Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Psychics and Police Work

It's not just religious people who are closed-minded. As I alluded to in my recent article on the importance of critical thinking, skeptics can exhibit a mindset remarkably similar to that of a Christian who fails to understand the difference between paranormal powers and stage magick. A prime example is this article from Slate, which purports to debunk the claim that psychics help police solve crimes in response to a report that California psychic Pam Ragland was able to locate the body of a murder victim when police had failed to do so.

The issue of psychics aiding police investigation is contentious and complex. Researchers who have studied actual criminal case data agree that most people who claim to be psychics are unable to offer helpful information. At the same time, there are a few individuals who seem to produce results that are better than chance. The possibility may exist that Ragland could be one of those people, but one lucky guess does not make a pattern. I would expect a real skeptic to make this same argument - most psychic tips aren't helpful to police, and you can't infer much from a single incident, even a high-profile one. Instead, the Slate article offers this:

Yet another example of the mystical properties of the universe? No, but it’s certainly another example of the gullibility (or willful ignorance) of the news media. I’m willing to accept that Pam Ragland helped find Terry Smith’s body. I’m even willing to accept that Riverside County authorities believe she used psychic powers to direct her search. But I am beyond certain that, despite what Ragland says and the authorities might believe, psychic intuition had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of Smith’s body.

How do I know this? Because psychics don’t exist. Psychic powers are not a real thing. A psychic cannot help a detective solve a crime, because there is no such thing as a legitimate psychic. And it’s dangerous and wrong to report otherwise. Pretending that mystics and "intuitives" have something real to offer criminal investigations gives false hope to desperate people, and it’ll just end up wasting time and resources that would’ve been better spent on actual investigative techniques.

This argument, or lack thereof, is simply remarkable in its smugness and dismissiveness. Instead of arguing with facts, the author simply makes a series of statements and treats them as if they are objectively and unquestionably true. How is this different from a religious belief? I will grant that it's more amenable to scientific investigation than metaphysical claims that are fundamentally untestable, but otherwise it's pretty much the same. There is in fact some scientific evidence that psychic powers exist - ganzfeld experiments come to mind, for example - but that same evidence shows that while it produces better results than chance the effect is still unreliable. That particular observation is a reasonable argument that a real skeptic could make against psychics getting involved in criminal cases. But we don't even get that, just some baseless hand-waving.

To address the rest of this point, the idea that psychics waste time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere is simply not true. Police investigators aren't stupid, and they know that most psychic tips don't pan out. What police departments actually do is only investigate such tips as a last resort, when they find themselves out of ideas. Furthermore, the psychics who offer their services to law enforcement generally do so free of charge, so it's not like money is being wasted there. Naturally, a psychic who did charge for tips would be treated with suspicion by police.

When the author talks about the "danger" of ever reporting the possibility that a paranormal event may have occurred he really overplays his hand. Skeptics have been going on for years about how things like horoscope columns in newspapers pose some real threat to society. People like this idiot, who apparently believes that television shows featuring paranormal investigators will lead to Americans actually burning witches at the stake. Spoiler alert - it won't. In fact, not all of the shows in that genre are even all that problematic, in that some of them do a good job of ruling out natural explanations before jumping to paranormal ones.

The world is a weird place, as any scientist will tell you. There actually is a great deal of evidence that sometimes psychics can obtain information by paranormal means that has been compiled over the course of the last century. The main reason that skeptics refuse to accept any of it is that even the best statistical studies have so far failed to come up with a mechanism that explains the results. To me, such observations suggest avenues for future scientific research, to try and determine what that mechanism might be. But to skeptics, they represent threats to a carefully sanitized worldview in which nothing paranormal even goes on and any witness who claims otherwise is either lying or delusional.

The sad thing about this is that if psychics really were taking time and resources away from traditional police work, I would agree with the author that they should not be consulted in criminal cases. Such powers are statistically far less reliable than regular investigative techniques, even with the high-profile successes that are occasionally reported. But if the police really are stumped and the tips are free, I don't see any harm in pursuing them.

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Anonymous said...

I think the investigators that make use of psychics are smarter than people give them credit for. I have no doubt that many departments are using psychics regularly, but they're using the good ones, one or two, and not publicizing it. And they're reaching out to said psychic, rather than taking tips from the wannabe psychics and "intuitives" that call in. Did that sound smart? Am I talking? :-)

Scott Stenwick said...

I certainly think they're a lot smarter than the skeptics give them credit for. Police investigators only start taking specific psychics seriously once they've built up a track record of successes, rather than random folks who call in with tips. That sifts out most of the phonies.