Rupert Sheldrake at TED
Guerrilla Skeptics

Psychic Detectives

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.


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I've no idea how well know this case may or may not be but found this intriguing, related, item on Montague Keen's website:

"A letter from Montague about the Jacqui Poole murder case published in The Skeptic, 16.1.

Chris French greatly exaggerates the amount of scholarship required for an impartial assessment of the Dorr-Lethe case, but I won’t press the point because all he has to do his explain away a much simpler case which I have been investigating with Guy Playfair: an Irishwoman is badgered by the voices of a recently murdered woman she’s never heard of. She provides the police with 125 specific statements about the deceased, the murder scene, and the personality, appearance, route taken, method of entry and name of the murderer. Apart from a few unverifiable statements, all but one proved correct.

We have examined all the original documentary evidence. Apart from a very few statements, all must have had a paranormal origin. The only issue is where the information came from — the dead woman or the minds of the policeman who discovered the body, the murderer himself and the woman’s family. The dead woman was Jacqui Poole, and the murderer, Pokie Ruark, was given a life sentence at the Old Bailey in August, 2001."

I'm pretty sure more detail is provided on another page, and I'll try and find it..

This summary from another site: "When Cristine approached the police with her story, they were skeptical until Detective Tony Batters, the first officer on the scene, was convinced by her accurate description of the victim’s position, clothing and injuries. Christine also gave personal information about the killer, including his age, height, tattoos, type of work, and criminal history. Out of the 130 facts provided by Christine, 120 proved to be accurate, right down to the killer’s nick name ‘Pokie’ (Anthony Ruark).

According to Guy Lyon Playfair and Montague Keen of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the Jacqui Poole murder case is the first ever of its kind to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt."

There was an inevitable skeptic attempt to dismantle the case which is far too long to paste here so here's the direct link:

Keene replied (I assume its to the above and not an earlier version) as follows:

"A brave but doomed attempt by Tony Youens. His confessedly superficial examination contrasts with the detailed inquiries which Guy Playfair and I made when interviewing both detectives and the medium and examining the original records.

Christine Holohan lived well over two miles away, not ten minutes walk. Her sole inaccuracy was a reference to Saturday instead of Friday as the night of the murder. Whether the experience has ever been repeated is irrelevant to the issue of paranormality, but in fact, according to Batters as well as Holohan herself, it has been.

Ruark had already given the police a persuasive alibi. He was no longer a suspect when Holohan was interviewed. As for the supposed inability of the medium to provide a clue to what happened to the stolen jewels after the murder: in fact a written clue, considered meaningless at the time, was provided: details will have to await publication of our full report.

The idea that Holohan had received her information from someone not wishing to Iinform the police directly is another good idea blown away by the fact that she would have had to receive the information from five separate sources who were either unknown to one another or mutually hostile, and included the murderer himself! the police would hardly have been ignored of such an elaborate web had it existed.

The case was reopened in 2000 because another person, not Ruark, has been accused of the murder. Advances in DNA technology enabled Ruark’s discarded pullover, rescued by Detective Batters, 18 years earlier, to pin the crime. It was Holohan’s uniquely detailed evidence, plus a spontaneous psychometric “reading” which produced three strikingly accurate pieces of personal information about one of the detectives, that so impressed Batters and prompted him to ransack Ruark’s dustbin and retrieve the fatal garment. Without it the case would have collapsed.

Holohan produced a large number of statements, the accuracy and relevancy of which cannot be attributed to any normal function. Premature judgment based on inadequate first-hand knowledge and selective evidence is unwise."

Hi Lawrence, yes this case is interesting. I might have mentioned it, come to think of it.

There's a paper here which summarises Guy/Monty's paper in the SPR Journal.

She's also written a book, which I see if I can get hold of.

Thanks..I'll be fascinated to read that as I've only seen the basics as mentioned above.

This also seems like the ideal occasion to bring to a wider audience another extraordinary case which I emailed you about 2 years ago and which is little known outside of Italy as far as I can gather. As far as I know it's not appeared on this blog so others might be interested as, while not about a psychic detective per se, it certainly involves the use of the paranormal in trying to solve a crime. I'll simply copy and paste the main body of the email I sent you....

You'll no doubt know, or remember, the case of the kidnap and murder in the 1970s of the former Italian prime minister, and at the time president of the Christian Democrats, Aldo Moro at the hands of the Red Brigade. I stumbled on a reference to the following in a footnote on Wikipedia. The full story is in the Independent article linked below but here are the key facts:

During the 55 days he was held in captivity everyone in Italy desperately speculated where the kidnappers could possibly be keeping Aldo Moro. At one point something extraordinary happened. Romano Prodi, himself later prime minister and also president of the European Commission, went to the police with a remarkable tip off. He reported how he and a group of university academic friends had spent a Sunday afternoon attempting a seance with a Ouija board. They appeared to get responses from what was identified as the spirit of another, recently deceased, senior Christian Democrat called Giorgio La Pira. Having established this they asked what everyone wanted to know "where are they holding Aldo Moro?"

The Ouija spelled out in turn 3 place names.. Bolsena..Viterbo..Gradoli... The first two were instantly identified as known places, but Gradoli meant nothing to anyone. Until that is they located a village of that name in an Atlas, to their own apparently great surprise. This fact - that a place that existed but no one had heard of had turned up in response to their question - prompted Prodi to risk ridicule and inform the police. The village of Gradoli was duly raided and searched and...nothing. The lead seemed another dead end.

After Moro was murdered and his body disposed of it was determined that he had been kept during most of his captivity in an apartment in a street in Rome called.... Via Gradoli.

Cue twilight zone music.

The gist of the Independent article is that Prodi's political opponents, sceptics and the public at large take it virtually as read that he "obviously" made the whole seance "nonsense" up to cover up for to pass on a tip about Moro's whereabouts without giving his informant away. But from the report I can't find any suggestion of evidence that this is the case appears to be simply an assumption based primarily on the idea that such things are self-evidently impossible so must be untrue.

Prodi however has never (?) changed his story.

Concerning Wiseman, West and Stemman's study one wonders whether the psychics had actually claimed to be able to derive information from objects. One of the psychics was "Christopher Robinson" who cowrote Dream Detective (a book which I have not read). I note their study was published in Jan, 1996 both in the JSPR and in Skeptical Inquirer. Oddly in the former the authors forgot to mention that the research was carried out with support from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

I just read your JSE review of Cracknell's book. Tom Ruffles' was a bit more critical:

"I'm interested to see how script writers portray them in a general context"

Keith Harary wrote about this in "Spontaneous Psi, Depth Psychology and Parapsychology: Proceedings of an International Conference Held in Berkeley, California October 31-November" - according to George Hansen he concluded that psychics were "...often presented as odd or unusual; frequently there was a negative taint" (p. 182 in The Trickster and the Paranormal)

Thanks from one Larry to another and Robert, for bringing these cases up. The psychic detective work on the Poole murder is especially impressive, and that comes from somebody who prefers super-psi to survival as far as these things go!

I gotta admit as Playfair (or Keen) puts it, yeah the Poole case really is a tough one to account for by super-psi alone. One would have to bring in a collective unconscious that exists out of time so to speak in combination with super-psi to avoid the survival hypothesis. I admit it's not necessarily satisfactory, but then again what do we know and what do we really mean by a collective unconscious? William James himself, in order to downplay the survival idea, necessarily brought up the concept of a group mind/reservoir, super-psi alone is not adequate.

I think whatever the truth is, it is stranger than any of us can imagine and guess at.

Interesting post. Psychic detectives can be difficult subjects to research, given the often subjective nature of fitting the psychic statements to the events as they happened.

For example, I went back and looked through some newspaper archives (not for the Sunday People, which would've been most pertinent) and I read that on the day of Gaby Maerth's release Cracknell is quoted as saying the kidnappers would be caught in two weeks. As it turned out, the first one of the gang was caught after four weeks.

Now, is this a hit or not? I suspect that the way people answer that question depends on whether or not they already believe in psychic detectives. In other words, a “near miss” (if you can call it that) can reinforce the beliefs of people holding completely opposing views.

There are other aspects of Cracknell's claim which seem a little odd, but I don't want to get bogged down into a discussion about this case, given the lack of first-hand documentation.

This quote from the leader of the Como police squad caught my eye, though:

“We received a lot of reports: from psychics, seers, mystics, the desperate. We checked about five hundred homes. Someone reported that Gaby was in a village in the province of Asti, and so we raided the entire area.” (My translation. From La Stampa, 3 October, after Gaby was released)

Lastly, just a quick note to say that Wiseman isn't the only person to test psychic detectives and find them wanting. O'Keeffe and Klyver & Reiser have also looked into it with negative results.

The trouble with ‘psychic detection’ and the law is that solid evidence obtained by normal means is necessary for a conviction. Also, from the point of view of the police, if someone comes up to them and claims to have obtained knowledge about a case paranormally, then they will have to divert valuable resources towards following up information that, if proved to be a waste of time, could have career defining consequences (in a rather negative way) for the officer concerned. I’m sure that most people, therefore, would not blame the police for being a little impatient with psychic claimants.

That said, there do seem to be rare cases, such as the Poole example, that defy normal explanation (although no case will ever defy desperate explanation - a la Youens et al).

As far as remote viewing goes. I was told by a retired CIA operative (Colonel) in around 2006 that he was still getting input from a remote viewing unit as late as about 1999 – long after the program was supposed to have been cancelled. He told me that if there was no conclusive evidence as to the cause of a particular issue, but the remote viewers confirmed what was already suspected, then the process was regarded as being accurate enough under those circumstances to be given the casting vote – as a confirmatory tool under SOME circumstances. It was not regarded as being reliable enough to trust completely without other, ‘normal’ evidence.

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