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Cold Case, Cold Reading

Entry 857, on 2008-09-24 at 22:48:02 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

I recently listened to a couple of podcasts related to news items which have recently come to prominence here in New Zealand. The issue they covered was the police use of psychics to help solve difficult criminal cases. The local version of the TV program, Sensing Murder, has been having a big impact on many people who think it portrays reality. It doesn't.

The interviews covered three sides of the issue: a psychic, a police detective, and a skeptic. The interviewer was very good, I thought. She asked questions in a fair way but did indicate a certain amount of skepticism without actually being biased.

So what was the end result of all of this psychic work? Absolutely nothing. The psychics have done nothing. Watch the TV show and is this the way its portrayed? No, it makes them look like they are making big contributions to solving crimes every week.

So how many crimes have these psychics solved? How many have been solved after all the spectacular revelations and drama on TV? Zero. That's right, the psychic, police, and skeptic all agreed that no crimes have been solved. So what about new evidence that the police could use to help solves a case? That's right, zero again! The only evidence these so-called psychics have provided is stuff the police already knew.

Despite this the police officer interviewed was still positive about the contribution the psychics made. Why? Because they told him things that only the police knew, plus he had a feeling that they were being genuine! Sheesh! No wonder they can't solve the cases!

But if its true that the psychics are providing information that only the police knew then how are they doing it? Well for a start its not true that some of the information isn't publicly available. Despite the police insistence it was known only to them the likely location of one case was on their web site. So why were they so impressed that the psychics knew this! Its pathetic.

And even if the information wasn't available its well known that anyone can use the technique of "cold reading" to extract information from someone without them really knowing its happening. If the psychics can only reveal information the police already know then isn't it likely that the police are the source of that information? And I don't mean there is a mysterious paranormal ability involved. Cold reading will do this easily.

Cold reading is a technique (more a magic trick than anything else) that people can use (sometimes subconsciously) to get information from another person without them really realising it. It usually involves a bit of hit and miss. Something like this: "I'm getting the letter m, does that mean anything? No its an n. Is it a name? Neil, Ned, Nathan. Yes, that's it. Is there anyone called Nathan? Oh really, a suspect? Better look at him more carefully." In this example the person being "read" is reacting verbally and subconsciously to the guesses the psychic is making.

Is there any difference between cold reading and psychic reading? No. Except that a cold reader is usually a lot better than a psychic because they are more aware of the best techniques to use!

Another question the interviewer asked is whether this damages the credibility of the police. Well it probably doesn't for two reasons. First, the credibility of the police is probably at an all time low anyway, for other reasons (let me hasten to add that I personally think the police do a great job overall - expect when they fine me for speeding, of course - and I have a fair amount of admiration for them). Second, many people are so ignorant that they take psychics seriously so they probably think its OK for the police to use these charlatans even though it diverts resources from genuine inquiries and gives people false hope.

I don't take TV seriously so I'm not surprised they produce rubbish like Sensing Murder. I know they primarily want to offer entertainment but if that's the case they shouldn't make it look as if its real. Its unfortunate that some of the police take psychics seriously. If they did a little bit of research first and learnt about cold reading they might not be quite so gullible!

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Comment 1 (1702) by Jim on 2008-10-03 at 10:18:12:

This time I agree with OJB because I am also sick and tired of reality tv shows which treat the viewer like he is an idiot. There might be real psychics in this world but they don't seem to be appearing on "Sensing Murder".

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Comment 2 (2999) by hamburg114 on 2012-03-11 at 14:35:31:

Hi, I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.
Pls try to keep posting.
Let me show other source that may be good for community.
Source: Police ditective interview questions
Best regards
Jonathan.

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