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Robert Todd Carroll

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psychic detectives

In their book The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime, Lyons and Truzzi list the following as possible explanations for how psychic detectives "assist" cops in the detection of crime:

  1. They use psychic powers.
  2. They guess correctly. (Even you and I can have a 50% hit rate if we guess "dead" or "alive" about a missing person.)
  3. Their errors and misses are misperceived as truths and hits.
    • Mere coincidences are taken for hits.
    • The information they provide was provided to them by some source; the source sometimes is unknown to the one who perceives the psychic as having special powers, but often enough the misperceiver is in fact himself the source of the psychic's info.
    • Their advocates use selective thinking, remembering what was accurate and forgetting what was not. And the media publishes stories about psychic successes, while ignoring stories about psychic failures and frauds. Reputations are thereby created and enhanced from trivial or paltry evidence of psychic powers.
    • What seems like an accurate perception is due to its vagueness and the latitude given in counting events as hits. E.g., "I see water near the body;" or "I see trees."
    • Some psychics are very skilful in their use of vagueness and ambiguity and provide "the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach test." (Piet Hein Hoebens--one of Truzzi's collaborators in a "Psychic Sleuths" project.)
    • They use the shotgun approach to providing psychic information, i.e., they provide a large quantity of information, some of which is bound to fit the case. "Shotgunning" relies on confirmation bias and cold reading: the cop tunes in to the info that is correct and ignores what isn't and unknowingly gives cues to the psychic as he or she fires salvo after salvo.
    • The events predicted by psychics are commonplace events which are predicted by thousands of psychics every year. (A missing person will be either dead or alive; if dead probably buried; if buried probably in a remote place such as the woods. Shallow graves are likely to be pretty common,too. How many killers take the time to dig a deep grave? Yet, predicting that a body will be found in a shallow grave in a wooded area is taken by some to be truly astounding if it turns out to be the case.) In other words, some psychic's "visions" are bound to be "correct" often enough for the credulous to be duped.
    • Wishful thinking accounts for the reputation of some psychics--not the psychic's wishful thinking, but the cop's. Some cops want to believe in extraordinary powers and therefore give more credence than they should to the psychic. (E.g., One cop considered psychic Noreen Reiner's drawing of a circle to be a correct clue in a crime because the person arrested drove a cement mixer. Another cop considered Dorothy Allison's clues in a case to be on the money even though she predicted a missing person was dead who was not dead but was living in a religious cult community. The cop admitted he was baffled by Allison's error about the person being dead but which way was he dead? asked the cop, "Biologically? Clinically? Dead tired?" Right. How about spiritually dead; that would be my guess.)
    • Some psychic successes are merely self-fulfilling prophecies. Clients find ways to retrofit facts with the vague and ambiguous pronouncements of the psychic.
    • Over time, reports of psychic achievements get exaggerated and distorted; vague claims become specific; errors become replaced with correct predictions; events that never happened become "facts." Often, the psychic herself or himself is the source of this historical reconstructionism.
    • Memories are molded to fit one's beliefs in what psi-critic D.H. Rawcliffe calls retrospective falsification.
    • Finally, one of the main reasons psychic errors, guesses, etc., are taken as factors that contribute to the reputation of psychic successes is cold reading (conscious and unconscious) including fishing for info, the Forer effect and Barnum-type statements.
  4. Psychics also use their intelligence, reason inductively and deductively, play hunches, examine evidence, make careful observations, listen attentively, consider alternatives, follow their intuition, etc., just like "real" cops do.
  5. In some cases, the psychics have more experience with certain types of crimes than the cops they work with.
  6. Communal reinforcement often plays a large role in the reputation of psychic detectives. The psychics influence the media and the cops, and the cops influence each other and influence the media, ad nauseam, until what starts out as lies, frauds, guesses, trivial information, unsound reasoning, etc., snowballs into a grand case of belief in the Psychic Detective.
  7. Most of the evidence in favor of the psychic detective being really psychic comes from the psychic himself or herself.
  8. Another reason for the successes of some psychic detectives is that they commit fraud.
    • Their "predictions" are made after an event, but claimed to have been made before it. (e.g., Tamara Rand's faked prediction of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.)
    • Some psychics use accomplices to accomplish their frauds and deceptions.
    • Some cops use psychics to cover up their real sources of information; the cop may want to protect an informant or perhaps the cop got the information illegally. Some cops use psychics, or even pretend they themselves are psychic, to psyche out superstitious criminals.
    • Some psychics bribe informants, including police officers, for information they pass off as acquired by psychic means .

The authors document each one of the above explanations with numerous case studies and copious references. One would think that after that impressive litany of explanations and proofs, the authors' consideration of "real" psychics would be mere tokenism. Yet, these same authors divide the world of psychics into psychics and pseudo-psychics. Pseudo-psychics are divided into authentic (those who are not aware that they are using tricks or ordinary means of perception, information gathering, reasoning, etc.) and unauthentic (the outright frauds). They also divide skeptics into skeptics and pseudo-skeptics (those with strong disbelief about all things occult, whom I call hardened skeptics). Yet, in the midst of their richly detailed expose of psychic frauds, Lyons and Truzzi write

Some people have an unusually acute sense of vision, hearing, or smell, what psychologists call hyperesthesia. A recent example was a New Jersey doctor who was able to examine an unlabeled classical recording and ascertain the music and sometimes even the conductor just by looking at the grooves.

The authors even cite the New York Times, along with Discover and Fate magazines as the sources of this "fact." They consider themselves true skeptics because they are willing to believe such nonsense or are at least willing to put such claims to an empirical test. Whereas, people such as myself are considered pseudo-skeptics because we have no inclination to consider such claims as being worthy of investigation.

What would such a test consist of? Have a coder randomly select and code a stack of phonograph records; have an examiner present the good doctor with the coded records and keep track of the doctor's responses; then, have a disinterested party examine the data provided by the coder and the examiner? Is this what a true skeptic would do? I suggest that one's time would be better spent listening to the records. What I wonder about is not "how does the doctor do it?" but rather "how did he ever come up with such an idea?" Even if he could do it, what difference would it make? He could work at a record factory, I suppose, comparing labels to groove-sightings. But besides that, what value would such a skill have? Of course, the doctor would be a laugh at parties, but of what other use would this parlor magic be? Would a "real" skeptic examine the doctor's skill on cd's and tapes? I suppose the true believer would scoff at my utilitarian attitude. Can't I see that the value of such skills is in their very extraordinariness? If one has this power, who knows what awaits beyond the doors of normal perception? In my view, the only thing that awaits beyond those doors is a hospital bed.

A topic I find much more interesting than whether a doctor can read the grooves of records is why do cops, soldiers and other authoritarians find the occult so attractive? Is there something about the occult that is especially alluring to people who like to wear uniforms; carry guns, phallic clubs and "shields;" legally play the bully and the protector? Or is it the case that the occult is no more and no less attractive to authoritarians than to any other personality type? If so, is it possible that the authoritarian is attracted to the occult for different reasons than non-authoritarians?

It might seem obvious that the occult and paranormal would be of interest to "warriors:" any potential weapon is of interest to warriors and their supporters. The Dream Warriors long for the day they can use esp instead of radar, use psychics to guide missiles and control the thoughts of adversaries or locate hostages. That's why the U.S. government, the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, the Bulgarians, etc., have been supporting psi research: it's just an extension of offensive and defensive weaponry. So, politicians and generals use psychics for the same reason they use spies and bombs: as a tool in the neverending war against enemies. And cops use psychics for the same reason they use informants and lie detectors: as a tool in the neverending war against enemies. Of course, this mind war and its mind games would have to include disinformation, leaking out stories of successful psi weapons so that your enemy will waste time and money pursuing non-sense or be stupid enough to be fooled into confessing or revealing secrets.

It might also seem obvious that since the occult is seen as a source of extraordinary powers, an authoritarian would naturally pursue such things. The more power and powers the better. After all, your enemies (and they are many) might have such powers. Such people do tend to divide the world into good and bad, goats and sheep, friends and enemies, patriots and traitors, us and the assholes. It may be that such people think of themselves as extraordinary, put here for a purpose such as keeping the world, the country, the state, the county, the city, the neighborhood, the shop, the school, the family, etc., as tidy and orderly and predictable as they themselves are. That is, maybe people who think of themselves as special find it only appropriate that they should have or be able to use special powers. I have no idea, but I find such thoughts much more interesting than testing parlor tricks. I don't object to others testing such claims as whether or not a man can tell you what record you have in your hands just by looking at the grooves. But I do object to such "researchers" touting themselves as "real" skeptics and labeling as pseudo-skeptics those who reject such claims out-of-hand. We reject such claims on the grounds that it is much more likely that we are dealing with fraud or error in these claims than with fact and truth. We reject such claims not because we know they are false. We don't claim such claims are false. We claim that a reasonable person following standards of reasonableness no more rigorous than what are required to function in our courtrooms, our scientific laboratories or our grocery stores, would have to give up those standards in order to believe such claims. We simply maintain that it is unreasonable to take seriously such claims as men reading grooves of records to decode compositions and conductors or children with EHF who can read notes by sitting on them. The only thing such claims have going for them is that they are empirically testable. But why do I have this strong feeling, this hunch, this intuition, this precognition, that the good doctor is not going to be tested properly, and if he is, that his failure to perform will be explained away by ad hoc hypotheses dealing with how "pressure affects psychic powers" or how "hostile evaluators psychically interfered with the presence or the measurement of the psychic display," or some such thing? Is it because I am clairvoyant? Is it because I am a pseudo-skeptic? Or is it because I am a reasonable person who realizes that the odds of a man reading record grooves or a child reading with his butt are very slim indeed and that to pursue such oddities as if they were more than an elaborate hoax would be a misuse of valuable time?

I find even more troublesome than being labeled a pseudo-skeptic the argument Lyons and Truzzi use to justify taking psychics seriously. I call it the "there's more than one way to bend a spoon" argument, after one of its variations which I find memorable and amusing. That variant goes something like this: just because a magician like James Randi can bend a spoon through non-psychic means doesn't prove that Uri Geller isn't bending spoons psychically. Or just because you've shown that due to selective thinking and the Forer effect or Barnum-type statements, astrological or biorhythm charts fit anybody, doesn't prove that astrology or biorhythms aren't all that their advocates say they are. The variant used by Lyons and Truzzi is this one: just because many psychics are frauds or are using quite ordinary means to discover things does not prove that there are not real psychics. And, just because most paranoids are deluded doesn't mean they all are. No sir, no more than the fact that there are numerous real scientists committing fraud all the time proves that there are real scientists who aren't committing fraud. Fraud proves nothing. Anything involving numbers of human beings is likely to involve fraud. So it is true that just because the history of parapsychology is characterized by fraud and scientific incompetence does not prove that psi phenomena do not exist. And just because most psychics are either (a) frauds or (b) honest people who mistakenly think they have a special gift, doesn't prove that there aren't some real psychics out there. This is true. And Yeti might be out there, and the Loch Ness monster, and the little green aliens with large almond eyes, and flying pigs and horses and reindeer, witches on brooms, talking horses, fairies and pookas, children with clairvoyant anuses, ad infinitum ad nauseam. And if someone feels compelled to take seriously the next man with a rooster who can find gold or with a stick that can find water, let them test away until the cows come home. Just don't ask for any of my tax money to do the tests.

Comparing psychic frauds with frauds in science is about as useful and apropos as comparing lightning with lightning bugs. Fraud and self-delusion are essential elements of parapsychology; fraud and self-delusion are universally condemned among scientists. That doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of fraud and self-delusion in science. There is. But the practice of science is public; its debates and controversies take place in the open; its incompetents and frauds are eventually identified and scorned. Not so in pseudoscience where the frauds and incompetents are protected by a veil of secrecy and ad hoc hypotheses, where deception is normal not abnormal, and where those caught in blatant lies and delusions not only are not scorned, they're defended and still go on talk shows and maintain their fame, some even being exalted as martyrs being persecuted by the unfortunate, miserable skeptics.

A more pertinent question than why won't some of us take seriously such claims as a man reading the grooves of records or a child reading with his butt is the question as to what good can come from testing such claims. Have any true believers become skeptics because of James Randi's tests of dowsers and spoon benders, etc.? Uri Geller and James Van Praagh are doing quite well, and will always have their followers. Such tests will never dissuade true believers from their occultist lore; for, their beliefs are based on faith, not evidence. All the esp labs in the world are just so much smoke among the mirrors. It's part of the illusion, the illusion of the magic act, the dance with the Mad Hatter that keeps our attention away from what's really going on: the search for fame and fortune, to be special, to have power over others, to fulfill the messianic urge, to be divine. At least that is what the evil psychologist in me says.

The usefulness of tests of psychics, as done by Randi and CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), is that it keeps some sort of check on the volcanic rush of psychic dust that is constantly being spewed into the atmosphere. Such tests and investigations also give some slight reassurance to skeptics, real and otherwise, that the entire planet isn't mad or deluded. Most of all, however, the value of empirical testing of paranormal claims is that those who are not true believers, but are not hardened skeptics either, who are critical thinkers willing to go wherever the evidence leads them (rather than go for the evidence which fits the will to believe), will be guided by such investigations to become more skeptical of paranormal claims.

further reading

reader comments

Lyons, Arthur and Marcello Truzzi, The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime, New York: The Mysterious Press, 1991).

Nickell, Joe. ed. Psychic sleuths : ESP and sensational cases (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1994).

Rawcliffe, Donovan Hilton, Illusions and Delusions of the Supernatural and the Occult; the Psychology of the Occult (New York: Dover Publications, 1959).

Wiseman, Richard et. al., "Psychic Crime Detectives: A New Test for Measuring Their Successes and Failures," Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb. 1996.

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 11/29/98

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