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How We Discover The Big Truths In Small Things

By Richard Wiseman
Basic Books, 2007

Richard Wiseman is a pop science author and Britain's only Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology. He has gained a reputation for research into psychology of luck, self-help, persuasion, and illusion. This book covers all of these.

Wiseman enjoys collecting oddball and off-beat examples of psychological research, and has done some research of his own to add to the miscellany. In this book he takes a rather random walk through the science behind subliminal messages, love at first sight, body language, and ghostly visions, among other things. He takes a very evidence-based approach, and has no interest in trying to prove that there is 'something to' any of this... but he is also not on a witch-hunt, and remains unbiased.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of some the of subject matter, sample sizes are often small, and studies are few. Much of what he covers is satisfyingly evidence-based (research into subliminal advertising, for example), while others areas are weak at best (research into the funniest joke in the world springs to mind). Moreover, he seems to have a fairly poor grasp of biology and anthropology, although those are admittedly incidental to the information he is trying to present. He often leaves out details such as sample sizes, measures of statistical significance, control groups, and other useful information, but not so much as so many writers of popular science do -- and he does have references to his sources for those of us who are interested.

Overall, this is a fun read, and covers a lot of ground. It is not making my list of popular social science books that I recommend to my friends, but it will remain on my bookshelf, and I expect that I will refer back to it from time to time.

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