On not being wrong: Personal reflections from a lifetime of skepticism


Chris French
Chris Frenchhttps://www.gold.ac.uk/apru/
Chris French is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He writes for the Guardian and The Skeptic magazine and is a former Editor of the latter. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.

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As I took our labrador, Ted, for a walk this morning, I was listening to James O’Brien’s How Not to be Wrong on Audible and vaguely wondering what to write about in my next piece for The Skeptic. As many of you will already know, James O’Brien hosts a phone-in programme on radio station LBC where he often delights in publicly displaying the faulty reasoning of some of his callers – especially those with racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views. He has a knack of allowing them to reveal the internal contradictions and unacceptable consequences of their opinions by asking them a series of perfectly reasonable questions.

As his views on most topics coincide with my own (apart from his religious beliefs), I cannot deny that I enjoy listening to these verbal demolition jobs. If you want to hear a collection of some of James’ greatest hits (and I’m using the word “hits” in the sense a gangster would use it), you should check out James’ previous book, the modestly titled How to be Right. In his latest book, How Not to be Wrong, he is doing something completely different. He is looking back over his career to examine occasions where he has personally changed his mind on various issues and his reasons for doing so. I have nothing but respect for anyone who is willing to admit that they were wrong on an issue having previously publicly stated the opposite view. Also, thank you, James, for the inspiration for this piece.

I genuinely believe that an important part of proper scepticism is to always be open to the possibility that you might be mistaken in your beliefs. You may hold the views that you do on a particular topic because the currently available evidence, as you interpret it, seems to support that view but you must always be open to the possibility that new evidence may be produced in the future that contradicts your current position. If that happens you should be prepared to revise your opinion accordingly.

Of course, in practice that is not always easy. It is perfectly reasonable to initially attempt to defend one’s original position by looking for weaknesses in the evidence that appears to contradict it or in the arguments being used to refute it. It would always be unwise, for example, to reject one’s previously held belief on the basis of a single published scientific study. Science, by its very nature, is always provisional in its claims upon truth – but if numerous studies by independent investigators produce robust and replicable evidence that contradicts one’s belief, the right thing to do is to accept that you were wrong and move on. Of course, the opposite holds true as well. If numerous well-controlled attempts to replicate an effect that you thought was real fail to produce evidence in support of that effect, you should accept that it probably was not a real effect in the first place.

An open bible

As I have described elsewhere, as a young man I used to believe in quite a wide range of paranormal phenomena. In my defence, the coverage of paranormal topics in the media back in those days was even less critical than it is today. It was not until I read James Alcock’s book Parapsychology: Science or Magic? in the early 1980s that I really appreciated that there were plausible non-paranormal accounts for such claims. Rarely has a single book, with the possible exceptions of the Bible, the Quran, and The God Delusion, had such a profound impact on the course of someone’s life. This one book opened the door for me to the wonderful world of scepticism. It was an exciting time. I got hold of and read book after book by well informed sceptics on all things paranormal, as well as subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer. However, some of the views I formed as a result of all that reading I no longer hold.

This is how I summarised those now-rejected views elsewhere (French, 2018, pp. 379-380):

With regard to believers in the paranormal, I viewed them as irrational (and probably less intelligent) compared to skeptics. I assumed that all forms of paranormal belief were dangerous and served no positive psychological functions. I viewed most psychic claimants as either being deliberate frauds, out to make as much profit as they could by exploiting the vulnerable, or perhaps as suffering from some sort of serious psychopathology. I was very confident that there existed no good evidence in support of paranormal claims and that most parapsychologists were incompetent when it came to experimental design and data analysis. Finally, […] I was convinced that parapsychology was nothing more and nothing less than a pseudoscience.

Note that I am not saying that the books I read at that time explicitly put forward such extreme views but that certainly was my interpretation of some of them. A full discussion of my reasons for rejecting such views is beyond the scope of this short article but, in general, it was because I actually looked at the available evidence (see, e.g., Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience by myself and Anna Stone).

I intend to return to the topic of being wrong in future articles, including my reasons for holding what I think is very much a minority view amongst sceptics – that is, that parapsychology is a true science not a pseudoscience. Watch this space.

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