Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychic Detectives

The Skeptics

There are several famous skeptics and psychic investigators (looking for fraud), such as the Amazing Randi, as well as watchdog groups around the country, who criticize and debunk psychics and channelers, begging intelligent people to stop wasting their time on such nonsense.  Their challenges and negative evaluations tend to take the following forms: 

Psychics are merely making good guesses that anyone could make, given the information in the newspapers or police reports.  About a case in which a psychic found a missing man trapped in his truck in a quarry, Dr. Gary Posner of the Tampa Bay Skeptics said that, given a day or two of studying newspapers, maps and the missing man's habits, he could have come up with the same clues.  In retrospect, it's easy to see how they came to the conclusions they did, but they did not use psychic means.

Dr. Gary Posner (Courtesy WTVT-TV, Tampa)
However, the fact is that none of these skeptics offered their educated opinions, and the police, who were at a dead end, seemed unable to follow the same clues and arrive at the same conclusions as the psychics.  It's easy to look at crime investigations in retrospect and indicate how one might have proceeded (police get this all the time in public evaluations of high-profile crimes), but that kind of thinking fails to appreciate how complex crime scene reconstruction really is.  It's an empty complaint, and it fails to appreciate the fact that the police do act on psychic impressions in ways they would not act on mere suggestion by a laypersonsometimes to the point of gathering significant information.

Psychics never predict the future in a way that might stop a crime or tragic event from happening.  However, Dutch psychic Peter Hurkos made several predictions and urged people to intervene in ways that did make a difference.  As mentioned above, a psychic in Arizona seems to have stopped a robbery by alerting the store the day before. Yet the skeptics tend to dismiss those events as coincidence or good guesses.

Peter Hurkos (Corbis)
Psychics only give vague information, like "old house," "bridge," or "water," and after a crime is solved, it's easy for the investigators to interpret crime scenes in ways that correlate with the psychic impressions, but skeptics claim the police must stretch the facts to validate their use of the psychics.  When Mary Cowset disappeared from Missouri in the company of her boyfriend, Stanley Holiday, her family feared the worst.  As explored in the A&E video, "Psychic Sleuths," Holiday was arrested in New Jersey and he called his sister and told her he'd killed Cowset, stabbing her 10 times and dumping her in the weeds in Illinois.  Police needed a body, but he wouldn't reveal the information, so they turned to a psychic, Greta Alexander.  She said that a body had been dumped where there was a dog barking.  The letter "s" would play an important role and there was hair separated from the body.  She felt certain the body was in a specific area, although searchers found only a dead animal.  She asked to see a palm print of the suspecther specialtyand the detective brought one.  She said that a man with a bad hand would find the body.  Then searchers found a headless corpse, with the head and a wig nearby.  The man who found it had a deformed left hand.  There was water nearby.

Yet skeptic Ward Lucas claimed that Alexander's hints had not helped the     investigation.  The "s" had too many potential interpretations to have been useful.  She had seen a bridge, and the river had many bridges, so that was an easy guess.  Knowing the victim had been missing for months outside, it was also easy to say that the head and hair would be separated from the body.  Lucas claims that Alexander had nothing to do with where the search was set up, yet the police say they would not have persisted in looking for so long if she hadn't insisted and would not have found the body in time to prosecute her killer.  Of her rather specific prediction of the man with the bad hand, says Lucas, "dumb luck."

If they're so good, why aren't they rich?  Why can't they guess the lottery?  This is among the seemingly most persuasive objections to psychics and other practitioners of the paranormal, in part because the typical response is usually fairly lame.  While some say they can't get self-serving impressions and others say they're more interested in helping others than themselves, most simply indicate that the power is not that specific.  Yet if it's all so vague and hit-and-miss, how, then, can they present themselves as reliable police aids? 

Psychic Sleuths by Joe Nickell
One interesting project was set up by Joe Nickell, a confirmed skeptic.  He assigned 12 psychic investigators (who ranged from journalists to professors) to take on one famous psychic each to study for a period of one year, and their results were reported in Psychic Sleuths.  They were to find a single case in which the psychic actually found a missing person or solved a crime.  The overall results indicated that psychics fail to come through on scientific tests, and that when put into such conditions, their powers "invariably desert them."  In some instances, they've shown they guess about as good as anyone else.  (Of course, just because a psychic is famous doesn't make that person's powers authentic, and looking at only 12 of them is far from conclusive.)

One controlled experiment that Nickell includes, which involved a dozen psychics looking at evidence from four crimes and was conducted by the director of behavioral services for the Los Angeles Police Department, indicated that psychics scored no better than estimated chance levels.

Lyons and Truzzi, in The Blue Sense, criticized the study, saying those psychics were not a representative sample. 

So the study was undertaken once again, with two control groups added: college students and homicide detectives.  The psychics produced more information by far, but the students had a better overall accuracy rate than the psychics in their guesses.  No group produced information that would have been useful in solving the crimes.

What do skeptics have to say about the apparent successes of some psychics who work with the police?  Nickell lists them:

Some famous cases never happened or could not be verified and checked.

The psychics might have used ordinary means of obtaining knowledge about a crime.

The police later remember what the psychic said as being more specific than it was.

Vague generalities can be made to fit almost anything.

People desperately want to believe that psychic information is true, so they easily accept the tales as told.

Much can be said in support of either side, and how one feels about psychic information will often depend on what one believes.  While psychics can (and have) been accused of amassing publicity to "prove" their worth, skeptics, too, have often expended an inordinate amount of time and effort (even finances) to disprove them.  Each, it seems, bends over backwards to make a case, and sometimes this can have some damaging repercussions.

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