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Encylopedia of Pseudoscience a Terrible Reference

by David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
We generally expect encylopedias to be objective and well-written; when dealing with science they should also be, well, scientific. Unfortunately, the Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience is none of these.

Review of: Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, Edited by Dr. William F. Williams, Facts on File, Inc., May 2000, ISBN 0-8160-3351-X, 416 pages, hardcover, 8 x 11, $75.

Everybody knows that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But sometimes it’s difficult not to. For example, a skeptic may wonder why a book called the Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience says on its back cover that acupuncture, homeopathy, and therapeutic touch are “serious practices moving forward into formal science.” (Oddly, the reader later finds that “therapeutic touch” is nowhere to be found inside.)

Getting past the cover, the book begins with a preface explaining that the writers for each item were “free to take his or her own line” without a prescribed viewpoint. This again seems a bit odd for a book discussing pseudoscience, which is defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary as, “any system of methods, theories, etc. that presumes without warrant to have a scientific basis or application.” A book discussing pseudoscience should have a viewpoint: objective and scientific.

Also, as an encyclopedia, it should be a point of reference. It’s difficult to see how this volume can serve such a function if the writers’ “different viewpoints are reflected in the variety of attitudes implicit in the following pages,” as Williams says. It sounds more like a collection of opinions than an encyclopedia.

Williams himself seems skeptical, as his introductory essay shows. He says: “From the tone of the above and from many of my own entries in this book, it will be obvious that I approach this subject from the point of view as a scientist.” Unfortunately, none of the entries are labeled, so the reader cannot know which were written by him.

Several of the four “advisers and consultants” are names familiar to people who have dealt with pseudoscience before. Jerome Clark, of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, and Dr. Marcello Truzzi, of the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, are two that leap out as seeming to be misplaced in a tome that should be fostering skepticism about the topics they are most involved with. Both of these men contribute introductory essays outlining their positions.

Their influence also appears within the entries themselves. The ufology entry mentions the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies twice. The “See also” reference at the end of that entry refers readers to other entries on abductions, flying saucers, the Mutual UFO Network, and the TV show X-Files. It does not refer to the entries on Phil Klass or the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).

The entry for the J. Allen Hynek Center is given about twice as much space as either CSICOP or the Skeptics Society. The Center for Scientific Anomalies Research is also given more space, and it discusses how Truzzi left CSICOP because he saw it as “biased against anomalies rather than centered upon an open-minded skepticism based on the best scholarship.” Similarly, Fate Magazine gets its own entry, but three skeptical journals are lumped together as “Skeptics’ Magazines.” The reader may be forgiven for concluding that these are all more than just coincidences.

Moving into the contents of the entries, we find errors that one would not expect in a work of this type. For example, the Ouija board entry reports that its name came from combining “oui” (French for “yes”) and “ja” (German for “yes”). While this is a common tale, others have found that it was actually an advertising story, not the real origin. Furthermore, that same entry reports that William Fuld bought the rights to the board from its creator, Elijah Bond. More reliable histories (such as the one found at the Museum of Talking Boards, indicate that Bond was one of three inventors, and Charles Kennard was the first to sell the board, through the Kennard Novelty Company. His investors later threw him out and installed Fuld in his place. The encyclopedia entry says Fuld ran the Southern Novelty Company and later changed the name to the Baltimore Talking Board Company, but the “Museum” website says the post-Kennard company was named the Ouija Novelty Company, and Fuld later changed it to the William Fuld Company. To compare the reliability: the “Museum” history quotes from advertisements, catalogs, and publications of the time and has photos of the various old boards; the encyclopedia entry is written by an unknown person with no listed references and a twenty-year-old book given as suggested further reading.

Similarly, the entry on Harry Houdini claims he was killed because a fan punched him in the stomach to test his ability to withstand such blows. While the event did happen and the story is frequently told this way, Houdini actually died of appendicitis unrelated to the punch. The encyclopedia spreads the urban legend version of his death rather than the correct one. Other errors, both major and minor, can be found throughout.

Even in entries without factual errors, it appears that in trying to be unbiased, they have often avoided making conclusions. For example, the first entry of the book, “Abductions, Alien,” provides explanations in almost a “he-said/she-said” manner reminiscent of the way the media often cover such issues. It lists several well-known cases of supposed abduction without mentioning that they had been rather decisively explained without bringing in little grey men.

Another example can be found in the entries on auras and Kirlian photography. The “auras” entry says: “Kirlian photographs are perhaps the most convincing evidence to date; yet most scientists suggest that these photographs … are merely reflections or depictions of the electromagnetic energy emitted from all living things.” The Kirlian photography entry does little to clarify, and both ignore the sound debunking Kirlian photography has received over the years. This is indicative of the way other entries are done, with “possible” paranormal and scientific explanations given.

Even when there is something of a conclusion, the rest of the entry may contain little explanation. The entry for astrology notes, “In a world in which modern science and technology so dominate our lives, it may seem surprising that astrology still commands such widespread belief.” But the rest of the entry explains the ideas of astrology rather than why this statement is true. Similarly, the entry on dowsing could have explained how it has been debunked, but instead just includes statements like, “Skeptics suggest that dowsers who do find water, oil, or treasure have merely been lucky.”

There are so many other entries with faults, omissions, blatant favoritism towards the paranormal, etc., that it would take another encyclopedia just to list them all. But readers can at least take heart that at least the Cottingley Fairies are definitively stated to be a hoax.

Not all of the entries are blatantly biased. Some reference skeptical writings and include proper scientific explanations. But it’s not enough to appear scientific and unbiased some of the time, with selected topics, as it suits the individual writer. Encyclopedias need to contain material that is both correct and objective. Unfortunately, this tome fails on both counts.

Find more books on related topics in our Paranormal & Fringe Science Index.

Instead of this book, check out An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes, by James Randi
Click Here to Look at It Now on Amazon!

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