ASTOP: Psychic Detectives
Pseudoscience Fact Sheets. In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.
CLAIM: Psychics have the power to “see” things in the past, present, and future that ordinary people cannot, and as a consequence of this, the police regularly consult them for help in solving crimes—particularly crimes involving missing persons or homicides—when their own investigations stall.
FACT: The vast majority of police officials are highly skeptical of alleged psychics, and are very rarely responsible for inviting them to aid in their investigations. Often, the police treat psychics just as they treat other “kooks” who gravitate to major crimes—politely, but disinterestedly. The Los Angeles police department conducted an experiment to test the value of information obtained from psychics, and concluded that it was of absolutely no value (see Journal of Police Science and Administration, March 1979). In two highly publicized cases, numerous psychics made pronouncements about a series of murders in Atlanta, Georgia, and the kidnapping of General Dozier, yet absolutely nothing of value resulted. Indeed, most of the assertions made proved to be so grossly in error as to be laughable. (For example, none of the psychics believed Dozier to be alive, yet he was released unharmed.) A different impression is often gained from the news media, but that is invariably due to their allowing the psychic to keep his own score. That is, the psychic will make dozens of (often vague) statements and then after the case is settled will select the items that, by chance, had some truth to them and will proclaim them to have been accurate predictions. In one noteworthy instance in Atlanta, a famous psychic proclaimed to the press that she had given the name of the murderer to the police, when in fact she had given the police 42 names! And many of those were the same names that the police had shown her because they were already suspects; the person eventually charged was on the original police list shown to the psychic.
CLAIM: Psychic detectives have been responsible for solving numerous cases that had the local police totally baffled.
FACT: There is not a single documented instance of a crime being solved on the basis of information gained from a psychic, and there are numerous instances of police officials denying a psychic’s claim that numerous pieces of information were unknown until the psychic revealed them. (Note that there is a difference in procedure here and that it works to the psychic’s advantage: the police tend to keep secret certain important details of a crime, whereas the psychic seeks media attention and is likely to make public anything he might uncover that has not already been revealed.) Often the reports of crimes that are claimed to have been solved by a psychic come from the psychic personally or from an observer or reporter who did not independently investigate the facts behind the claims. As a consequence, the public receives an uncritical version presented as fact, and when others then try to set the record straight, the newspapers either ignore them or place watered-down retractions in obscure locations. One way the process works is that the psychic will find out as much as possible about the circumstances, terrain, etc., from one policeman, family member, or other source—either before or soon after arriving on the scene—and the psychic will then “re-package” that information to another policeman or family member, or to the media. This second party is often (understandably) amazed at how much the psychic is able to relate about the circumstances of the event, but of course the psychic is actually doing nothing beyond what any devious person could accomplish without the aid of alleged “visions” of the past and future (examples of this procedure are discussed by P. H. Hoebens, Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1981, p. 17-28). Some of the more famous psychic detectives have carried this procedure to an extreme; they come to the crime scene prior to their publicly announced arrival and, using disguises and/or subterfuge try to gather inside information for later use in their allegedly psychic reports. Psychic detective Peter Hurkos, for example, has been arrested and fined for impersonating a law enforcement official while trying to gather information about a crime he had not been requested to assist with.
CLAIM: Since the psychic sleuths’ powers are a gift with which to do good, no fee is charged; in fact, to charge might jeopardize the powers.
FACT: When not sleuthing, almost all psychic detectives earn a living by doing other allegedly psychic things, such as giving readings at private sessions, and these other activities are definitely not done gratis. Thus, the psychic sleuthing accomplishes several things: (1) it establishes the psychic in the public eye as someone who possesses extraordinary powers, (2) it imbues him with an air of respectability, and (3) it gives him free publicity that would be very expensive if purchased outright. (As an aside, one wonders why someone who does have the power to see the future, and who truly was concerned enough about the ethics of such a gift not to charge for its use, does not use that power to benefit mankind—as for example by revealing the impending occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc. Surely such use would not jeopardize the power.) It should be noted that even if psychic detectives do not charge money for their questionable services, it is not true to say that no cost is involved. Surely there is an additional emotional burden on the already distraught relatives of the missing or dead person. This is illustrated by the usual practice of psychics pronouncing a missing person to be dead. Psychic detectives shamelessly prey upon innocent victims in times of great emotional strain, and because of this fact alone they deserve scorn, not publicity.
CLAIM: By touching or holding an object owned by the missing or dead person, the psychic can get an impression or vision of the circumstances of the crime.
FACT: There can be no denying that much can be learned about an absent person by examining objects owned by him or her. If one of the objects were a shoe, for example, the size, style, age, condition, and pattern of wear on sole and heel could all be helpful in sketching out a rough picture of the person. In general, at least, men who wear boots, wingtips, loafers, and sandals tend to be different in predictable ways, and unusual wear patterns can often be associated with particular walks. Similarly, the type, style, condition, and expense of a woman’s jewelry (a favorite object for psychic crime solvers) can be very informative about her. This is to say, logic and training can allow someone to make a number of good guesses about the owner of various objects—a point that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made repeatedly—without the necessity of any alleged psychic powers.
CLAIM: All psychics are careful to assert at the outset that they are not always exactly right, and therefore no one should expect each of the impending announcements to prove accurate. The explanations for this problem are numerous. They often include (1) comments about how the psychic information sometimes comes as symbols and that the psychic sometimes errs when interpreting the symbols; (2) mention of the fact that in their “visions” time is confused and things yet to occur get misinterpreted as things that have already occurred; and, (3) comments about how the circumstances surrounding this event are particularly difficult for some reason that may include the time elapsed since the event, the presence of too many skeptics, etc.
FACT: One obvious function of these immediate disclaimers is to protect the psychic in case, by chance, absolutely nothing he or she says can later be interpreted as being even partially correct. Another function is to get the believers and the uncertain persons in the audience to begin (unconsciously perhaps) to pull for the poor, sincere psychic who is going to try to overcome overwhelming difficulties in order to help the dumb, short-sighted police. A Dallas, Texas, psychic claims that 20% of the time he is completely right in his predictions. Beyond the fact that this statistic has never been verified—that is, he is being allowed to grade his own papers—there are the problems of what counts as correct and what his error rate is. Regarding the first problem, psychic detectives often use vague terms like “I see nearby trees or shrubs or tall grass,” which cannot possibly be wrong given local terrain, or “look to the left of the barn,” which after the fact can be scored as correct by simply assuming the appropriate location for the viewer. If clues like these count toward the 20% number, it is difficult to understand why it is not a much higher value. Second, in order to accurately evaluate a psychic’s performance it is necessary to know the number of both his correct and his incorrect assertions. A medical test that accurately detected 99% of the people having a disease (the “hits”) would be of little practical value if it also falsely identified 95% of the disease-free people as having that disease (the “false alarms”). Were any psychic detective ever to allow a careful, scientific study of his powers, both hits and false alarms would have to be measured.
CLAIM: Whether right or wrong, information provided by self-proclaimed psychics can be very useful in police work.
FACT: Nothing could be further from the truth. Any crime which gathers much newspaper publicity results in many crank telephone calls pouring in to the police. Such calls actually hamper the investigations, since someone must check them out, and this takes time away from other necessary police work. A self-proclaimed psychic’s contributions are equally unwelcome. Consider the elementary fact that police are looking for hard, physical evidence linking suspects with crimes, evidence that will stand up in court. Typically, a “psychic detective” will say, I gave the name of the killer to the police,” and leave town, his publicity earned. But police generally have a pretty good idea who committed any given crime —they already know his name, that’s the problem! What they need is evidence! In other words, even if psychic detectives did exist and really could provide correct information by supernatural means, the information would be worthless to the police because it would not be backed by any evidence that could be taken into court. And self-proclaimed “psychics” in fact provide floods of nonsense, wild guesses, and unsubstantiated opinions—not valid information; they are thus many steps removed from being useful at any stage of police work.
FOR FURTHER READING
“Parapsychology and Criminal Investigation,” by F. Brink, Int. Criminal Police Review, January 1960, 134.
Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult, by Milbourne Christopher, Crowell, New York 1975.
“Gerard Croiset: Investigation of the Mozart of ‘Psychic Sleuths,’” by P.H. Hoebens, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1986-87, pp. 17-28.
“Croiset and Professor Tenhaeff: Discrepancies in Claims of Clairvoyance,” by P.H. Hoebens, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1981-82, pp. 32-39.
Journal of Police Science and Administration, March 1979.
“Police Science and Psychics,” by R.A. Marshall, Science 210, 1978, pp. 994-5.
“Slight of Tongue,” by R.A. Schwartz, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1978, pp. 47-55. Account of the cold-reading methods of self-proclaimed psychic sleuth Peter Hurkos.
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Dennis McFadden, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (firstname.lastname@example.org).