Chris French

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Chris French in 2011, often described as smug-looking
Chris French in 2015, often described as smug-sounding.
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Popping into your mind
There are very good arguments for taking [weird shit] seriously, because most people statistically believe in at least one paranormal concept. And a lot of people claim they've had direct experience with the paranormal. So there's something from a psychological point of view that needs to be explained there. And it can tell us a lot about how the mind works.
— Chris French[1]
But I could be wrong!
— Chris French[2]

Professor Christopher C. "Rent-a-Sceptic"[3] French (1956–) is British emeritus professor of psychology and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths, University of London. French recounts a conversion to skepticism after reading Parapsychology: Science or Magic? by James Alcock,[4][5] and a regret for his previous credulity and willingness to believe, which he may have imparted to his early students.[2] As way of penance, French has served as convenor of the Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub, co-editor of The Skeptic (2001–2011), and token sceptic on various broadcast media, including the BBC Uncanny podcast.

Chris’s perspective is unique as he debunks myths but also shows why understanding these beliefs is crucial for grasping human thinking and social norms. He reflects on the practical implications of paranormal beliefs in everyday life by questioning seemingly harmless beliefs, such as astrology or conspiracy theories, and pointing out their potential to lead to discriminatory practices or harmful decisions, like rejecting medical advice in favour of homoeopathic remedies. — Steve Higgins[6]

Following his retirement in October 2020,[7] French published a well-reviewed popular science introduction to anomalistic psychology, which is, to the annoyance of copyeditors on the more puritanical publications, titled: The Science of Weird Shit.[8]

Improper research at the APRU[edit]

It was made very clear to me that my interest in the weird stuff was tolerated, but not encouraged! It got to a point where I thought, well, that's the stuff that really interests me.
— Chris French[1]
I wish I had made the decision earlier.
— Chris French on the establishment of the APRU[2]

French was told, upon establishing the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2000, that his interest in anomalistic psychology would be tolerated as long as he also did “proper research.”[2]

APRU research, according to French, broadly followed two strands. The main strand focused on formulating non-paranormal explanations for apparently paranormal experiences and subjecting those explanations to experimental testing. While the lesser strand involved the direct testing of paranormal claims.[1]

Despite the intial doubts surrounding his establishment of the APRU, French recounts that the field of anomalistic psychology, with its focus on topics more suited to daytime TV discussion than serious research, was eventually made respectable by the pioneering efforts of the likes of Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman.[9]

Parapsychology as a science[edit]

Along with a few other critics of parapsychology, such as Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, the late James Randi, and others, I have invested a lot of time and effort over the years in directly testing many paranormal claims, to date without ever obtaining compelling positive evidence to support such claims. It would be hard to deny that at those times we are directly engaged in parapsychological investigations – and we are doing so scientifically.
— Chris French[10]

French, in what he acknowledges is very much a minority view amongst skeptics, now asserts that parapsychology is a true science not a pseudoscience. Such a view is in direct opposition to his earlier position:

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. — Chris French[11]

He puts the reversal of his position in part down to the personal and professional relationships he formes with parapsychologists such as Robert L. Morris and Caroline Watt, and to an empirical review of research published by Marie-Catherine Mousseau.

It is understandable to highlight examples of poor practice in parapsychology but this can give a very misleading, one-sided impression. Surely it is only fair to take account of good quality work within a discipline as well? — Chris French[10]

The results of Mousseau review, he states, offered little support for the claim that parapsychology is a pseudoscience: including showing no evidence of an emphasis on confirmation over refutation, an unchanging body of belief, excessive reliance on anecdotal evidence, an absence of self-correction, or any of the other factors commonly attribited to pseudoscience.

He does however confirm that he does not believe in any such paranormal phenomena as precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition, and that while new evidence could change his mind, he's not holding his breath.

The “Haunt” project[edit]

I wish it was a bit more spooky.
— Chris French[12]

French led an ambitious project to construct an artificial “haunted” room to test whether certain proposed environmental factors could create the anomalous sensations (dizziness, sensing a presence, unexplained smells, etc) often reported by susceptible individuals in so-called haunting experiences.[13][14] The environmental factors tested were:

  • fluctuations in the electromagnetic field suggested by the God helmet experiments of Michael Persinger, and
  • the presence of infrasound suggested by the research of Vic Tandy.

Participants spent 50 minutes being exposed to infrasound, complex EMFs, both or neither. They were also given psychological evaluations (including the Australian Sheep–Goat Scale) to assess their suggestibility.

Most people reported at least some slightly odd sensation, such as a presence or feeling dizzy, and some reported terror, which we hadn't expected. Terror is obviously quite an extreme reaction, and we only anticipated getting reports of mildly anomalous sensations in the context of this particular experiment. — Chris French[12]

Despite these apparently extreme reactions, French discovered that they happened regardless of whether the EMF and infrasound was on or not. He concluded, therefore, that there was nothing that couldn't be equally well explained by the power of suggestion.[15]

If you say to a bunch of people, ‘if you go in that room, you might have some weird experiences,’ the more suggestible ones do. But it's the power of suggestion and nothing else. — Chris French[15]

Persinger commended the "splendid experiment," but countered that the expected effects on brain activity are only apparent if the EMFs are in the right pattern and are neither too strong nor too weak.[12]

Bem replication study[edit]

Once we think we know in advance which effects are real and which are illusory, true scientific objectivity flies out of the window.
— Chris French[16]

Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem, in his controversial 2011 publication "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,"[17] which he claimed provided evidence for precognition, invited other researchers to replicate his study. French, along with Stuart J. Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh and Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire, took him up on that invitation.[16] The results of their three independent replications all came back negative.

The researchers had problems getting their negative replications published, with the high-impact journals (including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which published Bem's original paper and his invitation to replication) rejecting it without review stating that they don't do replications. The British Journal of Psychology at least sent it out for review, but then rejected it at the behest of reviewer 2; reviewer 2 being, of course, none other than Bem himself. The negative replications were finally published by open-access journal PLoS One.[18] Bem's response was that as the researchers were skeptics, they could have transmitted their skepticism and negative expectations.[19]

French and Bem later both served on the the consensus design panel for Zoltan Kekecs' Transparent Psi Project. This massive and rigorous multi-lab replication of Bem's study also returned a negative result, which French took as very strong evidence that the effect reported in the original study was not real.[20] He also bemoaned the lack of publicity this got compared to the media fanfare around the publication of that original study.

The "Big Sleep" survey[edit]

On Halloween 2017, French, along with Alice Gregory, Brian Sharpless, Daniel Denis and Rotem Perach, launched a large scale-survey on the BBC Focus website[21] to explore experience of sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome.Wikipedia[22] The survey was intended to understand people’s explanations for these unusual sleep phenomena as well as how they attempt to deal with them.[23] A small number of respondents theorised they could be “something supernatural” (3%) or that “electronic equipment” might be the cause (2%).[24]

Previous research has suggested that a substantial proportion of the population worldwide will experience EHS at least once in their lives. So although only a small percentage of our sample opted for unconventional explanations such as 'something supernatural' or the effects of 'electronic equipment', this phenomenon is probably explained in such terms by many millions of people around the world. — Chris French[25]

The results of what is the largest ever study of exploding head syndrome (6,686 responces) were published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

The science of weird shit[edit]

Sleep paralysis[edit]

Sleep paralysis is a kind of glitch in the normal sleep mechanisms. It can be terrifying.
— Chris French[15]

French concludes that sleep paralysis, which is a phenomenon studied as part of the "Big Sleep" survey where brain-body disconnection when falling asleep or awakening results in being conscious but unable to move for a short time, can explain some reports of such paranormal phenomenon as:

  • Ghosts – unsubstantiated returns of the deceased, their clothes, and even their personal possessions,[15] and,
  • Alien abduction – unapproved research by ETs who can break the light barrier but not design ethical biological studies.[26]

Although hallucinations are only reported in a minority of sleep paralysis cases, French points out that the relative commonality of the phenomena means that even this small percentage could result in a lot of reported paranormal experiences.[15]

Ideomotor effect[edit]

Whether the device is a Ouija board, a divining rod or a bomb detector, the ideomotor effect is capable of producing powerful illusions that can be exploited by the unscrupulous.
— Chris French[27]

French maintains that the ideomotor effect, which is a phenomenon well known to psychologists whereby suggestions, beliefs or expectations cause unconscious muscular movements, can explain such paranormal phenomenon as:[9][27]

  • Dowsing – waving sticks around to justify an educated guess
  • Ouija – a children's board game with the apparent power to contact the dead
  • Table-turning – a type of séance in which a small table succumbs to spritualist jerks
  • Facilitated communication – a pseudoscientific abuse of the disabled

French recounts debunking a paranormal investigator who believed ghosts lowered the ambient temperature of a room upon his request by showing that the effect came from a combination of the misuse of a hand-held digital thermometer and unconscious muscular movement redirecting where it was aimed.[3]

Non-paranormal misapplications of the effect noted by French include phony bomb-detectors and liver disease monitors.[27]

Applied skepticism[edit]

French’s universal mouse theory of ghosts[edit]

Sounds legit! It’s usually mice.
—Chris French[28]

Following multiple news reports of suspected hauntings being revelead by filming to be mice moving objects around in the night,[29][30] French formulated his universal mouse theory of ghosts.[31]

it is a wonderful illustration of a very important principle that should be applied to all claims of alleged hauntings: just because you cannot think of a normal explanation for baffling events does not mean there isn’t one. — Chris French, March 2, 2024.[32]

French points out that this explanation would have been laughed at if proposed by a skeptic, but it is just one example of the many obscure causes of physical effects (including water hammer in pipes and radiators, electrical faults, structural faults, seismic activity, and other exotic organic phenomena) which could be mistaken for a haunting.[32] Many claimed hauntings are, he concludes based upon sincere but erroneous interpretations of such phenomena.[33]

French's Laws[edit]

In his book, "The Science of Weird Shit,"[8] French lays out two laws:

  • French's First Law: "The more spectacular a claim of any kind of ghostly encounter, the more likely it is to be based on a deliberate hoax."
  • French's Second Law: "The higher the profile of the psychic claimant, the more likely it is that they knowingly use fraudulent techniques."

The British Roswell[edit]

I’ve heard the tape, and the lights are in complete synchrony with Orfordness Lighthouse nearby.
— Chris French on the Rendlesham Forest incident.[34]

French has, after visiting the scene, expressed skepticism over the Rendlesham Forest incident,Wikipedia often decribed as the British Roswell. His reasons include:[34]

  • local forester Vincent Thurkettle's identification of the supposed landing marks as rabbit diggings,
  • radioactivity levels measured by the witnesses not being considered especially high by experts, and
  • the pulsating of the craft recorded on tape matching the flash rate of the nearby Orfordness Lighthouse.Wikipedia

He is thus critical of interpretations of the incident as an extraterrestrial encounter.

Selected bibliography[edit]

French took a year's study leave in 2019 to write a popular science introduction to anomalistic psychology,[2] retired in 2020,[7] and finally published in 2024.

  • The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal by Chris French (2024) The MIT Press. ISBN 0262048361.

French has also co-authored two intro level text books on anomalistic psychology.

  • Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience by Christopher C. French and Anna Stone (2013) Red Globe Press ISBN 1403995710.
  • Anomalistic Psychology by Nicola J. Holt, Christine Simmonds-Moore, David Luke and Christopher C. French (2012) Red Globe Press. ISBN 0230301509.

And he co-edited a collection of the best articles from his time as editor of The Skeptic magazine.

  • Why Statues Weep: The Best of the "Skeptic" edited by Wendy M. Grossman and Chris French (2010) Routledge. ISBN 0953761126.

Over the course of his career he has published over 150 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Why do people believe in aliens and UFOs? We asked a psychologist his views on the paranormal by Iain Todd (March 27, 2024) BBC Sky at Night Magazine
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 An Improper Researcher by Wendy M. Grossman (December 20, 2019) Skeptical Inquirer
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chris French: Seeing what we want to believe by Chris French (Novenber 03, 2011) The British Psychological Society
  4. On not being wrong: Personal reflections from a lifetime of skepticism by Chris French (December 7, 2020) The Skeptic
  5. Parapsychology, Science or Magic: A Psychological Perspective by James E. Alcock (1981) Pergamon Press. ISBN 0080257739.
  6. The Science Of Weird Shit: Psychologist Chris French Asks 'Why Weird Stuff Matters' In His New Paranormal Book by Steve Higgins (April 11, 2024) Higgypop
  7. 7.0 7.1 Spooky times: Goldsmiths’ real-life ghostbuster by Sarah Cox (October 28, 2020) Goldsmiths, University of London
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal by Chris French (2024) The MIT Press. ISBN 0262048361.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Interview with Dr. Chris French All About Psychology
  10. 10.0 10.1 Why I now believe parapsychology is a science not a pseudoscience by Chris French (September 22, 2021) The Skeptic
  11. On not being wrong: Personal reflections from a lifetime of skepticism by Chris French (December 7, 2020) The Skeptic
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Ghost Lusters: If You Want to See a Specter Badly Enough, Will You? by Adam Marcus (October 27, 2008) Scientific American
  13. The “Haunt” project: An attempt to build a “haunted” room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound by Chris French et al (May 2009) Goldsmith's Research Online
  14. “Project Haunt”: An Attempt to Build a “Haunted” Room by Nicola J. Holt (April 2006) Paranormal Review, the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 The science behind seeing ghosts by Samuel Spencer (August 15, 2023) BBC Three
  16. 16.0 16.1 Precognition studies and the curse of the failed replications by Chris French (March 15, 2013) Guardian
  17. Bem, D. (2011) Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, 407-425.
  18. Ritchie SJ, Wiseman R, French CC (2012). Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem's 'Retroactive Facilitation of Recall' Effect. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33423. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033423
  19. Bem's response to Ritchie, Wiseman, and French by Daryl Bem, (March 15, 2012) PLoS One.
  20. The Transparent Psi Project: the results are in, so where are all the headlines? by Chris French (March 16, 2023) The Skeptic
  21. What is exploding head syndrome? (October 30, 2017) BBC Focus
  22. What is exploding head syndrome? by Christopher French, Alice M Gregory and Dan Denis (October 31, 2017) The Guardian
  23. Sleep survey to explore exploding heads and paralysis by Pete Wilton (October 31, 2017) Goldsmiths, University of London
  24. Exploding Head Syndrome: Largest ever study of mysterious condition (July 14, 2020) BBC Focus
  25. ‘Exploding Head’ study reveals hopes and fears of sufferers by Sarah Cox (July 14, 2020) Goldsmiths, University of London
  26. A two-stage psychological model that explains alien abduction stories by Chris French (March 19, 2024) Big Think
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 The unseen force that drives Ouija boards and fake bomb detectors by Chris French (April 27, 2013) Guardian
  28. Sounds legit! It’s usually mice. by Chris French (March 9, 2024) Twitter
  29. Mouse filmed moving items in man's shed in Bristol (March 19, 2019) BBC News
  30. Mouse filmed tidying up man's shed every night (January 7, 2024) BBC News
  31. More evidence for French’s Universal Mouse Theory of Ghosts! by Chris French (January 7, 2024) Twitter
  32. 32.0 32.1 The case of the Welsh Tidy Mouse: incredibly unlikely explanations are sometimes correct by Chris French (March 15, 2024) The Skeptic
  33. Think you’ve seen a ghost? A third of people who believe in them claim their belief is based on personal experience. by Chris Smith and Sarah Cox (October 26, 2015) Goldsmiths, University of London
  34. 34.0 34.1 4 mysterious UFO sightings that are still unexplained by Sue Nelson (October 30, 2017) BBC Focus