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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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The stupidiocy of Ancient Aliens for kids

There are few good skeptical books for kids. But there are a shit-ton of terrible books promoting mystery and pseudoscientific nonsense aimed at kids or those getting started exploring a paranormal topic.

I often peruse the 001 section of Juvenile Literature in the library. Mostly, I’m sickened. Occasionally, I’m surprised. There is a need for better quality, more critical books on the paranormal and “mystery” topics aimed at non-specialist at middle-reader levels.

Here is an example of such a book at my local library, which is where I obtained it and had a look.

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The Young Investigator’s Guide to Ancient Aliens was published July 21, 2015 by History Channel/A&E Network. It lists NO actual authors because no one would want their name connected to this tripe.

There is NO WAY I would purchase such a book, so thank you, libraries, for providing access. It’s important to view media that is out there and consider if this is what we want to be published. However, its presence in the library lends an air of credibility to it. I suspect that the publishers made an effort to get it into libraries by using the HISTORY Channel brand as leverage. Because it’s there, it will get read. This is unfortunate because this book is a piece of garbage.

You might have guessed as much being that it’s based on the TV show Ancient Aliens which is also garbage. I don’t watch the show but know enough about it to justify why I refuse to watch. So, I am coming at this book knowing enough of the names and fantastical speculation behind pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history topics, but I honestly have not delved deeply into this genre. I was a bit shocked at how awful it is.

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Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.

The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.

In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.

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Miscellaneous book review quickies Fall 2015

The ParanormalThe Paranormal by Kenneth Partridge
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Mostly poor choice of selections for this collection. It’s a book marketed to university libraries as a “resource” but not worth it. Teachers would do far better finding their own readings online.

Paranormal MediaParanormal Media by Annette Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some interesting ideas about participation in paranormal investigation groups and about watching ghost hunting shows on TV. But the lack of awareness about the pretend “scienceyness” of paranormal investigators hampers the use of these ideas.

The Essential Monster Movie GuideThe Essential Monster Movie Guide by Stephen Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is loaded with very strange selections. But it’s missing KEY monster movies. Missing The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and Ghostbusters but listing the other exorcism movies and the Ghost Busters cartoon series and TV shows like Happy Days, The Love Boat, and Hill Street Blues. Some of my favorite monster movies like Reptilicus, Night of the Demon, Jaws, Van Helsing, and Invisible Man (and Invisible Woman) are inexplicably left out. Refers to sequels while leaving out originals — Halloween 2 but not Halloween? Gremlins 2 but not Gremlins? That’s ridiculous. Or mentions remakes but not originals (Hands of Orlac). I used it to get ideas for movies to watch that I didn’t know about. Lots of garbage in it, though, like porn horror movies and any reference to a vampire character or monster movie clip in normal TV shows. That’s pretty awful considering the obvious movies left out.

Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to ScreenHollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dracula through the ages – fascinating reading.

Begins with the Bram Stoker novel, proceeds to the stage version, the trouble with Florence Stoker, copyright, lawsuits and studio troubles. Includes an entire chapter explaining why the Spanish version is better than the Lugosi version. There is good info about how Bela Lugosi sabotaged himself in the role that subsumed. Then, how the studio fought with his heirs.

Also includes bits about how Hammer films put life back into the Dracula character and snubbed the censors. This version ends with the 2004 film Van Helsing.

Recommended. But required prerequisites are the movies Dracula (Lugosi), Nosferatu (Murnau’s), Dracula (Spanish version), and, of course, the original Stoker novel.

View all my reviews

rhinefemale1

Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

A correspondent clued me in to what he called a “devastating commentary on parapsychology.” I agree. The review on the Magonia Review of Books meshes with what I had written in June 2014 when I looked into parapsychology, comparing then and now. It’s helpful to see an independent critique that notes the same flaws as you did. I’m not the only one who notices that the standard-bearers of parapsychology are unhelpful to their own cause. 

I enjoy the Magonia Blog review of books because the review are often in-depth and I typically learn something new whether I read the highlighted book or not. I also love to learn about what’s cooking with publishing these days, what is out there for people to access, and I’m often left to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to publish THAT!

In the review entitled Believing Impossible Things, Peter Rogerson examines Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited byEtzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz (edit: names fixed). It’s not a book I would read since it’s not aimed at me, since I’m not parapsychology expert, but for PhD level students of parapsychology. (I’m thinking that must be a pretty small audience.) Rogerson describes it as a “large, 400-plus page work [that] presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology… devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics.”

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“True Jersey” NJ.com published a stinker of a story on the Jersey Devil

They might want to reconsider this tagline.
They might want to reconsider this tagline.

A paranormal investigator who writes a column called Paranormal Corner for NJ.com broke a story this weekend that was both a coup for web hits and an utter disaster for her credibility.

Kelly Roncace received an email with a photo of what the sender said was the Jersey Devil. The JD is one of the most iconic American legends dating back to colonial times. The story in a nutshell is that a woman gave birth to a cursed baby who turned into a monster unlike any biological creature. It supposedly haunts the Pine Barren woodlands of New Jersey to this day. Great myth! For many and various reason, it’s clearly a MYTH and not factual.

Roncace set up the story by relating the legend and noting that many people still claim to see it.

“For more than 200 years, people living in or passing through New Jersey’s Pinelands have reported seeing a strange, winged creature that has come to be known as the Jersey Devil.

There are tons of stories about the monster, and thousands of witnesses who claim they have encountered it.

Late Tuesday night, I received an email from a reader who recently became one of those witnesses.”

What did she do next? She had to verify his sincerity:

Before I could write about his experience and print the photo, I had to be sure he was sincere.

“Yes, I swear it’s not Photoshopped or a staged thing,” Black responded when I asked if he was willing to let me use his name and state that the photo he sent was not manipulated in any way. “People have said it’s fake, but it’s not. I’m honestly just looking for an explanation for what I saw.”

Why not be sure he was not pulling your leg?

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