A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

If psychics are frauds, why do police keep asking them for help?

February 9, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I read your column on psychics hired by the military (http://www.straightdope.com/ma ilbag/mpsychicfed.html), and I've also heard of psychics who solve cases for police departments. If they're all such "tall tales" as you call them, why do psychics keep getting called back to help out people like cops when they have no other way of solving crimes?

Whoa, what a question! One answer, though somewhat snide, is that police officers who do this should go back and review their classes on basic evidence collection. If they applied the rules of evidence to psychics' claims, they'd stop using the psychics.

But it's not only the fault of the police, though they should probably know better--these psychics often do quite a good job of marketing themselves. Now, they may come back and say, "But we don't take any money to help the police." No, they don't (usually). But they get one thing that is more precious--free advertising. Then, if they so choose, they can use that advertising to their advantage in the business they get paid for. After all, if the local paper runs a story saying that you helped find a missing body, surely you can help a spinster find a husband.

OK, David, but that doesn't explain how they manage to get that article written. I mean, they wouldn't write it if it weren't true, right? Wrong. At least, wrong to a point. The writers of such articles often take things at face value that perhaps they should be a bit more skeptical about. Indeed, cases have been found in which the reporters just basically wrote what they were told, without bothering to do any checking at all.

There are, however, some journalists who remember that skepticism is a virtue (a motto recently adopted by Brill's Content, a media review magazine). Ward Lucas, a reporter who also wrote a chapter in the book Psychic Sleuths ("A Product of the Media: Greta Alexander"), has discussed some of the ways psychics make their predictions.

He noted that such predictions generally fall into five different categories:

  • Extremely general statements with a wide application
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies
  • An occasional wild guess with very specific characteristics
  • Those that are false but contain enough flexibility that they can be modified or "corrected" when confronted with an objection
  • Unverifiable statements

Let's look at each of these.

General statements are those like, "The initial 'B' is around the victim's body." In this context, "B" could be brown soil, blue water, branches, blood, brush, the first initial of a county, or any other "B" word you can find in a dictionary.

Many psychics use such statements throughout readings and predictions. For example, you''ll often hear, "I see somebody whose name begins with 'J.'" Hmmm. John, Jack, Jason, Jeff, Julie, Jennifer, Jean, etc. Well, that''s certainly helpful. But many people will go through this at a reading and report, "The psychic knew my ex-husband's name!" No, she didn't. She guessed "J" and you filled in the details. But that's often not the way it's remembered.

Wild guesses, when used in the right proportion, can build credibility. If they're wrong, then they're considered "an occasional failure," and explained away. (I have actually seen a letter to the editor complaining about some coverage of a psychic's prediction that was wrong; the letter writer claimed that the reason she missed some predictions was that it was a problem with the interaction between the physical and non-physical worlds. Uh huh.) If the wild prediction is right, it can make the psychic famous. Or if it's almost close enough, it can work as well, with a helpful media push (see earlier answer on Jeane Dixon's non-prediction of JFK's assassination).

Self-fulfilling prophecies involve the suspension of disbelief of the average person. The person searches for ways to make the prediction come true, rather than noticing that it was false. In one case Lucas examined (dealing with the late Greta Alexander), the psychic had predicted the importance of a "bridge" and a "church." Neither had anything to do with the case or the finding of the body but both were examples of this type of situation. It turned out that there was a bridge off in the distance. There wasn't a church nearby, but there was a church camp about a half-mile to a mile down the road. So these were matched up to the predictions after the body was found. It should be noted especially here that none of these predictions have any significance prior to the discovery of the body.

Rapidly altered prophecies are often used as well. In 1986, this type of prophecy was recorded by the Chicago Tribune when the late Greta Alexander appeared at the Illinois State Fair. She asked a woman in the audience if she had back problems (many people over 30 do suffer some sort of back pain, so it''s a good cold-read guess). The woman replied that she did not, so Alexander shifted gears and said, "Well, my back hurts with you, so watch for kidney and bladder infections."

It works in police cases as well. Alexander did something similar with the case of a boy kidnapped while fishing. She originally said the body would be found "near water." Now, that prediction is vague enough in and of itself (the kidnapping occurred in Kankakee River State Park), but the body wasn't really found all that close to water, so things shifted in her later statements to the press. Alexander said that she heard a "whooshing" noise, which turned out to be a highway. When pressed, she said that the "water" part referred to the start of the crime. This is true, but one hardly needed to be psychic to figure it out, since the boy was abducted while fishing! Yet many press reports gave her credit for a correct prediction here.

Unverifiable statements are another staple of such predictions. To use Alexander again, she has made statements in various cases like: "A man with funny-looking boots walked right past the body during a previous search" and "The man with the boots had a dog." How can that "prediction" be verified? It can't. It might later be retrofit as a rapidly-altered or self-fulfilling prophecy, but standing alone it is meaningless.

In some cases, combinations of these categories are used. For example, in one case, Alexander mentioned "Grabner''s farm." While there was no such person, if circumstances were right, "Grabner" could have been seen to actually mean "Wagner" or "Abner" or some other similar name. In the same vein, if she predicted the man who would find the body has a "crippled hand" and the finder actually had a gimpy leg instead, she would have likely taken credit as only being slightly off. So a wild guess becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You add up all these techniques and what do you have? A whole lot of nothing that seems to actually work. And, of course, when the psychic can't come up with anything at all, it likely won't make the newspaper. I once saw a small article noting that two psychics had taken police to an abandoned farmhouse, saying a body was there. It wasn't. The psychics weren't even named. You can bet that if there had been anything at all there, they''d have gotten their names in the paper.

The fact here is that no psychic has ever been shown to have helped the police. They do a lot of claiming after the fact, but it's never been backed up with evidence. In fact, when an independent experiment was done some years back to determine if psychics could help, the psychics actually did worse than the control group of students!

So why do the police continue to use psychics? Some don't know better--even police officers can be fooled. Some are hesitant to refuse any aid, no matter how little they think it will actually help. (Imagine if they didn't accept a psychic's help on a high-profile case and the psychic went to the press complaining that she has knowledge that could help but the police won't listen.) Sometimes they are pressured by families who believe the psychics.

Unfortunately, none of these reasons has anything to do with evidence because if they relied solely on evidence, the police would never use a psychic again.

(Incidentally, you can read more details about some of Alexander''s claimed successes in an article I wrote at http://www.reall.org/newsletter/v06/n 07/index.html.)

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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