The single best predictor of whether you believe in conspiracy X is do you believe in conspiracy Y? Even if they are totally unrelated. So if your next door neighbor doesn’t believe we ever landed on the moon. There are also more lately. Certainly. So a correlation is not optically strong. No, it’s definitely there. They’re more likely to also believe that you shouldn’t vaccinate your kids.
Hello, everybody, welcome to another edition of Point of Inquiry. I’m your host, Jim Under Down for today’s episode. I went all the way to London, England, to talk to a couple of big names in the world of skepticism and critical thinking.
I was over there for the presentation of the Richard Dawkins Award to Ricky Jr. Vaisse this year, the Center for Inquiry in the Richard Dawkins Foundation splashed out for a big event at a theater in East London. I jumped on the tube and went crosstown to Greenwich. Yes, that Greenwich, the home of Greenwich Mean Time, the zero point in the longitudinal lines on the globe. That’s where Chris French lives, actually. Speaking of where he lives, he lives in this fantastic house. It’s basically right on the Thames, a little bit east of downtown Greenwich in this centuries old house that’s feet from the water. But Chris is much more than the interesting house he and his wife live in. He is a psychologist, head of the University of London’s Anomalies Dick Studies Research Unit. People have weird experiences all the time. And the question is, why do you have the weird experience? And that’s where people like Chris come into play. He knows a lot about how the brain works and why people have these experiences and why statistically weird things happen every now and then and on and on and on. He is another giant and great ally in the war to brain critical thinking to the people. So I bring you now to the waterfront on the Thames, a five minute walk from where King Henry the eighth got knocked off his horse in a jousting tournament and began his road to six marriages and an ever expanding waistline.
Ladies and gentlemen, Chris French.
We are here with Chris French and I actually we’re not in London, are we?
This is the London it’s technical. Greenwich is Bob London. Yeah, Dan this is the Harbourmaster’s house, you know, so this was somewhere which was at the center of all the shipping back in the day. It’s in the guidebooks and now we’re very lucky to live.
So he was just in charge of all the shipping matters.
So we believe that the kind of half of the house that we’re in was the actual office and next door was the residential half. But, yeah, we as I say, we do count our blessings living.
Part of the reason I’m in town is because a couple of days ago, we gave the Center for Inquiry, gave the Richard Dawkins Award to Ricky Dervaes.
And you helped organize.
That’s right. Yeah. I mean, the whole thing ran, I thought, remarkably smoothly. And everybody seemed to have a great time. I mean, Richard Wiseman was the kind of emcee for the evening to kind of keep the interview rolling along. And of course, we know he’s brilliant at that kind of thing. So it was it was such an interesting and unique event. You know, we had the two of my personal heroes. Well, I’d have to include Richard as well are really upset because Richard’s a very good friend of mine. But just get there now and a half just flew by, you know, there. Well, there was a lot of kind of serious discussion, but also lots of laughs.
So it was great. Richard Dawkins, of course, great heroes are the skeptic and science movement. And Ricky’s a great advocate of critical thinking.
And, you know, so it’s their approaches are different this year. But it was a lot of fun to see them both on stage.
Yeah. Now, I mean, we would I mean, again, just I’m going to give a kind of shout out to the venue that we were as well, which was a kind of beautiful, beautiful art deco building. Listed building staff there was just incredibly efficient and the whole thing run like clockwork. So we were delighted.
Yeah. That whole neighborhoods got some history, too, of organizing.
And there was an anti fascist rally and hoopla and there was a 30 minute pit there, maybe some more in the near future, the way that things are going in Britain. You never know. You thought you were done with some. Oh, yeah.
OK, well, let’s talk about you. Where are you from originally?
I’m from the north west of England. I’m from a town called Runcorn is in Cheshire. I don’t think I’d ever want to go back there. My family is still there. I love seeing them, but I wouldn’t want to live there again. I’ve moved around. I did my first degree in psychology at Manchester University work for a year at Bandha University in North Wales. Then did my P H.D. Leicester University. Did a year at the Hatfield Polytechnic, as it was then University of Hertfordshire, where Richard is now based before finally coming to Goldsmiths, and that was a long time ago.
You know, usually time people say, when did you start a sixteen, eighty five? But it was it was actually nineteen eighty five. It just feels like sixty, eighty five.
And I’ve been there ever since. And yeah, when I, when I first started my kind of interest in what I now refer to as a novelistic psychology was very much a kind of side interest. And then gradually it just grew over the years. And I’ve always kind of just found it fascinating. And there was definitely a period where my my kind of interest was tolerated, but not encouraged. You know, I don’t think that seems to be quite respectable. And it just got to a point where I decided, well, it’s the stuff I’m really most interested in. I had kind of twin tracks of more kind of conventional research jubilate. What was the other track? Well, I didn’t other various things about p h d e was on hemisphere differences. There’ll be a brain function using EEG and so on. So very much a kind of neuro psychological stuff. I then had a period, the very early days of computers and boon research in the area of automated assessment, looking at whether you got the same results if you administered a psychological test on computers, the more conventional ways of doing it. Then there was a period where I collaborated with my wife, who’s also a psychologist at Birkbeck. Professor Ann Richards in the area of cognition and emotion and feel the effects of anxiety and depression on things like memory and perception. So on my little running gag over those years was that we knew we’d never split up because we didn’t know who’d get custody of the data. Let’s say that for a long time, I kind of kept that more kind of conventional research going. But really, what fascinated me the most was that we had experiences that people report and trying to understand all that stuff. And I think I think it’s fair to say that it has it has become kind of accepted as a totally legitimate area of research. There were always some very big names in psychology that totally got it. I mean, Elizabeth Loftus, his name comes to mind, you know, and various others, Richard McNally and love the people I’ve got huge amounts of respect for. But there was also still a kind of sense occasionally in those early days of, you know, why? Why are you doing this stuff? You know, we all will knew that ghosts don’t exist. We all know that people are not really being up to date aliens. But that was kind of missing the point. You know, the fact was that lots and lots of people do believe in this stuff in a very sizable minority claim that the direct personal experience. So there’s something there to be explained by psychology.
Absolutely huge numbers of people. And do you include yourself in that number of people? Have you ever had a weird.
I’ve had one or two experience, actually. I kind of had as many people now and how I used to be a believer like Sue Blackmore. You know, she was a passionate believer.
I think I probably wasn’t as strong the believer as she was, but I certainly generally believed in a lot of this stuff. And I can even look back and remember when I was doing my P.H. deal, Lester, I can do adult education classes at local colleges to earn a bit of extra cash and kind of if they asked for a lecture on parapsychology out, go and prepare one. And it would be totally uncritical, hopefully. And, you know, I kind of imagine that they’re probably sitting there thinking, well, you must know what he’s talking about. He’s doing a thing each day, you know? No, I had no idea. And again, I kind of tell this story quite, quite often. It was reading one particular book by Jim Okok, Parapsychology Science. So I imagine somebody who said, hey, you should read this book, you’d like it. And I read it and I looked it as it kind of basically it’s it’s quite rare, with the possible exception of the Bible in the Koranda for one single boat. I was such an influence on somebody’s life. But yeah, that determined the mind, my kind of future career and I spend my time doing. Now, the fact that I know Jim is a kind of personal friend, you know, and I can cappato not to blame him, but we can all a situation up myself.
Jim Alcott, great ally in the and the Skeptical World, and he’s really an excellent teacher of this stuff. So anomalies stick psychology. Are there other people in this field? Yeah, there are.
I mean, it’s kind of it’s still very much obviously a very specialist sylve area of psychology. But there is there’s kind of an increasing number. I think if you were to plotty, you find the number of publications per year has gone up a number of kind of conferences, et cetera, et cetera. And of course, I mean, I suppose what’s happened as well is obviously I kind of was what I was kind of into all this stuff. And then as part of the kind of skeptical movement, if you like, because it brown about the same time round, about nineteen eighty five skeptics in the pub started operating in the U.K. and I was kind of very keen on that. And the skeptic founded by Wendy Grossman, which know for a while I actually edited for ten years before passing it on to the current editor, Deborah Hyde. Things were kind of happy. You can look back now and you can kind of trace it and plot it, because while it’s happening, you’re not really aware that this is going to grow. But I think the skepticism as a as a movement, if you like, has kind of grown become more organized. Various reasons for that.
And you have people in the United States like Paul Kurtz and Wareheim and James Randi all adding to that.
Yeah, well, I think, you know, in some ways, I mean, they led the way, but the British were not too far behind in terms of kind of getting organized and with support from the people you’ve just spoken about. And yes, you can kind of look back now. And I mean, now we have something like the last time I checked, it was kind of 40 or 50 different branches of skeptics in the pub up and down the country. I mean, I run the Greenwich branch. We had a meeting yesterday, last night. You know, I must admit, I was still kind of recovering from my hangover from the night before the event, but it went very well and well. I mean, I particularly like it is a very grassroots thing. It’s not it’s not kind of hierarchical and bureaucratic. It is. And it’s getting in people who might not otherwise really kind of understand. I mean, for a long time, a lot my friends and neighbors kind of knew I did this skeptic’s stuff, but they didn’t really know what that was. Now, look, come along to these talks and they and they get.
It gives people an opportunity to specifically discuss this sort of thing.
And and, of course, the remit has. I mean, I’m sure you’d agree that it’s widened, whereas back in the 70s and the 80s, it tended to be the focus is very much on the paranormal, which is still my primary interest. But now, I mean, maybe particularly today, the era of fake news and conspiracy theories and all this stuff. What what we’ve been doing for decades has suddenly become much more kind of irrelevant and part of the mainstream.
Yeah. So we’ll paint that picture. What was in there in the 80s when you first got heavily into this? What sort of things were you looking into?
It kind of was a very much a kind of gradual process. So as I read Jim’s book in the early 80s, I started at Goldsmiths in the in 1985. And initially I was just doing kind of some lectures on a theoretical issues course. So I did a couple of hours criticizing Freud. Always fun, couple of hours, an artificial intelligence and a couple of hours on parapsychology in the paranormal, this time from a very skeptical kind of perspective. And then it was it was pretty. About 10 years later, I realized, yeah, I know enough about this stuff. Now, I could put on a really interesting module as part of our VSC goldsmiths, which I did. And it was kind of very popular. The students, you know, I mean, that one things about the kind of weird stuff is it’s a great hook to get people interested. And then you can kind of get across all kinds of messages about critical thinking and how to evaluate evidence and the problems with kind of. Now, for most people, personal experience tops everything. But as psychologists we know well, no, actually, we’re very capable of fooling ourselves in all kinds of ways, memory, perception, the whole works. So, yeah. So then that happened and now it’s beginning to do kind of just the occasional little publication on that topic. But as I say, it was a very slow process. I rather wish I’d made the decision to just put all my efforts into this somewhat earlier, because people like Sue Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, I think they they would they did do that. And I kind of felt I was playing catch up a little bit. But having said that, as I say, that is it. It kind of grew. Kind of quite slowly until, well, probably the kind of start of this century when I kind of took the decision that I’m skip all my efforts into this stuff because it’s what interests me the most and is at the point where you start the media and other people start asking you to get involved.
And that was a very kind.
It was kind of started off as a kind of, you know, just just do those things occasion. I think I was enough and quite early on, as I recall, because one of the aspects of being interested in this stuff is that it is very media friendly. The media love it. So it is brings out a study on that alien abductees or crystal energy or any any of these kind of weird S.P.. Sure. Yeah. Then it gets a lot of media. So I think people probably end up with a bit of a misguided view as to how much research activity there actually is, because what there is gets a huge amount of attention, you know, whereas, you know, as we all know, the money, the funding for this kind of area, it’s not going to be great. And it’s quite right that it shouldn’t be, you know, put the money into cancer research, joy or climate change or whatever. You know, that’s perfectly legit.
Well, and a lot of the research, too, is being done by believers. And there’s a lot of information bias happening there is into it.
When the interesting things for me are going to have how much they can written about this. But I think I went from those early days, I think I. I kind of talk about type one and type two skeptic’s. You know, they’re different kind of types of skeptics. And in the early days when I first discovered the joys of skepticism and I was reading kind of stuff by James Randi and. Right. And all these white people, I probably have some views. And I’m not blaming those people for having those views. What my interpretation of what I was reading. I know the various things I believe then, which I do not believe anymore. So, for example, I kind of got the impression that all parapsychologists were nincompoops. They didn’t know how to design a study that says and obviously the more I got to meet them and interact with them, you realize now there’s some really intelligent people there and they do appreciate a lot the problems about confirmation bias and so on, sometimes even more so than the people working in more conventional areas where it’s not such an issue, you know. But also, I kind of probably tended to think of all people who claim to have psychic powers or astrologers are all these practitioners as being deliberate frauds. And of course, if that’s true anymore, I think they’re fooling themselves as much as they’re fooling anybody else. But they are genuinely sincere people. There are the con artists out there. We all know who they are and that they’re the scum of the earth. As far as I’m concerned, it’s also the idea that all paranormal beliefs are kind of damaging. Well, actually, no, that psychologically benefits if you live in some of this stuff, even if it isn’t true.
Yeah. So, yeah, the analogies, belief in God, especially if you’re dying or something that maybe some sulfur.
Yeah. I think most people believe, as all skeptics are kind of anxious about the prospect of their own death or the death of people that they love. And so being able to kind of believe something else afterwards isn’t real. And of course, confirmation bias is such that we’ll find it very easy to believe in stuff we want to be true anyway. The evidence doesn’t have to be that great. I mean, when we were at the events.
One of the things that Ricky mentions during the event the other night made me think of an episode from from my own life where when my daughters were much younger.
One night I kind of I found myself. I was in the bottom bunk in the kid’s bedroom with my middle daughter, Katherine, on the top bunk. She’d be about six, seven at the time. I think we are my youngest. Alice must have been ill and sleeping with my wife for that night, but I just suddenly heard this kind of really heartrending sob. What’s the matter? I don’t want to die. And I kind of had sex. Yeah. Did you even get so young you your whole life ahead of you? Yes, but I will die. I won’t tell you. I mean, this is it. You know, from me. Some people believe that when you die, you go to heaven. I. Yeah. But you don’t do it right. Is there any way I could stay?
Well, I was at about the age when kids start understanding their own mortality.
I mean, I remember as a kid, you know, particularly kind of the prospect, if you think about your own parents dying. The most important people in your life at that age. And the idea that they’re not going to be around forever, deeply, deeply upsetting, you know. And I can see, though, that the kind of emotional side to the lot of research we do into psychology of belief is very much to focus on cognitive biases and so on. And I think, again, to be perfectly valid and very useful research to do. But the emotional side can’t be neglected either. I mean, we’ve got such a kind of power of pressure to cure some of these things, too.
To be true driving force. Yeah. I mean, were the only animals.
No. Well in advance that we’re going to expire and have the brainpower to really think about it quite a bit. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. As you will be aware, means if it’s not a contributor to skepticisms, a wide church, you know, there are there are kind of some kind of very, quite militant, aggressive kind of skeptics. And that has its place in certain contexts. As I say, they con artists. I would go in guns blazing on those. They know what they’re doing and they’re exploiting vulnerable people. No time for them at all. But the vast majority of people believe in this stuff. They’re decent people, you know, and they’re coming from a good place. And they genuinely believe that, you know, well, they’re kind of new age. Woo is for real, you know. And. And sometimes, I mean, again, you prove myself in the same situation that I don’t want to take a strong skeptic line. If somebody is taking great comfort from believing that a loved one is is still around in some sense. Why would I want to take that away from them? You can ask me my view as a scientist. Of whether I believe in an afterlife. And I’ll give you an honest straight answer. But I’m not going to going to go out there deliberately trying to just take these.
Beliefs away from people, especially in my mind. It’s it’s a little bit of an age related thing, like if there’s an old lady dying under the bed and she actually is going to go see Jesus or something.
You know? Knock yourself out.
You know, maybe you’re a little younger. We could try to gently.
Paul. Yeah. I mean, and again, I mean, some people I think are genuinely, intellectually strong enough, if you like, that they can cope with the idea. I mean, on a rational level, we all know that actually, if you believe in afterlife, well, what’s it gonna be like when you die? It’s gonna be the same as it was before you were born. You know where always. So. So why. Why do we get so stressed about it? But there is still, for most people, the kind of emotional dread that’s there. And it’s very, very real.
What about this notion that I’m going to take the hard, skeptical view now that underlying all these beliefs is this nefarious world view that will seep in to whether or not you believe in climate change and other things that are more important to our society as a whole?
I think I mean, I think there’s yeah, there is an important point now that it does need to be considered and dealt with. And I don’t think it’s very easy to say what the actual answers are. Over recent years, one of our main areas of research has been the cognitive psychology of belief in conspiracies. And again, one of the interesting aspects of that is that most conspiracies are harmless.
Does it really matter if your next door neighbor doesn’t believe we landed on the moon? Well, no. In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t. But having said that, what we do know is that the single best predictor of whether you believe in conspiracy X is do you believe in conspiracy Y, even if they are totally unrelated. So if your next door neighbor doesn’t believe we ever landed on the moon. They’re also more likely to nib’s suddenly. Correlation is not optically strong. Numbers is definitely there.
They’re more likely to also believe that you shouldn’t vaccinate your kids and that that climate change isn’t real because it’s a kind of just a general distrust of. The establishment and the official stories that were told and and so it can then kind of become a dangerous thing. I mean, it’s interesting looking at the kind of apparent increase in kind of belief in flat earth, something that we all thought was just, you know, I was just going to say.
I mean, I I’ve met these flat earth ers who are basically of the opinion that science lies to us about everything and nothing science says can be trusted, which in our minds is just the opposite science.
Absolutely. More should be more trusted than most. I mean, and unless and this is the thing. Of course, we believe in conspiracy theories. If you have that kind of general tendency, well, it’s a non falsifiable belief because any evidence that appears to count against it was obviously planted there by the conspirators and the conspirators are believed to be these amazingly powerful people. You know, the kind of top government officials, military, royal family, everybody in the in the words of a flat earth or I met the the cop all running all these conspiracies.
Ah ah. The. I don’t even know if you thought it was an individual or whoever, but he said magnitudes of power more powerful than the president of the United States. Magnitude.
I mean, you look at the Q on conspiracy in the States, it’s kind of. Well, it’s crazy stuff. That. Totally, totally crazy. But it’s catching on. And country.
Is there, Spig, in the United States, you see. Is there any sort of generalizations you can make about the differences and beliefs or people between the UK and the US?
Yeah, I think I think of it as a generalization. And of course, that’s always the worry that you just oversimplifying things. But certainly in the U.K., it’s not such a big deal to be an atheist, you know? Whereas obviously in the States, it’s certainly many parts. The states, you would keep that very quiet because, you know, you could really be putting yourself in danger if you kind of open expressed a fearsome. And so I think partly as a consequence of that, some of the kind of atheist in America is kind of somewhat more kind of in-your-face because it needs to be. Whereas over here, you’re out in a party with a bunch of Christians and you said you’re an atheist. They wouldn’t all suddenly kind of turn on you. I think you’re wrong. But, you know, so, again, it’s just kind of historical thing. But I think that’s a big difference. That I think is very noticeable in the paranormal world is I think sometimes the kind of American skepticism is, again, a little bit more kind of prone to kind of talking about kind of the war with irrationality and kind of making these metaphors of battle and so on maybe than it is over here. I think it’s a bit bit kind of more gentle, a bit more tolerant. Now, again, not, you know, going back to the point you made earlier, maybe that’s a mistake. You know, maybe I mean, I was back with Sam Harris, for example, argues that by kind of put up with more moderate religious beliefs, you’re making space for the more extreme ones. And, you know, that’s an interesting point to make and consider. But I think there is a general feeling among a lot of British skeptics that we’re quite happy to try get to talk to the other side and try and understand them at that level rather than just kind of point out where they’re wrong all the time.
And that baby. Partially.
From generations, you know, the James Randi or era skeptics and Brandy had pitched battles with Murray Geller, who I know, you know, and others that, you know, if there was a real fire behind it where I think, you know, maybe kids coming up today, kids being in their 20s, 30s now, are you kidding me?
Or maybe they’re curious about it. But it doesn’t seem to be this war.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, again, you know, uphill better inside the US situation. So that’s how it feels. The things are moving in the U.S. as well. Yeah, that’s I think you may well be right. I mean, I know we just talked about mentioning gorilla argument when Gallup first appeared, and I was totally believing it. I so wanted it to be true. Is it. And then with those scientists saying that they felt he was the real deal and incredibly exciting. And now, of course, I’ve got lots of friends who are conjurers who can kind of bend spoons in just the same way that it looks like action. And they say, well, if he’s doing it using psychic powers, he’s doing it the hard way.
Yeah. Right. That was that was Randy resulting in the 70s.
And yeah, I met Geller.
I did a TV show with Geller in the Ukraine and he was the host of this show called Battle of the Psychic’s, which was between psychic’s. And I was the token skeptic on the show. And I could see I mean, he’s a charming guy. He’s very personable.
And, you know, you could see why people, along with their cognitive biases, would would get in line.
I only met him once, and that was quite an interesting encounter. It was a it was a radio show on radio two and about half an hour with Jeremy Vine show. And we had the rather the usual kind of four minutes. You know, we will get a chance to get down to some nitty gritty points. And during this conversation, I’d made references of Richard Wiseman’s research and I’ll finish. We’re kind of going down the stairs in Broadcasting House and he turns to me, says, I’ll tell you, I can’t stand about that. Richard Wiseman. I don’t know. What was that?
He’s just such and such and such a publicity seeker.
Hot cattle, blood to sprout. Oh. Even though you live in a really fantastic house, this kind of work doesn’t normally make people millionaires.
Not on our side anyway.
So why do you do this again? It’s just purely I find the area fascinating. I have toyed with the idea many, many years of. Basically pretending that I’ve seen the light and now I realize all the paranormal stuff is true, you know. Right. A whole series of bestsellers and then writing a final one. So naturally, I was lying, although I’m not sure that’s ethical. I really have kind of enjoyed the ride. I mean, I’ve got to meet some amazing people. I mean, they’re the thrill I get from the fact that I’m on hugging terms with James Randi. You know, I was reading all that stuff. Never a one minute thing. You ever probably meet the guy, let alone get to a point where I thought of as a friend because it was a really good kind of community. That law lot people certainly in this country, I mean, and in America as well, obviously, but but doing really important work in this area. I mean, good thinking society springs to mind the campaigns that have been organized. We are raising awareness of the true nature of homoeopathy and basically get to a point where, you know, homoeopathy isn’t is pretty much no longer available on the National Health Service. No, it shouldn’t be. It should be evidence based. It’s fine if people want to spend their own money on it. You can feel free to do that. Not money that can be used to better. Exactly. Because I know we all think it’s we all think we’re the good guys and they’re right. But I think in these situations, you we genuinely actually are. You know, we’re trying to kind of fight on a lot causes which are important. And the anti VAX movement. You know, people lose their lives. It’s actually that serious. So we’ve got to kind of keep on trying.
It’s an uphill struggle, but it’s worth the effort.
What’s next for Chris French? Well, I’m I’m in a very fortunate position. I’ve managed to finally obtain some kind of fairly substantial funding that will buy me out of all my university duties for a year. And I’m going to use that time to kind of try and write a popular science book on a novelistic psychology. And I’ve wanted to do for many, many years. And the day job just gets in the way. There’s too much takes up, too much time. So that’s the next big project for me. And just carry on. I mean, I can very much enjoy doing the kind of public engagement side. I like going out and doing talks to people and, you know, keep the research ticking over as well. So that is the book project. That’s the big one.
Sign me up for a free copy. I certainly. Be first in line. Chris Branch, thank you for so much for having me here.
Thank you for listening. Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry as a 523 charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence Scient in compassion rather than superstition, pseudoscience or prejudice guide public policy. You can visit us at point of inquiry at OAG. There you can listen to all of piecewise archived episodes were available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and your favorite podcast app of choice. Special thanks to Pamela Crosslin of Crosslin Law, located in The Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. She does business and intellectual property law and helped us out with some of the valuable intellectual property information for this program. Thank you. And see you again in two weeks.