Unforbidden territory

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Dec 9 2012, 05:46am hrs
Wisemans book not only provides scientific explanations for paranormal activity, but also tries to answer how proving these phenomena as being false has actually helped the world and science

Paranormality: Why We Believe The Impossible

Richard Wiseman Pan

Rs. 399

Pg 340

Even in this modern age, with sciences predominance over our lives, many of us cant help but believe in the supernaturalbe it ghosts, psychics, mind-readers, spoon-benders or even prophetic visions. The belief in the supernatural was probably born in a much more ignorant time when we genuinely didnt know what the shadows hid, when a dark forest was forbidden territory at night and when a few people could take advantage of societys credulity to make themselves famous.

However, as many so-called psychics, horse whisperers and spoon-benders there are, there are an equal number of sceptics ready to disprove them. There are endless books on either side of this fence, and yet another one would be boring. Richard Wisemans book, Paranormality: Why We Believe The Impossible, does seem like one more book seeking to prove that there are always scientific explanations for paranormal activityand it does thatbut it serves a more important function: it tries to answer how proving these phenomena as being false has actually helped the world and science.

Take the example of German mathematics teacher Wilhelm von Osten, born in 1834. Now, Wilhem seemed to have an extraordinary abilityhe could talk to horses and teach them maths! His horse, suitably named Clever Hans, could be put on stage, with members of the audience shouting out simple maths problems, and the horse would stamp the number of times it needed to convey its answer. Clever Hans had an astounding rate of accuracy. The mathematician and his horse took the world by storm. Who would have thought of it, a counting horse

Such was the intrigue surrounding the horse and master due that in 1904, psychologist Oskar Pfungst decided to investigate this phenomenon, little knowing that in doing so, he would cement his place in psychology textbooks worldwide for the next century. The explanation of Pfungsts tests could take some time, but suffice it to say that he found that when Wilhelm and Clever Hans both heard the full question, then the horse had a 98% accuracy rate. However, when Pfungst told the horse one number, Wilhelm the other, with neither knowing what the other said, then Hans failed to produce the correct answer.

This implied to Pfungst that there was some sort of body language of Wilhelm that his horse could pick up on. When Wilhelm knew the answer (that is, when he had heard both parts of the question), then his horse got its answer right. When Wilhelm did not know the answer (that is, when he knew only one part of the question) then the horse failed.

Why I spent so long describing this phenomenon was that it provides a great example of what Richard Wiseman is trying to do with his bookshow how seemingly paranormal activity and their study can provide important breakthroughs in science. Scientists found that the same phenomena that allowed Clever Hans to pick the right answer from physical (and unintended) clues from his owner could also make witnesses pick up on clues from police officers and end up choosing the wrong person from a line-up.

Researchers quickly found that, to conduct uncontaminated science, they had to ensure that certain aspects of a study were hidden from the participants and the experimenters both, so neither could send unintentional body signals to the other and hence alter the study. This became a golden rule of experimental science, and made Oskar Pfungst quite famous.

All in all, Paranormality is an interesting read, but thats because of the subject and its presentation. Wisemans writing style leaves one feeling like one would following a full-blown study session. To his credit, he does try to liven things up by adding short boxes at the end of chapters teaching the readers to perform paranormal acts to impress their friends. Those are quite fun. Paranormality is not a book to be read in a single sittingI could only manage a chapter at a time. But if you have the time, and are willing to make your way through slightly textbook writing, then there are few subjects more fascinating than the paranormal.