From Tiny Acorns…
Christopher C. French
I was delighted to be invited to contribute to this fortieth anniversary issue of Skeptical Inquirer. The magazine first came to my attention when I read James Alcock’s wonderful book, Parapsychology: Science or Magic? (Oxford/Pergamon Press, 1981) back in the early 1980s. I confess that, prior to reading Alcock’s book, I believed in quite a number of paranormal claims. Indeed, I can even remember presenting an entirely pro-paranormal session on parapsychology to a class of adults at a local community college as part of an introductory psychology course. In my defense, back then skeptical critiques of parapsychology were even rarer than they are now, and all the books I used in preparing the lecture were uncritically pro-paranormal—but I still cringe inside to recall that session.
Apart from opening my eyes to the fact that there were skeptical books out there (if you knew where to look for them), Alcock’s book also contained numerous references to a publication called the Skeptical Inquirer, which I had never heard of up until that point. I cannot remember how I came to learn that Mike Hutchinson was the U.K. distributor for the magazine, but somehow I did and I took out a subscription. I used to eagerly await delivery of the magazine and immediately read every issue I received from cover to cover. It felt as if a whole new world was opening up for me. I also purchased and read many classic skeptical books by the likes of Martin Gardner, James Randi, and Philip Klass. I bought and read in its entirety the mammoth volume A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology (Paul Kurtz, Prometheus Books, 1985).
In 1985, I got a job as a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Up until this time, my interest in skepticism was very much a hobby, something that I pursued in my own time purely for my own enjoyment. But I decided that I knew enough about the area to give a two-hour lecture on parapsychology as part of a “Theoretical Issues” module that I taught in. This time, my presentation was much more skeptical. My interest in all things skeptical, but particularly the psychology of paranormal belief and ostensibly paranormal experiences, continued to grow, and after a few more years I was even publishing the odd paper in this area. (I am sure you all read my first empirical report in the Australian Journal of Psychology.)
In 1995, I decided I knew enough to present an entire module on “Psychology, Parapsychology, and Pseudoscience” as an optional final year module as part of Goldsmiths’ BSc program in psychology. It proved to be a popular option with the students, and I loved teaching it. The range of topics I could cover was very wide, from entertaining subjects such as the techniques used by psychic con artists to the most profound questions facing humanity such as the possibility of life after death. The module also provided a fantastic training in critical thinking, helping the students to understand why some forms of evidence, such as properly controlled scientific studies, are so much more credible than others, such as anecdotes and personal experience.
Over the next few years, more and more of my research was in the area of anomalistic psychology, but I certainly felt that my interest in the “weird stuff” was only tolerated as long as I also published in what were perceived to be more “academically respectable” areas of psychology. I obliged for a while, but I was becoming increasingly aware that it was anomalistic psychology that really fascinated me. In 2000, I set up the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths (APRU; http://www.gold.ac.uk/apru/) to provide a focus for research activity in this area. I made a conscious decision to focus all of my research efforts in the area of anomalistic psychology.
One of the APRU’s aims was to raise the profile and academic respectability of anomalistic psychology, and I like to think we have had some success in achieving this. We generally publish our research findings in high-quality peer-reviewed journals and edited academic volumes. However, we are also keenly aware of the value of public engagement for universities, and therefore we take every opportunity to provide an informed skeptical perspective on a wide range of paranormal topics via the media and public events. Last year, for example, Goldsmiths hosted the European Skeptics Congress. The APRU also organizes an Invited Speaker Series and the Greenwich branch of Skeptics in the Pub, both of which are open to members of the general public and regularly draw in large attendances. For a decade, the APRU edited The Skeptic, the U.K.’s longest-running magazine devoted to providing a skeptical perspective on the paranormal.
The skeptic scene is currently thriving in the United Kingdom at all levels. Within academia, anomalistic psychology is increasingly taught at universities as an optional course, and the number of academic publications in this area increases year to year. At the grassroots level, there are around fifty branches of Skeptics in the Pub up and down the country and numerous conferences such as those organized by Centre for Inquiry–UK and the wonderful annual QED conference co-organized by Merseyside Skeptics and Greater Manchester Skeptics. The APRU has certainly played a role in achieving this healthy state of affairs—and it is fair to say that the APRU would probably never have existed if I had not read James Alcock’s book all those years ago and been inspired to take out a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer.