Prof. Chris French – paranormal beliefs (#126)


Professor Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Patron of the British Humanist Association. He has published over 150 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.

Twitter: @ChrisCFrench


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I am writing about this during the pandemic lockdown and so I have not been out and about much for a while. Therefore, I have not had much opportunity to experience the wonders of nature, great works of art, or architecture – subjects that might normally be the most obvious ones to spring to mind in response to such a question. Like many others, I suspect, I have been watching rather more TV than is good for me to unwind in the evenings. I am constantly amazed by the abilities of great writers, directors, and actors to transport us in our imaginations, albeit temporarily, into another world, away from our day-to-day worries.

One notable example of this was the recently repeated award-winning 90-minute drama, Marvellous, written by Peter Bowker. It is a (slightly) fictionalised account of the life of Neil Baldwin. Despite suffering from learning difficulties, Neil has had an amazing life, including working as a professional clown and as the kit-man for Stoke City FC, not to mention being awarded an honorary degree by Keele University. Neil, played in a memorable performance by Toby Jones, just had the knack of getting people to do things for him through the sheer force of his unselfconscious innocence and basic humanity. It was undoubtedly feel-good television but touched something deeper than that. Truly Marvellous!


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Great question, albeit not an easy one to answer! Personally, I’d see them as being on a continuum. Curiosity is, in a sense, at the lowest end (no offence to curiosity!). Curiosity is when something catches your attention and makes you want to investigate further. Next up is the possibility that this might lead to wonder – discovering something rewarding and unexpected. Finally, and most rarely, comes awe – when something is so amazing and overwhelming that one can lose oneself in it. Sadly, I rarely feel awe these days compared to when I was a child. I was fascinated by astronomy (and still am) and would be particularly blown away by the relative sizes and distances of astronomical objects. You know the kind of thing: “If the earth was the size of a pea, the sun would be the size of beachball about 60 metres away” (true, by the way).


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

As I said, I think in one sense, for me, wonder is the next stage up from curiosity. We don’t really need to cultivate curiosity as it seems to be an inherent part of being human. However, we may differ dramatically in terms of what we are curious about – for some, it will be science and/or art, for others football and/or fashion. Each to their own. Such inherent curiosity would seem likely to have survival value in evolutionary terms for us and many other species (with the possible exception of cats). Cultivating wonder would be a matter of digging deeper into those topics that one finds fascinating and rewarding.


Why do you think people are fascinated by the supernatural? Why do we want to look beyond the everyday?

Once our species achieved a level of self-awareness that included a sense of our own mortality, it was inevitable that we’d start contemplating the big questions – life, the universe, and everything. One aspect of that is the question of our place in the universe. Is there something more beyond the world we can perceive with our senses or is this it? Is this all there is? For some people, the idea that this is all there is and that there is no greater purpose to our lives is deeply disturbing and they yearn for something more. Naturally, there is also an understandable desire to find evidence that we and our loved ones live on, beyond the death of our physical bodies. Combine these strong motivational factors with a few cognitive biases that have been favoured by evolution, and supernatural beliefs are an almost inevitable result.


Last time we were in a pub together you described your fascination with the “science of weird shit”, what’s the appeal?

I used to believe in a lot of “weird shit” so I do appreciate the appeal it has for believers. I only really became more sceptical when I became aware of the ways in which our minds can lead us to draw faulty conclusions as a consequence of a wide range of cognitive biases that we all share. Thus, we might misperceive, misremember, or misinterpret a situation in such a way that we may be convinced that we’ve had a paranormal experience when in fact we have not. I now find studying those cognitive glitches just as fascinating as I once found the “paranormal”.


So much of parapsychology is now viewed as pseudoscience today. Is some of it legitimate and if so, what do you think should be the emphasis of the research? Any interesting phenomena that we can’t yet understand? 

I think I am unusual as a sceptic in arguing that parapsychology, at its best, is a legitimate science. Science is a method for attempting to get at the truth, not an established set of “facts”. If a claim is investigated in a scientific manner, then what are the grounds for claiming it is not true science? Of course, lots of stuff that gets labelled as “paranormal” really is nothing more than pseudoscience.

Within academic parapsychology, I would say that there are a few topics that sceptics cannot legitimately claim to have definitively explained away, even if the evidence, in my opinion, is not yet strong enough to say that we’re definitely dealing with genuine paranormal phenomena. I’d include, for example, spontaneous “past-life memories” in children. Whatever is going on in such cases, whether paranormal or not, it is truly fascinating.


Whilst conducting your research has anything scared you? What’s the strangest phenomenon you’ve investigated?

I can honestly say that nothing has ever scared me when carrying out formal research but that is mainly because the topics that I would typically be investigating in such studies are not inherently scary. I suppose the closest I get to being scared is reading firsthand accounts of sleep paralysis episodes, some of which are genuinely creepy – but they happened to someone else, not me!

I have spent a lot of time in supposedly haunted locations when taking part in TV programmes, such as the series “Haunted Homes”. As a kid, I was petrified of ghosts so it’s a bit surprising that as an adult I find sitting alone in the dark in a reputedly haunted room about as exciting as watching paint dry!


Should psychics/mediums be regulated?

Definitely not! They should certainly be bound by the same ethical codes as other professions in terms of doing no harm, etc., but I’d object to any attempt at regulation on two main grounds. First, I am generally in favour of free speech and freedom of choice within certain limits. If people want to spend their own money on consulting psychics/mediums, that is their choice. I’d make a big distinction in terms of morality between those psychics/mediums who sincerely believe they have psychic powers (even if they are deluding themselves) and deliberate con-artists. Personally, I think most people who claim to have such powers genuinely believe that they have. Secondly, any system of regulation would have the effect of giving official approval to some psychics/mediums, giving them an implied legitimacy that I do not think is warranted.


What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?

I love magic. Magicians provide the strongest evidence that there is that our minds can readily be fooled into believing that we have just witnessed something that we know to be impossible. My only problem with magic is the fact that certain mentalists (naming no names but you know who I mean) sometimes give explanations for the effects that they use in their performances, allegedly based upon psychological science, that are total b*llsh*t. My problem with this is that it is over-selling the power of psychology and I am very much in favour of people being realistic about the limitations of my discipline.

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