The afternoon of June 7, The New York Times sent out a news alert: “Up to 30 Dismembered Bodies Found Near Houston, Reuters Reports.” CNN also reported that the home near Houston involved “at least 20 bodies, including those of children.”
The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office obtained a search warrant for the house in Hardin, Texas, and despite some conflicting information related to blood found on a door and strange odors, Texas Rangers were unable to locate any bodies or graves on the site.
While all this makes fine fodder for castigating reputable news organization like the Times, Reuters and CNN for being too fast on the trigger, Skeptic’s Café is interested in another aspect: Houston TV station KPRC reported the investigation all began with a phone call from a psychic.
Yes, a psychic. I knew you were thinking this.
Psychic detectives often show up in stories about missing children, unsolved murders and cold-case crimes. Many people believe that police departments and detectives hire psychics for assistance, but one study found that two-thirds of the 50 largest U.S. police departments have never consulted a psychic to help them out in an unsolved crime. What’s a bit scary is that 35 percent did, although many times it is at the request of a family member, and their work typically interfered with the search.
How effective are these psychics, and can any of them be good enough to claim noted debunker James Randi’s million-dollar offer by showing “under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event”?
Take the story of Portland, Ore., clairvoyant Laurie McQuary. A creative sting was set up by the Inside Edition TV show in March. A producer posing as a distraught brother in search of his missing sister hired McQuary for $400. She looked at the photo of the girl and claimed she had been sexually assaulted and killed, but the case was still solvable. The psychic detective even pointed to a remote location on a map where the body could be found. The next day, McQuary was taped in an interview with an Inside Edition correspondent who revealed that the photo was the correspondent as a young girl and not the missing sister of the show’s producer. Asked how she could be so wrong, the psychic ended the interview and walked off the set.
A sample of one does not prove the case, but 10 other psychics contacted by the show similarly stated the girl had been murdered. Such errors confirm what the FBI told Inside Edition: They were "not aware of any criminal investigation that has been resolved as a direct result of information provided from a psychic.”
In another case, dozens of psychics failed to discover a 20-year-old from Tennessee missing since April. Police wasted their time and resources tracking down the false leads. One of the psychics involved even participated in a cable TV show devoted to psychic detectives. (The show was canceled after 22 episodes failed to demonstrate a single case being solved with their supposedly paranormal skills — eerily, the exact same results of a similar show Down Under.)
But surely we’ve heard of some successes by psychic detectives. Consider the case reported in January in the New York Post: “A psychic eerily predicted where the victim of a suspected serial killer could be found — nine months before cops dug up the corpse and that of three other young women on a Long Island beach, police sources said.”
Claiming to see the body in a grave “overlooking a body of water” with a nearby sign that had the letter “G” in it, did the psychic really “nail it?” Turns out the body was not buried in a grave, any location on Long Island would be near a vaguely described body of water, and no sign was found. And if it had, would the letter “G” be a surprise on Long Island?
Skeptical thinking requires that we distinguish between vague, generally applicable common-sense statements and the precise breakthroughs demanded of serious investigations. On closer inspection, other than anecdotal accounts, there are no documented discoveries of missing persons by psychics.
Our critical minds demand some scientific research. Presciently, some studies have looked into psychic detectives. Richard Wiseman, one of the leading researchers on deception and paranormal phenomena, conducted a small study comparing the claims of three psychic detectives to three non-psychic students. They were presented with items that related to actual crimes and “asked to handle each of the objects and speak aloud any ideas, images or thoughts that might be related to these crimes.” They were also given statements that were true and false about the already solved crime.
Although the psychic detectives generated more ideas and thoughts than the students, many were obvious and not precise enough to provide helpful information to detectives. And the difference in accuracy between the students and psychics was not statistically significant. Neither group performed better than chance would predict.
Richard Kocsis, a leading Australian forensic psychologist, has extensively studied professional criminal psychological profilers and concludes that properly trained profilers help focus an investigation better than other comparison groups of psychologists, police detectives and psychics. In fact, he demonstrates “little support for the use of psychics in accurately generating the characteristics of an unknown offender.” Psychics performed the worst of all; they were unable to provide information beyond what common sense or “the local bartender might be able to surmise.”
I don’t know about you, but at this point, after hearing about all these psychics falsely claiming success in solving crimes, I can easily predict that it’s time for a long discussion with the local bartender. I knew you were thinking this.