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Not really quirky...
on 24 March 2011
Having followed Richard Wiseman's blog for a while now, I had high hopes for this book. However, while it was a reasonably interesting, pleasant read, I wasn't blown away by it either, as it seemed to suffer from some considerable flaws.
Firstly, despite promising us examples of all kinds of quirkiness from the world of psychology research, I just didn't find it all that quirky. I felt that some examples, such as the theory that the way to tell if a smile is genuine is to look at the eyes, would already be fairly well-known among the type of people who would be interested in this book.
While I appreciate that writing a book about psychological studies that interests the general public may be rather difficult, I also found the book to be incredibly superficial in its handling of its subject matter. Studies were explained very briefly in the most part, followed by sweeping statements about society based on those studies' findings. Usually only one or two studies were used to form these conclusions, which made me wonder whether Richard Wiseman was genuinely justified to do that or whether he was jumping to conclusions at times. There was hardly any critique or analysis of the studies mentioned; there were times when a study was explained in a reasonable-length summary along with its findings, and then followed by one sentence to tell the reader that "however, other researchers have not been able to replicate these findings". Surely it would have been relevant to give the reader some information about these subsequent studies and the reasons why the researchers weren't able to replicate the findings. I also wondered whether the studies quoted actually showed the things he claimed they did. For example, Prof. Wiseman tells us about a study that "showed" the pace of life in various countries based on how quickly the people there walk. I couldn't help wondering whether walking pace really is a good indicator of the pace of life - maybe the population in some countries is generally shorter than in others, which would have an influence on leg length, which would then probably have a bearing on walking speed. This is just one possible alternative explanation that I can think of and my theory may be completely incorrect, but it's exactly these kinds of alternative explanations and critiques that I felt were missing in the book. It was as if Prof. Wiseman liked his interpretation of the findings and was therefore reluctant to propose any other explanations that didn't fit his neat ideas. I found this surprising considering that Prof. Wiseman is, by all accounts, an eminent psychologist and therefore rigorous critique of studies and their findings should be part and parcel of his job (even I learned to do this during my modest A Level in Psychology, so surely a Professor of Psychology would do this too!). The lack of critique also gave me the impression that readers were expected to accept the information in the book on face value, without questioning how appropriate the studies were for researching particular ideas. This, too, struck me as rather ironic, bearing in mind that Richard Wiseman is an outspoken sceptic of anything paranormal and one would therefore expect him to encourage people to question things more.
That said, I did find some of the ideas in the book interesting. All in all, I would not discourage anyone interested in this book from reading it, but I would urge them to read it with a critical eye, rather than accepting everything on face value.