[Excerpts from my post at The Friendly Atheist]
The Independent in the UK ran the initial story with the headline “Detectives investigating missing persons cases ‘should consider the advice of psychics’, says College of Policing.” The opening sentence read “Detectives investigating missing persons cases should consider tips from people claiming to have supernatural abilities, according to new proposals from the College of Policing.”
That certainly sounds like the College wants detectives thinking, Hmm, forget Sherlock, I’d better send for psychics to get the expert help I need on this tough case! The paper goes so far as to report that experts want psychics taken seriously…
So, the message is that the College is totally into psychic vibes, right?
Yes, the rest of the article contains some fuzzy language and caveats, but you know how little attention those will get.
Other newspapers got the memo, and dutifully followed suit… The Washington Times editors said to hell with any ambiguity, let’s make this thing perfectly clear. Their headline: British police advised to consult psychics in missing person cases: report. Yes, the police are to actively seek out psychics and enlist their help, according to that worse-than-worthless rag…
There’s only one problem: it’s all wrong.
By my reading, the official report’s primary message is that psychics should not be taken seriously – that is, not unless they receive independent confirmation, which means psychic information on its own is useless. The rest of its message consists of advice on how to deal with psychics who try to inject themselves into the case, and in no way suggests that detectives seek out psychics for help.
High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.
The Independent did quote most of this paragraph, but only after that misleading headline and opening sentence, and then breaking up the actual quotes into pieces surrounded with words that altered its meaning. After that dramatic opener, the quoted experts’ skepticism is just so much chaff falling to the field:
… according to John Briggs, a former detective superintendent at Derbyshire Constabulary. “Some people say they have supernatural powers when they have information…
Briggs gets at a key reason why law enforcement officials often feel they have little choice but to follow up psychic tips, and it has nothing to do with the Other Side. Psychics may claim their knowledge comes from a vision, but they could be covering their asses to hide a less innocent means of acquiring their information. That was the intriguing premise of the TV series finale that gets my vote for best portrayal of an atheist and skeptic: The Mentalist. (You can see excerpts in this recap of the show’s atheism and skepticism I put together after the series ended).
Patrick Jane, we miss your favorite line: