No, Psychics Can’t Help Solve Murders

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
July 15 2013 4:30 PM

No, Psychics Can’t Help Solve Murders

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In this file photo, a self-proclaimed psychic holds a crystal ball.

Photo by Bob Daemmrich/AFP/Getty Images

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Last Wednesday, Riverside County, Calif., authorities discovered a body they believe to be that of an 11-year-old named Terry Smith. The boy had gone missing the previous Saturday or Sunday, and authorities now believe he was killed by his half brother and then buried in a shallow grave behind the family’s house. It’s a terrible, disturbing story—and, for me, it was made worse by the baffling amount of attention that’s been given to a local psychic who claimed that her “visions” led police to Smith’s body.

Pam Ragland, who specializes in what she calls “Quantum Thought Shifting” and self-identifies as an “intuitive,” says she had visions about Terry Smith’s whereabouts—and, after calling the police and offering to help in their search, she led them right to his body. Rather than treating her claims with skepticism, or ignoring them entirely, several reporters put Ragland front and center in their coverage. The Associated Press cites a Riverside County detective named John Powers who says Ragland was indeed the one who found the body. “Powers says Ragland called a tip line about her vision, and was invited to join the search,” the story continues. “He says Ragland and her children came to the house without knowing it was the boy's, walked on to the property and right to the partially buried body.”

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The AP piece was a model of journalistic restraint compared with an online story from nbclosangeles.com, which devoted more than 20 paragraphs to Ragland and her alleged visions:

She said authorities asked her to come down to the scene; Ragland arrived with her two children on Tuesday evening. During the drive, Ragland said she had another vision—of “city lights” and the word “no.” When she arrived at the search area, she saw the view she had seen in a vision.
“It’s literally like a vision in your head, like you’re looking at something,” she said.
A searcher said the city lights represented the area they planned to explore. Ragland said, “No, he’s not there.”

Yet another example of the mystical properties of the universe? No, but it’s certainly another example of the gullibility (or willful ignorance) of the news media. I’m willing to accept that Pam Ragland helped find Terry Smith’s body. I’m even willing to accept that Riverside County authorities believe she used psychic powers to direct her search. But I am beyond certain that, despite what Ragland says and the authorities might believe, psychic intuition had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of Smith’s body.

How do I know this? Because psychics don’t exist. Psychic powers are not a real thing. A psychic cannot help a detective solve a crime, because there is no such thing as a legitimate psychic. And it’s dangerous and wrong to report otherwise. Pretending that mystics and "intuitives" have something real to offer criminal investigations gives false hope to desperate people, and it’ll just end up wasting time and resources that would’ve been better spent on actual investigative techniques.

OK, you skeptic, you might be saying. If Ragland isn’t a psychic, then how did she find the body? Who knows? Maybe she wasn't as involved as she says. Maybe it was coincidence, or luck, or a really good guess. Maybe she is actually skilled at reading landscapes and guessing where bodies might be buried. Or maybe Terry Smith’s body wasn’t really that well-hidden in the first place: A different nbclosangeles.com story noted that the discovery was made when, in “the family home’s backyard, [Ragland] found a decaying head sticking out of the raw dirt.” A head poking out of the ground isn’t the sort of “vision” that requires supernatural powers to see. So let’s all stop pretending that Pam Ragland is something she isn’t.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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