'Weird Science' examines the realm of the paranormal
Avon Books (paper), $14
Review by L.D. Meagher
October 7, 1999
(CNN) -- When confronted with tales of UFO encounters, apparitions in the night, feats of psychic power and voodoo magic, science writer Michael White has some simple but valuable advice. "It is important we all keep open minds," he urges, "but also fully functioning ones."
In "Weird Science: An Expert Explains Ghosts, Voodoo, the UFO Conspiracy, and Other Paranormal Phenomena," White examines the realm of the paranormal with the eye of a scientist. He concludes that some phenomena that appear to be supernatural in origin have more mundane explanations. He also concludes that science hasn't found an explanation for everything.
White covers the waterfront of the outré. He addresses reports of alien abductions; the spoon bending of purported psychics; ghosts; astrology; "miracle cures" and faith healing; telepathy and clairvoyance; ancient "standing stones"; and crop circles.
In each case, he explores what's offered as evidence for supernatural forces at work. In most instances, he finds such evidence wanting and offers alternate explanations based on scientific discoveries.
Take, for example, vampires. While a kind of faux vampirism is fashionable these days in some circles that favor "gothic chic," White suggests the vampire legend may have grown from a genetic defect that afflicted isolated communities in central Europe centuries ago. Identified in 1985, the disorder known as porphyria blocks production of a protein that binds iron in the blood to a chemical known as a "porphyrin ring." The result is a set of physical characteristics familiar to Bela Lugosi fans.
"First," White writes, "those suffering from porphyria look severely anemic because their hemoglobin is not being utilized efficiently and their blood is not as oxygenated as it should be. Second, the porphyrin rings that cannot do their job are deposited in the subcutaneous fat beneath the skin. The chemical is photosensitive, and in sunlight it can release electrons that damage the skin and may cause severe blistering -- hence the vampire's fear of sunlight."
White asserts that advances in the understanding of the human body and its biochemical processes can account for a wide range of phenomena -- from faith healing to the tunnel of light often said to accompany near-death experiences.
But other phenomena aren't so easily dismissed. He notes that crop circles -- a media sensation in England for several years -- cannot all be explained as hoaxes. But White says the rationale for the few that remain is most likely found in meteorology, not UFOs.
Beyond swamp gas
"Weird Science" does more than debunk superstition and the supernatural. It also provides a sort of survey course on the state of some of the modern sciences, including astronomy and quantum physics.
Here, though, White tends to be less successful. He's a former science editor for the British "Gentleman's Quarterly," but some of his explanations can be tedious and repetitive. Two chapters -- on genetics and exobiology -- seem to belong in another book. Neither addresses so-called paranormal phenomena.
On the whole, "Weird Science" does a credible job of laying bare the fallacies of those who claim supernatural forces are at work in our world. White capably demonstrates that there's little need to seek answers for strange occurrences outside the realm of Nature. Nature, he concludes, is strange enough.
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