Soothsayers, Seers, and other Specters of the Skeptical Mind
I remember the last time I consulted a soothsayer. ‘Twas in the early of the year, and sorrow had wont to call upon my home.
Where, I thought dimly, shall I find succor now my very rooms themselves speak to me of tragedy? Aye me, the pains of a soul lost in this ill-lit world of dark delirium!. Fain would I press forward, if only I could find some wane and wanton hope, yet such seeking brought only more sorrow.
Strolling the thoroughfare, my hobnailed, haggard shoes tapping out a beleaguered fugue upon the chipped and sullied cobblestones, I saw what I mistook, I do admit, for a white and luminous dove: my fated angel, strange savior, black and white winged, read all over.
Lo, ’twas nay a bird, but a breeze-blown bit of newspaper! How odd that this scrap could become so like an oracle to me, proof of providence in that strange synchronicity. Upon it, writ in print full clear, this message, which would become so dear to my heart:
Online Psychic Readings – 3 Million 5-star Ratings Don’t Lie.
Huh? When, exactly, was the last time you encountered a “soothsayer”? Perhaps down the street, next to the local smithy, or across the way from old Elias Nottuman the Tanner? What century are we living in again?
Still, someone out there is encountering them, at least according to a recent piece at Yahoo! News titled “Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family,” which highlights the failure of a couple of self-proclaimed psychics to solve missing-person cases and then holds this up as an example of a supposed pervasive plague of psychism and superstition infecting Western culture:
Despite the failure of psychic detectives to locate missing people, desperate families often turn to psychics and soothsayers. It happens regularly: grieving families hoping psychics will recover their missing loved ones are always disappointed
— Benjamin Radford, “Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family,” Yahoo! News, October 15, 2012
Being critical of fraud is a noble goal. However, in the same breath and by the same token we should be critical of intellectual fraud, which happens to be rampant when it comes to the very subject in question. So many of the articles that are published about contentious issues such as anomalous perception and other paranormal matters represent a blatant misuse of media venues that could more profitably be rallied to foster real critical inquiry.
The Yahoo! article at hand further confounds the issue by summoning up bogeymen like “soothsayers,” a term specifically designed to conjure up visions of ye olde witchery. The tendency to use such provocative phrasing when talking about these matters is itself a part of the very decline in intellectual integrity that many self-proclaimed bastions of rationality have set themselves up to fight.
The article also points out one of the more concerning issues that perpetuates the spin cycle on these topics:
Those who listen to well-known psychics on daytime TV shows should note famous psychic Sylvia Browne’s appearance on “The Montel Williams Show” in which she told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead: kidnapped and killed by a very tall “dark-skinned man,” his body would be found in a wooded area near two large boulders. In fact, Hornbeck and another boy were found very much alive January 16, 2007, in the home of Michael Devlin, the Caucasian man who’d kidnapped them. Every detail of Browne’s psychic vision was wrong.
Sylvia Browne? Really? And Montel Williams? This is crap television, and these are crap experts, neither of which should be mistaken as a proper news source no matter what their effect on society. And yet in reading the article, the sense is that all investigation into psychic functioning is pure delusion because of Sylvia Brown and Montel.
Worse, the article is so poorly sourced that it ends up in the same category it is critiquing. So we are stuck in the intellectual bind of trying to accept a purported rational truth — that all psychics are bad — which is itself delivered to us by the same kind of hyped-up, unsourced, scare-word-laden journalism that caused the problem in the first place.
Digging further, we see that the Yahoo! piece links to another article on the same topic by the same writer, but this time the writer takes the issue into the realm of verifiable information. It is located at LiveScience.com (a site which lends, I suppose, some spectral air of credibility), and it has a less inflammatory title: “Psychics Fuel False Hopes in Missing-Person Cases.” However, early in the piece and written in the same sober manner we find an assertion that can be fact-checked for accuracy:
These situations are all too common in missing persons cases; despite claims from self-promoting psychics, there has never been a case of psychic information leading police to a missing person.
— Benjamin Radford, “Psychics Fuel False Hopes in Missing-Person Cases,” LiveScience, July 3, 2007
So let’s try to verify that. If we do a bit of research, we come up with stories like this:
Walking the gruesome crime scene, psychic Gale Carrier told police officers what she “saw” happened and about the perpetrator: “he’s a young black male, he’ll have gold in his teeth. He rode a bicycle here, and he’ll have his hair braided. He wears some type of uniform.” She paused to look at the tray of freshly-baked [sic] cookies the victim had pulled from the oven just prior to her death. “And he has no idea why he did this. None.”
One year later, law enforcement officers arrested the perpetrator: a young black male, who wore his hair braided (not in vogue at the time), with gold fillings; he had rode [sic] his bicycle to the victim’s home. The boy was employed at a fast food restaurant and still wore the work uniform. No matter how they questioned him, the boy truly had no idea why he had slain the innocent woman, who had done him no harm.
— “The real life ‘Medium’: Police psychic Gale Carrier,” Examiner, May 23, 2009
So what’s the truth? Gail Carrier’s example seems like a pretty clear-cut case, but the article it comes from is on the Examiner website, which is not known for its journalistic integrity.
I spent some hours plugging away on Google with the names of various psychic detectives I found who didn’t immediately lead me to cases of obvious fraud. Wikipedia (a poor but often necessary source for initial leads, and one that many digital-age writers turn to) was no help. The bias there is so thick on this issue that you can’t find an inkling of an answer amidst the ad hominems.
So I focused on the aforementioned Carrier, and also on Zak Martin (whom, I do admit, I found because he tried to take on the Wikis in the Talk page for the entry on psychic detectives). Both of them claim various successes. Both claim to have helped law enforcement agencies. When searched, neither name comes up in association with immediate charges of hoaxing. Both Carrier and Martin, however, appear very focused on self-promotion.
Now, if you do a Google News search you don’t come up with much to go on. Some of the relevant cases, such as that of the famous “Notting Hill Rapist,” which Martin says he assisted on, seem like they would at least yield a headline or two, but no dice. I found one article, but it stood behind a pay-wall, and from the abstract it was unclear if it even mentioned Martin’s involvement.
A search for Gail Carrier brought back a story from the Lodi News Sentinel in 1989 tying her to claims that the ghost of a mummy held at the Tennessee State Museum caused a guard to quit. However, the museum representative denies this, and the Lodi News Sentinel is based in Lodi, California, whereas the original claim was made in a London newspaper. That’s a pretty decent international circle — London to California to Tennessee — for a story on a small-town psychic. But it’s also the strongest story to come up.
The rest of the available information on this topic, or at least the information that can be easily accessed, is all self-reported. And I think it’s here that we gain an idea of how the author of the Yahoo! and LiveScience articles, as well as other on-the-fly digital reporters, can make such bold assertions with a sense of safety.
“So what are we left with? Answer: soothsayers, seers, and other specters of that haunting potential held before us by our digital age, when all the world seems to be at our fingertips, and yet the channels it flows through are shaped by preexisting fears and assumptions.”
Given the level of critical analysis involved in such articles, I think it’s a safe bet that in my casual online digging I spent about as much time researching these issues as other digital writers spend in sourcing their work. The specific pieces in question were obviously written largely from memory, using stock arguments in the same way that a freestyle MC draws on stock phrases to couch in his or her on-the-fly improvisation.
If I wanted to, I could do the same thing here by drawing cursory conclusions about psychic detectives. But in fact I’m not certain either way about the validity of their claims, and there is no clear answer based on the superficial level of research that I purposefully conducted for this piece.
Law enforcement agencies have endorsed, rejected, and denied the use of psychic detectives. There are cases where psychic detectives have had some supposed success in helping with various investigations, and many cases where they didn’t. Without doing the job of a legitimate journalist by contacting a number of sources on both sides of the issue, including criminologists, forensic experts, skeptics, psychologists, scientists at the various university parapsychology labs, and all of the other specialists who might provide some light on the issue, all I’m left with are my own bias and some inconclusive articles whose content I can shape to fit any conclusions I want.
Which leads us back to the core of the issue. In writing this I’m not worried about proving or disproving the accuracy of psychic detectives. What concerns me is the way in which the subtle nuances of our digitally mediated world perpetuate a stalemate in cultural dialogue that often doesn’t serve the needs of science or society.
Locked behind pay-walls, much of the information that would be valuable can’t be readily accessed. With the immediacy of our current media and the speed of the news cycle, an illusion is built up that we are able to gain insights beyond what is actually available, and the information to which we do have access becomes a recycled mash of unverified assumptions shaped by a bias that is both obvious and implicit.
So what are we left with? Answer: soothsayers, seers, and other specters of that haunting potential held before us by our digital age, when all the world seems to be at our fingertips, and yet the channels it flows through are shaped by preexisting fears and assumptions.
The Idols and false notions which have already preoccupied the human understanding, and are deeply rooted in it, not only so beset men’s minds, that they become difficult to access, but even when access is obtained, will again meet and trouble us in the instauration of the sciences, unless mankind, when forewarned, guard themselves with all possible care against them. Four species of idols beset the human mind, to which (for distinction’s sake) we have assigned names: calling the first the Idols of the tribe; the second, the Idols of the den; the third, Idols of the market; the fourth, Idols of the theatre.
— Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, I. 38. 39. (1620)
What are we left with? Simply the shadow of our own prejudice, which has haunted us for more years than we usually care to remember.