Psychic detectives, both "real" and fictional, are currently hot. They have been publicized on Larry King Live and seen in the new hit NBC television show Medium, which recently beat the science-based drama CSI:Miami in the ratings. Yet a close examination of psychic detectives suggests they are better at finding publicity than missing persons.
A common pattern occurs in high-profile missing persons cases (such as Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, and countless others): dozens or hundreds of "psychics" offer tips (for free or for pay), yet when police follow up on the information, the vast majority of it --or all of it--turns out to be wrong. One trick psychics use is to give very vague information open to later interpretation (most missing persons are likely to be found "near water," even if it's a lake, puddle, river, drainage pipe, etc.). They also use information already available through normal means, and make so many different guesses that some will almost certainly be right. Police must follow up on all tips, including those from dubious sources, thus wasting precious hours and police manpower. When bodies are found it is always through accident or police work. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due solely to psychic information.
That doesn't stop them from trying, though. In addition to Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson, psychic information failed to recover Brooke Wilberger, a Brigham Young University student who missing since May 24, 2004. Police said they have received more than 500 tips from alleged psychics. As of this writing her body has not been found. Psychics also failed to recover Lori Kay Hacking, the pregnant Salt Lake City woman missing since July 19, 2004. Her husband eventually directed police to a local landfill, where Hacking's body was found. The search for Hacking was joined by the parents of Elizabeth Smart, the girl who vanished from her home in 2002. After Smart was kidnapped, nearly a thousand psychics contacted the Smart family and police, offering their visions, information, and evidence. These tips, like all the rest, were investigated and followed up. Not a single piece of evidence from all those psychics led to the girl's recovery; instead Smart's abductors were recognized by two alert couples in a Salt Lake City suburb. News reports, quick thinking, and handy telephones rescued Smart, not psychic powers.
Psychic detectives on television will likely have more luck than those in real-life. In February 2004, Court TV launched a new series about supposed real-life psychic detectives called, rather unimaginatively, Psychic Detectives. The series proved so successful that Court TV ordered fifteen additional episodes for its 2005 season.
A crime drama on Lifetime Television, 1-800-Missing, was the most-watched series premiere ever for the female-targeted network, reaching 3.3 million total viewers. The series features a female FBI agent (Vivica A. Fox) who teams up with a young psychic to helps her locate missing people. The series was brought back for the 2005 lineup, retitled simply Missing. The show's Web site links to several actual missing children organizations, perhaps lending an air of legitimacy to the show.
Not to be outdone, on January 3, NBC launched Medium, its own "chilling drama series inspired by the real-life story of research medium Allison Dubois." (The show begins with the titles, "There really is an Allison... Really.") Patricia Arquette stars as a law student who begins to suspect that she can talk to dead people, read people's minds, and see the future. With pluck and confidence, she dispels doubts and shows up skeptics including her rocket scientist husband and police investigators. Her abilities are apparently far more impressive than real-life psychic detectives: At one point Dubois leads a group of Texas Rangers to find a missing child's body. In contrast to the typical vague, post hoc predictions about where the body is, Dubois stands in a field, points to the ground, and says the body is "right here, about three feet down."
The show repeatedly claims to be based on the experiences of a woman named Allison Dubois, who is credited as a "consultant/real-life medium." In fact, according to the show's NBC Web site, "Dubois has consulted on a variety of murders or missing persons cases while working with various law enforcement agencies including the Glendale Arizona Police Department, the Texas Rangers, and a County Attorney's Office in the Homicide Bureau."
Unfortunately for Dubois, the Glendale police and the Texas Rangers tell a different story. "The Texas Rangers have never used psychics and have no plans to do so," spokesman Tom Vinger stated flatly. Glendale police spokesman Michael Pena stated that the detective who handles missing persons cases "does not recall using Dubois at all in [one specific] case, or in any other cases." As is often the case, the claims made by psychic detectives wither under a little real detective work.
Benjamin Radford is a writer, managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and Editor Jefe of Pensar, a Spanish-language skeptics magazine.