Journalism’s responsibility does not end with reporting: Psychics charlatans, not investigators

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Isaac Asimov was asked once by a journalist why he was so upset that a news show had uncritically reported the invention of a perpetual motion machine. He responded that we all must be outraged at such a breech of ethics: if we don’t report the truth, people will feel perfectly happy to assume that some panacea for our problems will come, rather than realize the reality that we must solve them ourselves. We share Asimov’s dire concern after seeing the front-page article on the use of psychics by police detectives in the Fresno Bee on Sunday January 8, 2006. The idea that our police department is using its officers’ time to consult psychics, and that the Bee is then reporting it in a completely uncritical way, suggests a massive fraud being perpetrated on the people of the Central Valley. And worse, there is no indication that anyone involved in the publication of the article was very concerned about these matters.

Let’s be clear: there is no reliable evidence for any paranormal phenomenon. Dowsers can’t dowse; perpetual motion machines can’t move perpetually; there is no ectoplasm this side of Ghostbusters’ celluloid. The Bee’s story is especially disturbing given the general tendency of newspapers to ensure balance in stories even when there is no need. What was Cary Stayner’s upbringing like? Isn’t Osama Bin Laden from a good family? Yet there was no effort to get a response for this article to the misuse of police time in the consultation of a psychic on at least 40 occasions. Nationally known skeptics like Michael Shermer and James Randi, or indeed any professor of critical thinking at a local university, would have been happy to comment. We all view it as our obligation as scholars and writers not only to work in our areas, but to work to make clear thought and reflection a part of the arsenal of all readers—in this case the Bee has actively worked against this goal.

The tremendous problems that attach to an uncritical acceptance of psychic claims are manifold. This psychic was claimed to have helped with four cases, though she was consulted on more than 40. If we were to make random, general statements about 40 unknowns (say, members of a family), a fewer than 10-percent hit ratio would be abysmal! This reality only peripherally addresses the fact that psychics are charlatans: they are good at saying what people want to hear. “Cold reading” of a subject is a simple method of fishing out information by taking advantage of the tendency of man to be a pattern-making creature; e.g., positive responses by a subject to very generalized comments give an illusion of real insight. In addition, there is a human penchant only to remember correct comments. Try to remember one of television psychic John Edward’s (near infinite) wrong assessments, or a lottery number you missed. As Hawkeye opined in one M*A*S*H episode, “we [humans] only remember the good stuff.”

We are most irked by the idea that the attempt at a balancing comment was to say some officers are not sure about the value of these (so-called) psychics. Of course the officers have to say they will use all resources: they are answerable to a public that has been misinformed by uncritical analyses like that of the Bee. We welcome further investigation of this subject by the Bee, and we mention in closing that James Randi has a standing offer of $100,000.00 to ANYONE who can prove the existence of ANY paranormal phenomenon. We teach our students to be critical in their use of sources and evidence; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Marshall Johnston is a member of the Fresno Pacific University history faculty specializing in ancient history and the classics. Pamela Johnston teaches history and religion at FPU.

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