83. Dr. Chris French, Extraordinary Psi Claims
Guest: Dr. Chris French of the University of London discusses his skeptical research of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s Telephone Telepathy experiments and the psychology of skepticism.
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Announcer: On this episode of Skeptiko, Dr. Chris French.
Dr. Chris French: I imagine in lots of ways parapsychologists are sometimes ahead of the game. I mean, again, I’ve actually argued this in print at least here. I, for a long time, as I said, when I first became a skeptic, I was kind of an early extreme skeptic and had an overly negative view of parapsychology. And I used to go along with the argument that parapsychology was a pseudo-science. I don’t anymore.
Announcer: Stay with us for Skeptiko.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko, I have an interview with Dr. Chris French from the University of London, a well-known skeptic and a publisher of a skeptical magazine there in the UK. Dr. French, of course, is not only known as a researcher of anomalous psychology, more or less his official title, but is quite a skeptic and someone who has collaborated with Dr. Richard Wiseman, who we spoke about many times on this show, in debunking various claims including psychics.
He’s appeared many times on TV doing so, and most recently began an investigation with Dr. Wiseman. They selected one very public psychic and tested her. He’s also done quite a bit of work in collaborating with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake on his experiments. And he, from time to time, has investigated a number of other parapsychology claims. So we had a lot to talk about. I think it’s a good conversation. Here’s my dialogue with Dr. Chris French.
So I’m joined today by Dr. Chris French, a professor of psychology and Head of Anomalistic Psychology, the research unit at University of London. Dr. French, as many of you know, is well regarded in the skeptical community, as well as in the scientific community in general, particularly in the UK. He’s also known generally as an open-minded, fair-minded skeptic, so that’s quite a reputation and we’ve had quite a chat leading up to this conversation. I’m really looking forward to it. Dr. French, thanks again for joining me here today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Chris French: My pleasure…I hope. [laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Okay, you know, where I thought we’d start, and I was in preparation for this, I saw a YouTube clip, a little interview in the pub that you did…
Dr. Chris French: Uh-huh (yes).
Alex Tsakiris: …and I think I picked this up that you actually used to be a believer, I think, as you said, so…
Dr. Chris French: Absolutely true, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: I didn’t know that. I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background, and particularly about this sordid part about being a believer.
Dr. Chris French: [laughs] Um, I think like lots of people, as I grew up I was interested and intrigued by tales of the paranormal. I wouldn’t say I kind of spent a huge amount of time, but I certainly read books around it, I’d watch TV programs about it. I mean, one thing back in those days, you know we’re talking a long time ago now, unfortunately, is that the wasn’t really such a thing as an organized skeptical movement. Now how happy or otherwise you might be about that, we can talk about later.
But I think — I mean anybody would agree that the vast majority of the coverage then was very uncritical. It was all very pro-paranormal. And so it was perfectly reasonable anybody who had an interest in those things in those days would assume it was all true. I did a psychology degree and this kind of thing was not really touched on at all, in those days by psychology degrees. The only example I can think of where it was actually covered was – and things were a lot more laid back in those days, happy times…
Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]
Dr. Chris French: …my tutor said to me and a friend, “What would you like to cover?” We said, “Oh, I don’t know, ESP?” “Okay, then.” He asked me to prepare the case for, and my friend to prepare the case against. I could find lots of material. My friend couldn’t find any. You know, I won the argument hands down. I proved that ESP was real. And it wasn’t really until I was doing my Ph.D. It was James Alcock’s book, Parapsychology: Science or Magic? that really marked the pivotal moment for me where I realized there was another way of thinking about these things and that maybe some of these non-paranormal explanations were actually quite interesting and I found them quite convincing.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that I had realized there was a skeptical literature out there even though it was quite hard to get your hands on then. There was this publication called The Skeptical Inquirer which I kept hearing about and eventually started to subscribe to. And I think it’s fair to say I went from being a believer to being an extreme skeptic. I think I took on the idea that all parapsychologists are incompetent nincompoops who wouldn’t know how to design experiments if their lives depended on it. I now don’t hold that position. I’d now like to think of myself as being a more moderate skeptic.
I mean, I know lots of parapsychologists personally now, which of course I didn’t at that time. I know lots of them are very intelligent, very rational people, and they hold their beliefs for very good reasons. And you know, we disagree insofar as I think that if push comes to shove I would say I’d bet against paranormal force as existing. They would say that they’re not sure that paranormal forces existed but they would bet that they do. And I think it’s more a matter then of us trying to decide what’s the best way forward. So I think that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
Alex Tsakiris: That is. That’s a very interesting journey and I think it also highlights maybe some of the definitional things that we get into when we talk about skeptics. I have to say in my experience in encountering the skeptical community, I sometimes see this hair-splitting between you know, what is a skeptic versus a materialist, and then an atheist, and I see all those as being different. But I also see a good deal of overlap, and I wonder if you can comment on your perspective on how those intersect, and maybe some differences in how you see that in the UK and your perception of it here in the US.
Dr. Chris French: My perception, whether it’s accurate or not, is that well, it’s certainly – I think there are different kinds of skeptics. In fact, I have a Pace graduate student who’s doing a Ph.D. on the psychology of skepticism. I think it was quite a widely-held view, certainly amongst skeptics, that what – the thing that needs explaining is why some people believe in the paranormal. And actually, I think there’s some very good questions to ask about well, why do some people not believe in the paranormal? I think you can make – leaving it aside for just one second, I think the issue which should probably be of most interest to you, which is do paranormal forces really exist?
I think people on both sides of the debate were like there are psychological reasons why people will sometimes think that something paranormal has happened when in fact it hasn’t. Now whether or not that is always the case, or whether sometimes genuinely paranormal things can occur, are interesting questions, but there is – I think you make quite a strong case that a certain predisposition about the way we think and the way we process information that would lead us to believe that something paranormal may have happened in a particular situation, when in fact there are other explanations available which are more plausible.
Alex Tsakiris: Actually, I think that’s a very interesting topic, and I think that it’s one that I’d really like to explore and I think it’s right up your alley, because I think there’s a strange twist to that when we turn that proposition around. And I think it gets to the heart a lot of times of what is really – what really divides skeptics and believers. And that is that I can hear what you’re saying and accept that and understand that and read the research that you might cite on you know, cognitive dissidence and other interesting psychological blind spots that we have. But I guess I’d come back that and say, you know, do you really think that explains completely the phenomena?
And I just think a lot of folks have a sense – a deep sense – and not just a voyeuristic sense, but a deep sense from their experience and I think from the research if you really dig into it, that it doesn’t maybe completely cover everything that we might explore. And in that sense, I wonder if that even posing the question in that way, in terms of why do people have – believe in parapsychology or parapsychological beliefs if that doesn’t maybe you know, predispose us to looking at the issue in a certain way when we could ask the question, why do skeptics you know, completely dismiss – completely dismiss, not that they don’t dismiss some of it, but completely dismiss – all the rather substantial evidence for some of the phenomena?
Dr. Chris French: Okay, now when I think – I mean for a start I’m not – again, I guess it gets back to what I mentioned in passing there about the dismissive kind of skeptic. Because for me, proper skepticism is not about dismissal. It’s about doubt. And it’s the same kind of critical doubt that should be applied to any kind of controversial claim, not just paranormal claims. It’s about critical thinking. And I mean a lot of parapsychologists are very good at critical thinking. Most of the kind of skeptics that I respect the most would not take a position of saying we know that paranormal forces don’t exist.
They might have varying degrees of subjective certainty with regard to that particular question, but it’s just got to be a reasonable, open-minded scientific attitude to say, well whatever I might think at the moment, I may be wrong. It may be that five years down the road parapsychologists will come up with some reliable, robust, replicable demonstration of psi. I personally don’t think they’ve done that yet. I know that people like Dean Radin believe very strongly that they have. Most parapsychologists, I would say certainly most that I know well and know personally, do take a more, I’d say, a more moderate line on that and say, well, you know, we’re convinced that there is something going on here, but we accept that it’s not – we’ve not produced that definitive proof yet. Now…
Alex Tsakiris: No, I understand where you’re coming…
Dr. Chris French: …yeah…
Alex Tsakiris: Go ahead, I’m sorry. I’m just saying that’s all well and good and I think whenever we talk about someone being open-minded, you know everyone jumps on board. Of course I’m open-minded, I’m an open-minded believer, I’m an open-minded skeptic. And that doesn’t really get to I think the more interesting point that you raised when you talked about the psychology of paranormal belief. And I guess I’m bringing up the why the starting point is where it is, is the other question. And I guess I’d say you know, at what point does the burden of proof shift from one side to another?
And at what point do the questions change from gee, why do people believe these parapsychology beliefs to why do people dismiss – take near-death experience – why do people dismiss a cultural phenomena that goes across time, across cultures, has been reported since you know, the early Greeks. We have a substantial amount of scientific evidence in favor of it that really hasn’t been refuted although you have some interesting criticisms of it. But so without getting into a complete knock-down, drag-out debate on the merits of the research, how do we wind up in a position where you’re saying prove it to me, versus I’m saying prove it to you?
Dr. Chris French: Okay. Well, I mean, first of all, what do you mean by dismissing that body of research? In particular that word “dismissing.” I mean, I certainly, you know I don’t tend to dismiss it in any sense. I know I certainly don’t dismiss it in the sense of saying that I don’t support that research. I mean, I’ve refereed grant proposals by people I know are very sympathetic to a paranormal perspective on near-death experiences. But my attitude is, let’s do the research anyway. It’s going to produce some interesting data and it might help us to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. So you know, I certainly support it in that sense.
I wouldn’t dismiss it in a sense of saying I know that mind could never become separable from bodies so therefore that’s a stupid issue for us at. I think it’s a fascinating issue for us to look at. Reason one being that as I’ve said before, I just may be wrong, obviously. Reason two being if I’m correct then there’s still an incredibly interesting psychological phenomenon that’s taking place when people have these – if it is indeed an hallucinatory experience. It’s an absolutely fascinating one. So we’re going to learn a lot, which whoever turns out to be right, we’re going to learn a lot by studying these things and taking them seriously.
So, I certainly don’t dismiss that research in any sense. I know there are skeptics around that do. And there are probably skeptics around who would say we shouldn’t ever fund such investigations of such things but to my mind, they’re not my kind of skeptics. Let me put it that way.
Alex Tsakiris: No, I – fair enough and I wasn’t trying to label you with any term and I understand the term “dismissal” is being – it can be viewed as in a negative way. I think what gets to the heart of it was this quote that I told you we might discuss because I think it really encapsulates some of the really deep, deeper, deeper – what people are really thinking and that’s the Richard Wiseman quote that he recently gave about remote viewing. And he said, “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but that begs the question – do we need a higher standard of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.”
Dr. Chris French: I mean, when did he say this [inaudible 0:14:52.5]? Was this before his own attempt at replication of the remote viewing work?
Alex Tsakiris: Oh, darn it, see now you have to get me on the quote. I can dig it…
Dr. Chris French: I’m sorry. I’ve actually caught you out.
Alex Tsakiris: [laughs]
Dr. Chris French: But uh, I’m not…
Alex Tsakiris: I thought that you were familiar with it. I didn’t have to dig it – no, no, it is quite recent. It’s within the last…
Dr. Chris French: It’s quite recent, then again, I’d have to look at that in context. But the general thrust of what you’re saying I would probably actually agree with Richard. I mean, I’ve just written a chapter for a book that Stanley Krippner is editing. I’m at pretty much the same point myself. I actually first of all put the question, is there a double standard in science when it comes to parapsychology? And I say actually, yes, there is. Then I go on to say well, I think there should be. Which I think is just really the same point that Richard’s making here.
Now the reasons for that are because – it gets back, I mean, to put it in a nutshell it’s the Carl Sagan line of you know, “extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof.” That kind of thing. Why should we have kind of a double standard like that? Well, I illustrate in this chapter by talking about a real-life example from my own research. I used to do research in the area of cognition and emotion, and without going into the full detail, my wife and I who were working together, we published a paper which offered some support for a new idea, a new hypothesis that had just been put out in this area. And that was published and that was fine. We then found we couldn’t replicate it.
Now, this happens quite a lot in psychology. Psychological effects are often not – you know, some of them are very reliable but a lot of them aren’t. We tried our damnedest to replicate. We even wrote of our failed replication attempts. We couldn’t get that published. I mean, we would tell people on an informal basis that we weren’t able to replicate. We thought that the reason for it was just a statistical blip that or perhaps something else but we didn’t think it was a genuine effect. But of course, in a sense, it mattered less, because whichever way around that particular, the reality was for that particular hypothesis we were not asking people to overturn you know, basic laws of physics. It was – it mattered less in that sense. And I think that’s why…
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, but Chris, come on! That’s a – you know, I mean the reason we even undertake science and apply the scientific method is to relieve ourselves of these prejudices and biases that we know we develop as human beings and we see all over the place in every other aspect of our life. Shouldn’t we when we enter into the scientific realm use the most objective measures?
Do we really want to add subjectivity into it again and say that someone is to decide what is extraordinary in terms of a claim? Or what is extraordinary in terms of a proof? And even in your case, if your example, doesn’t that all work out in the wash? I mean, if you publish research and your science is well done but it not replicable, then that has its own you know, meaning within the scientific community. Do we really have to endorse setting a higher or any kind of different standard in one area of science? I just think that’s just a dangerous…
Dr. Chris French: Well, okay, I think it depends what you mean by having – I mean, again, let me clarify. I mean, I think there’s kind of – there’s possibly two way of interpreting that kind of idea of double standards. One is in line with what I think Richard would say and although I’ve not seen the quotation in context so I can’t be sure, and certainly what I was arguing which I think a case can be made there. The other is such a completely unjustifiable nus – idea of double standards, which I think also happens to be true. I think the reason real prejudice within mainstream science regarding any kind of parapsychological claim, I don’t endorse that for one moment.
I think parapsychologists really do have a kind of bias to fight against. But as I referred in our previous e-mail exchange is that in itself is irrelevant in deciding whether or not paranormal forces really exist. But I do think it’s there. I mean, I think it’s true and I sympathize with parapsychologists over that. But getting back to the more substantive argument, I think we have to have quite a sophisticated view of what science is. And I’m not raising all those kinds of notions about well, what is replicability? We certainly can’t have a situation where you know, we get a few experiments here and there that appear to replicate what the vast majority don’t. That’s not what we mean by replicability.
And you know, we can look at meta-analyses being rated and very, very fond of meta-analyses, but there are problems in using meta-analysis. I mean, I think the debates that parapsychologists and critics have had about the strengths and weaknesses of meta-analysis have been really, really enlightening and you know, have wider applications beyond just parapsychology. So I think it’s a useful debate and discussion to be having anyway. But at the end of the day, what we really need to do is to get down to some kinds of effects which would actually be reasonably robust and reliable and replicable that pretty much – no you don’t have to have 100 percent replicability.
We’re talking about some number that you’d have a reasonably good chance of being able to replicate under well controlled conditions if you set up the situation properly. And that is still something that we’re looking for in parapsychology. I mean, it would be great if we find it and…
Alex Tsakiris: And maybe…
Dr. Chris French: …some of my times are looking for it but most of my research effort, as you know, go into the anomalistic psychology side and looking at things which look as if they might be psychic but actually aren’t.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, indeed on both counts, and you know, maybe you will find that in your work, your collaboration with Professor Rupert Sheldrake and maybe you want to bring folks a little bit up to date on the basics of what’s going on and maybe what is happening currently with that work on telephone telepathy.
Dr. Chris French: Well, we’ve done – I’ve known Rupert for a long time and I get on very well with him on a personal level and again, I think Rupert is a case in point in regards to what we were just talking about of the bad meaning of the word double standards in the wider scientific community. I think a lot of the time the criticisms that are directed at Rupert are just not well-founded at all. And I think although I personally have never had any success in replicating the effects that Rupert has designed, not only that, my project students who are not as skeptical as I am, and in fact are usually big fans of Rupert’s, they’ve also failed to replicate the effects that Rupert got.
Alex Tsakiris: Maybe you want to talk a little bit about that. Talk about the failed replications. I think a lot of folks would be interested in that.
Dr. Chris French: Okay, well, I mean really there’s been numerous times over the years. I mean, I’ve been – it’s just the nature of the job. One typically has around about say ten project students who are looking for interesting projects to do for their final year of thesis. And every so often I will get someone who wants to try and replicate something that Rupert has reported. Most recently we did a telephone telepathy study and now, we didn’t – this has not been published yet, the reason being that the intention was to actually collect more trials. And so really, anything I say now is kind of just a provisional, you know, interim report, okay?
But we did have 100 trials with the data though. The standard kind of set up which Rupert has used before in previous studies where you have four potential senders, one receives – one of the four senders is selected at random, makes a call through to the receiver. Before the receiver picks the phone up, they say who they think it is that’s calling. And we – these experiments are quite hard to set up. We wanted to be able to film, wanted it to be very well controlled, wanted to film the receiver, wanted to film the sender. And obviously, the receiver has to have four people they feel they’ve got this special rapport with.
And at least two experimenters – and all those people in the right place at the right time can be an absolute logistical nightmare. But these project students managed to get 100 trials. Now, the results came out kind of [inaudible 0:23:57.2]. Others say the original intention was to try to get up to 200 trials, and we simply just had – we just found the logistics of it too difficult. And it seems to be one of those things that’s now gone onto the backburner. I would like to finish that study off. I’d like to report that study however the results came out.
Whether it will actually happen or not, I do not know. At the moment, we’re trying to set up a new study. Rupert’s really – as you ‘re aware, Rupert has a lot of online experiments where people can go to his Web site and try out. We’re using that kind of setup that he’s got there, but I think it’s important that we do it in a well controlled way. Now, if we do manage to get the new version of this study up and running, this is using mobile telephones, rather than having four potential senders, it has three. The three send – it’s not as well controlled as what we were originally doing, but it would be a good start in point. We can always go into more controlled work after that.
The three senders can be going about doing their daily business as long as they are ready to take part in the experiment when they are told to do so. And the whole thing is pretty much automated. We are hoping to get that up and running fairly soon. And then I’m going to watch this space, see if we get significant results. But as I said, we’ve carried out some other stuff based on the software on Rupert’s Web site. I’m afraid we didn’t get positive results. In the past I’ve had project students look in at the detection of staring kind of paradigms. Again, we didn’t get positive significant results. So, it’s not for want of trying.
Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Well, I don’t know, I think we just have to see and continue to try. I think that’s also one of the problems in this area of research, is exactly matching someone else’s protocol is difficult and it’s hard to know what you’re taking in, what you’re taking out. We did a little experiment here just as a precursor to a university experiment. We did one at Open Source Science where I’m involved with Sheldrake’s dogs. Dogs that know. And found that to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare in terms of finding owners who were…
Dr. Chris French: Uh-huh (yes). Yeah, I can…
Alex Tsakiris: …but in the end, I think we did find a couple of folks who showed exactly the phenomena that we were talking about, and it was a matter of kind of staying with it and going through a lot of different experiments with a lot of different dogs and trying a lot of different dog owner combinations, so I don’t know. I just – I think it would be interesting to see what you come up with. It would be interesting to see Sheldrake’s response to that and to see that work go on, because I think it’s – the collaboration part is often very difficult and it just doesn’t seem to ever really happen in a way that incorporates in both sides kind of views and I think that’s where some of the problems have been in the past.
Dr. Chris French: I think there’s some truth in that. I mean, there’s also, again, and I’m not directing this specifically at Rupert. I think there’s a bit of a problem there in terms the way the outcomes of the experiments can be then interpreted. So for example, in cases of previous attempts at replicating the telephone telepathy stuff, if the results do replicate then Rupert’s obviously quite happy to accept them. If they don’t replicate you can usually point to some kind of changing protocol that might be responsible. Now, it makes perfect sense to me that Rupert, who sincerely believes that these are real effects, is going to look at this and say well, okay, I know I’ve got a real anomaly here so why didn’t it show up in this experiment?
Well, it must be because of this changing protocol. So I’m also pretty sure that had the experiment produced positive significant results, Rupert would have quite happily accepted that as a replication. It’s a kind of heads I win, tails you lose.
Alex Tsakiris: Do you think you’d be subject to the same kind of bias in terms of…
Dr. Chris French: I think I probably would. I think that’s exactly it…
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t think you would!
Dr. Chris French: …because we…
Alex Tsakiris: Come on, Dr. French, I think you would – you would be…
Dr. Chris French: We’ve all got biases, Alex. We’ve got to recognize that. As you were saying before, the reason that scientific method is the best way forward – it’s not perfect by any means – but it’s the best way forward because it’s the only method to actually recognize that we have biases and tries to take them into account. And the degree to which we’re invested in doing that can vary enormously. But I mean, what we’re all trying to go for is very tiny controlled studies. And again, parapsychologists have to really – I mean, they really are in a position where because they know they will get such critical scrutiny from the skeptical community, they really have to bend over backwards to show that everything’s double blind, that there’s no possible sensory leakage, etc., etc., etc.
Alex Tsakiris: I just think it’s often – I don’t think you would make that mistake. And I think from just reading your background and your – I take that kind of faith, some of the qualifications that you have, I think you’d be able to kind of ferret out at least the largest kinds of mistakes of that type. I’m sure it could slip in and there’s – cause there’s some merit to that, right? I mean, there are some shifting of protocol and changing of things that is appropriate, you know? So the file drawer can…
Dr. Chris French: Sure, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: …but I just don’t think you’d be making those huge mistakes. Similarly, I don’t think Sheldrake would be making those huge mistakes, either. Now, I’m not saying that it won’t creep in, but sometimes when I hear the skeptical position and they talk about it as if – and again, you’re trying very hard and I think you do a good job of avoiding that. But talking about parapsychologists as if they’re of a different breed and a different ilk and wouldn’t be you know, aware that they could have these biases and they could – the file drawer problem might, you know, creep into their work. I don’t know.
Dr. Chris French: I imagine in lots of ways parapsychologists are sometimes ahead of the game. I mean, again, I’ve actually argued this in print at least here. I, for a long time, as I said, when I first became a skeptic, I was kind of an early extreme skeptic and had an overly negative view of parapsychology. And I used to go along with the argument that parapsychology was a pseudo-science. I don’t anymore. I mean, I’ve talked about it, I’ve reflected on it and I think about the parapsychologists that I know. I think about the parapsychology articles I read.
I look down the lists of criteria that people produced that are said to be characteristic of pseudo-science, and those margins don’t seem to apply or they don’t apply anymore to parapsychology than they do to other social sciences including psychology. And in fact, if you look at kind of an empirical analysis of publications where these have been done, it turns out that actually parapsychologists by and large – I’m talking about the best parapsychologists, you know, the kind of people who are publishing in journals of parapsychology. You can always look at the weakest areas of any discipline and criticize, but that’s not fair. If you look at the best parapsychology, I would say it’s just as scientific as psychology.
Again, it doesn’t prove that paranormal forces really do exist, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the approach that people are taking in trying to answer these questions. Do they actually criticize each other’s work? Is their project double-blind, you know, etc., etc., all that kind of stuff. And parapsychologists are onto that. They’re aware of it.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, actually I think that…
Dr. Chris French: [inaudible 0:31:33.1]
Alex Tsakiris: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was just going to say I think actually in the research that you’re citing, parapsychologists actually come out on top of psychologists in terms of percentage of peer review, and all the rest of that. Isn’t that the case?
Dr. Chris French: Ultimately, yeah. I mean, I think that is very often true. I mean – and again, the whole kind of demarcation problem. What’s science…
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Dr. Chris French: …what’s not science. I don’t think there is any kind of tick box approach to this that you can kind of say you know, there are a strict set of criteria. I mean, it’s more one of those things that are kind of benchmarked. So there’s certain characteristics for what we think of as being good science. Probably the prime example would be physics. But certain characteristics of those very, very prototypical sciences and other disciplines have to a greater or lesser extent.
I mean, and it turns out that actually parapsychology does pretty darn well. So you know, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a science. If I test a psychic, I like to think I’m doing that scientifically. When any other skeptic tests a psychic or tests a paranormal claim, and some of them do, maybe not enough, but some of them do, then I would hope that they’re doing real science. If they’re not, then what are they doing? So, that’s parapsychology.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But the last area of research that I wanted to kind of touch on cause it’s something we’ve talked about on this show, and then I ran across this quote. This was from a Red Nova article apparently, but this is a quote from you and it says, “The Global Consciousness Project has generated some very intriguing results that cannot be readily dismissed.” And then you go on to say that you haven’t exactly replicated the work, but again, this is you saying you’re not ready to dismiss something even though the claim may seem a little bit strange. So on this show we’ve explored whether the Global Consciousness Project is psuedo-science or science, and to me it clearly looks like science, you know?
It’s scientists well qualified involved doing well understood statistical analysis, seem to have a pretty good handle on the hardware issues in terms of generating random numbers. In general, any comments on the Global Consciousness Project?
Dr. Chris French: I mean, I have to more or less be kind of reiterating what I said last time, that I mean, as I’ve said to you in the e-mail exchange we’ve had, like everybody else you know, I’m incredibly busy and I’d love to find the time to really look at the Global Consciousness Project in detail. Or preferably or even better, if someone else could do that nice detail critique and I could just read it. But that’s not happened. I mean, I’m aware of the kind of general approaches that have been taken, the general claims, the general findings, and I’m not aware of any – I mean I think there are times you can kind of pick at this and pick at that and make some criticism, but you can do that with pretty much any research project.
And then the results, as they say, are intriguing. I have had a post-graduate student who was very, very influenced by that kind of idea who did some work himself, looking at whether or not meditation would have an effect on running event generators. He got – it wasn’t a lack of significant results, he actually got rather a lot of significant results, but the overall pattern of them, I would say, was such that they were all over the place, including in his controlled conditions.
And for me, that suggested that we may well have been looking at some kind of equipment malfunction, despite the fact that we couldn’t track down where it was. We tested the random number sequences on other occasions and they all seemed fine. And so I just don’t know what was going on there. But to make a long story short, yeah, I think it’s intriguing. I think – I don’t see any reason why the hypotheses that underlie it, no matter how contradictory they may be in terms of conventional science, they are testable.
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Dr. Chris French: So, that’s fine. Let’s go ahead and test it.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Well, let’s go ahead and test it. You know, I was mentioning in the e-mail exchange that we did have that I had actually contacted Dr. Nelson and just threw out the idea, and I’ll throw it out to you, I’d love to see and explore if you do have a student who is interested in that, I’d be happy to try and facilitate and partially fund you know, setting up a random number generator in your lab.
One of the nice things about the way they’ve designed the project is, all the da – you could test the data there to make sure that it is what it says in terms of hardware. I think their quantum tunneling technique that they use sounds like a pretty reliable way to go about generating those random number streams. But then what I was going to say is, all the data that they generate throughout their network is published on their Web site. So it think it is an opportunity for someone to go in and do some analysis along those lines. So, if you do have that interest, we’d love to you know, as an open-minded skeptic, you know, I’m sure you have a lot of projects underway, but if this is something that you’re interested in, perhaps we could pursue that.
Dr. Chris French: I think we should. Now, that sounds very promising, so let’s exchange some e-mails on that.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well…
Dr. Chris French: I do have one or two people in mind who may be interested in taking responsibility on for that, so let’s see where it goes.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, well I’ll definitely follow up with you afterwards. So tell us in the little bit of time that we have left, what else is going on in the lab and what other things we might see from you in terms of books or appearances.
Dr. Chris French: Right. Well, in terms of the research, I mentioned earlier that one of the – now things we’re getting interested in is the whole psychology of skepticism, which usually seems to go down quite well with people who are sympathetic [laughs] toward paranormal claims. Because I think there are two things. One is that the reason it’s an interesting question of why is the focus always on belief? What about other psychological characteristics of people who don’t take on these paranormal beliefs in cultures where they are fairly prevalent? And also this notion of you know, are there actually different kinds of skeptics?
We strongly suspect there are, but it would be interesting to let the empirical work look at that. That’s one area. Another thing we’ve been looking at quite a lot is the whole relationship between memory and reports of paranormal experiences, both with regard to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. For example, this could be one example. We followed up some of Richard Wiseman’s work – I don’t know if you’re familiar with his study where he showed participants a video of a conjurer who is presented as being supposedly a real psychic doing some metal bending.
The interesting part came where the key, which had been bent by sleight of hand was placed down on a table and the alleged psychic says, “If you look closely you can see it’s still bending.” And the participants that hear that simple verbal suggestion, 40 percent of them report they think the key carries on bending. Whereas if you present exactly the same video but take out the suggestion, virtually no one reported that. There’s quite a strong effect and it’s quite neat. We replicated that but we also threw in another element to look at the influence of basically co-witnesses. So we had a stooge co-witness who either said yes it did carry on bending or no, it didn’t.
And if you got the verbal suggestion and you got the co-witness saying yes, it did carry on bending, then those people were 60 percent of those were like that they saw it carry on bending. So that’s yeah, quite interesting. Other stuff we’re looking at relates to the relationship between false memories and not just distorted memories but false memories and reports of paranormal experiences and so on. So there’s a lot of stuff going on there and a lot of other things as well.
On top of that, I am writing a book on anomalistic psychology. It’s a good time in the UK because anomalistic psychology has just been adopted as an option on the A level syllabus, which is fantastic as far as I’m concerned. I hope that you would approve of the line that I’m taking in this if I’m writing about this which is to say we do need to be open-minded. It’s not a matter of saying we know paranormal forces don’t exist. Some of the evidences out there can’t just be – can’t just be dismissed. It does need to be taken seriously. You know, interesting stuff. But a lot of the focus is obviously on what looks like it’s psychic but isn’t.
The Skeptic magazine has recently celebrated 21 years of existence. This is a UK magazine which I edit, and we’ve gone from 28 pages to 40 pages and we’re hoping to get more and more subscribers. Things on the skeptical front in the UK seem to be going from [inaudible 0:40:44.8]. There’s a monthly meeting, for example, of Skeptics in the Pub in London which now regularly pulls in more than 200 people and you have to book to get in there now, so it’s exciting times. And hopefully we can keep the healthy debate and dialogue going with both sides. That’s important.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s wonderful and best of luck with and continued success with everything that’s going on. That does sound like quite exciting. I do have to say, as I was listening to that, I look forward to the research when we turn it around and when we [laughs] we use the same kind of techniques to bias the participants in the other direction. So when we – and I saw the little clip that you did on YouTube with the woman had the psychic. It was like a morning show in the UK and the woman had three psychic readings and then she said, “Wow, that came out pretty good. I thought that was you know, well done and it hit a couple points.”
And then you immediately tried to bias her the other way and say – which is totally fine and understandable, you know. Hey, I think it could have been this or that could be kind of a general statement. And what I’ve found in a little bit of psychic medium research I’ve tried to generate here is that you know, for the most part, when you – of course, if you don’t tell people, they do fall easily victim to these kind of cold reading techniques.
But I’ve also found that when you alert people to the kind of techniques that may be in place, they’re able to pretty quickly kind of see through that. And it would be interesting – I’ve always thought you know, why aren’t there any research studies on cold reading techniques? And what happens to someone before they’re aware of cold reading techniques and after cold reading techniques? Because when I watched that video on YouTube, what I see is it really gets to the heart of — I think my position on all this is that here’s a woman who seems reasonably intelligent and kind of open-minded on both sides.
She’s not super-woo-woo, this must be true, I’m going to devote my life to this psychic reading, and she’s not totally closed to it, either. And what I saw was someone who’s processing your information and saying yeah, well that maybe explains it but also someone who says you know what? That really doesn’t explain all of it. And to me, that’s really the crux of the matter. Is this ontology that kind of incorporates in a larger view of consciousness and dare I even say spirituality, is that even with all its faults and problems, maybe a little bit closer to the truth than the strictly materialist ontology that we kind of currently operate in?
Dr. Chris French: Well, I mean, a lot of these claims are untestable, and we should test them and we sometimes do test them. I mean, we recently in a thing I did with Richard Wiseman, we tested a British psychic and I mean the setup was very, very simple really. We just get the psychic to do ten readings for ten different people. She was happy with the conditions. We always have to make sure they’re happy with the conditions before we start, obviously, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. She made the ten readings. She wrote them all down. There was no – we obviously cut out the possibility of cold reading.
She was quite happy to do it this way. She did the ten readings. The ten people then came back and had to choose which reading was the one that was for them. And we said that if she got five or more correct, she would be deemed to have passed the test. She got none. Now, you know, there are all kinds of readings. All that showed is that on that particular occasion, on that particular test, no evidence for anything psychic. Maybe under other conditions she might have been able to do it, but we can only go on what we did.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I did an online experiment copying the protocol that Julie Bieschel formerly at the University of Arizona uses where it was really neat because it was only a recording that was online so there was no interaction between the psychics. And I picked – I had volunteer psychics, like 30 of them do it, and then I also had skeptics go through it, several hundred skeptics. And the psychics performed at 100,000 to 1 above chance better at picking just – it was an online multiple choice thing. So all these things, it’s replication, replication, replication and it’s controlling and collaboration back and forth. It kind of gets me that you would even report that as very meaningful.
Well so yes, we looked again and you know, I did this one and she didn’t get any of them right. Okay, so, I’ve personally never had a reading, a psychic reading before I got interested in the research part of this. I’d applied the basic kind of controls of not talking back and forth. I did three readings that were just miserably terrible. But I persisted and on the fourth one, I have to say, applying the same techniques, I received information that still I cannot – I have no explanation for how this person could have known some of the things that they know. And again, I use as evidence that I wasn’t severely biased in one direction or another and that I had had three prior readings that just I knew all along were just not successful and not very accurate. So I don’t know.
Dr. Chris French: Yeah, I mean the thing is, there is this problem for skeptics. You’re kind of damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I mean, if you take the line that I’m just not going to test any of these claims, you know, I mean hopefully not for the reason that you already know that they’re all nonsense without even having to look at the evidence, but there may be other good reasons why you don’t do that. Maybe you just don’t have the time or the skill or whatever.
But if you’re in the situation that I’m in where, you know, I can test some of these claims. I can’t test out all of them, cause there’s just not enough hours in a day, but I can test some of them. And sometimes the conditions are switched. I do end up testing them. Now if we do that, we kind of bend over backwards to make the conditions, the conditions that the claimant is happy with and you then produce negative results, many people on the other side of the debate just say well, what did you expect? You’re a skeptic.
As if you know, that needs – that the findings can just be totally dismissed. Well then why did we bother in the first place? But of course if you refuse to test those people, then you’re accused of being biased, of not wanting to look at the evidence. So like I say, there is this kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t aspect to the whole thing. You know, my opportunities, if someone does want to be tested and they’ve got a testable claim and we’ve got the time and the facilities and the conditions are right, well yes, we’ll go for it. Maybe we will one day find somebody who really can do this stuff. Because the people go into these tests with supreme confidence typically. They are convinced they are going to pass these tests.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right.
Dr. Chris French: We’ve tested not only this woman, we’ve tested other famous media psychics. We’ve tested Chris Robinson, we’ve tested a guy called Derrick Ogilvie who claims that he can read babies’ minds. You know, these are not one-offs. I mean, it just is the case that whenever we test them under conditions that we’ve worked out with the claimant, we get negative findings. And so obviously, that’s going to have a bigger impact on me, personally.
You might say well, maybe it shouldn’t, but it does because I run those tests and I know they work. I mean they’re as fair as we could make them, that they were well controlled, and we didn’t find anything. When I read reports in the literature of occasional positive results, well maybe they’re real effects or maybe they’re not. I wasn’t there so I don’t really know. I just want to kind of get that one white crow that would show under controlled conditions where there’s no other explanation, that these things are possible.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree. I think it would be nice to find that white crow and put the whole thing to bed. And especially with folks who are genuinely, truly open-minded and open to a fair inquiry into the topic. Which it sounds like maybe you are, Dr. French. So you’re to be congratulated.
Dr. Chris French: I thank you.
Alex Tsakiris: And thanks again so much for joining me today on Skeptiko, and hopefully we’ll find some way to follow up with Global Consciousness Project and the work that they’re doing there and incorporate it into another area you might want to examine in your lab.
Dr. Chris French: Yeah, let’s do that.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Thanks again.
Dr. Chris French: Okay, thank you. Take care.
Alex Tsakiris: Bye-bye.
Dr. Chris French: Bye-bye.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Dr. French for joining me on Skeptiko. I will be following up on a couple of things we talked about, certainly the Global Consciousness Project, and initiating some kind of collaboration between Dr. French’s group and the group of Dr. Roger Nelson who are doing the Global Consciousness Project.
I’m also going to follow up with Dr. Sheldrake and see his take on where he’s at with the telephone telepathy research that they’re doing. So I will of course bring you updates on that as I get them.
Well that’s going to about do it for today. Of course, for more, check out the Skeptiko Web site, skeptiko.com. Plenty more there, including all our past shows, a link to the forum, and an e-mail link to me. Until next time, bye for now.