An inconsistent history of paranormal in America (Book Review)

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

sn-americaSupernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough.

Supernatural America immediately conflates supernatural with paranormal and, to me, this dooms the entire book to being a mish-mash of unclear concepts. Because the author discusses the progress of scientific efforts in investigating “the supernatural”, and the efforts to prove the supernatural through science, we immediately spot the complication that this creates. Though he uses the definition of supernatural as “phenomenon that cannot be explained by natural laws or understood by science,” he does not grasp that by that definition the supernatural is excluded from science. Science relies on natural laws. Supernatural causes are beyond nature and can not be studied. There are no rules. So, right from the introduction, I was put off by this fundamental muddling of ideas. The second major issue was the lack of editing and nearly unreadable portions of chapters 1 and 2 which included excessive use of passive tense, missing words, and inelegant grammar, making these portions very difficult to follow. I trudged through them. Slowly. It got better but it was odd that these portions sounded like unproofed drafts when the rest was more readable.

The first chapter is on spiritism. Samuel interchanges this with spiritualism, the word we know better today. Samuel contends that supernaturalism arose in the age of science (not true) and suffered because of this. That was far from being why it failed to become legitimate knowledge. And, it didn’t actually suffer much at all but evolved within the mainstream. I did not follow the author’s reasoning in several places nor see evidence presented for a “resurgence” of popularity. It never went away! In one example, Samuel says the Scopes trial (1925), being a “devastating humiliation” for the old-tyme religion, weakened religion and “bolstered parapsychology”. I suppose he means the future concept of parapsychology because that was birthed no earlier than 1937 at Duke University. Such clunky language. I’m also not convinced it’s supported by any facts. With both Jeane Dixon and James Van Praagh used as examples for different decades in different sections of the book, he states their popularity showed the mainstream acceptance of supernaturalism. Again, was it ever not so? Did the supernatural get “accepted” by popular culture more than once? No, it waxes and wanes throughout history. That analogy would have been better but was not used.

The author claims the paranormal (interchangeable with supernatural, though that is an egregious error) has increased in volume and importance, and that the supernatural will emerge as our dominant religion. Hmm… such shallow thinking about a complex idea betrays a misconception about magical ideas throughout the history of civilization. I can’t figure what ruler he is using to measure this. Another sticky issue is the supernatural as the opposite of religion instead of as an overarching theme that encompasses various religions and the occult. (Christianity is chock-full of supernatural elements.) Again, the unclear distinctions and fuzzy framework left me confused as to the generalizations that could be made from this chronology. Maybe Samuel’s versions of these concepts are so different than mine that it just tripped me up entirely so I can’t follow along.

The author uses Schmeidler’s “goats” and “sheep” throughout as a handy label instead of “believers” and “skeptics”. I don’t particularly like this but I get that there is a need to group people of similar thinking when discussing their various positions. The Intro cites the Skeptics Society (of Shermer’s) as “a leading voice of goats by investigating fringe science” but never mentions it again. The chapters do describe the formation and involvement of CSICOP, an org that actually did more investigation than Shermer’s Skeptic Society ever did. It seems as if the inclusion was to justify Shermer’s cover blurb.

Samuel has written many books with the theme of historical overview and appears qualified to write such books (unlike Fitch, noted above). However, I get the distinct and irritating feeling that his knowledge of this particularly colorful and intricately- weaved bit of fabric running through American history is known to him only through the popular culture items (like the frequently cited Readers’ Digest), and that he does not have a well-rounded and deep foundation in the psychical-themed literature. This feeling comes from the cursory use or misuse of terms and conclusions that sound wrong-side-up.

I did like the parade of influential people introduced, as least in a cursory way. In several cases, you can observe ideas proposed early on (debunking, firewalking, group memory that morphed into morphic resonance, animal psychic powers) by people who are now often forgotten to the delight of their modern counterparts. Even though he mentions Randi, he fails to allude to The Amazing’s mention of  “unsinkable rubber ducks,” which would have been highly appropriate. The term “supernatural quotient” is used briefly but unreferenced; I find this a handy term, wish it was used throughout.

A detailed history of these beyond-normal ideas would be prohibitively long, therefore, Samuel lightly touches on subjects that leave you hanging — the TV show Bewitched as an important cultural normalization of psi? That needed some further explanation…

Samuel concludes that applying science to supernatural ideas was a mistake. Science isn’t enough, he says, people needed mystery for these concepts to remain attractive. Thus, parapsychology failed. This reductionism makes little sense and ignores many other correlates to explain why parapsychology lost support. He says that the supernatural will gain popularity. I can’t draw that from the text, and I don’t find it credible. I marked many locations where I feel compelled to check if a statement was characterized accurately as it just didn’t sound quite right.

I don’t like books that both oversimplify and make more cloudy a really complex social issue. That’s what I saw with Supernatural America. I can’t recommend it to those who know at least a little of the backstory. It might be fine for those who have no prior background if they can muddle through the rough parts and ignore some inconsistencies. The cover blurbs extolling it as a good history of American supernaturalism ring hollow for me. This book would have benefited from a more defined effort, distinct timeline, and a clearer means of weaving in the scientific or skeptical viewpoints.