Sep 04 2015

Mixed Messages on Psychic Detectives

UK’s College of Policing has released their draft Authorised Professional Practice on missing persons investigations (there is a public comment period open until October 9). This might not seem that interesting, but it is getting some attention because of their recommendations regarding the use of psychics.

Here is the entire section under “Psychics:”

High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.

Let’s break this down a bit: The first half is reasonable. Tips from alleged psychics cannot be ignored because people may have obtained information in some other way – from their own investigation or because they have a connection to the case – and are just claiming the information is “psychic” to obscure how they came by the information or to opportunistically exploit the case for their own reputation. Saying that such information should be viewed “in context” is therefore reasonable.

It is also good to warn investigators not to let the psychic information become a distraction, or to receive undo attention. I am not sure what they mean by “unless it can be verified,” however. If the information is independently verified, then it’s not a distraction, it is a legitimate lead.

The rest of the guideline is highly problematic. First, it is naive to assume that alleged psychics are well-intentioned. There are good reasons to conclude that many if not most psychics are con artists and frauds. Some may be self-deceived, but the industry (if insider reports are any guide) is built upon deliberate deception.

Focusing on direct financial gain is also a mistake. Alleged psychics do not usually go to police looking for money for their information. What they are doing is self-promotion. They give vague cold-reading-style information to detectives, details that are likely to be true in most cases. “I see a red door, and water.” Red doors are a common theme because they seem very specific, but they are more common than you might think. It is also an open-ended criterion – how close does the red door (or the water) have to be order to count as a hit?

It is easy to play the odds with missing persons cases, and to give vague details that can falsely seem specific or are deceptively high probability. If the psychic is wrong, then no one ever hears about the case. If the psychic is correct, then they will use their chance hit to claim that they helped the police solve the case. They use this to build their reputation and enhance their psychic business, not to make money from the police.

Joe Nickell has done the definitive debunking of alleged psychic detectives. He reports:

“DuBois thus follows the approach of the late Illinois psychic Greta Alexander who worked free with police at every opportunity, which brought her publicity, thus aiding her business of offering palm readings, operating a 900-number telephone inspiration line, selling astrology and numerology charts, and other endeavors”

The last sentence is the most problematic. Why do their methods matter? This is only legitimate if they are trying to ascertain if the alleged psychic came by the information from a mundane and legitimate method, but the statement is not clear about that. It makes it seem like the detective should ask if they used Tarot card readings, talked with spirit guides, or used clairvoyance. Who cares?

Accredited successes? – this assumes there is such a thing. This is the single worst line of the entire guideline. This is just asking an alleged psychic to provide deceptive evidence that their deception is legitimate. Then of course, any chance hits on the current case will be used to legitimize their exploitation of the next case.

What is missing from the guidelines is some truly helpful information that will educate detectives about the psychic industry, how they exploit cases, and how not to let them waste their time, distract the investigation, or falsely take credit for the case if and when it is solved.

Joe Nickell discussed many of the more famous alleged psychic detectives, documenting their tactics of deception.

There are no alleged psychics who can consistently help police, who can demonstrate they have extrasensory information that is more than just lucky guessing or exploiting known details about the case, or who even have a verified single impressive case. All the claims vanish under close inspection.

Alleged psychics also do cause harm. Sometimes the “distraction” that they cause is serious. In one case, as reported by The Telegraph:

Earlier this month it emerged that Dyfed Powys Police had spent £20,000 launching a murder inquiry based on information passed on by a medium on what turned out to be a suicide, as originally thought. The Welsh force was widely criticised for wasting taxpayers’ money.

Police departments often refuse to confirm or deny the involvement of any psychics.

Conclusion

The draft guidelines for investigators is highly problematic. While it starts off reasonably, it plays into gullibility regarding the exploitations of alleged psychic detectives. It also does not provide investigators with any real insight. It reads like it was written by someone who is not really familiar with the phenomenon of alleged psychics in general or the history of their involvement with police and missing persons cases.

Whoever wrote the draft should have done a little more investigation before writing it.

Hopefully they will receive useful feedback and fix the glaring problems and omissions in the guidelines. Or they can just watch the brilliant South Park take-down of psychic detectives. That would be more informative.

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