I was asked for my thoughts about the most recent Sensing Murder re-run last week, and an article was published on Monday talking about the program. I talked with journalist Carly Gooch about how there are only around 60 unsolved murders from the last 100 years, and that it wouldn't take much for a "psychic" to memorise some of the details of each of these cases. I also managed to find an article online from 5 years before the program was filmed which detailed most or all of the facts that the psychics were able to produce.

Here are the questions I was asked, and the answers I provided:

How does the skeptic society feel about psychics being used to help solve unsolved murders/missing persons?

The NZ Skeptics feel that the use of psychics in police investigations is a waste of time, and may even be detrimental to police efforts. Psychics have never been able to prove that they have any extrasensory abilities, and our understanding of science and the world around us makes the existence of psychic abilities very unlikely. Given this lack of evidence, and lack of plausibility, we feel confident saying that psychics most probably have no special abilities.

The use of psychic information is not going to add any useful data to a case, and so it’s likely that police who use psychics will be following leads that are dead ends. Police time would be better spent simply following the facts of a case, and using tried and tested police methods that are evidence based.

What weight does the society hold in psychic's abilities?

The NZ Skeptics Society does not take psychic abilities seriously, as we have yet to see good evidence of these abilities.

However, we do take the claims of psychics seriously. We think that people who claim to be able to talk to deceased loved ones, or help people with their life issues (especially when they offer to do so at a price) are being unethical unless they can positively show that they have a real ability. So far, no psychic has been able to provide this proof.

The NZ Skeptics have offered in the past to test people with psychic powers, but usually when it comes to agreeing on how to perform a rigorous test we hear excuses about how these kinds of abilities can’t be tested, and the conversation then comes to an abrupt halt.

How do the psychics seem to get so close to the truth?

Psychics use a variety of tricks to appear as if they have a connection to the supernatural. Barnum statements (using the Barnum Effect, also called the Forer Effect) are often used for personal readings. These are statements that feel profound, but that apply to most people. Examples of these kinds of statements are:

  • “You feel a need for people to like you”
  • “You have unused potential that you have not tapped into yet”
  • “Although you can be outgoing at times, you often feel shy”
  • “You tend to be overly critical of yourself”

Psychics can also use statements in the form of questions that are true whatever the answer is. For example, a psychic could ask “You don’t like boats, do you?”. If someone answers “Yes”, the psychic could respond with “Yes, I’m getting through that you enjoy boating”. If, however, someone answers “No”, the psychic may respond with “No, I didn’t think so - the spirits are telling me that you don’t like being on water”. Either way, the psychic’s initial question can be turned into a successful “reading” of a customer.

Knowledge of a case can help psychics. Psychics and mystics have been known in the past to use information gleaned from google searches, public records, newspaper articles, local knowledge and even in-ear radios to provide information that they claim has been psychically divined, but that actually has a much more mundane source. Once the psychic has “proven” their abilities to someone in this way, people are much more likely to be invested in the reading and give positive feedback to the psychic. This feedback can help a psychic to make more educated guesses about the subject they are focussing on.

Confirmation bias on the part of the person employing the psychic also has an effect. People tend to discard information that doesn’t fit with their existing knowledge, and remember information that accords with the picture they have in their minds. Therefore when it comes to psychics, who tend to make many, many guesses in the course of a reading, some of these guesses will be accurate purely by chance. People are much more likely to remember the guesses that are close to the truth, or that can be made somehow to fit the truth, and will tend to forget the statements that seem random or just plain wrong.

If you are visiting a psychic, it’s always good to get an audio recording of the session, and then to play it back afterwards to see just how often the psychic gets something wrong and moves on to another guess.

Interestingly, it seems that many psychics don’t even realise that they are using these tricks. Psychics can end up genuinely believing that they have otherworldly powers simply because they are using the tools listed above, without understanding that they have learnt to use this kind of language when they give a reading.

The police have said they have an 'open mind' on using psychics, what does the society think about this?

The police have previously told us that they:

“base their investigations and any subsequent prosecutions on tangible fact. They do not pay for Mediums, Clairvoyants, or other Psychics to provide them with information. Police will listen to information offered by any member of the public. Any follow-up action is based on what factual corroborating information can be used to support the information provided.”

https://www.fyi.org.nz/request/979-use-of-psychics-by-nz-police

This seems to contradict the idea that the police are open to using psychics. We hope that this fact-based approach is being used by police across the country, as the use of psychics is obviously not supported by the National Criminal Investigations Group.