Nenia Campbell's Reviews > Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Spook by Mary Roach
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's review
Oct 08, 14

bookshelves: bill-nye-says-science-rules
Read from November 06 to 09, 2011

I took an inordinate amount of pleasure from this book. Mary Roach has a very dry, very British sense of humor, which I really like. I also like the fact that, despite her sophisticated prose and in-depth research, she doesn't object to occassionally condescending to bathroom humor. Originally, I was expecting something like Mythbusters with Mary Roach barging into haunted houses with camera equipment and horrendously cheesy reenactments with bad acting as some guy with a sheet runs around the flickering hallways claiming to be the dead uncle who was secretly a child molester.

The premise of Spook is exactly what the title claims: using science, Mary looks at modern and historical theories of parapsychology through the lens of a skeptic. She discusses reincarnation ecotoplasm, ghosts, cold readings, and the many attempts of scientists and philosophers to search for the soul. A lot of the material of this latter ebbs into the territory of philsophy, which I'd learned in my History of Psychology class. I found myself smirking when she talked about how Descartes theorized that the pineal gland was where the soul interacted with the physiology of the human body just because it was the only part of the brain that did not appear to be bilateral. Oh, you silly philosophers with your grandiose ideas.

Considering Mary Roach is a self-proclaimed skeptic, I feel she does a *pretty* good job of trying to take parapsychology (partially) seriously. Especially since, even from a historical context, it comes across as quite ridiculous. The part about reincarnation seemed to head into religious territory; it makes sense that cultures where reincarnation is a part of the mainline religion would have higher incidences of people claiming to be a dead relative/friend or Buddha. The cold reading portions were no less hilarious, made more so by the fact that I just watched "The Biggest Douche in the Universe" episode of Southpark -- the one with John Edwards -- and that so much of what THEY said about cold readings was mirrored in this book. I nearly died (near death experiences are covered in here, too, by the way) when, at a psychic workshop in England, Mary Roach simply started reciting some of the stereotypical images she got when she pictured British middle-class blue-collar workers and her partner, who was indeed a British middle-class blue-collar worker, was amazed by her "powers."

Ms. Roach also talks about auditory phenomena and people's attempts to record ghostly voices. Psychologists have administered tests where they play recordings of white noise or simple vowel sounds. When people listen to these tapes, after having their expectations primed, they not only report hearing actual words (i.e. with CONSONANTS), but actual strings of coherent sentences. These expectational biases may also be why we are so quick to believe women who claim they can give birth to rabbits, the ill-grasped straws cold-readers thrust in our faces, that our eight-year-old child is really the reincarnated soul of our dead neighbor with a wife old enough to be his mother and a son twice his age, and why we are quick to interpret unexpected phenomena like infrasound, white noise, and sparks, lights, and phosphorescence as otherworldly presences.

I have to be honest and admit that during this portion, I kept hearing Daffy Duck's voice from Quackbusters saying, "Spooks spooked, goblins gobbled, UFO's KO'd, aliens alienated, vampires evaporated, and monsters remonstrated." I wasn't persuaded by this book. I think it would be hard to write a book advocating the material therein and still come off as credible, without sounding like some kind of conspiracy theory (although apparently, those nutters with the tinfoil hats cliaming they're receiving broadcasts from the CIA may not be quite as loco as you think: one of the scientists Mary interviewed said, much to her surprise, that if you had two conductive fillings close enough to each other and the radiowaves in question, they COULD transmit low frequency sounds, which could potentially be heard in the inner ear. Scary, huh?).

It's been a while since I was so engaged with a work of nonfiction. I would definitely recommend this book to skeptics and believers alike, fans of British humor or Mythbusters (or Ghostbusters, for that matter), psychology/philosophy majors, and pretty much anyone else. I am in love with this woman's writing and research styles. I can't wait to read her other quirky exposes!
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