As explained by Jim Stingl in the Milwaukee Journal:On April 6, 2013 at Big Guy’s Magic Shop in Pewaukee, I wrote down what I thought the front page headline would be in the April 20 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The folded-up slip of paper was initialed by Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas as a reliable witness, and then it was sealed in two Altoids tins, taken by Pewaukee police squad car to a bakery and baked into a cake. That cake was left on display in a store window for two weeks.
On April 23, everyone gathered at the shop again and the two Altoids tins were fished from the cake and opened. Waukesha County Executive Vrakas read aloud my headline prediction:
“Got them. Suspects in custody.”
This was all done to raise funds for the Pewaukee Food Pantry. It did not escape scrutiny. For instance, a police officer said he should interview me about how knew about the offense in advance. At the time I was also employed as an assistant Wisconsin State Public Defender. After the event, the agency required me to explain in writing to agency management why there was not a conflict between my job as a public defender and the prediction I wrote and had signed by another member of government, Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas.
I know the public defender response was, to put it delicately, overboard.
But what about the law enforcement response? Can psychics help police solve crimes? Tabloids regularly have articles about psychic crime busters, who are solving crimes and locating missing persons. Television shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings and other programs have featured segments on psychic detectives and their amazing and fantastic claims of paranormal abilities. If is true, every police department in the country could lay off at least half of their officers, and replace them with a single psychic. This could have tremendous savings to taxpayers.
Well, it’s not true. Why? Because, to put it indelicately, it’s all bullshit. Thank you Penn and Teller.
When done for purposes of entertainment as was done with Big Guy’s Magic Shop, no harm, no foul. It helped the food pantry. It was part of the magic show.
But unfortunately, some people take the bullshit too seriously, even outside the public defender office.
Let me make this clear: there’s not a single case of a missing person who has ever been found due to the advice of psychic detectives– at least not according to the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Take the celebrated TV psychic, Sylvia Browne. She has claimed many times to have used her psychic powers to solve crimes, but when one media watchdog group analyzed the 35 cases she spoke about on a series of Montel Williams programs, her success rate was nothing to brag about. In 21 of the cases, the details she gave were too vague even to be verified. Of the remaining 14, either law enforcement or victims’ family members said Browne played no useful role in solving the case. She also claimed on the Larry King Show to have solved the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and said she was working with a man named Stephen Xanthos of the Rumson, New Jersey police department on another crime that she was about to solve. However, a fact check of her story found that no one named Stephen Xanthos ever worked at that police department, although someone by that name had recently been fired from another New Jersey police precinct.
Psychics use such simple tactics to snooker the public it’s almost embarrassing to report. For instance, even to pronounce a missing person to be dead or alive has a 50 percent hit rate. If a psychic predicts that the person is dead, they usually go on to make other “startling predictions” such as the fact that the person is buried in a shallow grave. (How many murderers take the time to dig a deep grave?) Or they’ll predict that this grave can be found in a remote or “wooded area.” (How many killers bury their victims in the middle of the front yard?) Other psychics might say “I see water near the body” or “I see trees”, information which can be easily gleaned from looking at a map of the area.
But what about testimonials from experienced homicide detectives who have actually used psychics? Most reported successes appear to be like the one that a New Jersey police captain attributed to Dorothy Allison. Her predictions “were difficult to verify as initially given,” he said. “The accuracy usually could not be verified until the investigation had come to a conclusion.” Indeed, this after-the-fact matchingà³known as “retrofitting”à³is the secret behind most alleged psychic successes. For example, the statement, “I see water and the number seven,” would be a safe offering in almost any case. After all the facts are in, it will be unusual if there is not some stream, body of water, or other source that cannot somehow be associated with the case. As to the number seven, that can later be associated with a distance, a highway, the number of people in a search party, part of a license plate number, or any countless other possible interpretations.
A 1980 police study concerning the use of psychics by Martin Reiser, director of Behavioral Sciences Services for the Los Angeles police, Susan Saxe, police staff psychologist, and Detective Philip Sartuche, Robbery-Homicide Division stated: “Contrary to some statements, the LAPD has not employed psychics in criminal investigations. The same situation appears to be true for most police departments contacted. In several well-publicized major cases where individuals who claimed psychic powers volunteered information to the department about the crime, the information has not proven useful to the investigation. Similarly, a comprehensive analysis of psychic claims in solving major crimes by C. E. M. Hansel in ‘ESP: A Scientific Evaluation,’ revealed little correspondence between media reports and later objective documentation.”
To find out if psychics could assist the police, American psychologist Dr. Martin Reiser conducted two extensive investigations into the use of psychics by the Los Angeles Police Department for that purpose. After several years of research, his conclusion was that psychics could contribute nothing useful to police work. “Psychics come out of the woodwork during cases which the media become heavily involved in,” he says.
Part of Dr. Reiser’s experimentation involved weapons used in homicide cases. These were mixed in with “virgin” items as controls, and it was found that the psychics were unable to differentiate among them.
Inspector Edward Ellison of the U.K.’s Scotland Yard, in response to statements by psychics that they regularly worked with them, reported that:
1. Scotland Yard never approach psychics for information.
2. There are no official “police psychics” in England.
3. The Yard does not endorse psychics in any way.
4. There is no recorded instance in England of any psychic solving a criminal case or providing evidence or information that led directly to its solution.
Joe Nickell provides other explanations for psychics’ reputed successes:
- Some psychics exaggerate their successes, even claiming positive results in cases that were failures or that never even existed.
- Psychics may use ordinary means of obtaining information which they then present as having been psychically obtained. For example, psychics have been accused of impersonating police and even of bribery of police officers in order to gain information. In one instance the psychic, unknown to a detective, had actually been briefed on the case by others. Shrewd psychics can brief themselves by studying newspaper files or area maps, and some make use of the fortune teller’s’ techniques of “cold reading” (a technique in which the psychic fishes for information while watching the listener for reactions that suggest correctness or error).
- Another potential explanation for psychics’ apparent successes is faulty recollection of what was actually said. The fallibility of memory is well known, and many stories of psychic success get better as they are told and retold.
- Many psychics deal in vague generalities: for example one psychic reported perceiving “the names ‘John’ or ‘Joseph’ or something like that.”
- And there are social and psychological factors that may influence people to accept the accuracy of information. Obviously their own belief system will have an effect.
So there you have it. People who claim to really be able to see the future are frauds, charlatans out to make a buck. Fun when it is for your entertaining pleasure. Dangerous when you start to believe the fairy tale. Remember the warning of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”