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Chris French – Skepticism, Pseudoscience, Evidence & Critical Thinking – Interview in 4 Parts

Chris French 1I interviewed Chris French while he was in Melbourne, Australia for a Skeptics conference – he was a pleasure to talk to, and did a great job answering my questions. I have previously interviewed one other well known Skeptic, Michael Shermer (on the Singularity/Transhumanism & on Skepticism in general) . Christopher Charles French is a British psychologist and vocal skeptic specialising in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences, cognition and emotion. He is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. On Twitter he is @chriscfrench

Part 1 – Skepticism

Topics: Introduction | What is Skepticism? | Skeptics, Rationalists & Other Free Thought Groups | What does it mean to be a Moderate Skeptic? | Updating Beliefs about the Paranormal
First of all what skepticism isn’t, although lots of people think it is, it’s not about dismissing claims without looking at the evidence – in fact it’s the opposite of that – it’s essentially an attitude of saying well “show me, convince me, what’s the evidence for that claim?”Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
The roots of the word skepticism are from the Greek word for doubt… its about doubt, not about dismissal.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
When I think back, during my early years I was quite interested in the paranormal… I was pretty much convinced that paranormal forces really did exist. I was reading a particular book … called “Parapsychology, Science or Magic?” by James Allcock… and it suddenly opened my eyes that there were alternative explanations to all these weird experiences.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford

Part 2 – Pseudoscience

Topics: Learning what Evidence to Value | Rupert Sheldrake | Nullifying Null Results | Anecdotal Evidence | The Double Blind Trial
One of the most important things about Skepticism, and in fact Anomalistic Psychology, is it is a great way of teaching critical thinking skills in a fairly painless way – people are fascinated by this kind of an area, whether you are a believer or a skeptic. Most people when you start talking about ghosts or UFOs, the have got something to say about it, they have got some views about it – so that is a very good starting point – and then you can get into why you should value some kinds of evidence more than others – and in particular, why you should in fact not value personal experience. I mean for most people: “I saw it with my own eyes” – that’s the ultimate proof – but as a psychologist, I am afraid well, I’m sorry, but there are all kinds of reasons why I am not going to be convinced by you telling me that you saw it with your own eyes.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
More generally, when it comes to assessing claims of all sorts, claims that politicians are making, claims that advertisers are making, when they have nothing to do with the paranormal, you can still apply the same sorts of skills, when essentially the bottom line is “Show me the evidence”.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
I’m actually a closet fan of Rupert Sheldrake, but don’t tell anyone.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
The problem with anecdotal evidence, is that there are so many other explanations for what is being claimed.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
The basic rationale behind the double blind trial is that we need to be aware of our own biases, and we need to control for them. What this means is … you need to take into account your own biases in term so of what you’d expect to find, and what you’d like to find.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford

Part 3 – Evidence

Topics: What is Pseudoscience? | A History of False Dawns | Physics Envy & Quantum Hand Waving
Pseudoscience is an area of activity that has the trappings of science, but you dig a little bit deeper, and it’s not real science, it’s false sience. Obviously that begs the question, well “What is real science?” It has not been proved possible to tick boxes to say “this is science, and this is not science”. One of the most notable attempts to ][solve the demarcation problem] – was by Karl Popper … A hypothesis or an idea cannot be scientific if it is not potentially falsifiable – I don’t think it can 100% solve the demarcation problem … for one thing, it does not describe how scientists actually operate – note of us do experiments hoping the results come out as non-significant … we want significant results that appear to support our hypothesis, and again it’s a very inherent cognitive bias we have towards verification – we really good at thinking in falsification terms. So it doesn’t describe the way scientists actually operate on a day to day basis, it’s kind of prescriptive rather than descriptive – it’s describing science in the ideal or science as a collective enterprise – and I think there is some kind of mileage in that.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
There is definately a kind of cycle where history tends to repeat itself – the one thing that strikes you about the history of parapsychology, to my mind at least, is a history of false dawns.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford

Part 4 – Critical Thinking

Topics: Critical Thinking | Cognitive Biases | How do we best de-bias? | Futurology | Challenges for Contemporary Skepticism
One of the interesting questions that arises is “why have we got these biases?”. Why is it that through evolution we havn’t got cognitive systems that don’t have these biases – well the answer to that in evolutionary terms is probably a cost-benifit analysis..Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
I think we are now living in the age of big science in the sense that there are not going to be that many breakthroughs that are the result of individual scientists working on their own – those days are gone – so it will be people working on massive projects like the human genome project, etc – and it will be a slow incrememtal increase of knowledge, understanding and actual application.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
We almost certainly will not be able to make the predictions about where really important advances are going to be made.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford
There are areas were we can be very hopeful, nanotechnology being but one example, developments in AI and so on – I suspect that they will have a huge impact – but we will see – we can always go back to the 70s were people were saying that by now robots would be keeping us as pets, and of course it has not happened. I love those old “tomorrow’s world” programs – by now we should all be wearing silver suits and flying around in jet-packs – and it ain’t happened – but other things that we didn’t see coming have completely transformed our lives – so we will wait and see.Chris French - Interview with Adam Ford

About Chris French

He is currently Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is head of their Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit which he founded in 2000, and former Editor-in-Chief of The Skeptic (UK) magazine. Chris-French-editor-of-Th-001He teaches a course entitled Psychology, Parapsychology and Pseudoscience as part of the BSc (Hons) Psychology programmes at both Goldsmiths College and Birkbeck College. He is a Chartered Psychologist and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He has authored or co-authored over 80 articles and chapters dealing with a wide variety of subjects in psychology, his work has been published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the British Journal of Psychology and the British Journal of Clinical Psychology. The focus of his current research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. In addition to academic activities, such as conference presentations and invited talks in other departments, he frequently appears on radio and television presenting a sceptical view of paranormal claims. He has been consulted as an expert on a wide range of such claims including psychic abilities, recovered memory, telepathy, faith healing, past life regression, ghosts, UFO abductions, out-of-body experiences, astrology and so on. In 2004 French and colleagues conducted an experiment involving electromagnetic fields (EMF) and extremely low frequency sound waves (infrasound) phenomena that have been associated with allegedly haunted locations, the experiment did not establish a causal relationship between these phenomena and experiences of the subjects. A study, led by French and published in 2008, explored the psychology of people who believed they had been abducted by aliens. He has appeared on various science programmes (e.g. Equinox, Science Now, All in the Mind) and documentaries (e.g. Heart of the Matter, Everyman) as well as numerous discussion programmes (e.g. Esther; The Time, The Place; Kilroy; This Morning). skepticism_cartoon1In 1997, he was one of three sceptics sitting on a panel for a 90-minute live debate on UFOs broadcast at peak viewing time by the Strange but True? team to mark the 50th anniversary of UFOs. In 1998, he took part in an investigation of reincarnation claims amongst the Druze people of Lebanon, broadcast as part of the To the Ends of the Earth series. This involved spending around three weeks in Lebanon with a film crew. photo of Chris French presenting from podium at the World Skeptics Congress 2012 in Berlin Chris French at the 2012 World Skeptics Congress in Berlin In August 1996, he organised and chaired an integrated paper session on the topic of The Psychology of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Beliefs at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology in Montreal. He also contributed to a symposium on The Psychology of Anomalous Experience at the British Science Association annual British Science Festival at the University of Birmingham in September 1996. In July 1997, he chaired a symposium on The Psychology of Paranormal Belief at the Fifth European Congress of Psychology in Dublin. He presented a paper at a conference on Paranormal and Superstitious Beliefs: A Skeptical Examination at Manchester Metropolitan University on Friday 13 November 1998. In February 1999, he contributed to a symposium of the Royal Statistical Society (which he co-organised). In July 1999, he co-organised and presented a paper at a half-day conference on Parapsychology: Current Status and Future Prospects at Goldsmiths College and gave a paper at the Sixth European Congress of Psychology in Rome. In February 2001, he gave an invited presentation to the Institute for Cultural Research at the Royal Society of Medicine and he has organised two symposia at major conferences (Glasgow, March 2001; London, July 2001). He made regular appearances on ITV’s programme Haunted Homes. He also makes appearances in the Channel 4 documentary series ‘Tony Robinson and the Paranormal’. Since 2009, French has been a columnist for The Guardian newspaper exploring scepticism and anomalistic psychology. In January 2010, French was elected as a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_French

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4 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this talk. Kind of basic simple logic, but found it worth the time spent to watch.

  2. Actually, the word comes from the Greek “σκεπτικος” (scepticos) which literally means “Im thinking” not “Im doubting” – from the noun “σκεψη” (skepsi = thought) which goes to show that my position is that actually “skepticism” shouldnt be considered as an alternative, weird or special way of thinking but it is actually “thinking” in its essense. Not accepting claims without evidence or proof is not a “special” way of thinking – it SHOULD be considered as the correct way of thinking

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