The subject is nothing if not controversial. On one television show an experienced detective insists that no psychic has ever helped his department solve a crime, while another broadcast features an equally experienced investigator who maintains that psychics are an occasionally valuable resource, citing examples from his own solved cases. Who is right? Is it a matter of science versus mysticism as some assert? Or an issue of having an open mind as opposed to a closed one as others claim? Let's look at the evidence.
In ancient times those who sought missing persons, or who attempted to uncover crimes, could consult oracles or employ various other forms of divination. Today virtually all of the old, supposedly discredited techniques are in vogue. Some self-proclaimed psychic sleuths employ astrology, while others claim to get information from their "spirit guides." Still others have plied their dowsing rods and pendulums in the supposed service of crime detection. Current superstar psychic Noreen Renier employs still another old divination technique called psychometry, by which she purportedly gets psychic impressions from objects connected with a particular person. Many psychics claim to use clairvoyance whereby they supposedly "see" remote images and scenes as if they were viewed on a movie screen. Some psychics even study people's "auras" or use palmistry or tarot-card reading.
Such disparity of approach does not seem to provide a credible basis for psychic sleuthing. Neither do specific tests. For example the seventeenth-century French dowsing sleuth, Jacques Aymar, was extensively tested in Paris with embarrassing results: he failed to detect the guilty and even accused those who were innocent, while inventing absurd excuses for his failures. In 1991 tests of British "police psychic" Nella Jones indicated that her ability to "psychometrize" possible murder weapons was nonexistent. Indeed, tests conducted by Los Angeles Police Department researchers, reported in the Journal of Police Science and Administration (7, no. 1 : 18-25), showed that information generated by psychics was no better than chance would allow.
But what about testimonials from experienced homicide detectives who have actually used psychics? Most reported successes appear to be like the one that a New Jersey police captain attributed to the late Dorothy Allison. Her predictions "were difficult to verify when initially given," he said. "The accuracy usually could not be verified until the investigation had come to a conclusion." Indeed, this after-the-fact matching -- known as "retrofitting" -- is the secret behind most alleged psychic successes. For example, the statement, "I see water and the number seven," would be a safe offering in almost any case. After all the facts are in, it will be unusual if there is not some stream, body of water, or other source that cannot somehow be associated with the case. As to the number seven, that can later be associated with a distance, a highway, the number of people in a search party, part of a license plate number, or any of countless other possible interpretations.
Many experienced police officers have fallen for the retrofitting trick. The result is like painting the bullseye around the arrow after it has been shot. Some credulous police officers even help the psychic in the reinterpretation necessary to convert a failure into an apparent "hit." For example, in one case when there was no nearby church as had been predicted, property owned by a church was counted as fitting the criterion.
Psychics may also enhance their reputations by exaggerating their successes, minimizing their failures, passing off secretly gleaned information as psychically acquired, and other means, including relying on others to misremember what was actually said.
Despite their poor track records, psychics continue to get a boost from the entertainment media -- most recently from Court TV which in 2004 celebrated the second season of its popular series Psychic Detectives. Court TV's Nancy Grace was guest host for a Larry King Live program, "Psychics Helping Police Solve Crimes" (April 29, 2004).
Virtually devoid of skepticism, the program included a 1975 case in which "psychic" Phil Jordan supposedly helped find a lost five-year-old boy, Tommy Kennedy. Reportedly, Jordan visualized the scene, drew a map, then led searchers to the exhausted child.
In fact, the story has become embellished. Jordan's map was vague, contained erroneous details, and was apparently of little use in the search. By his own admission, Jordan had chosen an area of the woods that "no one had searched." Later, just as he was ready to give up, he says, he saw a child's footprint. Yet, even with such good luck Jordan was elsewhere, down in a ravine, when others in the search party actually came across the child who had been calling for help.
Nevertheless, since Jordan continues to gain attention, I decided to assess his psychic ability, going undercover and in disguise to one of his psychic reading shows at the hotel he owns in Seneca Falls, New York. Alas, he seemed to be doing nothing more than "cold reading" (in which the alleged psychic cleverly fishes for information and tosses out statements he hopes the sitter will interpret and accept). He told me nothing of significance, missing my late mother's Alzheimer's and the life-transforming news that was soon to arrive: the discovery of a daughter I had not known about! (See Joe Nickell, "Psychic Sleuth Without a Clue," Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2004, pp. 19-21.)
The Bottom Line
Except in the extremely rare case in which a psychic was actually involved in the crime or had apparently received secret information (as from a tip), psychics do not lead police to concealed bodies or unknown assailants.
A far more serious problem exists with regard to the wasted resources of police departments who expend precious time and human activity in following up on a psychic's meaningless "clues." In one instance, for example, the Nutley, New Jersey, police spent the whole of an afternoon digging up a drainage ditch that Dorothy Allison mistakenly thought contained the body of a missing boy.
In brief, knowledgeable police officials resist the temptation to employ psychics, knowing that their claims lack any scientific verification. No longer should police solve crimes and let publicity-seeking occult pretenders take the credit.
Joe Nickell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Committee the for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.