The Journal of the American
Society for Psychical Research
Vol. 94, Nos. 3-4, July-October,
2000, pp. 181-189.
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PARANORMAL. Edited by Gordon Stein. Amherst,
NY: Prometheus Books, 1996. Pp. xxiv + 859. $160.00, cloth. LC 95-42648.
This tome purports to be an encyclopedia that
covers the paranormal scientifically. Both debunkers and parapsychologists
contributed to it, and that makes it of special interest. In its
way, this work says something important about the status of psi research
today. In order to put the book in perspective, I will first provide
some background on the editor and publisher. I shall then describe the
general features and comment on specific entries. At the end I will
consider a few implications of this book.
The Editor and Publisher
Gordon Stein was a prolific writer and activist
for antiparanormal and antireligious causes. He edited the two-volume
of Unbelief and the Encyclopedia of Hoaxes as well as several
books on rationalism and Free Thought. Stein served as editor of the American
Rationalist, which regularly reviewed books on parapsychology.
During the 1980s he spent several years touring college campuses to promote
atheism (Stein, 1988). He is one in a long line of rationalist critics
of psychical research who are known more for prolific output than for excellence
Stein held a Ph.D. in physiology and served
as librarian of the Center for Inquiry, which houses both the Committee
for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and
the Council for Secular Humanism (COSH). He died in August 1996,
several months after his Encyclopedia was published. He had attained
sufficient prominence that the New York Times ran his obituary.
Stein seemed to maintain cordial relations
with a few paranormal proponents, more than most others who are employees
of CSICOP. He had some familiarity with early psychical research
and wrote The Sorcerer of
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
Kings: The Case of Daniel Dunglas Home and William Crookes (1993).
He dedicated that work to Eric Dingwall, the eminent psychical researcher,
rationalist, and early CSICOP member who later resigned from the Committee.
In 1996 I had a chance to observe Stein at
a CSICOP conference and chat with a number of skeptics about him.
He seemed ill at ease with people and did not seem to be especially popular.
Stein certainly was not particularly sympathetic to paranormal claims,
but, far more than most debunkers, he immersed himself in the literature.
To his credit, he realized that the material is important, and he spent
a significant part of his life addressing it.
The Encyclopedia is published by Prometheus
Books. Prometheus was founded by Paul Kurtz, who also heads CSICOP
and COSH (for more on these organizations, see Hansen, 2001, Chapter 12).
Readers should know that Prometheus is the largest U.S. publisher of antireligious
tracts as well as books attacking the paranormal. The Foreword is by the
high-profile debunker and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, a CSICOP member
and Laureate of the Academy of Humanism.
The Encyclopedia probably contains more proparanormal
contributions than any other volume published by Prometheus. It even
includes a few direct criticisms of CSICOP. Thus one might expect
a particularly balanced and reliable treatment, but that hope is quickly
dashed. The first sentence of Stein’s Introduction disingenuously proclaims:
“This is the first scientifically based encyclopedia to deal with the paranormal”
(p.xxi). On the very next page, he announces: “Some subjects have rarely
been written about previously in separate articles, and thus there is no
published record of expertise about these subjects. Among these topics
are . . . ‘Statistics and the Paranormal’” (p. xxii). As readers
of this Journal know, contra Stein, there is a large literature
on that topic by acknowledged authorities.
This work covers a broad range of paranormal
topics. It includes entries of direct concern to psychical research,
but it also contains material on UFOs, cryptozoology, New Age issues, and
astrology. Entries include: “Alchemy,” “Tarot,” “Oahspe,” “Phrenology,”
“Palmistry,” “Karma,” “Vampires,” “Werewolves,” and “Crop Circles,” among
Biographical articles are given for Carlos Castaneda, Edgar Cayce,
Charles Fort, D. D. Home, Harry Houdini, Carl Jung, Margery Crandon, Carlos
Mirabelli, Nostradamus, Eusapia Palladino, Leonora Piper, Sai Baba, Henry
Slade, and Immanuel Velikovsky. One immediately notices that none
are primarily known as scientific investigators of the paranormal. Full
birth and death dates are almost never given, though the years usually
The entries are provided by 56 contributors,
and the author of each is identified. Among those who also publish
in parapsychology journals are
Reviews of Scholarly Books
Daryl Bem, Susan Blackmore, Christopher French, Alan Gauld, Stanley
Krippner, Andrew MacKenzie, Robert Morris, Marcello Truzzi, Jessica Utts,
and Richard Wiseman. Some of those associated with CSICOP include
James Alcock, Robert Baker, Barry Beyerstein, Antony Flew, Kendrick Frazier,
Martin Gardner, Terence Hines, Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Joe Nickell, Robert
Sheaffer, and Robert Steiner.
The Encyclopedia has only 91 entries.
Just seven pages are allotted to indexing the 851 pages of double-column
text. Many topics and names are not listed in the Index, even some
that receive several pages of discussion. This is a severe defect.
For a volume labeled an encyclopedia, a reader
reasonably expects to find key terms defined; primary issues explained;
historical background provided; major figures, organizations, and institutions
identified; and significant references cited. Most of the entries
fail to meet some of these requirements. It must be acknowledged,
however, that some of the articles are good, even excellent, in and of
With any volume of contributed articles, one
expects a range of quality, coverage, and bias, and the range here is very
wide. I will select a limited number of entries for comment, hoping they
will be of particular interest to readers of this Journal.
Andrew MacKenzie’s article “Ghosts and Hauntings”
is probably the most proparanormal piece in the book. MacKenzie assumes
the reality of telepathy and other phenomena and primarily discusses ghosts
in those terms rather than positing nonpsi explanations. He reviews
in detail a few haunting cases reported by the Society for Psychical Research
Marcello Truzzi’s entry “Pseudoscience” (15
pages) is one of the finest in the volume. It is a masterly review of the
problem of distinguishing science from pseudoscience. He draws
upon work in sociology and philosophy and relates it directly to the paranormal.
Truzzi makes some very critical comments about CSICOP and points out how
some of its members (e.g., Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan) were quite unsophisticated
in their understanding of what constitutes science.
Paul Kurtz’s article “Skepticism and the Paranormal”
surveys the history of skepticism and reviews terminology issues and objections
to paranormal claims. He credits the SPR and the American SPR as
contributing to a skeptical approach. He lists many of the names and affiliations
of critics of J. B. Rhine’s work and generally gives background and full
references for various historically important critiques. Kurtz does
not cover the innumerable criticisms published in parapsychology journals
or responses to outside criticisms (e.g., Akers, 1984; Child, 1987).
Kurtz’s history has some gaps. For instance,
he does not mention the early critics of the SPR (e.g., Joseph McCabe,
W. B. Carpenter, Edward
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
Clodd) or the Rationalist Press Association. Kurtz discusses Charles
Sanders Peirce, but does not mention the skeptical pieces he contributed
to the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research
in 1887. Amusingly, there is no mention of the Skeptics Society, CSICOP’s
rival, headed by Michael Shermer. Despite the omissions, the article is
perhaps the best available brief history of skepticism of the paranormal.
Alan Gauld’s piece on the “Society for Psychical
Research” explains factors that led to its founding, lists leading members,
and discusses their primary interests, activities, and publications.
It is a superb historical overview. Gauld served as President of
the Society for 1992-1993, but ironically, he gives the reader little indication
of its current size, activities, or influence.
Susan Blackmore’s survey of “Near-Death Experiences”
identifies key issues and cites specific studies that address them.
The article is heavily psychological in orientation, but it gives due attention
to historical and cross-cultural issues. Overall the entry is excellent
but not quite comprehensive as there is no mention of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
or the International Association for Near-Death Studies. Her entry
“Out-of-Body Experiences” covers a range of psychological and parapsychological
literature, giving full citations. There is no mention of The Monroe
Institute or Eckankar, reflecting a parochial perspective typical of academe.
Robert Ellwood’s article on “Theosophy” reviews
its beginnings. He discusses central personalities, formative controversies,
and cites many references. He explains that the paranormal played
a major role in the early years of the Theosophical Society, but it was
later de-emphasized. Many members opposed the Society’s teaching
of psychic development. Unfortunately, Ellwood says little about the Theosophical
Society as it stands today.
Martin Gardner’s entry “Eyeless Vision” reviews
a substantial number of papers on that topic. Gardner is a highly
respected authority on magic, a fact that most parapsychologists did not
appreciate for many years. He explains how magicians might circumvent
experimental controls. He did not, of course, list any relevant works
from the conjuring literature, but one should not expect those to be discussed
outside the magic fraternity. Gardner probably exposed more about eyeless
vision (aka, blindfold sight) than most conjurors would approve of. Perhaps
this article was an attempt to make amends, because earlier in his career
Gardner promoted mentalist Stanley Jaks’s claim of blindfold vision (Groth,
Antony Flew’s article “Survival of Death,”
over 13 pages, is almost exclusively focused on philosophical issues.
Scant attention is paid to data, evidence, or experience. He neglects to
mention major reviews of those topics, such as Alan Gauld’s Mediumship
and Survival (1982). Flew’s ruminations are useful but inappropriate
for an encyclopedia.
The section on “Daniel Dunglas Home” by Stein extensively
discusses Home’s personal relationships but includes little description
of his many psychic phenomena. Given the extraordinary number of
psi events reported
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around Home and the very few claims of deceit, the debunkers might very
well want to avoid addressing his phenomena. Alcock’s piece on “Psychical
Research” claims that Home was never caught in fraud (p. 578), which directly
contradicts Stein’s assertion on page 328. This raises the suspicion that
the editor did not read all the contributions.
Morris’s entry “Parapsychology” is the oddest
in the volume. He begins by defining psi as an “apparent new means
of influence or exchange of information between organism and environment”
(p. 494). Psi phenomena have been recognized for thousands of years;
they are not new. Morris mentions only two laboratories--J.
B. Rhine’s and his own. He does not list the major refereed journals
of the field, significant libraries, or organizations (even though a superb
overview was available [White, 1990]). He misspells McDougall as
MacDougall (p. 496). Of the researchers active in the field since
1940, I counted only 22 (excluding Morris) mentioned in his 19 pages.
Three were his students; most of the rest are mentioned only as a citation,
with little (usually no) indication of who they are, what they did, or
their institutional affiliations. Many of the most well known, productive
parapsychology researchers receive no mention at all (e.g., Dick Bierman,
James Carpenter, Laura Dale, Douglas Dean, Brenda Dunne, Erlendur Haraldsson,
Gary Heseltine, H. Kanthamani, Robert Jahn, Martin Johnson, Ed May, Robert
McConnell, Gardner Murphy, Carroll Nash, Roger Nelson, Fraser Nicol, Karlis
Osis, Harold Puthoff, Dean Radin, K. Ramakrishna Rao, Louisa Rhine, Marilyn
Schlitz, Sybo Schouten, Rex Stanford, Ian Stevenson, Charles Tart, Russell
Targ, Montague Ullman, Robert Van de Castle, D. J. West, Rhea White).
On the other hand, debunkers James Alcock, C. E. M. Hansel, Ray Hyman,
and David Marks receive laudatory mentions, but with no hint of the severe
flaws in their work.
Morris discusses his appointment to the Koestler
Chair at the University of Edinburgh and announces his election to president
of a psychology society. He suggests that this indicates growing
acceptance of parapsychology within academe. He spends some pages
discussing his own program at Edinburgh but gives no report of any substantive
research that has come from that laboratory.
James Alcock, a debunker, actually gives a
more informative perspective in his entry “Psychical Research.” He
reviews factors giving rise to organized psychical research, discusses
organizations, and lists names of prominent members, but he gives little
information about developments after 1940.
Robert Baker’s entry “Hypnosis” is one of
the more appalling articles. Baker is a psychology professor and
CSICOP member who has been accused of plagiarism by skeptics. He
asserts: “One critic [unnamed] noted that over half of the research articles
published in the major psi research journal, Journal of the American
Society for Psychical Research, are written by only five people” (p.
346). This is a ludicrous statement, and it demonstrates Baker’s
Stein’s piece “Levitation” discusses mediums
and saints. Nothing is said
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
about methods used by conjurors today. Stein tries to dismiss the miracles
of Joseph of Cupertino despite the massive supporting documentation compiled
by Dingwall (1947), which Stein neglects to mention.
Martin Gardner’s entry “Magic and Psi” is
a mixed bag. He cites no references to any work since 1981, and he
provides no historical perspective at all. But then, many of the
most eminent magicians have endorsed the reality of psi--a fact that must
discomfit Gardner. Further, he is not altogether accurate.
For instance, he asserts that Conan Doyle “never asked Houdini or any other
magician to attend a séance with him” (p. 381). It is widely known
that Conan Doyle did indeed ask Houdini to attend, and in fact, editor
Stein even wrote about that.
This entry is noteworthy because it contains
previously unpublished criticism that bears directly on a paper published
in this Journal. Honorton (1993) reported observing Felicia
Parise move a pill bottle via PK. At some point, Honorton told Gardner
that Parise could not have been using a thread because the bottle moved
away from her. Honorton’s assertion is devastating to any presumption of
his competence to observe putative macro-PK. I have no doubt that Gardner
is telling the truth here, because in 1984, a decade after the incident,
Honorton told me the very same thing he told Gardner. Honorton was emotionally
taken with what he saw, and he never made any attempt to learn how a magician
could accomplish the feat using a thread.
Several other entries should be mentioned
in order to give the reader a bit more information about the scope of the
book. Many of them have extremely limited perspectives and glaring
The entry on “Fire Immunity” covers fire walking,
but it does not mention any anthropological research. It does not
discuss mediumistic phenomena or trickery. “Alchemy” is allotted 8 pages,
but almost no space is given to psychological or mystical interpretations.
The section lists no works of Carl Jung, and there is no mention of Isaac
Newton. The entry for “Edgar Cayce” gives almost no information on the
Association for Research and Enlightenment today, though it is an influential
New Age organization. “Roswell” is not in the index, even though
it is the most highly publicized UFO case in history, and ufology in the
1990s was dominated by interest in that case.
Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller’s piece
“Coincidences” is only a reprint of an article from a statistical journal.
It mentions almost no work in parapsychology. Jessica Utts’s entry
“Statistics and the Paranormal” is more a tutorial than a review.
It gives no historical perspective whatever, even though statistics were
used in the very earliest years of both the SPR and ASPR.
A couple of entries have nothing to do with
the paranormal and some only barely so. “Talking Apes” (10 pages)
discusses primates that were taught to use sign language and make utterances;
“Scientific Creationism” is given nine pages. The articles on “Altered
States of Consciousness,” “Possession and Exorcism,” and “Visions and Hallucinations”
Reviews of Scholarly Books
effort to relate them to the paranormal. A number of other topics are
covered by debunkers, including “CSICOP,” “Dowsing,” “Prophetic Dreams,”
“Psychic Detectives,” “Psychokinetic Metal Bending,” and “Reincarnation.”
In a volume as large as this, some minor errors
are to be expected, but considering that the publisher has a specialty
in the field, there are more than there should be (e.g., “Carl” Honorton
rather than Charles, p. 178; “Zoast” rather than Zoist, p.
263; “Edith” Sidgwick rather than Eleanor, p. 300; “Balbour” rather than
Ballou, p. 688, though that problem is not too severe. One suspects that
editing was minimal because a number of the entries were excessively long
To assess the overall merit of the volume,
one can compare Stein’s work with similar encyclopedias published around
the same time. Some of these include Rosemary Guiley’s Harper’s
Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (1991), Arthur and
Joyce Berger’s Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research
(1991), Leonard George’s Alternative Realities (1995), and J. Gordon
Melton’s Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology (1996).
Each of these has hundreds of entries; Melton’s has well over a thousand.
The work by Melton is outstanding and must be considered the encyclopedia
of the paranormal. It gives a profusion of facts, dates, details, and biographical
sketches. Its focus is on fact rather than interpretation or opinion.
Stein’s volume has more similarities to a
handbook than to an encyclopedia. Its main competitor, though narrower
in scope, may be Kurtz’s A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology
(1985). The Encyclopedia under review seems oriented to two market
niches: libraries and CSICOP supporters. Perhaps the book was undertaken
so the publisher would have a product to compete with other encyclopedias
on paranormal topics.
Is this a must-have for scientific researchers
or historians in parapsychology? No. Further, the volume cannot be
recommended as an encyclopedic work because so many entries lack the information
expected in such a reference. The high price will certainly limit
its availability, and one could acquire a set of encyclopedic volumes on
paranormal topics for far lower cost than what one would pay for this work
On the positive side, it does contain some
excellent articles. It gives a good representation of the debunkers’
positions, and it shows how they see themselves and their mission.
A substantial number of leading parapsychologists
contributed to this volume, which was arranged by an editor known for uneven
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
and published by a house openly contemptuous of parapsychology.
This fact says something profound about the status of the field today.
Parapsychology cannot be comprehended without seeing its position in the
larger culture, especially the attempts to marginalize and debunk it.
CSICOP has established itself as the most
visible institution commenting on the paranormal. Its conferences
attract Nobel laureates. The scientific establishment sees it as
the authoritative voice on the paranormal, despite the fact that the Committee
has long had a policy of not conducting research.
This state of affairs is not an aberration.
Psychic phenomena have been looked upon as marginal for thousands of years.
Anthropologist Michael Winkelman (1992) demonstrated that a wide range
of cultures visit low status upon those who most directly engage paranormal
power. Nearly 100 years ago Max Weber described how the processes of rationalization
and bureaucratization led to disenchantment--elimination or suppression
of magical (i.e., paranormal) power. Sociologist James McClenon (1984)
confirmed that elite scientists (who are almost always employees of large
bureaucratic institutions) are some of the most antagonistic to parapsychology.
All this has little to do with the evidence
for psi or even with ideology. Parapsychology’s plight is a consequence
of social forces, of which most people (including parapsychologists) are
unaware. In fact, leaders of the field have helped to marginalize it.
Robert Morris holds the Koestler Chair of
Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh. In recent years he
has trained more graduate students than anyone else in the field; thus
his influence will extend for some time into the future. In his article
“Parapsychology” Morris had a chance to reach an audience largely unfamiliar
with the field. He could have described more details of its history,
listed the many eminent persons who endorsed the reality of the phenomena,
and explained some of the major research findings. He did virtually none
of this. His failure to acknowledge other parapsychology laboratories demonstrates
the stigma of associating too closely with the field. Instead, he
allied himself with persons hostile to psi and lauded their contributions.
Morris was not alone in distancing himself
from modern parapsychology. Alan Gauld, a professor of psychology
and past president of the Society for Psychical Research had the opportunity
to describe the SPR’s current status and activities, but he failed to do
so. Both are professors, employees of large bureaucratic organizations.
Their actions subtly reflect the antiparanormal ethos that pervades academe.
In summary, this Encyclopedia presents
an odd mosaic of the ambiguous, marginal field of psychical research. It
demonstrates the antagonism to it in today’s intellectual culture as well
as parapsychologists’ attempts to accommodate that hostility.
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Akers, C. (1984). Methodological criticisms of parapsychology.
In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological Research 4 (pp.
112-164). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Berger, A. S., & Berger, J. (1991). The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House.
Child, I. L. (1987). Criticism in experimental parapsychology,
1975-1985. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological
Research 5 (pp. 190-224). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Dingwall, E. J. (1962). Some Human Oddities: Studies
in the Queer, the Uncanny and the Fanatical. New Hyde Park, NY:
University Books. (Original work published 1947)
Gauld, A. (1982). Mediumship and Survival: A Century
of Investigations. London: Heinemann.
George, L. (1995). Alternative Realities: The Paranormal,
the Mystic and the Transcendent in Human Experience. New York:
Facts On File.
Groth, G. [M. Gardner]. (1952, October). He writes with
your hand. Fate, 5, 39-43.
Guiley, R. E. (1991). Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical
& Paranormal Experience. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.
Hansen, G. P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal.
Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris.
Honorton, C. (1993). A moving experience. Journal of
the American Society for Psychical Research, 87, 329-340.
Kurtz, P. (Ed.). (1985). A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology.
Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
McClenon, J. (1984). Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Melton, J. G. (Ed.). (1996). Encyclopedia of Occultism
and Parapsychology (4th ed., 2 Vols.). Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Stein, G. (1988, Fall). Atheism on campus. Free
Stein, G. (1993). The Sorcerer of Kings: The Case of Daniel
Dunglas Home and William Crookes. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
White, R. A. (1990). Parapsychology: New Sources of Information,
1973-1989. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Winkelman, M. J. (1992). Shamans, Priests, and Witches: A Cross-Cultural
Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners (Arizona State University Anthropological
Research Papers No. 44). Tempe: Arizona State University.
George P. Hansen
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