Interview with Sensing Murder producers

March 19, 2017

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Pseudoscience, Psychic

An interview (opens new window) with Philly de Lacy (chief executive) and Carolyn Harper (executive producer) of Screentime, who make Sensing Murder, was conducted by Steve Kilgannon of the Sunday Star Times this week. Some really good questions were asked, possibly in part because I was able to talk to the journalist before the interview and give some hints. There are some fascinating things said in the answers given in this interview, such as:

"I have no evidence of whether it is real or not real"

It doesn't take any more than an hour or so on the internet to find out a lot about whether psychics are real.

There are stories where prominent psychics have been shown to be hot reading, by memorising details of murders from news articles and social media, and of cold reading, by talking to dead people who don't exist (e.g. Deb Webber, on Sensing Bullshit).

There are psychics who claim to have helped in murders they haven't helped with, such as Sensing Murder's Sue Nicholson who claimed (opens new window) at the NZ Skeptics conference that she'd helped with the murder of Sara Neithe:

There are also psychics who have given predictions that aren't true, and one of these was mentioned in the article:

"Q: The selection of the psychics - I get the point that you can't speak to previous series, but it is the same people. So someone like Kelvin Cruickshank, who suggested Jane Furlong was buried under a construction site in the city but was found subsequently buried in a sand dune in Port Waikato, does that not rule him out? Do you not need a track record?"

"don't forget we don't necessarily do murders"

The vast majority of the cases are murders, with the other generally being suspected murders. So trying to claim that there's a large pool of potential cases because of unsolved disappearances doesn't stack up.

"we are not making a documentary. We are making a factual programme"

"if you believe in psychics and psychic readings, then that is a fact to you"

This seems to be use of the "alternative facts" idea that has come from the US recently. People are losing their grip of the idea of what a fact is. If something's a fact to you, it's an opinion, not a fact! I think they're trying to say that the psychics earnestly believe that they can talk to the dead - but that isn't enough. Many people who sell products and services that don't work believe in them, but that doesn't change the outcome of them selling their wares.

"The aim is to shine a light on the case, not to do a documentary examining or analysing the validity of psychics"

"whether you believe in psychics or not, you are providing a family two hours of television time to have their case shown... which hopefully, irrespective of the psychics, sparks discussion and the more discussion the more chance there is of someone potentially coming forward to reignite the case and solving it"

This is frequently being given as an excuse for the show - that it's providing a service like the NZ TV show Police Ten 7, where dotted through the show the public are given details of an unsolved case and asked to help.

Given that Police Ten 7 is made by the same production company as the new series of Sensing Murder, why don't they just add a segment to Police Ten 7 about reconstructing unsolved murders, without adding the manufactured drama and nonsense of psychics to the mix.

"Q: Isn't it the case you have got very desperate people who would take anything, so these guys are preying on them - the description I have heard is 'grief vampires'..."

This one was great to see - I first heard this apt name for psychics from Susan Gerbic late last year. She's managed to do several in-depth investigations of psychics over the last few years.

"can be quite a cathartic experience. I've had many experiences of shows giving a sense of closure"

This ignores the families who have outright said that the show opens old wounds and is exploitative. It's a pity, given that what the show promises to be able to do is unproven, that the creators are ignoring these people who have been hurt by the show.

At the end of the article, I was invited to give my opinion. I talked about how the psychics may be hot reading, how the production crew help out with a cold reading and how we've yet to see the psychics of the show help in any of the cases.

There is nothing in Sensing Murder that appears to be unexplainable or supernatural.

There are only around 60 unsolved murders in New Zealand, and fewer involving Kiwis overseas. Many details of these murders are easily accessible online. It wouldn't be too difficult for a psychic who was due to appear on a program with the word "Murder" in the title to memorise a few salient details about each of these unsolved cases.

The psychics are taken to a hotel in the area the crime was committed, and asked to try to come up with details about both the deceased and the crime. The location of the hotel may well be a major hint as to which particular murder the psychics are being asked to investigate, and would allow for what is called a "hot reading".

The rules of the program include a statement that "correct answers are sometimes confirmed by the film crew". This kind of feedback would allow the psychics to use a scattergun approach in their reading, throwing out many guesses and then watching for feedback from the crew to hone in on any "hits". This is a technique known as "cold reading".

A few minutes of each psychic working out the details of a case are broadcast, taken from a day of recording - the many hours of footage that have been left out would doubtless tell a very different story to what is presumably carefully curated by the show's editors.

Finally, after more than four seasons of the programme, not a single unsolved murder investigation has been helped by the psychics of Sensing Murder. By this point, even if a psychic eventually manages to help in some material way with a case, the sheer number of failures we have seen to date would make it likely a chance event rather than anything supernatural.

The NZ Skeptics have yet to be convinced that the psychics of Sensing Murder are actually talking to the dead. As always, we would welcome any opportunity to test their claimed abilities under properly controlled conditions.

- (opens new window) - (opens new window) - (opens new window) - (opens new window)