The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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A Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks: NO MORE! Please!

This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.

In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?

First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.

Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.

I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences.  In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:

1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)

2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)

3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)

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Houdini. Skeptic. (Book Review)

magician spiritsHarry Houdini needs no introduction, but there are several facts that people do not know about this consummate skeptic. That makes this book a must for everyone interested in psychics and paranormal claims. Just the Introduction to this great book floored me. How much we needed Houdini at the time. How much we STILL need a Houdini today.

Houdini was open-minded. He admitted he wanted to believe. He strove to learn if the possibility that one could communicate with the dead was real. In an attempt to convince himself, he had compacts with 14 people for post-death communication. He was sorely disappointed that none ever reached beyond the grave to give him evidence he needed. Meanwhile the “mystifier of mystifiers” (a term disgustingly co-opted by Uri Geller, the unimpressive psychic performer) met all the most famous mediums of his time to test this elusive idea.

“Gladly I would embrace Spiritualism if it could prove its claims, but I am not willing to be deluded by fraudulent impostors of so called psychics…”

In this book, he outlines his adventures with them, how he learned their secrets, and how he applied his knowledge of the tricks the mind can play. He was part of the initial era of psychical research. Continue reading

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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Rock and roll and the occult – A Book Review

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
by Peter Berbegal (2014)

seasonSaved it from what? I’m not clear. From “sugary teenybopper purgatory”? Meh. I don’t think the “occult” interest was the key aspect. Culture was changing and music reflected this. Pressing our conscious bounds outside the norm is the way of all art and creativity. Perhaps use of occult themes was one convenient path; but it was also widely used for just theatrics and to gain attention.

This book was not as good as I hoped. The subject matter – occult aspects within rock music – is rich with possibilities; every obvious aspect is at least mentioned – Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, the Beatles dabbling in Transcendental Meditation, The Rolling Stones lyrical relationship with Satan, Aleister Crowley’s connections to Jimmy Page (Crowley’s ideas are threaded throughout the book), the hidden meaning in Led Zeppelin albums, the Satanic imagery of heavy metal, alternative spiritual ideas, even Jay Z and the Illuminati symbolism.

But nothing is covered deeply. It’s written in an art-based language instead of what I would have preferred – a historical and sociological framework (surprisingly, since Berbegal is an expert in religion and culture). I just did not enjoy the language he uses. Here’s an example:

“Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipe for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled towards it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was not inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock muscians crafted music that did more than tug at the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them towards transcendence, towards creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.”

Such rumination is fit for the intro and conclusion but not what I wanted to read in the informational body of the text.

I did like the section on David Bowie very much. But several long parts of the book were more about drug use than occult ideas. It seemed to go off on tangents and be missing a strong focus and factual information that I would have preferred. Many music culture fans will find this book pleasing, my personal preference notwithstanding. So, your milage will vary.

Book reviews: Fall 2014

300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.

Cryptozoology treated as zoology – Shadows of Existence (Book review)

Speculating can be fun. But it’s nicer when you aren’t making stuff up out of thin air based on wishful thinking. Scientific underpinning is comforting. That’s why I liked Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology by Matt Bille.

This book was published in 2006 so it’s slightly out of date but the majority of info is still worthwhile for the cryptozoological-minded and it’s far better written than the majority of crypto books out there. It’s sound. It’s solid.

Bille is knowledgeable. This effort took substantial research and it shows. He is also realistic, takes evidence into account and, yet, is hopeful that new, amazing discoveries are out there. This is my philosophy as well. Therefore, I approve of his tone throughout.

The book is a series of short essays organized into four sections: New creatures, In the Shadow of Extinction, Classic Mystery Animals, and Miscellanea. There is so much good information treated in an even-handed and fair manner. Continue reading

Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading