NLI. What is a typical day like for you at Goldsmiths, University of London? Tell us something about your current projects, the institutional environment, the syllabus and examinations, the students, etc.
CF. A typical day for me at Goldsmiths is, I suspect, very much like the day of any other colleague in a Psychology Department anywhere in the world. The job consists of those aspects that most academics enjoy (typically research and, for some, teaching and public engagement) and those that are somewhat less enjoyable (typically administrative tasks, marking, and so on). As it happens, I am just starting a year’s study leave so I have some respite from the more onerous aspects of the job. My main focus over the coming year will be the writing of a popular science book on anomalistic psychology but I will also be keeping my research ticking over. In particular, in association with colleagues in the UK and USA, I will be working on publishing the results of a large-scale survey of experiences of sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome (yes, the latter really does exist!).
Goldsmiths is anything but conservative in its approach. Even so, I did feel that for a long time my interest in anomalistic psychology was tolerated rather than encouraged. I was allowed to indulge that interest as long as I also published research in more ‘respectable’ areas of psychology. I am pleased to say that such attitudes no longer hold sway. I have been at Goldsmiths since 1985. Initially, I taught a couple of lectures presenting a sceptical perspective on parapsychology as part of a larger module on theoretical issues. A decade later, I realised I knew enough to present a whole module (20 hours of lectures, plus tutorials, coursework, and an exam) as part of our BSc (Hons) Psychology programme--and the module proved very popular with the students, both sceptics and believers. In recent years, the syllabus has been very built around the textbook that I co-authored with Anna Stone in 2014 (Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience). The book and the module take the novel approach of considering what insights each of the sub-disciplines within psychology (e.g., cognitive, biological, developmental, social, and so on) can provide in attempting to understand various topics of interest.
NLI. You started out as a believer, and moved in a skeptical direction later in life. Did you have an early experience you could not explain? If so, was it positive or negative (my own two experiences were negative). Do you retain any connection with the world of the supernatural (are you religious?).
CF. I cannot claim that it was any particular inexplicable early experience that got me interested in the paranormal, I’ve just always been fascinated by weird stuff. As a kid, I was petrified of ghosts, monsters and aliens – yet still felt drawn to read about them and watch scary stuff on TV. I have had a couple of sleep paralysis experiences that, if I were a believer, I might have interpreted in supernatural terms. But I’m not and I didn’t. I’m also now an atheist although I did believe in God up until teenage years.
NLI. I gather you work with skeptical groups. Tell us more about how you view the pros and cons of such associations; how useful are they in dispelling popular misconceptions effectively; can they lapse into harshly prescriptive language? With particular reference to CSICOP/CSI, I worry about a tendency toward mission creep, with undue focus on Gwyneth Paltrow at the expense of more critical issues. Where do you think that skeptical groups should focus their efforts in future?
CF. I am always happy to work with sceptical groups whether it be locally, nationally, or internationally. At the local level, I run Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub, organising monthly talks on a range of topics. At the national level, I am a Patron of Humanists UK and I am on the Advisory Board of the Good Thinking Society. I was also involved in the 10:23 campaign to raise awareness of the pseudoscientific nature of homeopathy. At the international level, I co-organised the 15th European Skeptics Congress and I am a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
I personally feel that such groups are essential in dispelling popular misconceptions but I do also recognise that the ‘sceptical movement’ can vary considerably from one country to another. In particular, I think the approach in the US can sometimes be a bit more aggressive than the British approach and may sometimes “lapse into harshly prescriptive language”, as you put it. I think this reflects long-standing cultural differences.
I also think it is perfectly legitimate for sceptics to criticise the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, notwithstanding the fact that there are indeed more important issues to be addressed. Most sceptics feel that there is an important strand of consumer protection in their activities and object to the public being conned by pseudoscience.
Having said that, there is no doubt that sceptical groups now consider a much wider range of topics than they did forty years ago. Back in the 1970s, the focus was almost solely on paranormal issues. These days, sceptical conferences and publications feature topics such as religion, politics, conspiracy theories, and various controversies in science. The only common factor appears to be the attempt to apply critical thinking to these areas.
NLI. My father Brian Inglis (1916-1993) was a militant advocate for the paranormal, and dedicated the last 20 years of his life to attempting to persuade the world of the reality of the psi force. He set up KIB with Arthur Koestler and Instone Bloomfield, and it was their intention for their legacy to outlive them. Experimental and methodological disciplines meant little to my father; he would quote successful research results that went his way, but even when they did not, what he wrote about was real, and that was that. What do the names in KIB suggest to you? You can be candid.
CF. I am more familiar the KIB Society under the name of the Koestler Foundation and, in particular, the work of the Koestler Chair in Parapsychology in Edinburgh. I was very influenced by the writings of Arthur Koestler in my younger days as well as some of the work of your father, Brian Inglis. I suspect that neither would have had much time for my current views and approach and of course that feeling would be mutual!
However, I had a huge amount of respect (and affection) for the late Prof Bob Morris, the first holder of the Koestler Chair. Although Bob was a believer in psi, he treated informed sceptics with respect and was very well informed regarding their arguments and evidence. He welcomed sceptics into his lab and encouraged them to point out any potential problems they saw in his experimental set-up so that they could be rectified. This enlightened approach had a big influence on me. I am pleased to say that the current holder, my good friend Caroline Watt, has adopted the same approach.
NLI. My father considered Martin Gardner "the ablest" skeptic of his day (this respect went unreciprocated). Which skeptic or skeptics do you rate most highly? (switch order with earlier question on groups).
CF. Like your Dad, I was a big fan of Martin Gardner although I never actually met him. I wrote his obituary for the Guardian and a tribute to him in the Skeptical Inquirer. That does not mean I agreed with every single thing he said or wrote and the same goes for many other sceptics for whom, on balance, I have great respect. It is often the case that, even if I agree with what certain sceptics say, I may not like the way that they say it!
I am afraid that the list of sceptics that I rate highly is quite a long one (and I am sure to unintentionally miss some names off that I really should have included) but the list would have to include (in alphabetical order): James Alcock, Barry Beyerstein, Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, Edzard Ernst, Deborah Hyde, Ray Hyman, Philip Klass, Stephen Law, Steve Lewandowsky, Elizabeth Loftus, Mike Marshall, Joe Nickell, Massimo Polidoro, James Randi, Ben Radford, Carl Sagan, Eugenie Scott, Simon Singh, Carol Tavris, Stuart Vyse, and Richard Wiseman. Well, you did ask!
NLI. And we're delighted to see that list! Moving on, I see that you have served as a skeptic on panel discussions of UFOs. Having recently attended some MUFON meetings, I have found that the ranks of UFOlogists include some people who are interested in the possibility that aviation technology might be on the cusp of dramatic change (i.e., they don't care so much about how and whether little green men can traverse the vast distances of space). Some of these UFO people believe that this cutting-edge technology has been kept from us, although its existence cannot be concealed indefinitely (and we all know how difficult it is to keep a secret). Especially if such technology is home-grown and does not originate from ET civilizations, it seems to me that the eventual disclosure of such technology is not inherently implausible. Your thoughts?
CF. Well, I am totally unconvinced by the claim that such technology already exists as a result of back-engineering UFO hardware but I just do not feel qualified to comment one way or the other on whether a big breakthrough in aviation technology is imminent. One point I would make is that, through recent decades, the alien technology described by abductees often seems to be just a few years ahead of our own (i.e., our conception of the future as portrayed in then-current science fiction movies). Let’s face it, the aliens who abducted Betty and Barney Hill would have thought digital watches were really cool even though they already had the technology to travel across the galaxy! This strongly suggests that such accounts are a product of belief systems current at the time and do not reflect objective reality.
NLI. What raises your spirits in your day-to-day research? What things do you value most?
CF. Although I was very influenced by Karl Popper’s view that real science is all about trying to falsify one’s hypotheses, I am like every other scientist that ever lived in being delighted when the results from a study appear to support, not contradict, my hypothesis! I also get a big kick from finishing a piece of work and also from getting papers accepted for publication (and that very rare – in my field – experience of a successful grant application).