"Police Psychics" Dominate the Spotlight, but Shine No Light on Real Cases

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Professional "psychics," such as Sylvia Browne, Noreen Renier, and Allison DuBois, have enjoyed a surge of publicity in recent months from television shows, book deals, and media appearances. But spokespeople for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) say these "police psychics" are far better at finding publicity than they are at locating missing persons or catching criminals.

Professional "psychics," such as Sylvia Browne, Noreen Renier, and Allison DuBois, have enjoyed a surge of publicity in recent months from television shows, book deals, and media appearances. But spokespeople for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) say these "police psychics" are far better at finding publicity than they are at locating missing persons or catching criminals. Revelations about these "psychic detectives" will appear in the May/June 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

On January 3, NBC launched Medium, a "chilling drama series inspired by the real-life story of research medium Allison DuBois." (The show begins with the message, "There really is an Allison. Really.") Patricia Arquette stars as a law student who begins to suspect that she can talk to dead people, read people's minds, and see the future. With pluck and confidence, she dispels doubts and shows up skeptics, including her rocket-scientist husband and police investigators. The show's Web site (http://www.nbc.com/Medium/) claims that "DuBois has consulted on a variety of murders or missing-persons cases while working with various law-enforcement agencies including the Glendale Arizona Police Department, the Texas Rangers, and a County Attorney's Office in the Homicide Bureau."

Unfortunately for DuBois, the Glendale police and the Texas Rangers deny any such involvement. Glendale police spokesman Michael Pena stated that the detective who handles missing-persons cases "does not recall using DuBois at all in [one specific] case, or in any other cases." And Lisa Block, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, says that "The Texas Rangers have not worked with Allison DuBois or any other psychics."

Benjamin Radford, the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, says that "police psychics" often come out of the woodwork in missing-persons cases, especially high-profile ones (such as those of Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, and Elizabeth Smart). Their advice doesn't actually help, though. "The psychics offer hundreds or thousands of tips, either for free or for a fee, yet when police follow up on the information, the vast majority of them turn out to be wrong," says Radford. "These bogus tips waste time and manpower, and when bodies are found, it is always by accident or as a result of police work-in fact, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due solely to psychic information."

Joe Nickell, CSICOP Senior Research Fellow, explains that psychics have many ways of generating "successes." One of the most common techniques is retrofitting, in which a psychic produces copious amounts of information, then (after the truth is known) selects the most accurate parts and re-interprets them to fit the facts. Other techniques include exaggerating their successes, working information obtained through ordinary means into their "readings," and speaking in vague generalities.

Both Nickell and Radford agree that psychics don't actually help solve crimes-in fact, they're a nuisance, squandering police resources and stealing credit from the hard-working men and women in law enforcement. So while Medium may be an enjoyable way to kill time on a Monday evening, it's best to leave the "police psychics" on the screen, and let real professionals solve the crimes.

Benjamin Radford is the author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us (Prometheus Books, 2003). Joe Nickell has written or edited many investigative books, including Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases (Prometheus, 1994).

Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a nonprofit scientific and educational organization founded in 1976 by Paul Kurtz, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and other prominent academics, scientists, and writers. CSICOP encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view. Learn more about CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer at http://www.csicop.org.

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John Gaeddert
CSICOP
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