Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spook: Science Tackles the AfterlifeSpook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"On a wall is a placard with the Human Energy Systems Laboratory logo: a heart, a rainbow, and a human form with its arms outstretched, expressing love or joy or the size of fish he caught, as people seem to do on New Age book covers."

For Christmas present in 1963 or 1964 my mother gave me the book Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans. The book might have influenced my worldview the most of all the books that I've read in my life. This old volume (1946) viciously debunks various myths, urban legends, and beliefs that millions of people hold true. I owe being a skeptic in no small part thanks to Mr. Evans. Mary Roach's Spook (2005) is quite similar, with three differences. First of all, it is contemporary so it takes things like computers, Internet or cell phones into account. Second, it is not as vicious in the debunking - Ms. Roach frequently repeats the claim of having an open mind. And finally, it is way funnier than Evans' book.

As the subtitle of the book promises Ms. Roach takes on the momentous question: is there an afterlife, that is life after death. She attempts to answer the question using methods as close to science as possible, studying a wide variety of possible manifestations of purported afterlife. The author makes it clear up front that she is a committed skeptic and she needs "proof" to get convinced as to veracity of a claim. She means a "scientific proof," which is not a valid term: only mathematics provides proofs that make statements absolutely true, science can do no such thing. Anyway, we know what she means - she needs more than hearsay, more than reports of even many, many people, to become convinced. A rigorous scientific method has to be used, and then, rigorous statistical analysis.

Topics raised in Ms. Roach's book include: studies on reincarnation in India, the role of ectoplasm as a possible "link between life and afterlife," mediums communicating with the departed, ghost sightings, telecommunicating with the dead, etc.. Several topics relate to afterlife only tangentially: we have a pretty interesting historical study on human beliefs about the soul: how it enters the fetus, whether semen or egg are the vehicles carrying it, where it is located in the body, how much it weighs (the famous 21 grams that human body purportedly loses when the soul departs), and whether it can be seen (e.g. Kirlian photography), etc. The volume ends with an interesting bonus chapter - the author's discussion of near-death experiments at the University of Virginia Hospital, which reminds me the famous and atrociously bad book Life After Death by R. Moody.

The author seems to have worked hard on checking various claims as they are meticulously referenced: the bibliography takes 12 pages. Ms. Roach's first-hand experiences are engagingly portrayed: visit to India to briefly work with the reincarnation researchers (an interesting glimpse into life and culture of rural India), participation in the Fundamentals of Mediumship workshop, and involvement with the study of the effect of electromagnetic field on human brain. All that makes the book quite a solid work, despite several silly topics.

I am not saying what the author's final conclusions are - one has to read the book to satisfy curiosity - but I strongly recommend the book for the sense of humor. Ms. Roach's writing is generally funny, and absolutely hilarious in some passages. I used one such sidesplitting fragment in the epigraph and I burst out laughing whenever I remember the author's discussion of Dr. Dawson's use of word "motion" to mean the result of a bowel movement:
"Perhaps this is why the term 'motion pictures' was replaced by 'movies'."
I am now very much looking forward to reading Ms. Roach's better known book, Stiff. I hope it is as solid as this one but mainly I hope it is as funny!

Three and a half stars.

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