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CSI: Turning from Science to Psychics

Ben Radford

July 29, 2006

Psychics claim to guide us in matters of romance and money, predicting handsome strangers or future fortunes. (If anyone finds a psychic who correctly predicts lottery numbers, please let me know.)

But what happens when psychic powers are used for much more important and practical purposes, such as solving crimes? Psychic detectives have a long and glaring track record of utter failure in criminal cases; from Elizabeth Smart to Laci Peterson to Chandra Levy, Jimmy Hoffa, and countless others, psychic information has been worthless in leading police to missing persons. Still, when crimes remain unsolved and families are desperate, psychics will offer to help. And sometimes entertain.

Following the success of Court TV’s series Psychic Detectives, the network launched a new “reality TV” program titled Haunting Evidence. California “psychic profiler” Carla Baron and two other investigators spend 24 hours revisiting real-life cold case murders in the expectation that their powers will succeed where police have failed. Oddly, the team doesn't tackle obvious missing persons cases known to many Americans, such as the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, or Natalee Holloway’s 2005 disappearance. Perhaps those cases are too high-profile, and might cause the public to wonder why America’s top psychic detectives hadn’t solved those long ago.

In a recent episode, the group went to Athens, Georgia, to look into the unsolved 2001 murder of college student Tara Baker. The investigators visited the Baker family, camera crew in tow, and asked them to relive their daughter’s life and death. The psychics then launched into very graphic, detailed descriptions of how they imagine Baker was murdered (based entirely on “feelings,” guesses, and conjecture). They later headed to Baker’s grave, though it’s unclear why, other than for dramatic effect. Ghost hunters usually claim that people’s ghosts remain not at the spot they were buried, but where they died (hence haunted houses, not haunted cemeteries). Apparently the group was unaware of this, but in the end it didn’t matter, since no information came of it.

One psychic stated confidently that the police already have the DNA evidence they need to find Baker’s murderer (which makes one wonder why the group was needed in the first place). The investigators also claimed that Baker knew her victim well, and that they had communicated with Baker’s ghost. If Baker knew her killer well, she would presumably know his name, address, and telephone number-exactly the sort of information that would be useful to police. If Baker’s ghost confirmed to the psychics that she knew her killer, why would it refuse to just tell them who it was? Predictably, both psychics’ powers dimmed on that subject, and instead they provided only the usual ambiguous information that may (or may not) turn out to be true if and when the killer is found. The program concluded with the team giving their information to police and suggesting that they had helped solve the crime, when nothing of the sort happened. The murderer has not been caught and the crime remains unsolved.

If the trio truly were trying to solve the case (instead of simply make entertaining television), it seems odd that they would limit themselves to only 24 hours of “investigation” and supposedly request that they not be given information about the case. Real detectives want as much information as possible, but on Haunting Evidence this technique is meant to impress the viewers when the team “senses” information about the murder that would have appeared in news coverage or been obvious from common sense. The information they come up with might seem inexplicable-unless, of course, they had spent a few minutes looking into the case before they showed up. If the psychics weren't sure where to look, they could have consulted a memorial Web site for the victim, www.TaraBaker.com, which includes dozens of newspaper stories detailing the crime.

In a way, Haunting Evidence will be a good test case. If the team can come up with new evidence (based on psychic powers) that actually brings a criminal to justice, it would be the first in history, and revolutionize the criminal justice system. If psychics can provide valid, reliable information that leads police to bodies and suspects, they should be in every police department. The show may in fact end up helping solve the crimes it features-not through psychic powers but simply raising the crime’s profile and encouraging the public to come forward to help the stalled investigation.

Despite claims that police departments routinely use psychic information in investigations, the relationship between police and psychics is an uneasy one. After all, across the country hundreds of professed psychics are arrested each year for fraud and theft by deception, usually after taking money from elderly victims in fortunetelling scams. (And just last month, a California psychic was convicted of murder.)

In the end, science, not psychic powers, has a proven track record of success in solving crimes. CourtTV’s slogan, which appears in ads for Haunting Evidence, is “Seriously Entertaining.” Yet the families of those murdered are desperate to find justice, not provide entertainment for CourtTV’s audience. If psychic detectives can really find missing persons and want to help, they should be in the hurricane-ravaged southern states, where nearly two thousand people are still missing from last season’s disasters. Instead of helping these families recover their loved ones, psychics are busy appearing on cable television shows.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.