Interview: Professor Richard Wiseman, Edinburgh Science Festival guest curator

He learned his trade as a teenage magician working the crowds in Covent Garden, learning to deliver rapid-fire entertainment before the toughest audiences. Now the maverick academic, popular psychologist and author Richard Wiseman is to be the first guest curator at this year's Edinburgh's International Science Festival.

He's planning 11 sessions that will blend science and entertainment, ranging from the psychology of dogs and how to spot a psychopath, to the science behind Edinburgh's high-tech fireworks displays.

A professor in "public psychology" at the University of Hertfordshire who divides his time between London and Edinburgh, he's a sceptic who doesn't believe in extrasensory perception or prayer and, as a former magician, he's stunned that people fall for seances in a darkened room where every kind of trickery is available.

He's followed by 68,000 on Twitter, runs mass psychology experiments to test theories on subjects from jokes to luck, and mercilessly hawks his books, translated into 20 languages. But Wiseman's message to academics who might look down their noses at his populist approach is that the UK Government is going to increasingly rate universities and their lecturers on 'impact' rather than research. If you can't or don't tell people what you are doing, he says, it's hard to persuade them to pay you.

Wiseman has found a new following through the Edinburgh Secret Society, which he formed late last year with friend and colleague Peter Lamont, to host evenings of irreverent talks and entertainment on topics including self-help and dying. This month it stages An Evening of Death in A Victorian Anatomy Theatre at Edinburgh University, an event that sold out its 250 tickets within minutes.

But it is at this year's science festival where Wiseman will aim to make the biggest splash, with a series of talks exploring issues and phenomena that catch our curiosity in everyday life. From exploring the difference between vintage wine and plonk, to the science of cosmetics, Wiseman says he looks for "sticky ideas" that people, when they've heard them, can't get out of their heads. "They key thing is I mention something to people, and if they are interested I move ahead with it."

The April festival – with the programme launched on 24 February – will include a session on the science of dog training. It features pet behaviourist Elaine Henley, along with the canine performers of the Auchinlay Dog Agility Group.

"I don't have a dog, but I'm a big dog fan," Wiseman says. "That is a good example of the kind of stuff I like. It's something to see, clearly, dogs doing their stuff. There's a take-home message for you in how you can train your dog better. There's a big science element as well. Those are the three things looked for in any event. Once you've got all three you will probably put bums on seats."

But in a joint session with Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, Wiseman will tackle more dangerous territory. Ronson's book, and the subsequent film starring George Clooney, explored the US Army's effort to investigate the use of psychic powers, and psychological techniques, for spying and interrogation – with the title taken from the idea that men could kill goats by staring at them.

Ronson's new book is The Psychopath Test. "We will find out the psychic potential of the audience, and also whether they are prospective psychopaths as well. We are doing a series of interactive tests," Wiseman explains.

"It's Ronson's journey into who you decide is a psychopath and who is not, and it's a political decision sometimes. Some people would argue that some leaders of political organisations are psychopaths. It's a complete lack of empathy to do with others. In some contexts, if you are of low intelligence, you turn to a life of crime; if you are of high intelligence, you are probably pretty high-functioning and you do quite well in finance or whatever."

Wiseman is currently planning for the publication of his own book, Paranormality, and uses every forum, unashamedly, to push book sales. His first, The Luck Factor, looked at who was lucky, and who was not, and what their own attitudes had to do with it. It was his first "sticky idea", and it went to a bidding war with UK and US publishers. Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, and 59 Seconds, a survey of self-help myths, theories and which could actually work, fast, followed. They have been translated into 20 languages, and regularly ride up the science bestseller lists.

From lectures to his popular tweets, there are book plugs aplenty. "That's my job. With authors, I think they think their job is to write a book. No-one is paying you to write a book, your job is to sell the book, part of that is a writing process, but there's a big, long tail. If it's 60 seconds in a 20-30 minute talk it's fine."

With e-books now outselling physical books on Amazon, Paranormality on e-readers will include video content and interactive tests. Visual tricks and optical illusions are part of Wiseman's stock in trade, such as the Colour-Changing Card Trick, one of the videos illustrating "change blindness" that has helped get 11 million hits for his YouTube offerings.

Richard Wiseman was raised in Luton, where his mother was a seamstress, and his father an engineer. "Like most magicians I got into magic really young," he says. "You open that book when you're in the library, and go "this is for me". It happened to me at about age eight."

He joined the local magic society, and graduated to the Magic Circle in London, where he was one of its youngest members.

By 18, Wiseman was a street performer in Covent Garden, and went to University College London to study psychology, partly because it "was right around the corner". "It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, I loved it," he says. "I still love street stuff because it's the hardest job in entertainment, because if the audience don't like it they walk away. You found out very quickly what works and what doesn't. Sometimes you would start your act and after five minutes there was no audience. You learn very quickly to adapt or just get out of there."

About three years later, however, he had his epiphany on a magical career. "I was in America, and I just had been to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, doing about ten shows there. It had been an appalling trip."

In Times Square, New York, watching a street gang run the three-card trick – persuading punters to gamble on finding the queen from three cards in a well-known con game where other betters are part of the gang – he had his own bag stolen.

"I thought, what's the best this would be? There's only room for one magician on television at any one time. Is that going to be me? If it's not, you are touring around the country, working unsociable hours, all of the time. I thought, you know, there's got to be something else. It's not a glamorous life."

He came to Edinburgh, to do his doctorate in psychology, and went from there to the University of Hertfordshire, becoming Britain's first professor in the public understanding of psychology.

Wiseman's public psychology experiments – such as enlisting people to name, and rate, their favourite gags in the search for the world's funniest jokes – have drawn hundreds of thousands of participants and plenty of press. His published academic research has been into parapsychology, the investigation into psychic phenomena – from near-death experiences to extrasensory perception – what causes them and how, and whether they have any basis in reality, or in our minds. He investigated alleged hauntings in Edinburgh's underground vaults. His partner, Dr Caroline Watt, is a parapsychologist at the university's Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

He takes on these popular subjects but as a sceptic from the very start, working with the likes of Derren Brown. "A lot of people believe they have experienced this stuff and I'm interested in why they think they had these experiences. There is the power of suggestion, that somewhere is haunted or a key is bending or something levitating. I find it amazing how malleable people's testimonies are, and also quite terrifying.

"(Another thing is] the problem with prayer; I'm always very sceptical of anything which is low-input, but makes you feel good. Whenever anybody does very little, and it makes them feel good, you almost certainly know it's for their benefit and no-one else," he says.

One of the sessions at the science festival is a debate on the subject of official miracles. "Everyone goes on about ghostly experiences. This country now is covered in CCTV, but in all of those recordings nothing has turned up," he adds. "The whole of central London constantly being recorded, you would think they would have caught one or two ghosts."

As a former magician, he knows all too well the tricks that can be played at seances. He is stunned that people are ready to walk into a room, which hasn't been searched, and then be amazed at moving lights or tables in the darkness.

"Magicians are the most honest liars, because they tell you they are going to lie to you and then they do, you'd be disappointed if they didn't." But in dealing with "pseudopsychics", he says: "I'm still stunned, you take a group of people into a room, it's total darkness, and luminous objects move around the room. There's enormous scope for trickery."

True science is weird and astonishing enough, Wiseman adds. The festival will include a session on the physics of fireworks. In Edinburgh, he says, people stand on the street, watch displays and go "that's great". "But there is an amount of physics and chemistry involved in every single thing you are seeing. The timing of when they go off. Simply how do you get a blue firework as opposed to a red one, let alone the shape of it." Another session will probe the science of cosmetics, with Wiseman's typical populist touch. "We will have someone who develops cosmetics for a living. You put on lipstick or moisturiser, what is that actually doing to your skin? Do you have to pay a fortune for it? The other is a make-up artist coming along and talking about how you use these things to best effect. We will get someone in the audience and do a live makeover."

Wiseman knows that more "serious" academics may question his research. "I would say to those people, why are you in a university? Because people work very hard to give you money to be there. It's all taxpayers' money. And if your attitude is you are not going to tell people, what it is about? People like me go out and tell people what it is they are getting for their tax."

The Edinburgh International Science Festival, from 9-22 April, launches its programme on 24 February and tickets will go sale that day. Box office is 0131 553 0322/ www.science festival.co.uk