who went on to form their own “groups”)

            As to an evaluation of this, well I am afraid this was carried out by the scientists involved, hence the Report, but physicists and engineering professors were witnessess.
            (I am a particle by physicist by qualifications BTW).

            This is thus a scientific problem.

            Who are you to step in and evaluate this “on your own” BTW?

        2. Oops. “It makes us nauseous to wade is so much stinking bullshit at once.” – It makes us nauseous to wade in so much stinking bullshit at once.

          It floats your rubber duck, fine; we get that.

        3. “And the “videos” are scientists speaking!!”

          So what?

          “The Scole Report is a scientific report, written by an electrical engineering professor, psychology professor and classics scholar”

          Not exactly experts in the field of magic tricks, are they?

          1. Why do you not value the opinions of “scientist witnesses” – psychology professors, electrical engineering professor, engineering professor, physicists, psychiatrists, university biologists – well the list goes on.

            As to the magicians verdict, Professor Hastings and James Webster (a Scole witness)confirmed the irreproducibility of any of these phenomena. They are both highly expert magicians.

            See here for further:


        4. “The Scole Report is a scientific report, written by an electrical engineering professor, psychology professor and classics scholar, but multiply witnessed internationally.”

          Were there any magicians in the group. They are the people best qualified to study this. I think it was Randi who said physicists are the worst, because electrons don’t cheat.

  12. Certainly “the parting of the Red Sea” belongs but along with Mary’s virgin birth, list the other nine that Hitchens cites in “God is not Great;” Danae, Maia, Rhea Sylvia, et al. As far as priest’s forgiving sins, you should add “transubstantiation.” I don’t remember which, but one of you “Authors” sneaked a sample home to your lab to see if was real “flesh and blood” but suspected the outcome as negative. I’ve only read Sagan (Deamon Haunted World) and Shermer (Why People Believe Weird things) but you, Dawkins, Stenger, et al always take a shot at it in your books. I think you all have answered your question. From all I have seen and read, I go along with MASH”S Colonel Potter, “IT’S HORSE HOCKEY!”

  13. I would highly recommend Randi’s Flim-Flam (and I can’t wait for him to finish his latest book “A Magician in the Laboratory”). I wouldn’t recommend Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things” because he makes many weird claims himself (in the book as well as in general); I often wonder if he even understands some of the material which he reads – perhaps he does, but he simply doesn’t apply it to much of what he does. Rather than Shermer’s book I would suggest Carl Sagan’s ‘Demon Haunted World …’ which is a very good example of how scientists think about issues. For people who have time to read, looking at some of Shermer’s prime references would be worthwhile, and there are many other books with detail about human psychology and how people come to believe the wrong things.

    1. In Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” (1997), the chapter “The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder” has this interesting quote:

      “Perhaps one per cent of the time, someone who has an idea that smells, feels and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of pseudoscience will turn out to be right. Maybe some undiscovered reptile left over from the Cretaceous period will indeed be found in Loch Ness or the Congo Republic; or we will find artefacts of an advanced, non-human species elsewhere in the solar system. At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.”

      1. refers to PEAR lab experiments on random number generators – still ongoing, now the Global Consciousness Project.

      2. remote-viewing, esp. that sponsored by the US Government under the STARGATE program.

      3. Reincarnation research still ongoing at the University of Virginia.

      Sagan, to his great credit, considered these.

      1. The research is “ongoing”, but it is not going anywhere. PEAR is discredited et cetera.

        So we have a leg up on Sagan.

  14. “homeopathy”

    Yes, Coyne, fighting against death, physical suffering, swindle, diseducation and anti-science sentiments is certainly somewhat misguided.

    1. Oh, deary me, I forgot to mention the silliest thing: That quacks are prone to something as trivial as child abuse. Especially of the autistic.

      1. Yes.

        But all those things happen by religion too, and in greater numbers. Homeopathy can’t start wars or promulgate famines, religion still does. (Say, Afghanistan respectively Sudan.)

        So that argument supports Coyne.

        1. Yes. Though only if we assume that anti-science thinking is a relatively negligible factor in religion.

          1. Darn. Perhaps I could have been sarcastic instead.
            Like so:

            Do “swindle, diseducation and anti-science sentiments” remind you of anything?

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