Monday, 19 January 2009

Eight Years of Weird Science at Goldsmiths (Revised)

Chris French, CFI London Weird Science Conway Hall 17th January 2009 12am-1pm


The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) was set up by Professor Chris French in 2000 in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths (for full details, visit Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those that are often labeled “paranormal”. Over the last eight years, members of the APRU have investigated a wide range of weird and wonderful topics, including alien contact experiences, sleep paralysis, haunted houses, dowsing, and telepathy. Many paranormal claims have been scientifically tested under properly controlled conditions along the way. This overview will present the results of such investigations - and also reveal why Uri Geller cannot stand Richard Wiseman!

About Chris French

Chris French is a Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths. He has published over 100 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics within psychology. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He is the editor of The Skeptic magazine (UK version).


Goldsmith's Anomolistic Psychology Research Unit
Wikipedia Entry
The Skeptic Magazine (Editor)



Chris starts with a test of dowsers he made for Richard Dawkin's Enemies of Reason TV show.


When dowsers are tested with a double blind test they do not do better than chance. Still they believe they have such powers! The real explanation is due to the ideomotor effect.

Anomalistic Psychology

Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labelled "paranormal". It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.

The reason to study this is the huge amount and range of beliefs in paranormal phenomena, such as that in the USA 1 in 4 believe in ghosts, 1 in 2 believe in the devil. Still in the 21st century many people believe that paranormal phenomena are real.

Either these experiences are real or they can tell us much about human psychology. So either way these are worth studying


The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit was founded in 2000 by Chris French to formally study these experiences and claimed phenomena.


They have investigated transliminals, where people are unaware of cues that give them answers better than chance and instead think they are psychic.

Eye Witness testimony

Top down expectations influence what you see and what is correct, regardless of what is there. Memory conformity tests how memories are influenced by others memories - how one eyewitness's testimony directly influences the testimony of another eye witness. False memory enables people to remember events that never occurred at all, and those who are more "psychic" are more susceptible to this effect. People can be fooled into remembering news footage that does not exist.

Haunted Houses

To test these, Chris built an artificial haunted room. 79 people exposed to unusual EMFs, infrasound, both or neither. Haunted scores related to temporal lobes scale (TLS) , which is indicative of suggestibility.

Conspiracy Thinking

Chris's research with Dr Patrick Leman, indicates that they can predict susceptibility to conspiracy theories based on three psychological factors - low trust, alienation, false assumptions based on partial evidence. They tested this with an invented conspiracy - over groups of student volunteers - that the government is using mobile phone technology to track where everyone is. The demonstration was a success as was shown on the show "Conspiracy: Who Really Runs the World?"

  • It is a "hook" for teaching critical thinking.
  • Assessing different types of evidence
  • Pitfalls of human cognition
  • This encourages true scepticism
  • It is now an option on the A level Syllabus


Look out for the "The baby mind reader" and "The dream detective" TV shows that Chris was involved with. Chris is also the token psychic on "Haunted Homes" which was not renewed for a third series since nothing was faked and nothing really found! Once an "ectoplasmic snot" turned out to be an automatic air freshener!

Backward Satanic Messages

He presented his great finale about Backwards Satanic Messages, using Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven as a classic example of top-down processing. Once you know the message you can easily recognize it. "tool-shed that made us suffer". Tool-shed? Hilarious! One has to wonder about the devil seeking people who listened and discovered these....

High Spirits

This was number 59 in Britain's funniest TV moments. Chris French meets Shirley Ghostman.


This was different to Chris's standard talk which he presented in the inauguration of CFI London, (which, BTW, has now been renamed CFI UK) and he has presented many ideas worth examining further. However . I hope he continues to get on and do tests on TV shows, this both exposes the general population to alternative explanations to the popular paranormal ones and exposes them to scientific thinking. He is providing a great service to scepticism in the UK.