Psychics and Criminal Profilers

August 26th, 2009 Posted in Hoaxes, People in Parapsychology

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As usual, once I’m on the radio I forget what I wanted to say. I had intended to talk about the similarities between psychics and criminal profiling.

I wrote a chapter in my book about two psychics who had gotten involved in a case of a missing boy in California. It’s largely a negative chapter because of one particular psychic, Peter Hurkos, who I believe acted irresponsibly. However the other psychic in the chapter, Harold Sherman, went out of his way to respond honestly and compassionately. And, as it turned out, he supplied genuinely useful information, although no one knew this at the time, which is the problem J. B. Rhine tried to point out to the father of the missing California boy, who had asked him for the names of psychics:

“We do not know enough about the abilities we are studying to be able to apply them reliably … The worst part of it is that there is no adequate assurance that the impressions that come to the mind are due to ESP and are reliable even when they actually are.” (Italics mine.)

Marcello Truzzi and Arthur Lyons, the authors of The Blue Sense, a study of psychics and their work solving crime, concluded that the existing evidence of a “blue sense” did not yet meet the burden of proof, but they added that a lack of proof does not equal disproof, and that more study was required. While stories of psychic’s abilities were exaggerated, they weren’t as insubstantial as debunkers insisted, and Truzzi and Lyons compared them in usefulness to FBI profilers.

It’s an interesting point. In essence, what psychics do is help with investigations. At best, they supply information which may lead to find a missing child, a body or a suspect. That is similar to what profilers do, the difference is the information gathering process.

Some people don’t think the process is different, however. For instance, a Sgt. Stinnett of the Maryland State Police credited Dallas psychic John Catchings with helping them find the body of murder victim Mary Cook Spence in the 80’s. But Stinnett didn’t think Catchings had supernatural powers. He thought Catchings was just highly observant and would have made a good police detective.

In a 2007 New Yorker piece about criminal profiling, famed FBI profiler John Douglas is quoted as saying, “If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.” This was a skeptical piece about profilers, and the author Malcolm Gladwell intended this quote as further evidence that the work of profilers is suspect.

In fact, explanations that are made to explain away psychics could also be applied to profilers. A forensics science professor I emailed called Hurkos’s technique “a pastiche of common sense, stereotypes, and popular mythology.” If you throw enough out there that might fit the given situation you’re bound to get something right.

“Psychics often speak in a stream-of-consciousness style, piling on impressions,” Jill Neimark wrote in Psychology Today. She pointed to the results of a 1982 study that compared the responses from psychic sleuths, college students and homicide detectives. “… none of the three groups scored better than they would have if left to chance, but the psychics produced 10 times as much information, increasing their likelihood of a chance hit.”

Gladwell compared what FBI profilers do to “cold readings,” the technique some psychics use to gather information from the people around them in a way that makes it look like they pulled the data out of thin air.

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I have to point out that in addition to providing profiles that may help law enforcement find suspects, the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit also maintains a database on violent criminals and crimes. This helps reveal patterns in a more systematic, scientific way. The Blue Sense authors, for instance, described policing as more clinical art than forensic science. But even if it only confirms what intuition led them to in the first place, the FBI is gathering data which will hopefully allow them to not only examine their theories and see if there is any truth to them, but to look back and assess their own effectiveness.

It would be useful to have a similar database to assess the work of psychics, and Truzzi and Lyons referred to ongoing efforts to gather data of this sort, but I didn’t find out yet if this is still ongoing. I know that Truzzi has since died. It would interesting to compare how effective they are in aiding investigations.

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In 1993, the Skeptical Inquirer published a survey which polled police departments about using psychics. “Of the 48 respondents, 31 answered no, and 17 answered yes. As stated before, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., declined to answer. Therefore, approximately 65 percent do not use and have never used psychics.” Most don’t, they emphasize, and those that do say the information psychics provide is not useful.

Truzzi looked at the same results and marveled that as many as 35 percent of the respondents used psychics! The true total is most certainly higher. For instance, when I was researching one case from the 1950’s in Miami for my book, law enforcement in Miami repeatedly denied having worked with Peter Hurkos. But when I tracked down the lead detective, now in his late 80’s, he said that they did consult with Hurkos, who didn’t supply them with anything useful.

In his book, Memiors of a Psychic Spy, Joseph McMoneagle makes a good point about their ability to be effective.

“You can produce a near-perfect description of a location where a person is bring held, is living, or within which a body has been hidden. But, if there are no local landmarks that are readily identifiable to a specific area or township, where in the world the location actually is, is quite difficult to pinpoint.”

I know the first objection to that is going to be that this is exactly how psychics are able to defraud people, by giving general descriptions that will fit a lot of places, so they can later claim success. “I see a body of water,” etc. That is the kind of thing Hurkos did for the most part and objections to it are vaild. (Truzzi and Lyons referred to Hurkos as a “psychic scoundrel” and called his claims, “pure bunk.”) But that is not the instances that McMoneagle is describing here. Some psychics, or remote viewers, provide descriptions that are more detailed and exact.

It goes back to Rhine’s point. “The worst part of it is that there is no adequate assurance that the impressions that come to the mind are due to ESP and are reliable even when they actually are.”

[The first picture is Bruce Kremen, the missing boy referred to at the beginning of this post.  The second picture is Mack Ray Edwards, the person suspected of having killed him.  The third picture is Judith Ann Roberts, the 1954 murder victim from Miami.]

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  1. 8 Responses to “Psychics and Criminal Profilers”

  2. By Chris Slee on Aug 26, 2009

    Very interesting article. The comparison between psychics and profilers is a good one and one which warrants further investigation. Are psychics providing more or better information information than could be obtained from quizzing an experienced detective about where the body is, who did it, etc?

  3. By alanborky on Aug 27, 2009

    Stacy, I’ve long maintained a similar idea about things like Astrology or Tarot type cards: you don’t have to resort to mystical reasons for explaining how such things might work (though such reasons may well be true).

    Basically, if you’re getting nowhere with the data currently available to you – which may be due to logjam thinking, (to coin a phrase) – you need some way of stepping outside of where you’re currently at, a way of gaining a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

    Lateral Thinking works on the same lines: it essentially seeks to generate ideas or images that, on the surface, appear to have a purely random connection – if indeed any connection whatsoever! – with the problem in hand, yet in the effort to find a way out involving such extracurricularly acquired ‘wild card ideas’, a whole new perspective can be generated which resolves the original impasse.

    Saying that, there are plenty of people out there who freely admit they’d rather ‘stick’ with their impasses “than appear – even in the slightest – to be giving the benefit of any credit whatsoever to mere abject superstition.”

  4. By Greg on Aug 29, 2009

    I remember your chapter on Sherman and Hurkos.

    It really is in conformity with the vague recollections I have of them. Hurkos was always popping up in the middle of a media firestorm, interjecting himself into some high-profile case with dramatic pronouncements, while Sherman quietly wrote his books, considered his deliberations, and conducted himself with integrity.

    I don’t have time to go into the way that Eastern esotericism used to refer to what remote viewers do as reading the Akashic records. And Western esotericism used to refer to this as scrying in the spirit vision.

    And the Society of Psychical Research had very good nomenclature: clairvoyance, travelling clairvoyance (OOB), clairvoyance in space, clairvoyance through time, and in many ways I find the old nomenclature to do a better job of classification.

    Anyway, I don’t have time to go into all that. But I would like to say that one must necessarily distinguish proof of Psi that establishes its veracity and therefore requires one to reflect on what it says about man’s nature and his relation to the universe.

    And on the other hand, Psi that can be harnessed to perform temporal tasks like finding bodies and missing people and other highly desirable possibilities.

    I personally have every confidence that the former is correct, but whether it can ever be harnessed for regular purposes is still up in the air.

    I think I once mentioned that Myers believed that all these ESP faculties were things that would become automatic communication and perception once we were no longer in the body. The physiology acting as a kind of muffler and buffer against the complete use of these faculties with the exception of extraordinarily gifted people.

    And incidentally, because the ESP faculties, in my view, do broaden our reflections about the nature of man and his connection to the universe, I think it is only natural to understand how this kind of inquiry could not be completely answered to our satisfaction by science alone.

  5. By Gary Shaw on Aug 29, 2009

    A fascinating piece – though the first thing that did come to mind was where Sylvia Browne told the parents of a child that he was dead – when in fact he was not.

    There’s no doubt that a lack of proof is not disproof, however:

    ““Psychics often speak in a stream-of-consciousness style, piling on impressions,” Jill Neimark wrote in Psychology Today. She pointed to the results of a 1982 study that compared the responses from psychic sleuths, college students and homicide detectives. “… none of the three groups scored better than they would have if left to chance, but the psychics produced 10 times as much information, increasing their likelihood of a chance hit.”

    Is a complete non-sequitur – it’s a meaningless statement. More information is always going to return more (chance) hits.

    The fact is, if psychics were able to produce the results they claim, the veracity of their claims would be proven by the amount of people found. Do we see another missing person being found every day via this “method”? No – but we see plenty of cranks out there claiming to be able to help.

  6. By bettie on Mar 9, 2016

    I am and always was interested in profiling. In the 1970’s Ted Bundy escaped from a Utah prison. I am right sometimes and dead wrong others but when right I have a feeling all over of being correct. I told law enforcement that Ted Bundy was probably in S.C. and moved on to Georgia or Florida. I had a feeling that he attended the state fair there in Charleston. We attended and I saw a man that resembled him with an old green army jacket on. Sure enough a few weeks later he murdered a lot of girls in the dorm in The university of Florida I believe. I always had a way of sensing danger of identifying predators. I have worked with law enforcement in criminal profiling and I am usually correct.

  7. By bettie on Mar 9, 2016

    I profiled in the 1970’s when Ted Bundy escaped from a Utah jail that he was in Charleston, S.C. at a fair and had moved on to Florida. I notified law enforcement and three weeks later he murdered the coeds in Florida. It is a feeling that I get but have to concentrate on the person or crime. It use to frighten me and I would just shrug it off, but now I find it helps others.

  8. By Stacy Horn on Mar 10, 2016

    I am glad you are able to help law enforcement.

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