I avoid supernatural dramas on television, as in my view the spooky-thriller stuff isn't what people actually experience. It's pumped up for rather crude entertainment purposes. But psychics are a common feature of modern life, and I'm interested to see how script writers portray them in a general context.
Recently I've been watching ITV's Broadchurch, about the murder of a child in a small seaside town. At one point a telephone engineer is called to do a repair in the police station, where he sees a photo of the dead boy on a desk. Cue spooky music, and next thing he's telling the police about his intuitions. He can't help it, he explains; these things just come to him, as messages, and he feels obliged to pass them on. The male detective - an anxious neurotic type - explodes: wherever there's a crime, he complains, 'you people crawl out of the woodwork'.
All that seems reasonably true to life, in terms both of the incident and the irritated response. The man's not a professional psychic; he doesn't know why he gets these things, he just does. In the next episode he approaches the mother, who at first runs away in terror, but then agrees to hear the message. This purports to come from her dead son, and simply states that she should stop searching for the killer, who is well known to her: the knowledge will just make things worse.
That's a lot more melodramatic, obviously. I don't know where the story's going with it, or how relevant the prediction will prove to be. It could turn out that the character is just pretending to be psychic, for some nefarious purpose - perhaps to throw the police off the scent, although there's nothing to indicate that so far. (The psychic also passes on a message to the angry detective about a previous case that was botched, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.) But it got me thinking about how complex the whole business of psychic detection actually is. Can the police sometimes benefit from these intuitions? Or are they more likely to be a nuisance?
It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that can easily be proved by experiment. Predictably a test carried out by Richard Wiseman came out negative. Three psychics, only one of whom was known for his detection skills, were asked to handle objects related to crimes that had been solved and to give their impressions; and to sort out various statements relating to the three crimes. They all thought they scored well, but in fact did no better than a control group of students.
Fair enough. But a test like this makes assumptions about how psi works, specifically that it's a mechanical entity that will work in particular ways: a psychic should be able to get information about a case that has been solved as easily as one that has not. For the test to yield immediately results, this is a necessary condition. But suppose psi doesn't work that way. Would a psychic necessarily get an intuition about something that will now serve no purpose?
There are actually two issues here that often get mixed up: on the one hand whether it's real, and on the other whether it's useful. It's the same with remote viewing. It seems fair to conclude that the Stargate remote viewers did sometimes make astoundingly accurate hits, and there's experimental evidence from other sources to back that up. But the process might well have been too unreliable to provide actionable intelligence, which is for the spooks to decide, not the psychics or parapsychologists.
In debunking accounts of psychic detection, the police are always said to deny using psychics. However these usually quote police departments (officials, spokesmen, etc). This surely makes sense: it's hard to imagine that any law enforcement body could officially acknowledge having recourse to supernatural agencies. Even if it was aware, or merely suspected that individual officers had unofficial links with a psychic, and was prepared to let them get on with it, in public it would be natural to deny any such thing. Almost by definition, sceptics can't recognise that sort of complexity.
There's quite a bit of detail in this article about the involvement of a psychic in the John Wayne Gacy serial killer case. The psychic stated early on that this was a gay sex killing, confirming police suspicions, but went on to say that the bodies of several young men were in the same area, which at that time they did not know, but which Gacy subsequently admitted. Predictably there's nothing about any psychic contribution in the quite extensive Wikipedia account of Gacy. This article sheds light on that. It states that the victim's family were told that detectives were in touch with a psychic, and did not object, as they wanted every avenue to be pursued. However the police department as a whole had serious reservations, and the contact with the psychic was kept quiet; instead the information was said to have been received via an anonymous tip-off.
Sceptics, of course, need psychic intuitions to be completely reliable and mechanical before they will believe it. They treat it as a sort of radar.
If psychics can really find missing people, why aren't they in Iraq, rescuing kidnapped hostages? Why haven't psychics caught serial killers before they kill again? Why do different psychics give contradictory information? Why do we need Amber Alerts to find kidnapped children? And where are Osama bin Laden, Natalee Holloway, Lisa Stebic, Madeleine McCann, and the thousands of other people whom searchers are desperate to find? On these questions, psychics are as silent as the missing persons they fail to find.
But it's possible that the police have the same problem with psychics as the military obviously had - there's so much noise that the true signal is hard to determine. High profile cases like that of Madeleine McCann bring forth so many conflicting statements by psychics, it's hard to know which is potentially reliable and worth following up. If the case is eventually solved, it's likely that one or two will claim success for what now looks retrospectively like a lucky hit.
A big difficulty for the police is knowing how much credence to put on a psychic lead. The psychic has to persuade them to follow up apparently nonsensical hunches. Or else he/she comes up with predictions that prove accurate but do not necessarily contribute to a resolution.
In The Reality of ESP, Russell Targ describes the 2001 search for 'Haley', the five-year-old who went missing in a densely forested region of Arkansas and was found only after an intense three-day search. The girl's grandmother told Targ that on the third day, with the child still missing, she went to a meeting being held nearby by dowsers. There she met Harold McCoy (who famously located the stolen harp for Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer). McCoy stated that the girl was 'being taken care of by a kind woman', and that she would be 'found by two men on horseback within the day'. (Targ subsequently confirmed this conversation with McCoy's widow.)
The child was found later that day by two local men who went searching on their own, on mules. So this does indeed seem like a blindingly accurate prediction. But it could not be said that the psychic solved the case, only that he saw its outcome. It's also likely that other psychics were all over the case making wrong assertions, and if McCoy's was included among them, the impact would have been greatly diluted.
The statement about the 'kind woman' is also puzzling. There was of course no such person, but Haley subsequently described in great detail a child of her own age who kept her company throughout her ordeal. The grandmother investigated, and learned that a child had been murdered and buried near that spot two decades earlier. Again, these details are potentially the kind of thing a psychic might 'see' - in his terms, who knows, the 'woman' might have been some kind of spirit protector - but add an extra layer of confusion.
I recently reviewed a book for a journal by Robert Cracknell, a British psychic who was feted in the media some thirty years ago as Britain's 'number one psychic detective'. One of his most dramatic cases involved the kidnapped teenage daughter of an Italian industrialist near Lake Como. The girl had been missing for some months when Cracknell was engaged by the father to help find her, and spent some time at the villa. By this time the police had scoured the area and were not overjoyed when Cracknell insisted on checking out a remote rural district they had already covered. He persevered, however, and did find an abandoned semi-derelict dwelling containing forensic clues that the girl might have been held there. On the other hand she was long gone, so this seems not to have helped much.
Cracknell subsequently found himself telling a British newspaper reporter over the phone that the girl would definitely be found 'next Friday'. This sparked a media frenzy, and when she was indeed returned to her family the following Friday everyone was happy. But again, nothing the psychic said actually led to her recovery. This appeared to be a general thing with Cracknell. He did the same with the Yorkshire Ripper, stating accurately that the serial killer lived in Bradford, Yorkshire, and later that his next murder would be the last, as he would soon afterwards be picked up during an unrelated police enquiry. So he can claim a kind of success, without actually having helped resolve the crime.
So it seems there's a legitimate role for psychic detection, as long as it's approached with caution. A lot of the public claims have to be discounted as biased, both by sceptics and professional psychics. But it's quite possible that some kind of psychic ability is used in all kinds of detection, to a degree that can only ever be guessed at. It could fit in seamlessly with people's professional work. For instance Cracknell appears to have found it useful in his day-job as a financial fraud buster for insurance firms, and set up in business for himself, but without promoting himself as a psychic, which would not necessarily have recommended him to his clients.
In real life psychic ability is not something that we can depend on, or should get too worked up about. But within limits we could quietly accept its uses, as many police detectives sensibly seem to do.