This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 2nd, 2006.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we try to look at some of the basic beliefs of our society, and we focused mostly on three research areas. First, we look at pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, what’s called complementary and alternative medicine as opposed to scientific medicine. And third, we look at secularism and religion, the intersection of religion, science and human values. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with 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, I talk again with our old friend Joe Niccol, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Every time you turn on Discovery Channel or Science History Channel, one of the cable networks that has a documentary on pseudoscience and the paranormal, the last few minutes are always given to the token skeptic. And Joe Niccolò is often that token skeptic. Oh, if only we got a little more airtime to present the scientific point of view on those kinds of claims. Well, he’s in the point of inquiry studio today to talk about psychic sleuths and psychic investigators. But first, Tom Flynn is back with a segment we call.
Just Did you know?
Did you know that since its debut more than 10 years ago, the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has sold more than 60 million copies and is now the most successful novel series in publishing history. Did you know that a Real-Time strategy game based on the Left Behind franchise is now in development? This Christmas, players will be able to control Christianities spiritual warriors wielding modern day military weaponry while roaming the streets of New York and destroying infidels and heretics. In a post rapture apocalyptic setting. Did you know that next Tuesday marks the release of Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, his newest work of apocalyptic fiction, appropriately named the Rapture? That’s right. It’s official. The Rapture is coming next Tuesday. Did you know that next Tuesday also happens to be six six oh six, otherwise known as the number of the Beast? Did you know that while six six six is widely accepted as the number of the beast, some biblical scholars now believe that six one six was the original number. Did you know that six six six has significance outside of Christian mythology? It is the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers and is known to mathematicians as an abundant number or excessive number. It is also a palindromic number, a rep digit number, a Smith number and a non totin number. The number six six six also happens to be a prime reciprocal magic square. Did you know that June 6th will see the release of the satanic horror film The Omen and the release of Ann Coulter’s indictment of secular liberalism titled Godless? Did you know that when the original Ohman movie came out in 1976, most Americans outside of the most conservative churches had forgotten what six, six, six meant viewing the original film today. One is struck by how much effort director Richard Donner expended in order to educate viewers about the number of the beast. Did you know that six x X was also the number of three American highways, Florida’s state roads six six six originates in Madeira Beach near St. Petersburg, Pennsylvania, Route six six six extends for about 40 miles between East Hickory and Sheffield, where it merges with U.S. Highway six. Then there was U.S. Highway six six six. The Highway of the Beast first planted in 1925. This was a spur off the famous Route 66. By 1970, it stretched some 600 five miles through Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. After years of protest and a bad horror film titled Route 66 six starring Lou Diamond Phillips, the road was retitled U.S. for 91 in 2003.
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It’s a real pleasure for me to have back on this week’s point of inquiry. Joe Niccol, he’s senior research fellow for PSI Cop. That’s the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He’s considered the world’s leading paranormal investigator. He’s a former professional stage magician and private investigator. And he’s used his varied background to investigate myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. For the last 30 years, he’s been called the modern Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and the Real-Life Scully. After that character in The X Files, a veteran of literally hundreds of TV and radio appearances, he’s the author of over 20 books, including psychic sleuths and the book Crime Science, both of which can be purchased at a discount on our Web. Point of inquiry, dot org. Joe, welcome back to a point of inquiry. Good to be here today. I figured we’d talk a little about psychic sleuths. The title of one of your books about psychic. I knew you were going to say that these days and really not these days. For the last 30 years, psychics have gotten in the crime science business. They’ve reported to have aided detectives at crime scenes to solve and crack cases. What do you think about all that?
Well, it’s basically humbug. This is a resurgence of something that that happened decades ago with mostly a couple of Dutch clairvoyants, including Peter her Kose, who was later arrested with several police badges in his possession, giving the inference that maybe he was posing as a detective to get his psychic information. And who, unfortunately, fingered the wrong guy in the Boston Strangler case. Wow. But these psychics are you know, they they make outrageous claims. I was on one TV show years ago with Mark Wahlberg Show and I was on with a psychic and he said, why? His name was Ron Bard. Wives solved over 100 cases. He said, I’ve worked for the FBI and I’ve, you know, in all this. And I you know, I stood it as long as I could. And I said, name one. I looked a little flustered and he said, well, there is this case in upstate New York and there were these two missing girls and. And the police, you know, found their bodies, but but he couldn’t find their killers. And there was a key on one of the dead girl’s bodies. And I took the key and. And it led me to the door and unlocked the door. And that’s how I found the killer.
So he was making a claim about psychometry that the key helped him solve. Yes. But was there anything to that claim?
And so, of course, on that TV show, he just really whipped me soundly because, of course, the audience loved it. He just named a case. And it was incredible. It was unbelievable what he had done right. For good reason. When I, of course, contacted the chief of police and found out the true facts, he had had nothing to do with the case.
The only key involved was one that belonged to the dead. One of the dead girls was just a key to her apartment, had nothing to do with solving any mystery. And it was actually Ron Bardes mother who was tried to ingratiate herself to the police. And he wasn’t really involved. It was it was a lesson for me. I wrote this up at the time, but I got nowhere. Of course, he once again snookered the public with, you know, an outlandish claim. And this went out to millions of people on TV. And my print rebuttal was largely ignored.
Your print rebuttal was read probably mostly by the skeptic community, not by the public. He made.
Exactly, exactly. And they didn’t need so much convincing being already on the pages that were.
Joe, just this last week, I saw Allison Du Bois, this so-called psychic detective, who’s the person that the character in the NBC show Medium is based on. And she made some claims. I don’t remember the specific claims. I’ll just say in general. She said something like, her gifts have been tested in the laboratory over many years. Unlike the other psychics. And she made some other kinds of claims like that.
What can you tell me about Allison Du Bois and her claims really don’t amount to much. For one thing, she claims to have assisted the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers say she hasn’t. Who do you believe? Well, call me silly. I believe the Texas Rangers. She also was tested by Gary Schwartz, the parapsychological guy who is, if anything, credulous to the point of maybe gullibility.
Gary Schwartz, to whom the designation scientist might be a very generous designation.
That might be. And Ray Hyman has written a critical article for Skeptical Inquirer on how not to test psychics using Gary Schwartz’s methodology, which basically what Ray says is his methods were similar to Swiss cheese in that they were full of holes. I think that wasn’t the phrase he used. Right. And, you know, as we have, we have a term for that which looks somewhat like science, but fundamentally isn’t very scientific. We call it, I think pseudoscience is the term we use anyway. Being tested by Gary Schwartz and being pronounced some kind of successful psychic is is a joke. And Allison Du Bois is is a joke. In my opinion. And those programs, by the way, once they sort of latched onto her, NBC latched on to her as their model.
They then just had scriptwriters spank him. He’s fictional stories, presumably because her real cases either didn’t exist or weren’t very good.
Yeah. In fact, in this interview, she said herself, oh, the show’s not really like my life. For instance, I don’t get these impressions. I don’t solve these cases coming up from a dream. She talked about dissimilarities between her life and in the TV show. There are other psychic sleuths out there, people who purport to solve crimes using their psychic powers.
Some people say that even if it’s BONKE, even if it’s untrue, just the very fact of someone lime lighting a particular case, getting press about it by making these psychic claims. Well, it does a service to the investigation. What do you say to that?
Well, it it rarely does that. It’s true that any kind of claim, even a false claim, could highlight a case. And we understand there are instances where police may have even claimed that they had a psychic who found information and used it to kind of convince someone that he really ought to confess or something. I mean, there there are stories and of course, there are cases in which people have apparently used real information and pretended they got it from psychic methods. But they do this at some expense when they do it, whatever small good they may be doing in some very narrow case. They’re also fostering ignorance and superstition. And then more people are doing it in the instances maybe where it isn’t appropriate. And so they’re stringing people along and people who need closure and need to get on with their lives are being told by phony psychics that they see the body somewhere and they should search more. And there are horror stories of police, you know, digging up areas and draining ponds and searching and even fingering innocent people and so forth. That really should give everyone pause about the whole business of psychic sleuths if they really could do what they claim to do. They ought to have found Chandra Levy. We were begging for months and months and months. Please. Where is Shondra? She was found by man, I believe, walking his dog. Where is Natalee Holloway? We could use some help there. They were of no help in case after case since Jimmy Hoffa is still missing. Mm hmm.
Let’s talk about some other psychics. Carla Baron, she’s in L.A. She claimed success in 50 plus cases that she worked on the O.J. Simpson trial, others. What do you think about her claims?
Well, L.A. skeptic’s independent research group checked out some of those cases and couldn’t find a single one where she had add meaningfully solved any kind of case. And in fact, in the O.J. Simpson case, Nicole Brown Simpson sister says that she was not involved and that that her claim that somehow she provided information of some sort was not true. Again, as we come down, a case after case like this, who are you going to believe? You’re gonna believe the family. You’re going to believe the police. Or are you going to the psychic? Well, these psychics, one of their techniques is to make lots of claims. And oftentimes maybe in their mind, they they think they came up with something and maybe they tried to call and leave a message or something. Then they say, see, I I helped in that case.
Well, see, now that’s interesting. It doesn’t sound like you’re saying every one of these psychic detectives are frauds, that they’re out now huckstering lying to the public. You seem to suggest that some of them might actually believe they have these powers.
I think some of them do. And we have a name for those people. We call them fantasy prone personalities. And the other type also cannot do it. And we call them charlatans. And some some people are both. And in some cases, it’s it’s hard to know what the person believes in his or her mind, you know. But when someone makes a claim, that’s just clearly not true and they claim to have worked with the police department and the police department can demonstrate to you that they didn’t. And if what they’re claiming is not true, then you have to say something’s really wrong there.
How can these people get away with making a claim that they worked with this or that police department when they didn’t? Isn’t that illegal? They’re saying that they were involved in some law enforcement or crime scene investigation and they weren’t they’re not necessarily libeling anyone.
And, you know, we do have very broad sense of freedom of speech in this country. And police departments often just don’t want to bother other than to you know, if you call them, they ask, they’ll say that.
Right. They don’t want to waste their time. They have bigger fish to fry.
Yeah. And there are often jurisdictional problems. A psychic in Minnesota saying something about Tampa police, you know. Well, and again, it’s it’s the police are much put upon. I had a police detective friend tell me once regarding this whole business. He said, you know, you have to understand something. You have to understand that when you have a missing person and you have a family that’s just begging you to help them and you want to help them and you just don’t have any clues in your. You’ve really struggled and worked hard and you just don’t have anything you don’t know or they are have any any evidence at all. And a psychic ingratiates, say herself to the family and the family says, oh, if you’ll only go the psychic just wants you two to search this lake. And, you know, it’s it’s very hard not to do that when when they’re begging you. And the news media is saying, why don’t you go search the lake?
So you go search the lake and you waste a lot of police resources, but, you know, because you’re sort of forced into it and God forbid, a police department get a claim from a psychic that they didn’t follow up and it happened to be, you know, chance. Accurate?
Absolutely. And that there’s there’s just a lot of pressure put on police departments. And so you find that a lot of psychic detectives, so-called Gretta Alexander, was one from the past who did this a lot, would always just generously help police departments. I mean, you know, there there are gullible detectives and they will eventually psychics get enough publicity. They’ll think, well, maybe there’s something to it. Harry, why don’t we give her a call? We’re we’re getting nowhere. So they’ll they’ll check. And the the psychics, like grad Alexander or or Dorothy Allison, a real police buff, you know, these they have now passed on to their reward, but they were always really grateful for any attention from the police and would just generously go anywhere and do anything because it was great publicity for them. And they were they were looking for that. And then, you know, Gregg Alexander had her psychic, you know, sort of tarot card and palm reading and T-shirt. And so it’s kind of this business in, you know, astrology, horoscopes and forecasts and so forth. And so, you know, she charged for those and the free publicity anytime you associate with the police department. So we have cases where psychics claim.
Correctly or falsely of police involvement. And they make these sweeping statements like, I have solved a hundred cases or I’ve worked with the FBI and quite often these are just not true. They’re grossly exaggerated at best.
They say this to reporters and it amazes me how many newspaper reporters write down not, she alleges, such and such, which I have checked out, and blah, blah, blah. No, they just are doing shoddy work and saying she solved 100 cases and worked for the FBI. And you ask these reporters. Well, that’s what she told you. All right.
Not really investigative journalism of the sort that all. Let’s talk about a couple other of these psychic sleuths, these detectives, so-called psychic detectives. Before we talk about some of the techniques that they use when they’re going about their would you call it investigation or performance? I don’t know. Let’s talk about Phil Jordan.
Yeah, Phil’s an amazing Caseys spiritualist and he’s a minister. He’s an undertaker. Just an amazing jack of all trades. And I kind of joke that he you know, he could actually theoretically help find the body, pray over the funeral and do the undertaking. And, you know, sort of all all in one package, one stop shop. Yeah. He got his reputation in 1975 with a so-called success in the Tommy Kennedy case, a little missing boy. And he was he was missing in in an area. And basically he claims that he had psychic compressions, drew a map, and they followed the map and found the little boy. That’s the way the story is told. Well, it’s not quite so good when you look at the actual facts. The map doesn’t exist. We haven’t got it to look at and see. It appears by all descriptions now, it’s become sort of a part of folklore. And it was it’s been exaggerated. It probably was at best, just a vague thing that we know had some errors in it. Nevertheless, what he did was identify an area that was just really the only area where they hadn’t searched yet.
Now, you know, if you and I were were betting people, we would say, well, shall we search where the searchers have already searched those two or three areas or shall we go where nobody’s looked yet? So that’s that’s where he went. And along the way, they found a little boy’s footprint. Well, this is a clue. This is not a psychic clue.
This is what you and I would look for. And eventually they heard the boy crying for help and found him.
The search party did, but not Phil Jordan, who was in fact, at the time the searchers were actually hearing a little boy and and finding him. He was down in a ravine, kind of going in the wrong direction. So his psychic power appears not to be very good, buddy. But but, of course, in a sense, he got lucky because he didn’t put it that he had a psychic vision and the boy was found and he makes it sound like he really did something that if it weren’t for his claim that this over that area should have been looked at, that the boy would have been found.
Right. And I think eventually everybody would have searched that area and the boy would have been found anyway.
You wrote a piece for Skeptical Inquirer about Phil Jordan, psychic sleuth without a clue. Something like that. Right. I did. What was your assessment of the whole of the whole case?
Well, what I did was I decided, okay, I knew about the Tommy Kennedy case and I knew about some of his other claims. I decided to just get up close and personal to Phil. And so I adopted one of my disguises or, as I say, a makeover. And I went. Has this sort of, you know, bumbling old fellow. And I set up for a reading. He has oh, he does psychic readings, right, addition to being sort of afternoon lunches and things like that that that he has. And I was able to to book one of those. And, you know, he gave me a reading. And it just was just totally useless. He said a lot of things. And and, of course, if you were gullible, you would be able to sort of match up or try to twist. Well, what he really meant was he said this, but he I’m sure he meant that and and so forth. But he didn’t do anything that would have really knocked my socks off like he could have said. For example, someone in the room here. I’m getting an imposter. Right. Or, you know, I was using the name Johnny Adams, and he could have said, wait a minute. When I look at you, I’m seeing a wooden nickel or something. This would have been, you know, astonishing to me. But he didn’t do that. And then he never told me. Just shortly after that, I discovered this life transforming fact that I had a daughter I had not known about.
And two grandsons. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he or any of the other fortune tellers mystic’s Swami’s medium’s tarot card readers? Crystal gazers. You get the idea. Astrologers. Wouldn’t it have been nice over the years if one of them had said, by the way, Mr. Nikola, you know, you don’t know this, but you’ve got this bill. They tell you all kinds of stuff.
Not one of them ever told me, told me that or hit the mark. So I bet I did buy one of Phil’s books and he sort of addressed it to his friend Johnny. And so. So I named the article Psychic Sleuth without a clue.
Let’s talk about one more psychic before we get to talking about the detectives, Etta Smith. There was a missing nurse in 1980. What was that remarkable case?
It’s really from one point of view, it’s the most astonishing psychic sleuth case that I’ve ever come across. It is. Smith is not a professional psychic, and she only had one incident in which she showed up at the police department in L.A. and she said, you know, that missing nurse. She said, I’ve I think I see where she is. And she said, if you’ll show me a map. So they showed her a map and she picked out this canyon and she told the police she saw the woman there.
That’s a very pretty specific, pretty specific piece of information.
I’ll tell the story first without too much skepticism and then the police, you know, they didn’t know what to make of this, they have all kinds of crazy people that come by and have visions or whatever, you know, but they said, well, we will send the car up there, you know? So. Meanwhile, EDIT decided that she would go up there herself with her children.
They drove up and were.
Literally standing in view of the body of the dead nurse when the police car arrived. Wow. And those facts are true. And they certainly sound astonishing, don’t they? You say, well, OK, all the psychics are fake in the world except this one time Etta Smith had a real bout of E.S.P. Well, I don’t think so. And I looked into that case extensively. I appear to be the only one who ever really. Looked into it from the view of trying to really critically assess it and analyze it. Mm hmm. And so there are a few things that we have to know. Number one is that the police were suspicious. This is too good to be true. And she seemed to be a little funny about it. So they ask her to take a lie detector test and she failed it. Whereupon the police assumed that she had some kind of insider knowledge and arrested her. Well, they shouldn’t have done that because they didn’t really have any evidence. But they thought maybe if they arrested her and put her in jail for a night or something, they’d scare her into telling the truth because they were just convinced she knew she was revealing this information, that she knew that was the police’s view. I think the police were exactly right. As it turns out, the men who raped and murdered the nurse. Had loose lips and they talked carelessly in their neighborhood about what they had done. And that’s how they were actually caught is because of that. Mm hmm. So it’s not at all unusual that someone with ties to that community, which at a Smith had, could have been in a situation where, let’s say a friend of hers came and said, I’m in a quandary. I don’t know what to do. I’ve heard these guys talk and I know that they dumped that woman’s body in this canyon. Somebody ought to do something. I’m really scared. I don’t know what to do. And Edda might have said, I’ve got an idea. No, that psychic was in the news recently. Right. I’ll just tell him I had a vision and I’ll tell him what I know and I’ll tell him I just got it and it’ll be OK. And that explains all the facts and explains why she did know that the body was in in a particular area. She seems to have looked on the map, not so much been drawn in a site, sort of psychometry way to that area. But the police description indicates that she sort of looked at the map. She was looking for that canyon on the map and that when she got there, she doesn’t appear to have been drawn there by any kind of sort of imagined E.S.P radar or anything like that. She just showed up. She showed up and they searched around. And one of her children then found the white clad corpse. And they were they were standing nearby. Isn’t there an area? Never had it. Is Smith never had a previous vision or one after it. And nothing in the case is consistent with someone actually having psychic power. But it is it is admittedly an unusual and remarkable case. And I think it’s one of probably, if the truth were known, several cases in which someone revealed information using the psychic guys to do it. And in fact, some of the missing persons organizations actually know that that is sometimes done. And they caution you not to dismiss psychic clues out of hand because they may be a cover for actual information.
Aren’t there, if not only ethical legal quandaries that has potential psychic sleuth can get into if they actually have real information about a case but don’t reveal who was complicit in the crime? Isn’t that aiding or abetting? Isn’t that a kind of illegal circumstance to find yourself in if you know who did the murder?
Well, just the problem, of course, is, is as soon as you use the word psychic there, you really kind of outside the judicial system.
Well, to conclude. Joe, why don’t we talk about some of the techniques, not that Adam Smith used, but maybe that we guess some of the others might use cold reading, hot reading, retrofitting.
Yes, cold reading is a technique when someone fishes for information in a kind of artful way and gets information. Greg Alexander, for example, would talk to police officers and and just have a conversation. But she would she give them the impression that she knew things? And in one case, she was doing really hot reading. That is, she had gotten information. One detective had told her a fact. And she later impressed this other detective by psychically revealing that and until they sort of compared notes, wasn’t so clear what she might have done. So you can have actual information that’s hot reading are you can fish for it artfully. And that’s called cold reading. One of the standard techniques that the police psychics use is we call retrofitting. And it works like this. You you’ve got a missing person knew you. The police are baffled. So what you do is you say, I’m getting an impression of icy water. I see the number seven. I’m seeing some sort of tall structure. I’m not it’s not very clear, but something tall, tall structure. And of course, the police say to each other, Harry, that mean anything to you know, Frank didn’t help me at all. I still don’t know where the missing person is. Well, I guess we’ll have to muddle through so they muddle through the search party, maybe eventually finds the the the body, whereupon and the police easily get caught up in his incredulous police officers fall for this themselves and say, you know.
Come to think of it, she said. A psychic said water. And the body was found near a creek.
Or and this is significant or a stream, a river, Riverside Drive, an ocean. A water tower. Remember that tall structure? We call this retrofitting. Seven number seven mother, seven people in the search party or it was seven miles out of town or it was just off Highway seven. In other words, what they’re doing. The psychic says a lot of things. None of these is very specific and doesn’t help anybody do anything. The number seven in water doesn’t help anybody do anything. But once the police have a specific situation, they can usually, after the fact, match up. What was said with the real situation? So we call that retro fitting and. And in one case, again, with Great Alexander. The police were so sure that she was so accurate on all these clues, except for one. There was one that just troubled them because she had mentioned a church and there was no church anywhere within miles. I mean, just there wasn’t one. So they searched some more and they delved a little deeper and a little more metaphorically and so far than they came up with some property that was owned. By a church, and that proved how accurate she really was.
Joe, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. You’ll be back on to continue exploring this topic. Thanks for being on point of inquiry again. Thank you.
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