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.

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