Wednesday, March 19, 2008

IS IT REAL? Police Psychics

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: 2005-6

This episode of the show poses the question: are the psychics who solve cases gifted, or just lucky?  The publisher of Skeptical Inquirer opines that psychic detectives merely waste police resources and give the families of victims false and unrealistic hopes.  As usual, IIR looks at historical case studies and offers scientific explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena.  (See the recent review of IIR Psychic Animals for a list of some cold reading techniques employed by some psychics.)  Many times, it seems, the facts of the psychics' successes become exaggerated -- mythologized -- over time.  The supposed "solving" of the Jack the Ripper case by a psychic doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  Nor did famed psychic Edgar Cayce do well in the Lindberg kidnapping --  in fact, he got it completely wrong.  Nor have psychics done well on predicting assassinations - despite their claims to the contrary.  The show features a college professor and former psychic who, now skeptical, teaches "cold reading" techniques to his students.  Some psychics may not even know they're using these techniques.  (It's worth checking out Darren Brown's show Mind Control, if you haven't for what one can achieve with stagecraft, illusion, and psychological techniques.)   The show puts a psychic -- who teaches others to harness their gifts -- on a cold case of missing persons.  The policeman working the case concludes that the psychic has produced no new or useful information in the case.  They also test a dreaming psychic, who doesn't do so well detecting a news article in an envelope.  (He says that he needs actual objects, not print reports.)  They then test psychics, geographic profilers. and ordinary students to try to find the lair of criminals.  Geographic profilers did best; the other two did no better than random chance.  And examined predictions that "came true" seem to be either vague, or a case of "if you make enough predictions, some are bound to come true."  Retrofitting predictions to fit the events (as they later come to be) seems to account for the rest.  Again, I recommend checking out Mind Control or, if you prefer fiction, Psyche, for how it might really work.

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