Alex Tsakiris, Psychic Detectives, and Bad Science
October 13, 2015
Good science requires good data, and to get valid results scientists must consider all of the evidence. If a researcher chooses to exclude some of the information available in an experiment, for example, he or she should offer a rationale for doing so. When researchers present to the public or their peers data that only supports their conclusions, that’s called bad science (at best) or outright fraud (at worst).
Agenda-driven pseudoscience, in contrast to good science, often involves cherry-picking and careful selection of evidence. This happens, for example, when a psychic offers a client a list of a dozen impressive predictions but carefully omits hundreds of spectacular failures. Any psychic who makes enough predictions (especially ones of a general nature) will be correct some of the time by simple random chance. What’s needed when examining the evidence for psychic powers is the entire data set—all the predictions made, whether they turned out to be right, wrong, somewhere in the middle, or inconclusive—and establishing a success ratio. If the selection criteria are valid and the rate is significantly above random chance, then it may indeed be evidence for psychic powers.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw a new book by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris with the bold and red-flag-raising title Why Science Is Wrong...About Almost Everything. In it he devotes a whole chapter to a case I researched as part of a challenge to explain the best case he could find for psychic detectives, one he’d seen on television. I expected Alex to continue to be wrong about the case, but I didn’t expect him to tout it as a victory in his book.
The case involved a psychic named Nancy Weber and her claims that she helped catch a serial killer named James Koedatich by giving police officers Jim Moore and Bill Hughes biographical details about the killer long before he was caught—details that Weber claims, and Tsakiris believes, turned out to be amazingly accurate. Koedatich killed a woman named Aimee Hoffman (at which time Weber entered the case) and later another woman.
Tsakiris writes that “the investigation was quite extensive. It spanned months of work and included multiple transcribed interviews with all the key players. The conclusion was self-evident—the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account.... Amazingly, Radford still denies this fact” (p. 90). It’s easy to mislead people through selective quotation and cherry picking evidence; even the most reasonable and sensible person can seem like an unreasonable fool if you simply omit contrary information and present one side of the story.
A Bit of Skepticism
When the project began I was somewhat surprised that Tsakiris assumed that “reality” television shows such as Psychic Detectives were factually accurate (despite ads touting the show as “Not just based on a true story. It is a true story”). Having written several books about the mass media, having debunked many “based on a true story” claims made in sensational TV shows and films, and having participated on dozens of television shows, I began the case with a healthy skepticism about the truth of “reality” TV shows. Television show writers, producers, and editors routinely twist and manufacture “facts” to make a more sensational story; the goal is entertainment, not truth. I had assumed that Tsakiris was media savvy enough to realize that not everything on television is true, but I later realized that I was mistaken. That he would offer a half-hour TV show on Koedatich as a “best case” for psychic detectives that he would personally vouch for was even more surprising to me.
No one, including Tsakiris, Weber, Moore, or Hughes, offered any evidence whatsoever supporting their claims. The police officers’ notes are long gone and there are no other records of what Nancy Weber claims she told police. Not a single piece of paper was offered by Tsakiris or anyone else as evidence in this case. This “amazing” case rests entirely on the contradictory memories of three people from a third of a century ago, yet Tsakiris boldly offers it as an example of Why Science Is Wrong.
The case is far too complex to discuss in any detail here, and my in-depth research can be found in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and in Skeptical Inquirer. However I can summarize my findings, and I encourage interested readers to seek the original sources to decide for themselves where the truth lies.
In contrast to Tsakiris’s claim that “the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account,” a close review of their statements reveals that they contradicted virtually every specific claim Weber made about what she told them regarding Koedatich. I consulted transcripts from both the Psychic Investigators TV show and the Skeptiko podcasts, and I interviewed all the principals at least once. As I reviewed the information from Sgt. Bill Hughes and Capt. Jim Moore, it became clear that their accounts differ dramatically from those of the psychic. For example:
- Weber claims she specified that Koedatich, Aimee Hoffman’s killer, had served prison time in Florida: “He came up from Florida where he had been imprisoned for murder.” Moore agreed with Weber; Sgt. Hughes originally disputed this claim, and later changed his mind.
- Weber claims that she specified of the killer that “his last name… begins with a K.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.
- Weber claims that she specified that the killer’s “last name… ends in an ‘ish’[or –ich].” Neither Hughes nor Moore confirm that Weber gave them this information.
- Weber claims that she specified that Hoffman’s killer was of Polish descent, and that “his last name is Polish.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.
- Weber claims that she specified that “the man who did this, his first name is James.” Moore agrees with Weber, but Sgt. Hughes stated, “She didn’t have complete names for us… I do not remember the first name at all.”
Although Tsakiris strains to revise the police officers’ testimony to his liking, even Nancy Weber herself acknowledged that Moore and Hughes did not corroborate key points of her story. The psychic’s explanation is that the officers—whose memory Tsakiris repeatedly defends, since his entire case rests on it—simply didn’t remember what she told them: “Yes, [Sgt. Hughes] does not recall it but... it does not mean I did not say it.”
Sgt. Hughes admitted that “No information she gave led to his arrest...the case was solved by good police work.” I was also surprised that Tsakiris—despite his touted investigative thoroughness researching this case—repeatedly (and somewhat disrespectfully) managed to misspell both of the names of Koedatich’s victims.
Who’s telling the truth, me or Alex? This isn’t a matter of subjective interpretation; the transcripts are available for anyone to review, and I have posted excerpts of the audio online so people can hear for themselves what the police said (http://benjaminradford.com/investigations/psychic-detective-interviews/).
In his chapter on the case Tsakiris chooses to not only hide the fact that the police contradicted most of Weber’s statements, but he also does not reveal to his readers that in my research I found Koedatich in the phone book using only information that Weber claimed to have given Moore and Hughes at the time. If Tsakiris is correct and Weber is telling the truth, it is baffling that despite the police having so many specific, accurate, identifying details about Koedatich—including his first name, the first and last parts of his last name, his ethnicity, criminal record (including where he served time and for what crime) and his hometown—they were somehow unable to find and arrest him before he killed again. If I could do it with the information Weber claims she gave the police, why couldn’t Moore and Hughes? Neither Weber nor Tsakiris have offered an explanation for the apparent incompetence of their star witnesses.
Tsakiris also neglects to tell his readers that I discovered Nancy Weber falsely claimed to have psychically known unpublished details about Aimee Hoffman’s murder when in fact those details had been reported on the front page of the local newspaper and in the New York Times the day after Hoffman’s body was found. This is irrefutable evidence that Weber either lied about or badly misremembered key details of the case. Tsakiris and Weber have been unable or unwilling to explain this serious lapse in her credibility.
I don’t mind legitimate criticism of my research, but Tsakiris is so far off the mark in this case that, as I noted in my book, his insistence “that the police and the psychic were saying the same thing...reminded me of a person in a swimming pool treading water while insisting he is not wet.”
The Brave Mavericky of Alex Tsakiris
Several prominent Forteans have commented on the book. Jerome Clark has a long and distinguished history of interesting research into the paranormal—his early apparent endorsement of the Cottingley Fairies hoax photograph notwithstanding—and I’ve quoted from his three-volume series Strange and Unusual Happenings several times. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, well known for his claims about psi phenomena, including psychic dogs, contributed to the book.
In his foreword to the book Sheldrake noted that “When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not... a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview.” Out of the thirteen chapters in the book, Sheldrake then singled out my case as an example of Tsakiris’s keen investigative skills: “I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly” (p. xi). Sheldrake goes on to marvel at Tsakiris’s “investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth.”
Jerome Clark reviewed the book in Fortean Times magazine. Of Tsakiris’s podcast—which Clark misspells as “Skeptico”— he states that “the skeptics who appear on his show are wont to complain of being ‘sandbagged’. Translated, that means they found themselves up against an interviewer who had done his homework.” Clark notes that among the big-name skeptics whose sloppy scholarship and ideological blinkers have been exposed by the wily Tsakiris is “the prominent debunker who goes to comic lengths to salvage a ‘skeptical’ claim in the face of assertions from informants (in this case law-enforcement officers) whose patience he tries as he seeks to revise their testimony to his liking.” With mixture of bemusement and mild surprise I realized that he was referring to me.
I take no particular pleasure when friends—or even those I disagree with—fall for hoaxes or repeat demonstrable misinformation. I make an effort not to endorse dubious or false claims; before I reference something in an article or book I make an effort to verify its accuracy. That’s one reason why, for example, I rarely share news stories on social media unless I either have researched it myself or have taken at least some due diligence steps to affirm to my satisfaction that the claims or information contained therein are accurate.
Sure, there’s a touch of schadenfreude when Dr. Phil, Uri Geller, or Deepak Chopra mistakenly quotes a satirical news source as legitimate or repeats as true a long-discredited saw such as that people only use 10 percent of their brains. But for the most part I ignore it and if anything feel a bit of pity. Seeing others promote verifiably dubious information made by others is awkward because it reflects badly not only on the person making the claim but those who implicitly or explicitly endorsed it; it tarnishes their own reputations and reveals them as someone who got suckered.
I feel badly for Sheldrake and Clark because sooner or later at least some of the people who read their comments will—out of curiosity or a desire to seek out original sources and not merely accept Tsakiris’s selective portrayal of the research—find my published work on this case and see that this pair have been misled into endorsing a one-sided and intellectually dishonest take on that investigation by a person they exalted as fair-minded and committed to truth.
I was more bemused than annoyed by Tsakiris’s chapter (and Sheldrake and Clark’s explicit endorsements of it) because for those who wish to do a bit of research and consult easily available resources to verify the facts, the harm is to their reputations, not mine. Sheldrake and Clark will be the ones who, years from now, may be asked in an interview or at a book signing, talk, or other public event how they could have endorsed such a manifestly biased book chapter. Had they not done any research? How do they explain Tsakiris’s decision to omit the voluminous examples in which the detectives refuted Weber’s claims, and even that the psychic had been caught claiming information she read in a newspaper as having come through psychic abilities?
I haven’t spoken with either Rupert Sheldrake or Jerome Clark about the matter, but given that we’ve been on more or less opposite sides of the fence on many Fortean subjects for going on two decades, it seems certain that they have long ago painted me as a stubborn, closed-minded skeptic who refuses to look at evidence. When Tsakiris offered an example supporting that assumption, they were quite happy to assume it was true and highlight it as a clear example of my position.
Because of cognitive biases including anchoring bias and confirmation bias, when people give us information that fits our preconceived notions and worldview, we often accept it uncritically. Those who tell us things that challenge our assumptions tend to be subjected to extra scrutiny or dismissed outright. As Sheldrake himself states on page 87 of the book, “I think there’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that.” (Here Sheldrake mistakenly refers to psychologist Richard Wiseman instead of Alex Tsakiris.)
There’s irony in the daisy chain echo chamber of misinformation: this case began when Alex Tsakiris assumed, with little or no research or verification, that the Psychic Detectives TV show he saw was an accurate account of Nancy Weber’s psychic claims. Six years later, Sheldrake and Clark assumed, with little or no research or verification, that Alex Tsakiris’s book chapter on the case (essentially little more than interview transcriptions) was an accurate account of Weber’s claims and the resulting investigation. The accusations against me by these three of sloppy scholarship and investigative ineptitude resulting from an ideological blindness to contrary evidence is especially rich.
The conspiracy-minded among Skeptiko’s listeners may wonder if Tsakiris is not actually an undercover hardcore skeptic seeking to discredit people such as Sheldrake and Clark by publishing false information to see which prominent critics endorse it without having done any research, and then exposing the deception and embarrassing them into admitting they were gullible and should have checked their facts. This double-agent scenario occurred to me, but Occam’s razor suggests it’s unlikely. It seems more likely that Tsakiris genuinely does not understand why his “best case” for psychic detectives is a spectacular failure by any reasonable standard of evidence. Perhaps he should revisit his online boards where even many of his supporters voiced their concerns over his total reliance on the accuracy of decades-old contradictory memories.
Despite his self-professed expertise, Tsakiris clearly has a very poor grasp of such fundamentals as burden of proof and scientific methodologies. I did not read the other twelve chapters of the book so I don’t know whether or not Alex is equally selective and dishonest in his characterizations of those subjects, but I expect so.
Tsakiris casts himself as a maverick groundbreaker daring to ask tough questions of pompous skeptics and puncturing the pretensions of science. He is instead following a well-trod path using a tried and true formula: Speak quickly, act confidently, attack critics, and refuse to acknowledge even obvious errors in your evidence and arguments. That’s not how science works, but it will help you fool some of the people some of the time. Science may indeed be wrong some of the time—its self-correcting mechanism is perhaps its greatest strength—but it’s Alex Tsakiris who is wrong in this case. His “best case” for psychic detectives is in fact astonishingly weak, and if that is one of his marquee examples of how Science Is Wrong, then science is in far better shape than anyone dared imagine.