I don't pay too much attention to the so-called "skeptics of the paranormal" anymore. I've found that their arguments are too weak and repetitive, and the evidence they cite too flimsy and one-sided, to warrant giving them much of my time. But recently I did read an article on the Web site of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP, about so-called "psychic detectives."
Though I was prepared to be unimpressed, I must admit I was surprised - because even by the standards of the CSICOP pseudoskeptics, this is a sad piece of work.
You might wonder why I call them pseudoskeptics. The reason is that true skeptics are open-minded and willing to consider all the evidence in a judicious way. The pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, are mere dogmatists who engage in verbal sleight of hand to win arguments and reinforce their pre-existing, unshakable assumptions.
The author of "The Case of the 'Psychic Detectives," Joe Nickell, begins by flaunting his pseudoskeptic credentials in high style:
Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.
This little passage is so characteristic of the tenor of pseudoskeptical argumentation that I think we should pause over it just for moment. Notice the deliberately sarcastic language -- "diviners ... soothsayers" -- and the tacit assumption that all such claims must be "fantasies" "shrewdly purvey[ed]" as "cons." Notice that the claimants are "shrewd," while the public is "gullible." And the whole trend is "disturbing."
Here we have the essence of the pseudoskeptics' mindset. There is no real argument offered. There is merely an attempt to intimidate. The underlying message is: If you believe this "psychic" stuff, you are gullible and you are being conned.
No one wants to be gullible. No one wants to think he's being conned. This argument by intimidation can be remarkably effective on people who are susceptible to this kind of intellectual bullying.
Oh, and one more point. Take another look at this statement: "mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability." Sounds pretty authoritative, doesn't it? But before you allow yourself to be too impressed, you should realize that that the pseudoskeptics regard any study of the paranormal as outside the bounds of "mainstream science" by definition. Therefore, when Nickell claims that mainstream science hasn't validated any psychic ability, he is merely stating a tautology. From his point of view, any scientific study that does validate psychic ability (and there have been many, most recently the Ganzfeld tests) is automatically excluded from the domain of mainstream science. So mainstream science can never validate the paranormal; to the extent that science validates the paranormal, it ceases to be mainstream. Q.E.D.
After this less-than-promising introduction, Nickell proceeds to debunk "several self-claimed psychic shamuses" who are said to have assisted the police.
The first psychic he takes aim at is Allison DuBois, whom Nickell sarcastically refers to as "the 'real-life' Phoenix-area clairvoyant/spiritualist whose alleged assistance to law enforcement is the basis for NBC's drama series Medium." Of course, the quote marks around the term real-life are unnecessary, since whatever else she is, Allison DuBois is unquestionably a real person.
Nickell, however, asserts -- or at least strongly implies -- that she has been lying about her involvement in police cases. His evidence? "Both the Glendale [Arizona] police and the Texas Rangers deny Dubois worked with them." Now, how often does a law enforcement agency admit to hiring a psychic as a consultant? Does the mere fact that official spokespersons for these agencies deny any knowledge of Dubois prove, in itself, that she's been lying? Even on the TV show, it's made clear that Allison's involvement in the cases is kept undercover, a closely guarded secret.
Incidentally, DuBois claims to consult to the Phoenix District Attorney's office, not the Glendale police. There seems to be no doubt that she did intern at the DA's office. One possible reason for not mentioning specific cases she's worked on is concern for her safety. From an interview: “I guess I get put in the danger that now the cases I've worked where I helped the people on death row ... They didn't know who I was in the courtroom before. Now they do. That worries me a little bit.’’
Maybe DuBois has helped solve crimes or maybe she hasn't. I have no way of knowing, and if I may judge by what Nickell has told us, neither does he. But I am not optimistic about Nickell's accuracy in this area, because he proceeds to level another, even more questionable criticism.
The [Medium Web] site mentions that DuBois is "the youngest member of the elite medium ‘Dream Team’ studied by Dr. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona in Tucson." That isn’t much to boast of: Schwartz, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Arizona, is credulous about the paranormal, and his book The Afterlife Experiments (2002) claims he has provided scientific evidence for the survival of consciousness and the reality of spirit communication. However, noted parapsychology critic Ray Hyman (2003, 22) observes that Schwartz is "badly mistaken," adding: "The research he presents is flawed. Probably no other extended program in psychical research deviates so much from accepted norms of scientific methodology as this one does."
Note that Nickell provides no support whatsoever for his assertion that Schwartz is "credulous about the paranormal"; after all, merely quoting another skeptic (Hyman) hardly counts as evidence. Hyman's uninformed and scurrilous claims have been extensively rebutted by Schwartz on the Internet. (If you'd like to read a balanced view of Schwartz's work with DuBois, which actually gives both sides, check out this article in the Arizona Daily Star.)
For a "credulous" naif, Schwartz has pretty good academic credentials, I would say. Here's his bio:
After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University, he served as a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University, director of the Yale Psychophysiology Center, and co-director of the Yale Behavioral Medicine Clinic. He has published more than four hundred scientific papers, edited eleven academic books ...
Hey, what are Joe Nickell's academic credentials, anyway? According to an online bio, here they are:
B.A. University of Kentucky, 1967
M.A. University of Kentucky, 1982
Ph.D. University of Kentucky, 1987
The same bio informs us that "Joe Nickell has worked professionally as a stage magician, private investigator, journalist, and university instructor."
Promotional copy for Nickell's new book Secrets of the Sideshows (published by his alma mater, the University of Kentucky) adds the detail that he was "once a carnival pitchman."
Yet another Web page further expands Nickell's curricula vitae: "undercover detective, teacher, draft dodger, river boat manager, carnival promoter, magician, investigator and spokesperson." In an interview on this page we are told that
Joe impressed on [the interviewer] the difference between being a scientist and an investigator. Joe seems to have no significant credentials just as his mentor: James Randi. In both cases, the lack of single significant credentials is much more than offset by a more important broad area of knowledge.
Okay, so I guess this constitutes an admission - Joe Nickell has no "significant credentials." But he does have "a more important broad area of knowledge." Presumably this is where his experiences as draft dodger, river boat manager, and carnival promoter come in. And remember, he does have a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky.
Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on that school, but some people might argue that Schwartz (doctorate from Harvard, professor at Yale, four hundred scientific papers, eleven academic books) might have a slightly better background for conducting a scientific study than a former "carnival pitchman." Yet Nickell dismisses Schwartz as "credulous," then dismisses DuBois by association with Schwartz.
If this is the best Nickell can do to embarrass DuBois, one wonders why he even bothered to try.
Next, Nickell tackles the psychic Noreen Renier. In perhaps his most embarrassing argument, Nickell insinuates that if Renier were legitimate, she ought to be willing to be tested by "psychic investigator James Randi, who offers a million dollars to anyone who can exhibit such a power under scientifically controlled conditions."
Anyone who has taken the trouble to look at Randi's much-publicized but utterly worthless psychic challenge is likely to conclude that the game has been rigged so that nobody can ever win. Randi is on record as having rejected in advance at least one claimant whose alleged abilities could have been easily tested, and might actually have been verified. Randi himself has been quoted by CSICOP founding member Dennis Rawlins as saying that he will never have to pay a dime of his prize money because "I always have an out."* (The quote is here, in the last paragraph; this entire page is worth reading.)
Now, I have no idea if Renier is legitimate, and the various predictions she's apparently made about the assassinations of public figures seem pretty dubious to me. On the other hand, she did evidently help police find the body of a missing man who had driven his truck into a rock quarry, where it lay submerged at a considerable depth. This case was presented on Court TV's show Psychic Detectives. Nickell dismisses the episode as "a slanted treatment of the case that omitted crucial information and offered a highly dubious recreation of events."
Citing the research of another debunker, Gary Posner, Nickell suggests that Renier could easily have guessed the location of the truck - and the dead man inside. "Renier had been informed that Lewis's truck had not been found, despite intensive searching. If it was in the vicinity, notes Posner, .... it must surely have been 'submerged in a body of water.' "
"Surely"? In other words, it was obvious from the start that Lewis's truck was underwater?
Of course, it was not obvious at all. This is merely an example of what Nickell elsewhere calls "retrofitting," the alleged tendency of psychics to refashion their predictions to fit the results. No doubt some phony psychics do practice this technique -- but the pseudoskeptics are the real masters of the ruse.
Let's think about it. No one knew where this man Lewis had gone or if he was alive or dead. He had driven off in his truck and had been missing for days. Yet Nickell and Posner simply assume that the truck, with the dead man in it, "was in the vicinity." Why? Wouldn't it be equally likely that the truck was a hundred miles away ... or a thousand miles away? And even if it was in the area, why did it have to be underwater? In a rural area, couldn't it be concealed in the woods or in an abandoned shed or in a junkyard or parked on a side street, unnoticed?
And who would have known that Lewis would be dead inside the truck? Maybe he was still alive and just abandoned the thing. Or maybe he was a victim of a carjacking, and was shot and left dead in the woods while the truck was driven off into another county. There are a million possibilities.
Only in retrospect, after the case was solved, could anyone claim that the location of the truck was obvious. After all, if it was so obvious, why did the police call in a psychic in the first place? They consulted Renier only after conventional avenues of investigation had failed.
And what happened once they consulted Renier? Why, they found the truck, with Lewis's body inside, in circumstances that closely matched the scene she had described. The police were sufficiently impressed to risk the ridicule of people like Nickell by going public with the story. Predictably, Nickell rewards the police by branding them "obviously credulous." And yet he expects us to believe that if law enforcement authorities in Arizona and Texas actually have worked with Allison DuBois, they'll be eager to admit it.
Nickell next deals with a woman named Carla Baron, whom I have never heard of and who, if Nickell's description can be trusted, does indeed sound like a dubious character. So I'll give him that one.
Then he discusses a certain Carol Pate. He mainly debunks Pate by quoting Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who was good enough to quote Nickell in one of his columns. Nickell returns the favor by extensively quoting Zorn, clearly a fellow after his own heart. "Turns out the woman was just guessing, like every other phony who claims to have such powers," Zorn concludes (emphasis added), thereby dismissing 150 years of paranormal research with one ignorant sweep of the hand. His basis for this comprehensive verdict? A spokesperson for one police department said that Pate's psychic prediction in one criminal case apparently didn't pan out.
Well, maybe it didn't. Or maybe it did, and the police are not eager to advertise their reliance on a psychic to a sarcastic, skeptical columnist at the local newspaper. Who knows? We don't get enough details to judge the credibility of Zorn's -- or Nickell's -- conclusion.
Finally Nickell reports a case that he personally investigated, that of Etta Louise Smith. He tells us,
Smith never claimed to be a psychic sleuth, but she allegedly had a one-time "vision" of a murder victim’s body. This was so accurate that it led to her arrest by Los Angeles police, although she was subsequently "vindicated" by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury.
Notice that he puts the word vindicated in quotes. We'll come back to this.
Smith’s alleged vision was of the location of the body of a missing nurse, Melanie Uribe, at an area in rural Lopez Canyon. Indeed, after Smith had gone to the police and pinpointed the location on a map, she decided to drive to the site with two of her children. They had located the body and were en route to a telephone when she met the arriving police!
She was later questioned about her precise knowledge and was given a lie detector test, which she failed. According to a detective’s sworn testimony, "the polygraphist indicated that she was being deceptive," even "trying to control her breathing" ... She was jailed for four days on suspicion of having some connection with the crime or criminals.
Nickell, who takes pride in being a skeptic, apparently has no skepticism at all about the validity of polygraph tests, despite the fact that these tests are known to be so inaccurate that their results are not admitted as evidence in court. Almost any sign of nervous tension will be interpreted by the polygraphist as evidence of deception. If you had just been accused of being an accessory in a homicide, would you be nervous?
Smith subsequently sued the police for the trauma she had suffered, asking $750,000 in damages. She won her case, but the jury, some of whom were apparently suspicious of Smith's "psychic" vision, awarded her a mere $26,184 - sufficient to reimburse her for lost wages and attorney's fees, but providing little for pain and suffering.
Note that Smith "won her case," so she was indeed vindicated by the Superior Court. There was no need for Nickell, earlier, to put that word in quotes. The fact that she received "a mere" $26,184 in damages is irrelevant; if she won the case, then the jury presumably did not think she was covering up for the killer. And this is hardly the first time that someone suing for a large amount of money ended up with a much smaller sum.
But if she wasn't an accesory, then how to explain that she knew where to find the murdered nurse? The usual way where pseudoskeptics are concerned -- with a lot of handwaving and "what if" speculation.
Is it not possible that an acquaintance of Smith, privy to information about the crime, sought her help in revealing the information? Could Smith not merely have been protecting her source? The possibility gains credibility from the fact that the killers were uncovered because one of them had boasted of the crime to people in his Pacoima neighborhood and, at the time, Smith lived in Pacoima!
From this brief statement, you would be forgiven for assuming that Pacoima is a small town where everybody knows everybody else. It is not. Pacoima is part of the vast urban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The population of Pacoima is 101,862. This makes it a city, not a small town - a city, in fact, that is larger than Santa Barbara, Fargo, Miami Beach, or Nashua, NH, to name a few.
Nickell provides no evidence to suggest that Smith lived anywhere near the killer's neighborhood. If she had lived in that neighborhood, or even close-by, don't you think he would've mentioned it?
So Nickell's debunking of this case depends on accepting a polygraph test as legitimate evidence and then speculating that Smith may have received the tip from the killer because she lived in the same general vicinity, along with 100,000 other people. This is pretty thin soup, wouldn't you say?
Yet Nickell, pleased with himself, is able to conclude without hesitation or caveat, "As these cases and profiles indicate, psychics do not solve crimes ..."
Case closed? Hardly. There are some people, whose knowledge of crimesolving far exceeds that of a former carnival pitchman and river boat manager, who don't go along with Nickell's confident assertion. One of them is Vernon Geberth, author of Practical Homicide Investigation (third edition; 1996), probably the single most authoritative and widely cited book in its field.
On pages 665 - 670 of his 901-page manual, Geberth deals with the admittedly controversial issue of using psychic consultants in criminal cases. He relies, interestingly enough, on correspondence with "several psychics including Ms. Noreen Renier [who] has worked with various police agencies including the FBI on homicide cases and other criminal investigations." Renier, you will recall, is one of the psychics Joe Nickell did his best to debunk.
Geberth reviews the claims made for and against pyschics, and concludes that while "charlatans and frauds ... flourish in the area of extrasensory perception," the use of legitimate psychics may be warranted in difficult cases. "Investigatively speaking, there has been sufficient documentation of successes to merit consideration of this technique on a case-by-case basis." Geberth ends on a note of caution and balance that Nickell and his allies would do well to emulate:
The police have much to learn about the relative value of psychic phenomena in criminal investigations. Furthermore, there is a definite need for an evaluation of the successes and failures of psychic phenomena as they relate to law enforcement before they can be recognized as a "legitimate" investigative tool. Perhaps in time, the psychic and homicide investigator may form the perfect partnership against crime. In any event, I neither encourage nor discourage the use of psychics in homicide investigations.
Spoken like a true (not a pseudo) skeptic!
* From Rawlins' article "sTARBABY": "[Randi] assured me how cautious he was in the testing for his well-publicized $10,000 prize for proof of psychic abilities (for which he acts as policeman, judge and jury -- and thus never has supported my idea of neutral judgment of CSICOP tests). 'I always have an out,' he said."
The original prize was $10,000. It is now said to be more than $1,000,000.
By the way, in one controversy over his psychic challenge, Randi claimed that he had assembled a panel of independent judges that included Stanley Krippner, a respected paranormal investigator. But Krippner was not actually on the panel, having explicitly declined to participate. When a third party, Pam Blizzard, pointed this out to Randi, he went ballistic in a public diatribe, calling Blizzard a liar and promising to cross Times Square naked while pushing a peanut with his nose if any evidence could be produced that Krippner was not on the panel. Krippner's statement was duly produced; Randi has not apologized, nor has he been spotted in Times Square, naked or otherwise.