Chris French Reverses Stance, Selflessly Declares Parapsychology Actual Science

by Sebastian Penraeth

In a surprising turn of events, Professor Chris French, a prominent figure within the skeptical community—and longtime slinger of the pseudoscience card—publicly revised his stance on parapsychology, declaring it a legitimate science. This marks a significant departure from the traditionally dismissive view held by most skeptics. Originally explored in a chapter of Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, French subsequently published an article or two in The Skeptic magazine about his shift in viewpoint.

He rightly acknowledges the complexity of the demarcation problem—the challenge of distinguishing science from pseudoscience—and suggests that rather than strict criteria, a set of benchmarks indicative of good science can be more appropriately applied. These benchmarks include falsifiability, reproducibility, and a connection to the broader scientific community, among others.

“The best approach appears to be one that does not attempt to apply a definitive list of strict criteria but instead accepts that there are certain ‘benchmarks’ that characterise what we think of as good science.”

French’s reassessment was significantly influenced by a paper by Marie-Catherine Mousseau, which empirically evaluated parapsychology against these benchmarks, finding little support for its classification as pseudoscience.

Mousseau’s analysis is rooted in a comparative study of mainstream and “fringe” scientific journals, alongside observations from the annual meeting of the Parapsychological Association. Her findings reveal that unlike mainstream journals, which tend to emphasize positive findings, fringe journals demonstrated a commendable willingness to publish studies with negative outcomes. This practice is crucial for the scientific method, as it provides a more complete and honest picture of research efforts and outcomes. Almost half of the articles in fringe journals reported disconfirmation of hypotheses, a stark contrast to the mainstream journals in Mousseau’s sample, where ZERO reports of negative results were found.

Fringe journals were noted for including a significant number of articles that reflect on the progress of research, discuss problems encountered, and tackle epistemological issues. This type of content, which was completely absent from the mainstream sample, indicates a higher level of self-scrutiny and philosophical engagement within the parapsychology community. Such questioning and confrontation are essential for the advancement of knowledge and the evolution of scientific disciplines.

Mousseau found that fringe journals were more likely to cite works from a variety of disciplines, indicating a broader interdisciplinary approach to research. This contrasts with mainstream journals, where citations were overwhelmingly from within the same field. The interdisciplinary nature of fringe research suggests a more holistic approach to inquiry, potentially fostering innovations that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Furthermore, analysis showed that fringe journals did not shy away from including references to other authors and engaging with alternative theories. This openness to critical comments and evaluation of theories in relation to alternatives is a hallmark of robust scientific discourse. It contrasts with a more insular approach sometimes observed in mainstream science, where challenging the prevailing paradigm can be met with resistance.

Finally, fringe journals were characterized by an extreme rigor in their experimental approaches, aiming to address any possible criticisms. This is particularly important in fields dealing with phenomena that are elusive or not widely accepted. The meticulous nature of this research underscores a commitment to scientific integrity and the pursuit of truth, regardless of the subject matter’s controversial status.

French states that “on the basis of this analysis, I do not think it would be fair to label parapsychology as a pseudoscience” and he is right to be swayed by Mousseau’s argument, to be sure. However, it’s intriguing to note an underlying implication in his conclusion: the legitimacy of parapsychology is partly derived from his own participation in the field. This raises questions about the role of personal experience in shaping our views on what constitutes science.

While French’s engagement with parapsychology undoubtedly lends him a unique perspective, it also highlights a broader point: the demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not merely an objective line but is influenced by the community’s acceptance and the researchers’ engagement within the field.

Interestingly, the reception of French’s article within the skeptical community has been notably muted. Despite the potential implications of such a shift in perspective, discussions on major skeptic forums and online platforms are markedly absent. His article received minimal engagement on social media, with a mere 8 likes on The Skeptic‘s Facebook page, though with only 3k followers that’s standard for their posts.

In a Skeptical Inquirer interview, French elaborated on his position, stating, “There are many reasons weird stuff should be given more serious consideration than it usually receives. First, although I personally believe that genuinely paranormal phenomena do not exist, I may be wrong. For me, an important part of proper skepticism is to always be open to the possibility that one may be wrong.” This underscores French’s commitment to a genuine skepticism that is open to revision in the face of new evidence.

In light of this big step, I happily declare Chris French no longer a pseudoskeptic. His openness to reconsidering the scientific status of parapsychology, while emphasizing the lack of conclusive evidence for its claims, suggests a nuanced approach that values empirical inquiry over dogmatic dismissal. French’s willingness to engage with parapsychology on scientific grounds, even if partly motivated by personal involvement, offers a valuable lesson in maintaining an open yet critical stance towards the unexplained. His efforts to promote this new view to his fellow skeptics are laudable. We can only hope that more skeptics heed his call.