The NZ Skeptics Bent Spoon for the most irresponsibly gullible statement in the media in the past year goes to Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Levy of the New Zealand Police Force for promoting psychics as “just another tool” in the investigative policing toolbox.
“What´s next?” asks Skeptics Chair-entity Vicki Hyde. “Witness testimony from dreams and pre-emptive arrests on the basis of clairvoyant claims? The New Zealand Police Force has had enough credibility problems in recent years without this sort of thing making them look really shonky.”
Levy has helped the most recent public relations campaign for exploitainment show Sensing Murder, making appearances on television and radio to talk about his interest in seeing what the psychics´ “take” was on an unsolved missing person´s case. It´s the second time he has been involved in the programme and he told Radio New Zealand´s Kathryn Ryan that he didn´t see any issue of police credibility in supporting such an approach
Levy stated that the aim was to “give the investigation as much exposure as possible in the hope of getting information in return”. But Hyde says that this cheap exploitative alternative to “Crimewatch” was unlikely to help, adding that the Sensing Murder franchise has not been credited with providing any useful information anywhere in the world. The Whatstheharm.net website, which counts the costs of such claims, lists numerous cases where psychics erroneously told families their loved ones were dead when they weren´t and vice versa, causing anguish to the families, wasting police time and sometimes pointing the blame at innocent parties.
“Sensing Murder is simply a marketing vehicle for the psychics and a money-spinner for a television company keen to exploit vulnerable families in the name of shoddy entertainment,” says Hyde. Deb Webber now boasts of a five-year waiting list for her consultations and performances. “But it´s even more disturbing to think that the very people we expect to protect us from fraud or false accusations are touting this industry. It doesn´t give you any confidence in the police force if they think this is a reasonable approach to take in solving serious crimes.”
Levy did admit that no new information had been provided by the psychics, all material having been previously uncovered by ordinary policing methods. Both Sensing Murder psychics had had previous contact with the family in the case, but Levy had a confident “gut feeling” that they had not elicited any information that way, having their “credibility and integrity to protect”.
“I guess he didn´t see the Australian current affairs sting, played here last year on Eating Media Lunch and available on YouTube, showing Deb Webber talking with three dead people who didn´t actually exist. Surely that says something very negative about her credibility!. But it looks like even basic background checks weren´t done before the Detective Senior Sergeant allowed the Lower Hutt police station to be used as a TV set.”
Kathryn Ryan´s interviews with Webber and Levy, as well as other items where she demonstrated critical thinking in covering science and pseudo-science topics, has seen her given a Bravo Award by the NZ Skeptics.
Raybon Kan, known for his lighter approach, also gained plaudits with his Sunday Star-Times column “I see dud people”, wherein he stated” I don’t want to get in the way of entertainers earning a crust, but it’s scummy to pretend to communicate with the dead to take advantage of grieving relatives”.
In another area of interest to the Skeptics, a third Bravo Award went to the Royal Society of New Zealand for their 2008 Big Science Adventure video competition focusing on the life and work of Charles Darwin. However, the Skeptics took the unusual step of issuing a brickbat for the same initiative.
“It was great to see such talented work celebrating Darwin and evolution in the run-up to next year´s worldwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin´s birth,” says Hyde. “But many of our members were dismayed to see our pre-eminent science advisory institution commending one video which contained numerous errors of fact in promoting the unscientific ideas of intelligent design and creationism.”
The awards will be given telepathically at the NZ Skeptics Conference being held in Hamilton from 26-28 September. The Bent Spoon is named for the well-known parlour trick of psychic showman Uri Geller.
What´s the harm?
The What´s The Harm website (http://whatstheharm.net/psychics.html) tracks the damage caused by paranormal and pseudo-science claims, listing reported cases that tally 3,254 people killed, 235,558 injured and over $455,070,000 in economic damages.
In its section on psychics, the website cites 1,315 people who were harmed by someone not thinking critically with regard to psychic claims. This includes the following cases relating to psychics´ claims regarding murders or missing people:
When nine-year-old Christine Jessop was abducted, psychics and dowsers flooded the police with tips to her location. Meanwhile a credible eyewitness report of a girl struggling in a car went uninvestigated for weeks. An inquiry concluded the investigation was botched. (Oct 1984)
Psychic Sylvia Browne told Audrey Sanderford that her granddaughter had been abducted into slavery in Japan. In reality, the girl had been murdered and her body was found buried near her home three years after her self-confessed murderer was jailed. (1999-2003))
A paranormal remote viewing company announced that missing girl Elizabeth Smart was dead and the location of her body was being sought psychically. Not only were they wrong about her being dead, they also caused a lot of wasted time for officials searching for the body in the location they had “viewed”, and they incorrectly fingered an innocent man. (2002)
Psychics Sylvia Brown and James van Pragh told Pam and Craig Akers that their kidnapped 11-year-old son was dead, giving apparent details of the location of the body and his last moments. He was, in fact, found alive four years later. (2003-2007)
Australian Don Spiers, father of missing Sarah Spiers, said that psychics had been “a huge torment to myself and my family in giving cryptic clues as to where Sarah might be”. (February 2004)
“These are the stories that Sensing Murder and the tabloids don´t tell you about because it hurts their own pocketbooks. If these psychics really are able to talk to dead people, it would be the biggest story of the millennium, not merely a basis for cheap nasty exploitainment shows,” says Hyde.
CLOSURE OR OPEN WOUNDS?
In 1978 John Tate turned to psychics for help to find his missing 13- year-old daughter. Here´s his experience:
We clutched at them desperately in the early days … But the promises of the psychics were all lies. They raised false hopes in us. At times we really believed we were onto something. The suggestions and ideas preyed on our minds … But always, when it came to the crunch, the so-called leads and ideas led absolutely nowhere but into a pit of despair …
We soon found that the psychics who came up our garden path were `foot-in-the-door´ types who, once they had wormed their way in, were very reluctant to leave again. They were strong characters who were not afraid to assert themselves. They rode rough-shod over our feelings – which were in a desperate state already. In one week, our emotions and normal grip on life had gone through a wrenching upheaval, and the influence of psychics started to have an unpleasant effect. Even when we didn´t want them they were there, on our doorstep, always expecting to be met with an open door …
We discovered that the work of the psychics was not just ludicrous and laughable. It was sinister and evil. Once we got into that web of deceit – and that is what it was – we found it very hard to struggle free. None of it ever led anywhere except to despair and disappointment, misery and confusion. We had become enslaved to the suggestions of the psychics.
From “Investigating the Unexplained” by Melvin Harris, 1986