The odd and clunky guide to researching the paranormal – Book Review

Researching the Paranormal: How to Find Reliable Information about Parapsychology, Ghosts, Astrology, Cryptozoology, Near-Death Experiences, and More

By Courtney M. Block, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020. 342pp.

There has not previously been a book specifically about how to research the paranormal. Academic librarian Courtney Block aims to help those who may feel embarrassed or confused about approaching unconventional research topics such as ghosts and parapsychology, ufology, cryptozoology, and occult/divination topics. Clearly knowledgeable across a broad scope of paranormal themes and ideas, the author says this book focused primarily on supplying a selection of scholarly and academic references on all these topics to “shine a light on the myriad research that has been done to understand the paranormal”. The volume also revealed the author’s fervent wish to remove the “stigma” that these topics have and to promote “citizen scientists” of whom Block comments are “pushing the boundary of what it means for something to be investigated scientifically”.

This is my wheelhouse. I should appreciate this book. Unfortunately, it loses focus immediately.

Emphasizing the importance of a scientific and scholarly approach, Block states without elaboration that paranormal research challenges the academic status quo and hints that materialistic science may hamper this kind of research. This is odd and reflects the attitude of psi researchers who believe that their evidence is rock solid if only those pesky rules of science were not so strict. So, the reader is left wondering, “what kind of science and scholarship is Block talking about?” The attempt to orient the reader to key ideas of “paranormal”, “scientific”, and even “research” (which isn’t defined until page 94 as “to find out more”) is unclear, buried in a repetitive narrative for which the aim seems more to be about promoting the author’s preferred beliefs than presenting a sound procedure for doing credible research.

The intended audience for this book is also a mystery. Is this a guide for ghost hunters, teens doing research papers, writers? Parts of the book were overly simplistic, as if written for someone who never used a library before. The reading recommendations, however, were often scholarly content that the average non-specialist would find far too challenging to digest.

The author attempts to sort out a research protocol from the ground up, the result of which is disjointed and not easy to follow. For example, Block says one should not use Google as a first step to research. Yet, professionals often begin with broad searches and Wikipedia to get a general orientation to the subject matter prior to a deep dive. Google Scholar is only mentioned in passing and is not explained. Other widely used web tools are not listed. Instead, the author leans heavily on scholarly journals. (Notably, Block is silent on why cryptozoology and ufology have no dedicated journals listed.) It would have been an improvement if the author used an existing concise guide of how to research a topic (of which there are many), supplemented with specific tips for paranormal topics.

University programs, organizations, museums, and special collections are given many pages. These are sources that would be useful mostly for academic research. Yet, this list is also full of holes and barely scrapes the surface of useful material. The sections for books and articles suffer from a similar small sampling, include only a tiny smattering, not even the core literature, for each topic. I question why one would bother with listing fewer than 10 examples of key articles for each huge topic. This didn’t make sense. If there were space constraints to consider, reorganization would have been preferable. Though encouraging approaches to all sides, Block fails to include critical resources or explain their use in fully understanding a research topic. With the massive scope of topics, all end up shortchanged and lacking suitable modern context. Block never mentions anomalistic psychology, and barely touches on sociological studies.

The considerable material from the UK is peppered throughout (mostly related to the Society for Psychical Research) but the remainder is clumped into a strange, disconnected, and aimless last chapter that walks the reader through famous paranormal sites and “magical practices” of the UK. This content was weirdly unsuitable.

A rambling narrative is not an effective vehicle for instruction. The clunky titles, casual language, and repetition also revealed the lack of an editorial hand. The use of many contemporary sources, tools, and brands means this book will age fairly quickly. The multi-task effort Block shouldered is just too huge and complex for one book; it would have worked better as a website or shorter books on each topic. A reader comes away with a hodgepodge of information and suggestions but no clear pathway for researching the paranormal.


2 thoughts on “The odd and clunky guide to researching the paranormal – Book Review

  1. Yeah, seems about right. I feel like there is certainly interesting things in parapsychology worth looking at but books about it always seem to be just not great.

    Two bits that stood out to me is that maybe I’m more sympathetic, but I can’t imagine researching the more challenging parts of NDEs, stuffs like ghosts ect wouldn’t challenge the current popular philisophical position in science, materialism. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy your blog, you’re willing to at least take a gander, others dismiss the whole idea of it all outright because obviously the evidence means nothing, my preferred belief says it cant be possible.

    The other is about not using google as a first step to research which, based on the context, might be fair. Have you seen the wikipedia pages for parapsychology? They read more like hit pieces than overviews of the field. May be better for them to try and find specific sites buried underneath all the skeptical articles, like the PSI Encyclopedia

  2. Hello! Author of aforementioned book here. First, let me acknowledge what a strange thing it is to see folks talking about a book I’ve written! It’s downright nerve-wracking to put a creative work out into the ether, lol. I wanted to take a moment and address a few things in your review. To begin, you mention that I state “without elaboration that paranormal research challenges the academic status quo.” I do, however, spend a number of pages discussing why I believe that is so. Taken from my librarian’s point of view, I discuss how engaging with paranormal topics, through a typical research process, helps deconstruct standard (and often misunderstood) notions of credibility – how it can help students develop a more nuanced understanding of credibility because they are engaging with topics on the fringes of science. Maybe you meant that you’d like to have seen a longer discussion of that? I’m not sure.

    You also mention at one point that the audience is unclear, but I felt I made that relatively clear in my introduction. I state that this book is aimed at a general readership and that the language is friendly enough for those even as young as high-school age to appreciate, and that it might especially be useful for those engaged in ‘ghost-hunting’ fieldwork. It’s not written for advanced scientists and I don’t think I imply that. This brings me to my next point. Though it’s written for a general readership, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of unpacking scholarly articles. I find your comment that many of the resources I provide are “scholarly content that the average non-specialist would find far too challenging to digest” to be quite unfair to general readers, actually. There is no reason to assume that a layperson wouldn’t be able to understand the contents of a scholarly article. They might not understand some of the lingo (heck, I wouldn’t understand nearly any of the lingo in a quantum theory article), but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be presented or accessible to them. Part of my entire point in writing this book is to help reveal to the general public that there are such things as scholarly articles on these topics, because I think it’s something that many don’t realize, especially people who aren’t on college campuses with access to large libraries that have database subscriptions.

    I note, on multiple occasions, that I hope this book serves as a beginner’s entry-point into locating information about various aspects of the paranormal. That might be why you wrote, “parts of the book were overly simplistic, as if written for someone who never used a library before.” My goal was for this to be a simple and easy entry point for people to learn more about the academic history of these topics. And in my experience as a librarian, many people actually aren’t aware of what resources are available to them, students and laypeople alike. They may know how to get to the library and how to, let’s say, check out a book, but knowing how to locate and navigate relevant databases is not something that is inherently obvious to a lot of people. In fact, it’s something that a lot of people struggle with – especially undergraduate students. I see that firsthand every day as a librarian. That’s also why I spend an entire portion of this book talking about Sarah Blakeslee’s CRAAP test. I dive into the components of credibility to help beginning researchers understand the issues that they need to consider when researching, well….anything. It’s true that I don’t provide any clinical checklist of how to research, but that’s because there’s no one way to go about your research. A good starting point for any research is just to have a solid understanding of CRAAP. See what I did there? LOL. I also discuss this because I want general readers to develop a keener sense of information literacy. And I think we can all agree that information literacy is something that society often seems to be lacking, ha.

    I was also a little discouraged when you wrote that “Block says one should not use Google as a first step to research,” because in Chapter Four, pages 94-96, I talk about how an extremely valid way of beginning your research is to conduct a Google search to gather background information. I specifically say that this is a valid strategy because it will help you develop relevant keywords that you can then plug into a database. I go through an entire detailed example of how to start your research mindset using this very tactic.
    I understand what you meant when you commented on a small sample size, but I state, multiple times, that my bibliography is intended merely to be a starting point from which readers can continue their search. I can appreciate that you’d like to have seen certain topics, and that bit is constructive and something for me to consider moving forward, but I don’t ever claim that my bibliographies are exhaustive.

    I feel like I did present a pretty clear pathway for general readers and/or undergraduates to begin or advance their understanding of the paranormal. I can understand how this book might not be useful for someone like you, who is already very knowledgeable about these resources and the research process, but then again, I didn’t write this book for that audience. Your review has given me pause to consider how I might make that clearer in the next book. It’s my tiny hope that this book reaches those who are relatively unversed in this field and who perhaps even had no idea that the academy and the paranormal was linked. It’s my hope that the college student interested in these topics might see this and understand that they’re not weird for thinking about these things in a scholarly way. And it’s also my hope that general readers realize they don’t need a degree to be able to access, understand, and broaden their interest in these scientific endeavors.

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