A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

bookcoverThe Encyclopedia of the Paranormal

edited by Gordon Stein, Ph.D.
(Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996)



The first thing to note about this book is its price. It retails for about $150.00 without any discount. Thus, its price puts this book out of the reach of the ordinary buyer. Libraries and serious researchers are its main audience.

The second thing to note is that there is a foreword by Carl Sagan. He recommends the book.

"Encyclopedia" is probably too generous a term for this collection of some ninety articles which vary in length, depth, rigor and quality. Many of the articles are based on works already published. At least one entry, "Coincidences," is a reprint of an article previously published. Apparently, it has not even been proofread, for it contains numerous typographical errors. There are also articles which make references to earlier discussions which did not occur (e.g., the fortune telling article refers to a non-existent earlier discussion of crystal gazing). Some use codes which are unclear (e.g., Gardner's use of UB for Urantia Book).

Some of the authors are surprising too, e.g., Jessica Utts on "Statistics and the Paranormal." Utts believes that there is statistical evidence supporting some paranormal claims. She is hardly a skeptic. Another surprise is Marcello Truzzi for the entry on "pseudoscience", which he believes is mostly a useless term since there is no clear line between science, bad science and pseudoscience. He should take a look at Barrett's entry on alternative health practices and examine the use of vitalistic concepts such as chi and prana, the common rejection of scientific methods and basic concepts, and the reliance on subjective personal emotional satisfaction as a scientific criterion. He might also look at some of the New Age Physics being promoted on the internet. These people are not just incompetent scientists; they don't know the difference between metaphysics and science. (See my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on takionics as an example.)

Some might find it interesting that the "Theosophy" entry is written by a theosophist, Robert S. Ellwood. The "parapsychology" entry is written by parapsychologist Robert Morris. The "ghost/haunted houses" entry is written by Andrew MacKenzie who is on the Council of the Society for Psychical Research. The entry on "poltergeists" is written by Alan Gauld, an author of books on poltergeists and mediums and one who is very willing to give credence to the possibility of "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis." And the "tarot" entry is written by Ronald Decker who is described as having "pursued the Tarot for twenty years through twelve countries."

Speaking of mediums: there are entries for  Leonora Piper, D. D. Home, Margery Crandon, and Eusapia Palladino.

Some of the entries are very thorough and very good, e.g., Geoffrey Dean, Arthur Mather and Ivan Kelly's entry on "astrology," Robert  Baker's entry on "hypnosis,"  and Barry Beyerstein's entries on "altered states of consciousness," and "graphology." (The "altered states" entry is one of the best in the Encyclopedia. However, Beyerstein erroneously attributes Charles Tart with coining the term in an anthology edited by Tart in 1969 called Altered States of Consciousness. The first article in that anthology is by Arnold M. Ludwig and is titled "Altered States of Consciousness" and is a reprint of an article published three years earlier in the Archives of General Psychiatry.) Also of high quality is Henry Bauer's entry on "Velikovsky," though he makes no mention of the Velikovsky/Sagan affair. Other authors and entries worth noting are James Alcock on "déjà vu," Stephen Barrett on "alternative health practices and quackery," Dale Beyerstein on "Edgar Cayce," Susan Blackmore on "near-death experiences" and "out-of-body experiences," Kenneth Fedder on "archaeology and the paranormal," Ray Hyman on "dowsing" and "palmistry," and Robert Schaeffer on "the Philadelphia experiment," just to name a few of the best.

Readers familiar with the Skeptical Inquirer and Prometheus Books will recognize some of the other authors with entries in the Encyclopedia: Joe Nickell has several entries, as does Gordon Stein, the editor. Terence Hines made several contributions.  There are also entries by Jim Lippard, Eugenie Scott, Paul Kurtz, Martin Gardner, Paul Edwards, Anthony Flew, and Kendrick Frazier.

The articles vary greatly in style from the very informal approach of  Bob McCoy on "phrenology" to the scholarly approach of  Dr. Sarah Gray Thomason on "xenoglossy" (the alleged speaking of a language entirely unknown to the speaker).

Although the Encyclopedia covers a very broad array of topics, there are a few I would like to have seen covered: anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner, the enneagram, facilitated communication, feng shui, glossolalia, Gurdjieff & Ouspensky, ley lines, magnetic healing, orgone, Scientology, the I Ching, lucid dreaming, manifesting, reverse speech, runes, scrying, and Nikola Tesla. (OK. I don't have an entry on Tesla either, but I'm just one voice crying in the wilderness. Stein could have gotten Martin Gardner or some other skeptic to write something on Tesla. I'll have an entry someday, but so many topics, so little time!)

A cheaper alternative to this encyclopedia would be my Skeptic's Dictionary (John Wiley & Sons 2003) available from Amazon for under $20 or James Randi's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995) which is available from Amazon for substantially less than $150.  The Randi book has 666 entries. Most entries are very short and written in an informal style. However, if money is no object, you might also consider The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience from Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society, which was listed at $185 on Amazon the last time I looked (though a used copy was available for a mere $135). Whatever you do, don't waste your money on William Williams Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Facts on File 2000), which listed at $85 last I looked (though a used copy was available for under $6.00 at Amazon). I made a few comments on the Williams book in SD Newsletter 4.

Bob Carroll
January 18, 1998

See also the review by Wendy Grossman and the review by George Hansen.

further reading

Frazier, Kendrick. editor, The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal  (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Frazier, Kendrick. editor, Science Confronts the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Gardner, Martin. The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981).

Gardner, Martin. Weird Water & Fuzzy Logic : More Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Kurtz,  Paul. editor, A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985).

Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Nickell, Joe. Secrets of the supernatural : investigating the world's occult mysteries with John F. Fischer (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1988).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam!
(Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982),

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995),  Review.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (W H Freeman & Co.: 1997).

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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