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psychic detective

"We discovered that the work of the psychics was not just ludicrous and laughable. it was sinister and evil....None of it ever led anywhere except to despair and disappointment, misery and confusion." --John Tate, father of Genette Tate who disappeared in 1978 (quoted in Investigating the Unexplained, p. 42)

A psychic detective (PD) is an alleged psychic who offers to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes.

In their book, The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime, Arthur Lyons and Marcello Truzzi list many reasons people without any psychic powers gain a reputation for assisting in the detection of crime. In many cases, most of the evidence in favor of the psychic detective is provided to the mass media by the psychic rather than by an independent source. The mass media are rarely critical or skeptical of the claims of psychics. For example, alleged psychic detective Sylvia Browne has declared many times that she has used her psychic powers to solve crimes, yet it is rare to see her challenged as she was by Brill's Content.

Brill's Content has examined ten recent Montel Williams programs that highlighted Browne's work as a psychic detective (as opposed to her ideas about "the afterlife," for example), spanning 35 cases. In 21, the details were too vague to be verified. Of the remaining 14, law-enforcement officials or family members involved in the investigations say that Browne had played no useful role.

"These guys don't solve cases, and the media consistently gets it wrong," says Michael Corn, an investigative producer for "Inside Edition" who produced a story last May debunking psychic detectives. Moreover, the FBI and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never helped solve a single missing-person case.

"Zero. They go on TV and I see how things go and what they claim but no, zero," says FBI agent Chris Whitcomb. "They may be remarkable in other ways, but the FBI does not use them" ("Prophet Motive," Brill's Content, November 27, 2000<).

Browne has made many claims on the "Larry King Show" about her great crime-solving powers, including the claim that she solved the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. James Randi challenged another of Browne's claims, made on "Larry King," to be working with Stephen Xanthos of the Rumson, New Jersey, police department. She said she was getting ready to close a case.

 ….no person named Xanthos ever worked with that police department, though there was a Stephen [sic] Xanthos who was canned from another New Jersey police department. Looking a little further into this mythical claim of Sylvia's, we discovered that Xanthos had a private investigator's license at one time, but it expired in 1994. It's interesting to note that if this man really had been working with Browne, as she stated he was on the Larry King show, he would be subject to charges of a third degree felony, under New Jersey State law - that's on a par with burglary and car theft. Not that we ever believed Sylvia was telling the truth, but she should be a bit more clever with her mendacity (James Randi).

Randi wrote of Steven Xanthos:

Steven Xanthos, had illegally searched and physically assaulted friends of mine, and I had brought the matter to the attention of the public via meetings and press releases....

Steven Xanthos, then a senior police officer on the Middletown force notorious for conducting illegal searches without "probable cause," set out to do all he could to damage me.*

Browne may have been baiting Randi or she may have been confabulating, making stuff up to make herself look good.

Despite her being exposed many times as someone who just makes stuff up off the top of her head, Browne's popularity seems undiminished. In 2010, Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok investigated 115 criminal cases that Browne allegedly worked on. Her accuracy rate? Zero.

There are other reasons for the undeserved reputations of psychic detectives besides blowing their own horns to an uncritical media. They do sometimes guess correctly. Everybody can have a 50% hit rate if we guess "dead" or "alive" about a missing person. The odds are good that by the time a psychic gets involved in a missing person case, the person is probably dead. The events predicted by PDs 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 PDs' "visions" are bound to be "correct" often enough for the credulous to be duped. What seems like an accurate perception is due to its vagueness, commonness, and the latitude available as to what will count as a psychic hit. E.g., "I see water near the body;" "I see trees." Some PDs are very skilful in their use of vagueness and ambiguity, and provide "the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach test," according to Piet Hein Hoebens, one of Truzzi's collaborators in a "Psychic Sleuths" project. 

Lyons and Truzzi note that, 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 PD herself or himself is the source of this historical reconstructionism. Sometimes a psychic's "predictions" are made after an event, but claimed to have been made before it, like Sylvia Browne's claim after the September 11th terrorist attacks that she had predicted it. 

Some of the undeserved reputation of PDs comes from their clients: the police or relatives of crime victims. The clients count misses and errors as hits. For example, Browne told a woman her husband died of a "clot" and, even though he died of a hemorrhage, the client agreed that Brown was right, even though the difference between the two is like the difference between a plugged drain and a burst pipe. 

Clients often take coincidences for hits. Sometimes, as Lyons and Truzzi point out, the information provided by the PD was garnered from another source, often from an unwitting law enforcement agent. The psychic just feeds back information initially provided by the client himself. Some psychic successes are merely self-fulfilling prophecies. Clients find ways to retrofit facts with the vague and ambiguous pronouncements of the psychic. Clients also often use selective thinking, remembering what seems accurate and forgetting what was clearly not on the mark. Furthermore, the mass media publish stories about alleged psychic successes, while generally ignoring stories about psychic failures and frauds. Reputations are thereby created and enhanced from trivial or paltry evidence of psychic detective powers.

According to Lyons and Truzzi, PDs often use shotgunning to providing information, i.e., they provide a large quantity of information, some of which is bound to fit the case. Shotgunning relies on confirmation bias, cold reading (e.g., Barnum-type statements), and subjective validation:  the cop tunes in to the info that seems to fit, ignores what doesn't, and unknowingly gives cues to the psychic as he or she fires salvo after salvo. 

Some PDs are simply frauds, according to Lyons and Truzzi. Some psychics even use accomplices to accomplish their frauds and deceptions. Some bribe informants, including police officers, for information they pass off as acquired by psychic means. 

While it is true that some cops believe in psychics, many simply use them for their own purposes. Lyons and Truzzi tell the story of a cop who 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?" However, such wishful thinking and self-deception seem to be the exception rather than the rule among law enforcement officers. Cops are more likely to use psychics to cover up their real sources of information, to protect an informant, or to conceal the fact that information was obtained illegally. Finally, some cops use psychics, or even pretend to be psychic, to psych out superstitious suspects. 

Lyons and Truzzi also note that many PDs simply 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. In some cases, the PDs have more experience with certain types of crimes than the cops they work with. 

Despite the very strong evidence that most psychic detectives are deluded or frauds, Lyons and Truzzi 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). To support their notion that at least some of the PDs may truly be psychic, Lyons and Truzzi note that

Some people have an unusually acute sense of vision, hearing, or smell, what psychologists call hyperesthesia. A recent example was a New Jersey doctor [Arthur G. Lintgen] 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 take such an ability as evidence of some extraordinary power (vinyl vision), but Dr. Lintgen has a different explanation: The trick is to examine the physical construction of the recording and look at the relative playing time of each one of the movements or separations on the recording (Seckel).

Dr. Lintgen also used other quite ordinary inductive and deductive powers to identify such arcane bits of information as the nationality of the orchestra. One thing he didn't do, however, was deceive himself or others regarding his talent, a bit of honesty seemingly lost on many of today's self-proclaimed psychics.

See also clairvoyance, Jeane Dixon, exploitainment, Forer effect, Uri Geller, medium, and psychic.

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further reading

reader comments

related articles by the author

Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok. “Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure,” Skeptical Inquirer 34, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 38-42.

Allison Dubois, Gary Schwartz, and "Medium,"

"It's All in the Framing"

How F.B.I. profiles resemble cold readings

Psychic Detectives on TV: how do they affect paranormal beliefs?

related blog postings by the author

books and articles

Harris, Melvin. (2003). Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books.

Hicks, Robert D. In Pursuit of Satan: the Police and the Occult (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Kelly, Lynne. (2004). The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal. Thunder’s Mouth Press.

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).

Steiner, Robert A. "Fortunetelling," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 281-290.

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

articles on the WWW

How Psychic Sleuths Waste Police Resources by Joe Nickell

Psychic Sleuth without a Clue by Joe Nickell

The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives’ by Joe Nickell

Police "psychics" - Do they Really Help Solve Crimes? by Joe Nickell

Despite Popularity, Psychic Detectives Fail to Perform by Benjamin Radford

"Psychics" exploiting missing children from the Klass Kids Foundation

Articles on Florida "psychic detective" Noreen Renier by Gary P. Posner

Sylvia Browne: Psychic Guru or Quack? by Bryan Farha, Ed.D.

The Man Who Could Read Record Grooves by Al Seckel

news stories

Police in Lampeter, west Wales, have defended spending £20,000 investigating a man's suicide after his ghost was said to have told psychics that gangsters had forced him to drink petrol and bleach....A statement from Dyfed-Powys police said: "The revelations of the mystics [sic] were brought to our attention via the family and these were followed to reassure the family that the full circumstances of the death were as they appeared. Police have a responsibility to the deceased, their family and the public to investigate all deaths thoroughly."

Really? Does that responsibility relieve them of thinking responsibly and rationally?

Are the police in your area as dumb as those in Watertown, N.Y.?

Psychic detective used to crack Oregon's unsolved murders - KVAL

Bad Journalism Encourages Psychic Detectives By Benjamin Radford, LiveScience

Psychic Investigators

Carla Baron, Psychic Detective (?) The Independent Investigations Group finds proof of her powers greatly lacking

Last updated 13-Jan-2014

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