by Bob Couttie

Desperate parents grieving a missing child, police stumped following a fruitless search and suspecting foul play, even an animal lover longing to see their pet again, all of these people may resort to the only hope they have left — a psychic. Their last hope is often someone like me, someone with a special set of well-honed skills and talents.

I remember the call to this day. In this case, what was missing was a ring, not a child.

From the other end of the line came the voice of an elderly, worried woman.  All around me the Manila TV studio was filled with the bustle of a crew breaking down the set, Action 4 had wrapped. She asked me: Would I help her find her stolen ring, a ring that she suspected her son of stealing?

magicAfter all, during the previous half hour broadcast, I had not only bent a heavy door key by merely stroking it; I had read minds and seemingly caused stopped clocks and watches to restart, broken fans to work again and busted televisions to miraculously repair themselves all up and down the country. We knew that had happened because we’d provided our telephone number for people to call if strange occurrences manifested in their homes while I was performing.

Curiously, the strange effects manifested themselves just as strongly two days later when the recorded program was re-broadcast in areas that had not seen the original.

This was one of those calls from an outlying area. Surely, the worried woman suggested, for me to discover who had stolen her ring should be a cinch. And it would have been, had I actually been a psychic, but I wasn’t. I was a skilled mentalist magician whose workspace was people’s heads; I was an expert at making them believe in a reality that was not there.

rakeI made no bones about it. “I never tell a lie but I cheat a lot” was part of my stage patter. Other magicians told me I should leave it up to the people to make up their own minds but it didn’t matter. I was good at my curious trade and my illusions worked beautifully.

And the strangest thing was people still believed that I had psychic powers. It didn’t matter whether it was a nationwide live broadcast on BBC Radio Four, or a local broadcast on a Philippine television station. There was nothing I could say that would change their minds.

It became a burden too heavy to endure and I was glad to eventually move on to other things and leave my years as a mentalist behind me.

liftCertainly, I understand the pressure on people who claim to be psychics to become Psychic Detectives. After all, there’s money and fame in it and it’s a great boost for the ego.

I could easily have become a Psychic Detective, but although I claim no moral high-ground, doing so would have turned me into someone I would never want to be.


The Psychic Detectives:

browPerhaps the most famous recent Psychic Detective is Sylvia Browne who told Amanda Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead — a rather big miss considering that Amanda was being held prisoner by Ariel Castro. Scrutiny of her other predictions reveal that they too are incorrect, too vague to be firmly evidential, or else the cases remain unsolved. Hers is not an unusual record.

To date, no psychic is believed to have provided any useful information that has led to the identification of a culprit or the location of a body. Indeed, in 1960, a Dutch police officer carried out a one year study using psychics. His report to Interpol noted that the psychics provided no information that was of use to the investigators.

Results of a 1996 study of psychics published in the UK’s Journal of the Society For Psychical Research, found that self-proclaimed psychics performed no better than a control group and neither performed better than the vagaries of chance.

hotSo what’s going on here? First, like doctors, psychics bury their mistakes – or have poor memories. Failures are recycled as successes in later retellings. Their predictions are usually vague – for example they’ll say that the missing body is buried in a remote area near a body of water. Give a moment’s thought to where and how you would dispose of a body and you’ll realize that’s not a stunningly insightful prediction.

Sometimes a psychic will appear to have information only known to those detectives working on the case. Like spiritualist mediums, psychic detectives use a system called ‘cold reading’ which cunningly elicits information. It is as effective with detectives as it is with grieving relatives, both groups are human.

Cold Reading is fun. As a shy teen I learned to combine cold reading with palmistry at parties – it was the best way to get my hands on the cutest girl in the room.

And, of course, detectives, being human, are as subject as anyone else to believing in the paranormal. That explains the very rare cases in which police have turned to psychics for help.

Psychics make lots of predictions, far more than control groups. If you make enough predictions, one day you’ll get lucky.

deckThen, of course, there are the desperate parents who decide to find a psychic, or a psychic who ‘reaches out ‘ to those parents. If the police refuse to listen to the psychic they’ll be accused of not doing their due diligence; if they do interview the psychic then he or she will claim that they worked with and aided the police in solving the case.

Apart from the additional pain psychics can cause the worried and the grieving by giving them false hope, there is also the issue of wasting valuable police time. When tips are given to the police in response to an appeal, they have to follow-up each and every one. In one recent case the police received some 1,400 tips of which 400 were from self-proclaimed psychics, none of which bore fruit.

Wasting police time is a crime, except, it appears, when psychics do it, but this may be changing. An anonymous ‘psychic’ known only as ‘Angel’ recently claimed to have visions of a mass grave at a farmhouse in Liberty County, Texas. This psychic, a 48-years old grandmother, had previously given false information to the sheriff’s office but nevertheless a full detachment of law enforcement personnel was sent to the farmhouse. Naturally, no hidden grave was unearthed.

The couple who own the farmhouse are now suing the Liberty County Sheriff’s office and the media who publicised the ‘psychic’s’ claims. A Dallas judge has already ordered the ‘psychic’ to pay $6.8m. Maybe the threat of liability will be more effective than critical thinking when it comes to silencing so-called Psychic Detectives.

At present, the evidence in favour of psychic detectives is remarkably defective.

Click here to see related posts by Bob Couttie:

The Day I Said No to the French Connection

My First Murder – The Blue Anchor Scandal


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