It’s now just days until MSSX, our tenth anniversary special! And what better way to prepare for the weekend’s events than to hear from our very first ever speaker at the Merseyside Skeptics Society – Professor Chris French.
What can we expect from your talk at MSSX?
You can expect to be entertained and educated as I present pearls of deep and profound wisdom in an engaging and accessible manner. Actually, I’ll be presenting a quite interesting talk on reincarnation claims amongst the Druse in Lebanon (no, really, it is quite interesting).
How long have you considered yourself a skeptic?
I discovered the joys of scepticism in the early 1980s. Up until then, I believed quite a lot of paranormal stuff but reading James Alcock’s “Parapsychology: Science or Magic?” really had a big impact on me. It was the first book I’d read that offered plausible non-paranormal explanations for a wide range of ostensibly paranormal phenomena. I started to subscribe to “Skeptical Inquirer” and the UK’s own “Skeptic” magazine (which I later edited for a decade) and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s probably pretty rare for the reading of a single book to have such an impact on someone’s life (with the possible exception of the Bible?).
Who is your skeptical hero, and why?
I can look back now and see that lots of people have influenced my thinking about the paranormal (including Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman, the late Bob Morris, and Caroline Watt). In the early days, the writings of Martin Gardner, James Randi, and Ray Hyman also taught me a lot – and it felt like a real privilege to subsequently get to know Randi and Ray well enough to think of them as personal friends. But I guess they’re all, in their different ways, role models rather than heroes. I reckon it’s really heroic to have to stand up for science in the face of adversity so I’d include all of the winners of the John Maddox Prize – but especially Elizabeth Loftus and Britt Hermes (both of whom I nominated). Oh, and that Simon Singh chap (despite him implying that that I’m almost a hundred years old!).
Is there anyone you think skeptics should know about, but might not?
Professor Richard Wiseman.
Is there a form of pseudoscience that annoys you the most, and why?
All of those pseudosciences that cause real harm such as complementary and alternative medicine – and perhaps even more so, climate change denial that could ultimately cause untold damage to future generations.
What is the most important or interesting lesson you’ve learnt as a skeptic?
The most important lesson is to always be open to the possibility that you may be wrong. Science is never about certainty.
As MSSX is the 10th anniversary of the MSS, and lots of other skeptical groups started in the UK around the same time, how do you feel skepticism has changed in the last 10 years?
The remit of scepticism has broadened beyond my own specialist area (the paranormal) to include many other topics such as politics, religion, and controversies in science – all of which is a good thing. But maybe even more importantly, the general context has changed. As all sceptics know (especially old ones like me, Simon!), fake news is not a new phenomenon – but thanks to Trump and Brexit, it has never been so prominent in the mainstream media as it is today.
And to everyone who has their MSSX ticket: we’ll see you at Dr Duncan’s in Liverpool on Friday night for pre-event drinks, or we’ll see you at the Liner Hotel on Saturday morning!