by Bob Ladendorf
Book Review: An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural "exposed by" James Randi, St. Martins Press, New York, 1995.
This is a book that I would like to see in every library, every newspaper office, and every TV news and entertainment office, maybe even alongside those Funk and Wagnalls in the grocery stores. Perhaps Randis long subtitle will give you a quick picture of this 284-page encyclopedia: "James Randis Decidedly Skeptical Definitions of Alternate Realities."
Reading the book, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the outrageous claims and con men, such as Dr. Albert Abrams (1823-1924) "the consummate quack" who sold radio-wave machines, (e.g., "Omnipotent Oscilloclast"), that he claimed could provide health cures. He died a millionaire.
The encyclopedia is not dry, but quite wry. After he describes and then debunks graphology, which claims that a persons personality and future can be determined by handwriting analysis, he concludes with mentioning that crime handwriting experts can indeed tell the future of one whose handwriting is identified. "If it matches what she [Susan Morton, a crime lab technician] is looking for, she says, she can clearly tell where the writer will spend the next four or five years."
Randi, a professional magician and well-known skeptic, writer and lecturer, covers a wide range of individuals and subjects many familiar, many not. It is almost depressing to turn the page and read about another charlatan or pseudoscientific subject, such as faith healing or psychic surgery. Fortunately, Randi balances his straightforward histories or explanations with those wry twists on the subject covered.
Nowhere is he more scientific and practical than in his determination of the real impact of the battle at Armageddon. Randi says that Armageddon has become to mean the end of the world, but, as he points out, its a real location in Israel. "According to predictions of St. John in Apocalypse," Randi writes, "a battle between good and evil will take place there .... producing a river of blood to the height of a horses bridle for a distance of 200 miles." Randi then assumes that all the blood is drained at the same time, that the river is 10 feet wide and doesnt flow at all, and that the horse is small. Even at that, he says, " ... some three hundred sixty million persons would have to be slaughtered during this battle, all simultaneously." That area cannot even hold that many persons standing shoulder to shoulder, he says. "But perhaps that is one of the properties of a miracle."
The encyclopedia includes many illustrations and photos. An excellent cross referencing technique is used subjects mentioned in another entry (e.g., Salem witch trials in the "Mather, Cotton" entry) are boldfaced and explained in more detail in their own part. The only complaint I have about the illustrations is that some have not been "screened" properly and interfere with the printed words.
Randis encyclopedia is informative and entertaining. His last part detailing 49 "end-of-the-world" prophecies that didn't come true is devastating. The book certainly does bear out his obsession with pursuing the truth, as suggested by the quote from Bertrand Russell that he included at the start: "What is wanted is not the will to believe but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."