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Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims
World of Psychics
Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims
by Massimo Polidoro. Publisher: Prometheus Books.

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There are all sorts of paranormal claims out there - ghosts and poltergeists, psychics and mediums, x-ray vision and clairvoyance. But are any of them true? Are there people who really have the power to move objects with their mind, talk to the dead, or communicate via telepathy? No - when such things appear to happen, there are much more prosaic explanations available if you know what to look for.

They key is to have some experience and understanding of how magic and slight-of-hand work. Quite often these alleged powers can be duplicated by a good magician, so a person who knows how magicians work can more easily detect when similar tactics are being used dishonestly - and that's where someone like Massimo Polidoro comes in. Cofounder and executive director of the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Polidoro has recently written a book that is part autobiography and part manual on how to avoid being tricked by paranormalists.

Like other investigators, Polidoro became interested in magic at a young age, learning all he could about how to perform basic tricks for other kids. Eventually he came across a book by Piero Angela, an Italian science journalist and skeptic, which set him on the path to learning more about psychic investigations and skepticism generally. He eventually met James Randi, who in turn trained him in what Carl Sagan termed "the fine art of baloney detection" - not just in the sense of clear reasoning, but also in the sense of determining how apparently amazing things can occur through quite mundane means.

Massimo Polidoro was obviously a good student and in his book Secrets of the Psychics he takes readers through both historical and contemporary investigations of paranormal phenomenon. As he notes early on, even many great scientists have been taken in by what was later shown to be fraud. Why? Because a scientific mindset alone is insufficient for these investigations. Nature doesn't lie or deceive, but many of those who claim paranormal powers do. Thus, it isn't good enough to take things at face value and assume that what you see is all there is to the story. No, an investigator needs to look much more closely and work hard to eliminate any possible means of trickery - that's often quite enough for the powers to suddenly disappear.

One section of the book is devoted to "historical investigations" - famous instances of alleged paranormal abilities which even today can continue to enliven the beliefs who insist in the reality of the paranormal. Polidoro looks at things like the Feilding Report on Eusapia Palladino (one of the most famous accounts of seances performed by a famous medium), Franek Kluski's Spirit Moulds (alleged material evidence of contact with the dead), Uri Geller's infamous Watch Test, and many more.

Historical investigations are necessarily more difficult than contemporary investigations because there is nothing immediate to investigate - even if everyone isn't already dead, there often isn't any hard evidence to rely upon. That doesn't mean that nothing can be said, though, and one of the most common means of critique is to note how trickery might have been used (usually through a lack of strict controls) and then demonstrate how the same effects might be achieved today through trickery. This may not prove that trickery was used, of course, but it places the burden on believers to show good reasons why anyone should believe that mundane, material means weren't used.

There are also numerous investigations of more contemporary paranormal claims - a door swinging without any apparent cause, clairvoyants, human magnets, a girl with X-ray eyes, table-tippers, and more. The "creeping door," an investigation presented by Francesco Chiminello, is especially interesting because it shows how an apparently simple phenomenon (a swinging door) appears to be due to fantastic causes (like ghosts).

Even Chiminello seems to have been concerned that it would be a difficult problem to solve - but in the end, the solution was simple: air pressure in the room changing, for example by someone breathing. This isn't the most obvious solution - who would think that a few breaths might cause a door on the other side of the room to move? But that's what it was, and it just goes to show that some perseverance is necessary as well as some imagination when trying to discover the cause of such phenomena.

Polidoro is not just a good investigator, he's also a good story teller - he really makes these investigations sound interesting and even exciting at times. Even if you aren't already interested in this subject, it's unlikely that you will be bored by Polidoro's prose - and if you are interested, there's quite a lot here that you'll enjoy reading.

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