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I have a soft spot for research into the possibility of an afterlife.There’s some fascinating evidence out there that deserves closer inspection, and yet it is basically a heresy for any scientist to become involved in doing so. So I was eager to read Mary Roach’s book Spook (Amazon US and UK), with its subtitle “Science tackles the afterlife”. Roach’s previous book, Stiff, had received very good reviews, so it was likely the new book would be perfectly suited to me.

In the introduction, Mary Roach makes clear that she started her research from absolute zero – she knew nothing about the topic. That approach has its positives (less likely to align to one side or the other on pure bias – although no doubt there were some), but also negatives (in that she is bound to miss some important research in the vast literature). During the book, written as a travelogue, she tours through topics such as reincarnation, attempts to weigh the soul, ectoplasm, Dr. Gary Schwartz’s mediumship research, technological attempts to talk with the dead, and Michael Persinger’s ‘sensed presence’ research with electromagnetic fields.

It soon becomes apparent when reading the book though that Roach is more interested in the ‘follies’ of science. The book entertains the reader primarily by laughing at researchers’ (and our own) overzealous attempts to find something beyond death. That is not to say that she presents the entire book from a skeptical viewpoint. When visiting the mediumship research program conducted by Dr Gary Schwartz, she takes issue with his overly keen attempts to see ‘hits’ from mediums. But then she confesses to being gobsmacked when ‘super-medium’ Allison Dubois off-handedly mentions that she was being shown something about Roach’s brother and an hourglass – he is a collector of hourglasses. Roach sums up with a good insight into the difficulties of finding ‘who is right’ in their approach to finding the truth: “Here is the funny thing,” she says. “Both Gary Schwartz and I believe ourselves to be neutral, unbiased inhabitors of the middle ground. I think Schwartz falls short of that territory, and he feels the same way about me. And he may be right about me. I am skeptical by nature.”

She also points out, in light of these ‘dazzle shots’ of mediums, that perhaps it isn’t even something science can deal with:

If paranormal insights occur rarely, and largely outside of voluntary control, then perhaps it makes sense to focus on isolated moments – when the energy is right, whatever that might mean, and the medium is in fine fettle. But if this is the case, I think you have to wave good-bye to ever achieving”proof” – at least the kind that will stand up, statistically and methodologically, to the standards of peer review and academic orthodoxy. Medium research will become qualitative, not quantitative.

There are what I thought to be a number of errors made throughout the book (as far as my knowledge goes at least), such as when Roach says that William James accepted the reality of ectoplasm. Everything I have read about William James suggests that he had great disdain for physical mediumship, so it would have been good to have a reference for this claim (and others throughout the book). But, if they were errors, it is perhaps understandable given Roach started writing the book from a point of ignorance, with no knowledge of the topic.

Any errors in Spook are redeemed by Roach’s ability to turn a phrase, and the numerous laugh-out-loud moments that she conjures up. Gary Schwartz’s unremitting good humour in the face of “an extraordinary amount” of cynical criticism has him described as “a Pooh bear among the skeptic society Eeyores”. The afterlife exploits of Chopin inspire the phrase “who has, we learn, resumed composing following a brief stint decomposing”. In describing the sound someone made when subjected to a haunting, Roach says to “imagine an opera singer being garotted at the crescendo of an aria.” Perhaps my personal favourite was the succinct painting of the scene of a New Age gift shop she entered: “People who enjoy fairies and dolphins have a wide range of purchase options here.”

However, a negative element of Roach’s writing – though once again, in attempting humour – is her rather regular ascerbic stabs at people whom she doesn’t know…and who are also often deceased, so unable to reply to her comments. She suggests that pioneering British researcher – and psychical investigator – Sir Oliver Lodge was “possibly a few envelopes short of a stationery set.” When discussing a particular research study by Karlis Osis, who died in 1997, she concludes that “either Tanous was some sort of bizarre on-call living ghost, or Osis was a deluded or sloppy researcher.” Beyond that, Roach also seems to have a fixation with odd names which can raise a laugh (perhaps as a consequence of her own childhood?). In a footnote regarding how she is an “unabashed fan of the SPR” (Society for Psychical Research), she says “[I] take it as nothing beyond happy coincidence that the SPR membership roster has at one time or another included a Mrs. H.G. Nutter, a Harry Wack, and a Mrs. Roy Batty”. Although it seems a bit childish most of the time, the sheer amount of name wordplay that she uncovers during the course of the book almost becomes a Fortean mystery in itself.

Surprisingly, given the cynical humour that underpins the book, Roach ends with a serious little 3 page section titled “Last Words”. In it, she confesses that her research has changed her mind somewhat from the skeptical position:

I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinet of science. Certainly most things can…but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more – rather than in any existing something more. It’s not much, but it’s more than I believed a year ago.

Spook is a fun romp. The problem with the book – apart from the regular ‘nasty’ jabs already mentioned – almost entirely rests with the subtitle. If anybody wants to discuss science tackling the afterlife, and delve back into the historical record, then there is no excuse for not mentioning the case of Leonora Piper – probably the most scientifically tested medium of all time, and who convinced a number of the greatest thinkers of the late 19th century that there was something after death. Spook is an entertaining and informative book about afterlife research by scientists, but there is no doubt that the topics discussed in its 300 or so pages were guided primarily by the writer’s desire for “entertainment”, with “informative” taking a back seat (there’s no index…something that annoys me no end!). But entertaining it is, and well worth picking up! Just don’t assume that it provides a good summary of the evidence for an afterlife. Roach ends Spook with the words, “the debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.” It’s plenty of fun to visit the metaphorical graveyards in Spook with Mary Roach.

Spook is available from Amazon US and UK