Skeptics in the Pub Cheltenham: Professor Chris French

OK, my blog was two years old on my father’s birthday last week, but I was away in Suffolk seeing family so could not celebrate! Of late I have been so busy with various projects I have not found  much time to write: still last night I took time off to go to an event I had been looking forward to, Skeptics In the Pub Cheltenham with Professor Chris French. I had already posted some of the excellent podcasts from his research group lecture series on the Facebook page, but it was really nice to see Professor French himself, and to listen to a first rate and entertaining talk.

Much of the content was familiar to anyone who has been following research in Anomalistic Psychology, which is obviously an interest of mine given my occasional forays in to parapsychology and studying anomalous experience. Becky Smith, Dave Curtin and I arrived late, and the venue was packed — maybe sixty people had turned out — I hope we have as good a response rate for Dr Matthew Smith at the Fiery Angel on Tuesday, April 12th! There were a few teething problems with the sound set up, and Sally and Will were great host as always while Chris Richardson managed to get the A/V equipment working and we were off!

I don’t always make SitP — I missed last months owing to illness; but they offer splendid talks for nothing more than a donation, which given how tough times are is really cool. And this one was truly splendid — Chris French is up there with Richard Wiseman in my favourite people to listen to, (and I guess Sue Blackmore – heck, it’s the Triumvirate of Evil Sceptics! 😉 ) Naturally I was bursting with questions by the end of the first half, and in part two I asked a few — but there were so many people the SPR conference “CJ heckles for hours” phenomena failed to materialise, to everyone’s relief!

So what was covered? A few examples of perceptual/cognitive errors, the dangers of eyewitness testimony, a clip from the Enemies of Reason with Dawkins and French dealing with some lovely but ultimately wrong it would seem dowsers, the psychology of conspiracy theories from an upcoming documentary, and a lot more besides, delivered in Prof French’s usual down to earth and somewhat self effacing style.  Really entertaining, thought provoking, intelligent stuff. At the end there was a plug for The Skeptic and the “best of” book Why Statues Weep, that I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed.  It was also a delight to meet Ersby at last – we know each other from the JREF, and from RatSkep forum, and I’m a big fan of his cartoons and even more so his overview of ganzfeld experiments in parapsychology, which to my mind is the finest out there to date.  There are seven parts, they take a while to read, but seriously it is worth the effort. Unfortunately I arrived late (I have to hide as an Evil True Woo Believer lest I am lynched by the sceptics) and Ersby had to leave before I got to talk to him at the end, but it was a delight to see him.

High points of the talk involved classics like the birthday conundrum – how many people do you need at a part before there is a 50/50 chance two of them share a birthday – well anyone who has spent time round Dr Blackmore knows the answer to that — and the classic “gorillas in our midst” experiment which involves watching a clip, carrying out a task, and in my case despite having seen the clip before  failing to notice a gorilla – despite knowing the gorilla was going to appear, I still never saw it!  This was far more than the claimed response, and deeply ironic given my pseudo-replication in 1994 of Tony Cornell’ s famous experiment at a cinema (not an adult one, despite the occasional joke of Tony in that direction — Tom Ruffles has established which cinema it was).

Actually it does not surprise me as much perhaps as it surprises many sceptics, some of whom seem to have a naive realist view of perception, as if the eyes were holes in the head through which sense data was directly fed to the noggin: the problem is of course that our brains edit and to a certain extent create all our sense experiences, and as any Kantian will tell you we can never experience things in themselves — only our sense perceptions of them. I think some folk are surprised at to what extent expectation and cognitive cues can lead to misperception, simply because they are unfamiliar with the rather wonderful ways we process that raw data.  Spend any amount of time on studies of perception and soon it becomes clear its all rather complex and that the text, or external world, is cunningly mediated by our brain/mind to produce our experience. A classic example of this was the subject of  Becky’s undergrad diss — optical illusions, something we are all familiar with.

So much was discussed — things like Claridge’s “fully dimensional approach” to schizotypy, absorption, fantasy proneness etc, etc, that we could have spent hours talking about it all. It was an even handed and fair approach, and the questions from the audience were remarkably astute (for example one chap questioning a (psychological) Experimenter Effect on one of the televised TV show clips.    Sadly TV experiments are rarely designed for actual methodological rigour, but it was a very good point I felt.

If you enjoyed the talk you will enjoy Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, and excellent (but to my mind flawed – see previous post) book which I made the centre of my question. Comments about lack of replication in parapsychology I did not get a chance to address — but basically, it comes down to money, and that was the point I was desperate to make.  Research resources since 1882 in parapsychology are according to Wolff I think equal to less than one years budget in the USA for psychological research: much of the replication work in parapsychology, or the analysis of experimental series, seems to fall on folks like Ersby, or er, me. This is a deep shame, because there is some really interesting stuff out there. I think Boundary Thinness got a passing mention, and if you want to learn more about that or the “experiencer” research that Prof French touched upon then I recommend ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. – it’s not cheap though! Another book I would certainly recommend in Etzel Cardena (ed.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience. You can keep up to date in what is going on in modern parapsychology by joining the Society for Psychical Research,  and if you want a good overview of modern parapsychoology I would recommend Broughton or Irwin & Watt. If you want a good sceptical book on some of the themes Dr French spoke on I would recommend Dr Michael Shermer’s book.  However I guess most people are not quite as fascinated by this stuff as me!

Anyhow, it was a really great evening, and I have started to become quite fond of the wicked sceptics – great people. Clearly I think you should see Chris French whenever you get the chance, just as despite my seemingly endless comments you should see Richard Wiseman, Ciaran O Keeffe, Susan Blackmore and I bloody well hope you are coming to see Matthew Smith on the 12th!

As this is a review I won’t touch on all the things i wanted to ask last night — I have already noted my question on anomalistic psychology as a discipline, and if you wonder what that was about I cover it in detail in my blog post before this one. There was one thing that came up in the discussion and questions that I wanted to talk about, but given it is a fairly technical critique it is perhaps better handles here. There was a constant discussion of supernatural and paranormal phenomena and claims — and I don’t think the two are really the same thing, though in common English usage they have become synonyms.

A supernatural claim is one such as the explanation offered by a dowser, who felt God enabled his “gift”. A supernatural event is not subject to Natural Laws; it is a one off arbitrary intervention in space/time by an external agent (I’m riffing off Hume On Miracles here). As such, this event would be a violation or suspension of natural law – and any consequences it had in the universe may be noted, and studied, but they themselves would be naturalistic. Theologians might concern themselves with supernatural entities — but I don’t think parapsychologists do.

A paranormal event may be inexplicable by our current understanding of the laws of science, but it is not a violation thereof. Parapsychologists who believe in ESP assume ESP works by natural laws – we just have not found the mechanism yet. Yet there is no contravention of a foundational axiom of modern science, Methodological Naturalism — ESP would not be arbitrary, one of a kind, and “magic”, but would obey laws every bit as understandable as those of physics, if we actually manage to work out what they are.  As such parapsychologists work within the scientific frameworks – hypothesis formation, data collection, falsification, etc. At several points I thought Prof French may have been conflating paranormal claims with supernatural claims, or implying that parapsychologists were looking for supernaturalistic answers outside of the scientific method. I am sure he did not intend this, but it is a troubling problem if the audience go home convinced that psi researchers are pretty much the same as magicians, theologians and some of the more theoretical mathematical models of multiverses etc. 😉

The other thing was in a couple of cases references were made to things i have come to regard as little better than placeholders — useful explanatory motifs that are still in the periphery of science. The ideomotor effect is something i failed to find much about in physiology text books – yet it is often invoked in sceptical discussions.  The excellent sceptic John Jackson of UKSkeptics has pointed me to a couple of decent looking papers on the science of the ideomotor effect I still have to review — but some of the comments on sleep paralysis left me uncertain. Is there really one core experience? I was not sure after reading Hufford’s classic study The Terror that Comes In The Night – something I recommend to every reader of my blog.  When we talk about sleep paralysis we have to bear in mind that the physiological mechanisms are still being explored, and that there are competing models of the mechanism. Furthermore, we also have to remember that hypnapompic/hynagogogic experiences, Night Terrors, Sleep Paralysis and Nightmares while possibly involving the same parts of the brain may not; there may in fact be more than one experience involved in the phenomenological descriptions casually labelled under “sleep paralysis”, and while I certainly don’t think it’s demons or incubi, the actual science of the experience is still very much frontier territory. I tend to worry when we put forward these placeholders as somehow adequate explanations, when they are descriptive (much like “poltergeist”), rather than strictly speaking diagnostic or fully understood physiological processes. Maybe I’m just too cautious.

I could write far far more on this fascinating and entertaining talk, but I had best go read up on the Coventry poltergeist which I will blog about tonight on my other blog, Polterwotsit, but a wonderful night with a highly intelligent charming speakers and good friends, and many thanks to Sally & co for putting it together, and D-Fly for hosting

cj x

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Skeptics in the Pub Cheltenham: Professor Chris French

  1. Jin-Shei says:

    Thanks for the review, sweetie. It is always a pleasure to have you in the midst of the wickedness. If you come earlier next time, I promise to protect you 🙂

  2. The ‘core experience’ thing is a toughie. From where I sit, it joins onto the bigger questions about ‘perennialism’ in spiritual and religious experience generally.

    I’m a big fan of Hufford, for example I think this is brilliant.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Yes, the whole perennialism debate, was it Wilber and Ferrara most recently, but of course its been rumbling on for years, fascinates me. Ill check out your link once i have finished my latest on Polterwotsit (my other blog, the one no one ever reads!)

      • was it Wilber and Ferrara most recently, but of course its been rumbling on for years, fascinates me.

        It’s Ferrer but yeah full marks. Personally I like the idea of ‘soft perennialism’ as a hypothesis rather than an established fact.

        Didn’t know you had another blog!

  3. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Ferrer, of course! My apologies! Well Becky (my girlfriend) and David Curtin both wrote essays on the Ferrer/Wilber controversy for their MSc in Parapsychology at Coventry – they were the only two taught students before it went distance learning: and I read their essays, and try to keep up with the literature on mysticism. I got interested reading Happold many, many years ago, and have tried to read what I can, but links always welcome. 🙂 My other blog is Polterwotsit, where I track UK poltergeist cases from the media, and try to find any patterns that emerge from the data. No one ver reads it though! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Nostradamus Future Predictions | Psychic Phenomena And Abilities

  5. Pingback: Million Dollar Psychic: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Smith « "And sometimes he's so nameless"

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