Joe Nickell – Aliens and Abductions

February 17, 2006

Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow for CSICOP, is considered the world’s leading paranormal investigator. A former professional stage magician and private investigator, he has used his varied background to investigate myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, and hoaxes. He has been called “the modern Sherlock Holmes,” “the original ghost buster,” and “the real-life Scully” (after the character in The X-Files ). A veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances, he is the author of over 20 books, including Secrets of the Supernatural, Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real Life X Files, and The UFO Invasion.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Nickell discusses aliens and alien abduction accounts and explores their significance for society today.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know?, detailing facts and figures about UFOs, alien abductions and the new “Roses of Mohammed,” Point of Inquiry contributor Sarah Jordan examines the meaning of science education, and DJ Grothe talks with Benjamin Radford about psychic detectives.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 17th, 2006. 

Welcome to a point of inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most basic beliefs of our culture, focusing on three areas. There is pseudoscience in the paranormal. Second, we concentrate on complementary and alternative medicine. And third, on point of inquiry. We concentrate on the intersection of religion and science in our society on issues surrounding science and humanism, secularism and nonbelief. We do this by drawing on CFI I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we are joined by Jo Nicole, Cyclopes senior research fellow. He’s considered the world’s leading paranormal investigator. We’re going to be talking about aliens and alien abduction. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Benjamin Radford about psychic detectives. 

And we’ll have a commentary by Sarah Jordan. But first, Tom Flynn with a segment that we call. Did you know? 

Did you know that in response to the editorial cartoons that originally ran in Danish newspapers criticizing Islam for being a violent religion? And that resulted in a number of violent riots and deaths worldwide. The Iranian confectioner’s union has officially renamed Danish pastries two roses of Mohammed. Did you know that according to a 2005 Gallup poll, three in four Americans believe in the paranormal and 24 percent of Americans believe that alien beings have visited our planet. In an earlier poll, more than one in three people stated that they believed that humans had personally interacted with extraterrestrial life forms. Did you know that famed psychic detective Sylvia Browne has been convicted of investment fraud and grand theft? Did you know that? According to a poll by the Roper Center for Public Opinion at the University of Connecticut, four million Americans have reported that they have been abducted by aliens. 

It’s a pleasure for me to have back in the studio a regular on point of inquiry, the world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Niccolò, using his varied background. He’s become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, hoaxes. He’s been called the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and the Real-Life Scully after that character, an X Files, if you like. TV documentaries on the Discovery Channel, Court TV, The Science Channel, et cetera. You’ll know Joe Nickell, since he’s the person who’s always given the last five minutes of the ones dealing with the paranormal. He gives the skeptical scientific point of view on these shows, dealing with psychics, ghosts, UFOs, Loch Ness Monster, things like that. A veteran of literally hundreds of these TV appearances, he’s the author of over 20 books, including The Inquest of the Shroud of Turin Secrets of the Supernatural Looking for a Miracle Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real-Life X Files, The Mystery Chronicles and on and on. He’s on point of inquiry today to discuss aliens and alien abductions. Welcome again to Point of Inquiry, Joe. Hi, D.J.. Joe. Many leading scientists, including the late Carl Sagan and others, they believe that life elsewhere in the universe was likely. Doesn’t this support the claim of so many people that aliens have visited our planet? How likely is it, would you say? 

Well, we have to separate those two issues. One is a question of whether there is extraterrestrial life. And that’s a very different question from whether extraterrestrial life has visited the planet Earth. I see the first question. Is there extraterrestrial life? I think the honest answer is we don’t know. Certainly I don’t know. And if somebody tells me that it’s likely that the building blocks of life are elsewhere in the universe, I can’t disagree with that. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable idea. Makes sense to me. There could be all types of life, just as science fiction writers have imagined elsewhere. 

But what you can’t explore is whether or not aliens have visited the planet Earth. 

Exactly. I mean, on the other hand, of course, there there may not be life elsewhere. We may be so rare that we’re a one time fluke. But, yes, we can. We can deal with the question of whether. We’ve had extraterrestrial visitations. That’s that’s a question we can deal with. 

So, Joe, what kind of evidence is there that the planet has been visited by aliens? 

There’s a variety of evidence, in fact. There’s a lot of evidence. It’s just not very good quality. Some. Some people are claiming that there’s ancient evidence. For example, ancient astronauts visited the planet Earth and are responsible for things like the figures on Easter Island, the pyramids, the giant Nazca lines and so forth. Hence the Chariots of the Gods Books by Erich von Donnegan. More recently, we have a variety of evidence, including such things as sightings of UFO ohs, traces of evidence such as burn traces or various landing traces, including some of the early crop circles, were thought to be spinning, swirling set downs of flying saucers and then later were thought to be maybe alien messages. One of the crop circle messages said, We are not alone, and skeptics pointed out it should have read You are not alone. And then there, of course, are the eyewitnesses that claim they have been contacted or abducted by aliens. 

And so there are a number of lines of evidence. You’re just saying not a lot. 

None of that. None of that’s very, very good evidence. 

I see when people give this kind of evidence or maybe when people say that they’ve been visited by an alien, they almost universally described the same look of that alien big had gray eyes, etc.. Call these eyewitnesses for lack of a better term, eyewitnesses describing similar kinds of beings. Can they all be mistaken? 

The short answer is yes. At least a lot of them are clearly mistaken. There are different types. Back in the in the 50s, there were a group called the Contact D, and these people would claim that they had been met by, you know, Prince So-and-so from Planet, whatever, and had been given a message for the planet Earth. And these were colorful people who were making these claims. 

And then eventually we got the alien abductees. And it’s from the contact he’s abductees. 

And also from people who in some of their UFO encounters saw the landed UFO and saw creatures get out of the UFO or in some other contact. So we have a lot of descriptions of what they the pilots of the UFO has looked like. And I’ve done a chart called Alien Timeline that’s been published in Skeptical Inquiry and is in my book Real Life X Files. 

Let me just let our listeners know that if you’d like to see a picture of that chart, go to point of inquiry dot org. 

And you see on the chart that starting in 1947 with little green men, you see you begin to see a variety of imaginative portrayals of aliens. You see that the air of the contact D, you see these beautiful Venetian like creatures who look like us only beautiful and bathed in light. But you also see models like the Flatwoods monster. You see Harry dwarfs, goblins, blobs, robotic figures, giant Cyclops, Eon figures, moth man and so forth. So it’s really quite different from the idea that everybody sees the same thing. These are really quite different. They’re almost as if you ask a number of people, imagine what an alien might look like. And you get this interesting, colorful variety which you would get from science fiction writers. 

So when did everybody start seeing the same kind of alien? 

Well, everything changed in 1961 where the Betty and Barney Hill abduction. People are pretty familiar with the made for TV movie and so forth. And in that particular instance, you got the little big guy, big headed humanoid model. In other words, a figure that looks like us projected into the future. I like to think that if you imagine Bigfoot as our sort of beastly cousin from the past, E.T. is a futuristic form of us. The notion that we’re no longer big muscular types because evolution will woo our bodies will become largely vestigial because we’re not lumberjacks anymore, but that our brains are growing and we will have these these big hits as it’s a popular but notion of evolution. But nevertheless and that model as we look, comes back. 

Right. All of these, they’re called grays, I guess. I know that from conversations I’ve had with you before, but these. Grays, they have big heads, big eyes. They and they all seem to look similar no matter where the reports are coming from. 

Exactly. That particular model comes back with. Betty Andriessen Abduction, 1967 and again and again. And my chart shows that interspersed are still these strange insect droids and three eyed giants and so forth for a while. 

But as time goes on, the humanoid type becomes more and more common. And I think clearly what’s happening is that people are beginning now to see that image. On TV and comic books and elsewhere, so when they have a fantasy or when they misperceive what they’ve seen, they interpret it because they know what they’re supposed to have seen. This is it’s become the sort of official alien. You walk into a toy store today and you will see an interesting variety of these aliens with wraparound eyes and the big the big heads and the small bodies. 

But they all fit the same kind of description. So you’re saying that the reason it’s universal is because everyone’s in the same cultural mool you and are fitting their experiences to the information in the culture as opposed to it being universal because that person saw an actual alien that looked like that and then the other person across the globe saw another alien that looked identical. 

Absolutely. And I think my timeline illustrates that it doesn’t so much prove it, because obviously I have selected the images that go on the timeline. There’s no way to have a totally impartial selection of all images that people have seen. I selected representative types, but it’s it’s a fair representation. Surely someone put together a different arrangement and they will come to this same conclusion that you get an interesting diversity originally. Then you have 1961. You start getting the the humanoid and you move on to this sort of homogenous type creature. 

So this is kind of like the cultural anthropology of alien sightings you’re showing. How would would you use the word evolved? You’re showing how the image of the alien has evolved in time. 

Exactly. It’s it’s a form of the study of this is iconography, which I had a course on in graduate school. And I have I have used this iconography approach to look at a number of other things, such as the evolution of the Shroud of Turin, how it was modeled on earlier concepts and so forth. So it’s a good investigators tool to to look at things and to see how they evolve and change. 

Where you look at cultural images, cultural icons, and you trace the images change, not the change in people’s actual experiences because. Exactly. I gather from previous conversations we’ve had that people throughout history have had these same kinds of experiences. There’s just different cultural content with which they explain those experiences. So we have hundreds of people around the world reporting not only that they’ve been visited by aliens, but now that they’ve been abducted, which isn’t what they’ve argued historically, you know, 100 hundred years ago, you weren’t having people talking about alien abduction. Are you saying that all of these people, no matter where they are and they’re different, varied walks of life? Are you saying that they’re all insane or are you saying that they’re all lying? 

Or is that a false dichotomy? Well, first, let me just mention that over a century ago, we did have abductions by fairies. That’s an interesting thing to look at, that people were taken off to fairy land and were missing and came back with adult senses and so forth. It’s a very interesting people have drawn some parallels between that and the alien abduction. But you see, again, during a time when when fairy sightings and fairy photographs were or the rage that was the model. 

Well, you have ufologists and psychologists, people who believe in alien abduction use that as a line of evidence that alien abduction exists. They say, look, we have accounts of it happening in the late 19th century. Now, obviously not aliens by couldn’t tell aliens from fairies. That’s what they say. Little green little green creatures. So these maybe there were Lempicka. You’re saying these people who have these experiences aren’t necessarily lying or insane? It’s a false. Exactly. 

And I, I have to admit that when I first began to hear the alien abductions, I engaged in that same false dichotomy. I mean, right away, you ask yourself what’s going on here? People claiming to be abducted by aliens is such an astonishing thing. That you think they have to either be crazy or lying. And in fact, they may be perfectly sane and normal. I’ve met a lame duck. Doctors have been on TV shows with them. I’ve certainly read extensive accounts of their lives and their claims and they appear to be sane and normal. By and large, the hoaxes are very, very few real, and most of them are not lying. They’re a couple of famous cases that are believed to be out and out hoaxes. 

But a lot of skeptics automatically assume kind of in a knee-jerk way, that if someone has an account of alien abduction, it is necessarily a hoax. The guy’s a huckster and just in it for a buck. 

But the fact is, in my opinion, that’s not true, that that many of the people are telling you these stories somewhat reluctantly. They they know even instinctively that they’re going to be disruptive to their families and their lives. They may or may not be interested in attention. Some people are interested in the attention, but that doesn’t mean they made it up. And some people clearly don’t want to come forward or are not interested in in being being seen or their names published. And what’s happening is the nature of what made them think they were abducted. When you ask people that you often find a couple of things, you find that some people are saying, well, I woke up at night and there were aliens standing beside my bed. I couldn’t move. They had me strapped down. In fact, they may not even think they’re in bed. They may think they’re onboard a flying saucer and strapped down. And they have. They have the evidence of their own senses. They will assure you they’re not dreaming. They were not dreaming. And in this normal sense of dreaming, they probably were not. They probably were having and we can talk about this in other contexts. These these powerful waking dreams that some people have where you you wake up out of a deep sleep, you wake. Not into full consciousness, but into a sort of illusion of consciousness in which you are somewhat awake, but still somewhat in the sleep mode. And in fact, your body is still asleep and is shut down and you feel paralyzed. It’s called sleep paralysis. You cannot move. 

And so there’s a physiological explanation. 

There is a physiological component. Absolutely. Even as to why people have such an occurrence is almost certainly physiological, whether it’s some kind of poor sleep patterns or or what have you. It’s that you have one is probably physiological. And there are physiological aspects of it so that you have this sleep paralysis and that historically and along with the imagery has been interpreted differently so that in the Middle Ages you have people talking about Incubus or Succubus is holding you down by sitting on your chair, right? Yeah. Or in the Victorian era, you see ghosts, but are are frightened to the point that you’re paralyzed with fear. Something’s happening. And then we have a governing kind of paradigm or mythology that we fit this into. I find this fascinating. And so this is one of the kinds of evidence that people have. And in this in this state, this waking dream state, they tend to see bizarre imagery. And so they see what have you. And that part is is psychological. It’s not physiological. 

So that the interpretation is all in the person’s head. 

How you how you see it. It manifests itself into a dreamlike hallucination that takes on a certain character, depending on on what you’re you’re engaged in or what you believe. For example, I’ve found these stories, many of them, over my 30 years of investigation, many people who in haunted houses see ghosts or, you know, people very movingly talk about their dead father coming to standing beside their bed and they wake up and talk to him. These are powerful, honest, sincere occurrences that people have. And they don’t tend to see aliens in the haunted houses. But people who’ve read Witley Streeter’s communion and do and in fact, a lot of the cases where people wrote into Whitley Strieber and told him their experiences, these were clearly sleeper related cases, including sleepwalking. You know, I suddenly found myself outdoors. I don’t know how I got there. The aliens must have dropped me off. And the other kind of of experience is, is hypnosis. 

All right. One of the lines of evidence for alien abduction has been recovered. Memories from psychologists hypnotizing their patients and kind of finding out these secret forgotten experiences of their patients. Doesn’t this support their claims? Since memories can be repressed, psychologists think memories can be repressed and then recovered after the fact through hypnosis. Isn’t that another line of evidence? 

This is the client’s actually a can of worms. And the problem is that hypnosis is really this is my own phrase here. Put it’s the yellow brick road to fantasy land. That’s what hypnosis is. Hypnosis is a means of getting you to relax and it’s a means of suggestion and compliance. And if you’ve ever seen someone get up on stage with a stage hypnotist, you find that, of course, they sort out the find. They’re really good fantasizes and those people will run around, bark like a dog or or speak Martian or whatever it is that they ask them to do. 

And they’re really suggestible. I saw a stage hypnotist as a teenager. I was friends with one who was in the magic club I was in. And in his opening script, he would say only the very cool, confident, well-adjusted among you may be hypnotized. So in front of the audience, you know, there was this kind of peer pressure to play along to be suggestible. And you’re saying that enters in the recovered memory process? 

Yes. And so people people are hypnotized and they they imagine this scenario and they’re led along by the hypnotist, too. And then what happened? And and what do the aliens do next? And so forth. The defenders. Of this of hypnosis, say, oh, we don’t suggest to people that they were abducted by aliens. No, but but you see people come there for a reason and they may have already gotten the notion either through a waking dream or some other notion that they might have been abducted. And and they go to a certain hypnotist who specialize in this. And they’re specializing in alien abduction hypnosis. 

Right. And there’s a lot of social science now or work in psychology that says this recovered memory process, not just in terms of alien abduction, but childhood sexual abuse, that it’s a specious kind of practice. 

Yes. Elizabeth Loftus says has done really great work in in that field. And so we so we know that, that just because someone, quote unquote remembers under hypnosis, people people can have the greatest fantasies under hypnosis, remember, in quotation marks, having been Cleopatra or any of a number of things. And so we have Harvard’s John Mack, who who notoriously psychiatrist, hypnotized people. And I did a study of I took his 13 top cases that he published in his book Abduction, and studied those with a view towards looking to see what those people were like. Were they a little different? And sure enough, there there is this very strong indication that the best subjects of the hypnosis and to fantasize about aliens are a type of person called a fantasy who has a fantasy prone personality. 

Right. We’ve talked about this on previous episodes, a point of inquiry, people who have a propensity to buy into these kinds of views. 

Interestingly, one of the markers for fantasy proneness is an ease of being hypnotized. Really, it is one that is if you are easily hypnotized. That is one of the defining of which you need several in order to call someone fantasy prone. But that is one of them. Hypnosis or the ability even just to be engage in a self induced trance. So. So. And so of Max 13 cases I found I found that there were about seven different traits that I could examine over the course of these narratives. And interesting, one of them scored four out of seven traits for four, fantasizing one five out of seven, and the rest scored seven out of seven. Wow. Of the seven traits that I was able to mark, which was, of course, I had a given of one of them in each of these cases because they they were hypnotized by Max. So so everybody scored a one to start with by the selection process. But then they had these other traits as well. And I think that’s just speaks volumes. 

So there are maybe a dozen lines of evidence that aliens exist from abduction accounts, repressed memory sightings, et cetera. And you’re saying none of them rise to the level to warrant your recent UFO is, for example. 

And that’s the whole could be a whole topic on its own. But but we’ve had now half a century or more of a view of, oh, sightings. And we have little to show for it. We don’t have a nut or bolt or any actual trace. 

And even that where people say, sure, we do. But it’s been covered up by the government. 

Well, they say that. And in most cases, even the proponents agree that 90 some percent of the UFO cases can be explained away as research balloons, weather balloons, secret spacecraft being tested by the United States, meteorological phenomena and so forth. But. It’s so it’s only a tiny percent, two to five percent or some figure like that that we’re arguing over, and the fact is that those those that small number may also, if we knew the explanation might also fall into the same categories as the other Endino evidence. So we we really don’t have any good evidence. We just have this sort of argument from ignorance of a very small percentage of UFO sightings or or maybe a few crop circles or something where people will really argue we don’t know exactly how this was done. Therefore, it’s extraterrestrial. And that’s an argument from ignorance. 

What do you mean argument from ignorance? Are you calling the people who believe in aliens ignorant? 

I wouldn’t do that. That’s that’s what it’s called in Latin. It’s their argument. Nimet ignorant him. OK. It’s just a name for the fallacy. It means that you can’t say I’m ignorant of something or I don’t know what caused something and then draw a conclusion from it. For example, I don’t know what the noise was in the old house. Therefore, it’s a ghost or I don’t know what the bright light in the sky was. Therefore, it’s a flying saucer from Mars. You just have to say, I don’t know. 

So you’re talking about a logical fallacy. You’re not saying those people are absolute cause. Absolutely. So, Joe, you’ve investigated all of these cases of alien sighting, alien abduction. People come to you and say, this really happened to me. 

Not to be too much of a devil’s advocate, but let me ask you. Who are you to tell them? It did not happen. Do you have an ax to grind? In other words, why are you so hell bent on saying aliens did not visit that person? 

So it’s a very good question and it’s an important question. One I’ve struggled with for over 30 years. When people come and tell me they had an experience, I tend to take them initially at face value unless I have reason to think they’re lying or something. And they, I believe, would say they find me a very serious and good listener and one who is sympathetic to them. And and I don’t so much say that didn’t happen to you, as I do say. Well, I know you’ve had an experience. Let’s look at the nature of that experience. Were you under these conditions and so forth. And I try to be gentle. 

I find myself even defending. I did on on on one TV show. I remember where the audience was practically laughing at the alien abductees, and I was defending them to the audience and telling the audience to back off that because people were putting them in that false dichotomy and saying they’ll be either a liar or crazy or crazy enough. 

And they’re not not either one, in my opinion. They’ve had an experience, whether it’s hypnosis or a waking dream or some other thing. And I don’t mean to trivialize it by calling it fantasy other than just to be as accurate as I can be. It’s a diagnosis. It’s not a put down. Exactly. And and I it’s not my job to rustle people to the ground and and forces upon them. But I do feel that it’s necessary to tell the rest of the world, apart from what I might tell them, what the facts are, because I think this does a lot of harm. I think that I’ve seen families where someone gets the notion that they’ve been abducted by aliens at sea, just totally disrupt a whole family, just absolutely leave a spouse mystified and and and cause such trouble that you don’t wish it on on any family. 

So I think in that sense, one’s defending people and the public and the people I really go after are the ones who are misleading others either out of they may be sincere, but if they continue to to tout their experience right over the evidence and mislead others, then then they have to be checked and they deserve scrutiny. 

That’s right. And and gurus who claim to hypnotize people and and to have all this evidence for for aliens I think are a sorry lot. And they will find me one of their perpetual critics. 

Are you saying that alien visitation is just a myth? 

I think that’s exactly what it is. I think it’s a true myth. I think true myth. A true, true myth. And it’s we use the term myths sometimes. I mean, just as not true or something. But if we define mythology. Properly. And I would say a good definition of mythology. And I know most people, when I use the word mythology, are thinking of the ancient Greeks and the Romans in a bygone time. But if we define mythology as supernormal beings interacting with humans in ways that are cosmically important, that not only fits some of the great religious figures in some of the ancient Roman and Greek deities and gods, but it also fits right now today the idea of aliens visiting the planet Earth. They are interacting with contact TS and abductees. They often have messages for the planet Earth about taking care of the planet, not engaging in wars or taking care of the planet ecologically. And so we have a vast mythology that we’re actually watching it in our own time. I find that fascinating. We’ve always tended to think that that the mythologies were from a bygone era. Here we are in this most scientific age. And yet a vast mythology has been developing. 

And they’re all sort of prophets and preachers, if you will, and so forth, of the mythology there. There are gurus and people who tell you about it. They’re they’re visionaries who have actually had the experience since and been to another planet or seen an alien and so forth, just like visionaries in religion. 

So is the myth useful? Are you saying it’s a good thing for society to have it makes meaning? 

I wouldn’t be saying that. I just I’m just just objectively saying it is I mean, if it is a mythology, I don’t think it’s a good mythology. I don’t think any mythology is really good. 

I prefer to to accept that we live in a real and a natural world. And I think the evidence can Tanyalee reinforces the view that we do live in a real and natural world. And and so the fantasies that we have, they may be in the short term for some individuals. Okay. Or helpful help people through some kind of tough spot or something. But overall, I don’t think they’re helpful. It’s paternalistic to think, oh, people need these things. I think that’s a paternalistic attitude. I prefer to see people face reality, come to terms with reality and live in the real world. 

Joe, thanks for being on the show again. My pleasure. 

I am very calm, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. 

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You are listening to point of inquiry, e-mail questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

And now point of inquiry contributor Sara Jordan with an opinion about what public education should do. 

A great debate rages today over the teaching of evolution in public schools, but rather than just look at the creation evolution debate. I want to ask a more central question. What is the goal of science education in general? 

What should be the goal? 

The various debates raging in our schools over sex education, the merits of art and music instruction, all kinds of extra curricular activities open to students, school prayer and Bible reading, all of these questions boil down to a larger issue. What should public schools be about and what should we teach and how should we teach it? What do schoolchildren need to learn in order to become the best citizens, contributing the most they can to society? What knowledge, job, skills and backgrounds will best serve them and society in general in this rapidly changing technological world? Some people say it all boils down to mere science education. Teach a child about science and it will help her develop critical thinking skills and better prepare her for careers in research and technology. Some of us even say that science gives us the best view of the world and our place in it. Most of us agree that understanding the basic principles of science is more important than ever. Everyone faces decisions that should be informed by a solid understanding of the natural world, both in our lives, individually and collectively as citizens when it comes to matters of social policy. Everything from over-the-counter medicines and herbal remedies to policies protecting endangered animals or funding the space program, global warming and stem cell research should all be informed by our understanding of science. I think it goes even further. Science has something to say about issues at the fringes to the general public is poorly educated and the methods of science. And many fail to understand how productive science is as a way of understanding our world. This ignorance makes people receptive to unsubstantiated and French science claims, some of which can be harmful. A substantial number of Americans believe in aliens, ghosts, psychics, the healing power of prayer or crystals, or that the Earth is only 6000 years old. The rigor of the scientific method and the cumulative self-correcting nature of science have provided insights into the workings of everything from the atom to the entire universe. It allows us to describe and understand with a depth and precision unachievable by other means. In short, science works. I would say, and this hardly seems controversial, that science works much better than so many other ways of looking at the world. And the proof is in the pudding. Science has changed the world in the last hundred years in astonishing ways, from computers to antibiotics to putting people on the moon. I should quote Carl Sagan. Science is an absolutely essential tool for any society with a hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact. Not just science is engaged by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. 

You are listening to point of inquiry. Visit us online at point of inquiry, dot org. 

I’m joined in the studio now by Benjamin Radford, a regular contributor to Point of Inquiry. He’s here today to discuss psychic detectives. Benjamin Radford has conducted investigations on and written articles about many mysterious things, including mysterious animals like Bigfoot, several lake monsters. He’s the author of Media Mythmakers, the title of his regular segment here on Point of Inquiry. He’s also coauthor of Hoaxes, Myths and Manias Why We Need Critical Thinking. He’s managing director of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and director of publications for the Center for Inquiry. Ben, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you, T.J.. Good to be here. We’re talking today about psychic detectives. I’ve recently heard you give a talk on the subject. I said, well, you know, we want that on point of inquiry. We want our listeners to hear your expertize on this fun, kooky subject. I was thinking the same thing. What are psychic detectives? 

Well, psychic detectives are people who claim to be able to give information regarding where missing people are, people who are who’ve been abducted or have gone away willingly for whatever reason. And typically they offer information to police or families regarding where they think that this person is. And the information they give us is invariably so vague as to be worthless. They’ll say things such as, well, I I’m getting the impression that that person will be found near some some stone or near trees or near water or something like that. And these are so vague as to be essentially on actionable and, you know, not nothing that police can can really follow up on. 

Not useful. But you you’re a professional skeptic. It’s kind of your job to say something like that. Yet I hear in the media tons of reports seems all the time somebody saying this or that case was aided by a psychic. You even hear police sergeants and detectives saying, wow, this psychic, if it weren’t for her help, his help, we couldn’t have cracked the case. How do you explain that? 

That’s a very good point. What you find is that psychic detectives will often claim credit for cases they actually had little or nothing to do with. There was a case in fact, just last week I saw I was doing a a Google search for psychics. And the headline for this was local paper was Psychic Helps Case. So I read I read the new story and under psychic helps case, what they meant was that a psychic had given information to police. That didn’t help find anybody. There was no. Nothing was solved. The person is still missing. So I sent an email to the news organization. I said, I’m curious about your headline Psychic Helps Case. How do you know that the case has been helped since the person is still missing? I never got a response back, but but you can see that this is the sort of, you know, sort of lax interpretation that you find and people like Montel Williams and Larry King. Larry King never met a psychic he didn’t like. He’s got these psychics on over and over and on his shows. They just routinely just spat out this information. Oh, we I solve this case. I solved that case, this and that. And what you find is that rarely, if ever, does anybody actually follow up on the cases. It’s certainly it’s easy enough to just sit in a studio and say, oh, yes, I’ve solved several hundred cases over the past, you know, 10 years, as they say, the devil’s in the details. And when you start actually looking into the cases, often they fall apart. 

Are you saying there’s not one case where a psychic has been proven to have used his or her psychic so-called psychic ability to solve the mystery? 

What I’m saying is there is not a single verified case of psychic information leading police to a body ever at all. 

So that would call into question, at least to my way of thinking, the motivation of some of these psychic detectives. Is it your guess that they are self deluded or are they out there actually deceiving people? You have a guess. 

My guess is that most psychic detectives genuinely believe they have this power. You know, you’ll always come across people who who are scammers and fraudsters. But I think for the most part, most psychic detectives genuinely believe that they’re helping the families. The problem comes in when their claims are put to the test. And when you actually talked to a psychic detective and say, OK, you’ve claimed to help out all these cases. Can you cite me a case where your information specifically led police to the body? I’m not talking about how you said the body would be found near a river. And sure enough, was found near a river. That doesn’t help. I’m talking my cases where your information led police to the body. And invariably the answers. Well, no, but, you know, I gave some. No, that that’s that’s that bullshit. Look, the important thing is, is the information useful? And invariably the answer is no. 

And I remember from conversations I’ve had with you previously that you’ve even caught some of these psychics in Phibbs lies. 

Yeah. For example, there’s the case of Allison Dubois, who’s the who’s the Arizona psychic who is the basis for the hit TV show medium on NBC. And when that show first came out, I looked on the NBC Web site and it talked about it was a promotion for the show. And on that Web site, it talked about how Allison Dubois had helped several, several police law enforcement agencies solve cases, including the Glendale Police Department and the Texas Rangers. So I said, okay, that’s fine. So well. Mm hmm. Maybe I should to call them up. So I called the Glendale Police Department and they said that far as they knew, they hadn’t she hadn’t help solve any cases at all. And then I called the Texas Rangers and the Texas Rangers also said that, in fact, they had had no contact with her and that they don’t use psychics completely fabricated on her. 


This is not difficult to find. You can just you can check these things yourself. I called up an NBC spokesman and I said, you know, I’m just I just wanna let you know that apparently at least some of the information that that’s being given to you by this alleged psychic is demonstrably false. The woman got rather nasty with me in various snippets that, well, you know, we can’t check the credentials of everybody we have on here, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I said, okay, well, I just thought you might want to know. I said, do you hear this is. This is not rocket science. Did you bother to follow up? Well, no. And you I think you’re just trying to, you know, discredit us. I’m not trying discredit anything. There’s a statement being made on your Web site, and I’m just checking into it. And eventually, I have to say, eventually they removed that information from their Web site. 

You call into question the obligations, the responsibilities have producers of programing on TV that seem to purvey this kind of belief in the paranormal. That’s a topic for maybe a series of discussions. But just really quick, I’d be interested in your opinion of where you think the responsibility lies. Audiences obviously love watching shows like Medium on TV. So is there anything wrong with a producer saying, hey, people like to watch this stuff? It’s not up to me to prove whether or not mediums are real. People like it. We’re in the entertainment business. Or are there real responsibilities that producers of this kind of programing are neglecting when they privé this kind of stuff? 

I think the line is crossed. To me, when you have, for example, disclaimer that that a given show is based on a true story or based on this actual information, as is the case in media. Now, obviously, it’s a fictional show. I mean, first off, I don’t have a problem with X Files. I mean, the X Files, it’s it’s a fictional show that whatever I mean, I like I like fictional entertainment as much as the next person. Yeah, I got it all on DVD, but don’t tell anybody. I won’t. But at the point at which you’re making demonstrable claims and saying that this is factual. That’s where you cross the line in the case of medium. That show came about because of Kelsey Grammer, the star of Frasier. He actually met this Allison Du Bois, believed in or believed in her. I don’t know if he slept with anybody who was certainly intimate with her in an intellectual way. 

Ben, you’ve talked in your writings and in public addresses. I’ve heard you give and you speak on campuses across the country on these kinds of subjects. You’ve talked about the difference between prediction, which a lot of psychics, these psychic detectives say they’re doing. They’re predicting that the deceased body will be found by a river or in an abandoned warehouse. Right. You talk about that and draw a distinction between prediction and what you call post diction. Explain the difference to me. 

Yeah. Many people believe that psychics are actually putting out predictions. That is, they’re forcing an event. And they’ll they’ll claim that they’ll say, yeah, I’m I’m predicting this this will happen. Therefore, seeing or forcing. Right. Right. But in fact, if you look at what psychic detectives actually do that it’s as you said, it’s post addiction. It’s retrofitting where, for example, information wills will appear to be accurate only in retrospect, only after the facts are known. Only after the body is found, for example, will they decide, oh, look, it really is found near trees or near the body of water. Right. Take your pick. And so in this manner, psychic detectives will say, see it? Well, I. I gave accurate information like, no, you didn’t. If you gave him formation that even if it was true, it was only true in retrospect. And what’s needed is information that is usable, not not mysterious, vague information that may or may not end up being true. If psychics can really find people, then they need to give accurate, specific, useful information to police that will lead searchers to to these missing people. And there’s cases over and over. There’s the case of Natalee Holloway, the woman missing in Aruba for months and months. Now, where’s Osama bin Laden? As we’re recording this, there’s is a journalist kidnaped in Iraq right now who’s who is set to be executed on February 26. And my question is, she’s being held hostage somewhere in Baghdad. And if psychics really can find people, if they really can locate people, why the hell aren’t they are in Iraq helping save people’s lives if they really have these powers? Right. 

So a lot of psychics say I predicted that because I said it was near a body of water or trees or it was somewhere or another. They throw out a lot of facts and then after the fact, they cherry pick and find that the specific predictions in quotes that they made to match the circumstances on the ground or. And and you seem rather indignant, righteously maybe indignant. I am indignant, T.J., that these psychics are are not providing actual useful information to save lives. 

Yeah. And the biggest problem here is that the information itself is contradictory. You’ll get 500 different psychics giving 500 different scenarios as to where the person is. Take, for example, the case of D.C. interns Chandra Levy. Over a thousand psychic tips came in over a thousand different ideas about where she might be. Some people said she was drowned in a river. Some people said she was being held hostage by a boxer or somewhere or in a in a mansion, you know, buried at Virginia military base, literally hundreds and thousands of different places. And part of the problem here is that police have to follow up on these things because they don’t know. It could be someone who is just feigning psychic information where they, in fact, do know something about the case. And it would be irresponsible for police to completely ignore information that’s given to them by any source, psychic or otherwise. And so this is a tremendous drain and waste of police resources. If you think about it from the family’s perspective, I mean, they’re already they’re already injured once because their loved one is missing. And then, you know, after the course of weeks and months, their loved ones is still missing. And then a psychic comes along as well, you know. I know you’re desperate, but I can I can help you find your loved one. And so they get their hopes raised up and they’re desperate. I mean, even if they didn’t really believe the psychic. If you’re desperate, what are you going to say? No. So, of course, you know, this is. Families are going to are going to listen to what the psychics say. And so they get their hopes raised that maybe, maybe we’re going to finally find him or her. And, you know, and their hopes were dashed all over again. It’s it’s I find it offensive. I really do. 

Last question, and it’s about this double edged sword that you just brought up on the one hand. A plethora of psychic predictions wastes resources of police departments because if they follow every one of those leads, they might be overlooking actual leads. Exactly. On the other hand, and I’ve heard this case be made and I want your opinion on it. Some people say, yeah, okay, psychic detectives, it’s bunco. Not a lot evidence to believe in it, but the mere fact that a psychic makes a big headline prediction and a lot of people are talking about the case, doesn’t the brute factor city of that publicity itself increase the likelihood of the case being cracked because more people are talking about it? 

In other words, I don’t know of any specific cases in which a, a crime was solved or a missing person was located simply because a high profile psychic attached their name to it, because typically it works the other way around. Where were psychics will come out of the woodwork. And, you know, if there’s a high profile missing persons case, whether it’s Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, etc., they’ll come out of the woodwork and try to gain fame and publicity from contributing or, you know, what they think is contributing to the case. And so you can certainly say that that, you know, any publicity is good publicity help if it helps find people. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help find people. Exactly. Ben, thanks a lot for being on the show. Thank you. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week to hear my discussion about alternative and complementary medicine with Wally Sampson of Stanford University, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, which is one of the journals published here at the Center for Inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries Inquiry’s music is written and composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalid. 

Contributors include Tom Flynn born Becker, Paul Kirks, Sarah Jordan, Benjamin Radford, Joe Niccolò, David Capsule and Austin Dacey. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.