How reliable is the reporting of science journalists who are also part of the “Skeptical community”?
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for a review of his work investigating psychic detectives:
Alex Tsakiris: A couple of years ago, I did a fairly lengthy investigation of psychic detective case with Ben Radford. It’s taken two years, but next week I’m going to have a chance to do an interview with Ben Radford again, and hopefully close the loop on some of that work that we did.
Background on this case:
Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on today’s episode we’re going to look at a topic that I haven’t touched on in quite some time, and that is psychic detective work. The idea, of course, of psychics and law enforcement working together to solve crimes. In particular, we’re going to focus on how that work is reported in the media.
Hey, by the way, what do you think of the title of this episode? The title again is “Science Journalist Ben Radford Believes Psychic Detective.” Let me tell you how I put that together. See, I took the first part, which is true—Ben Radford is a science journalist, so I took that, Ben Radford, science journalist. And then I took the part that I wished was true, “Believes Psychic Detective,” and I added that onto the end and I got a good title. A title that I wanted.
Now, of course, some of you would object to a title like this because if you’ve ever heard Ben Radford or read much of what he’s written in various science sites, then you know that he’s a hard-core skeptic. He’s a guy that goes out of his way to debunk these psychic detectives. Hey, but then again it’s been shown that 87% of what these skeptical science journalists generate is just plain wrong.
Okay. I don’t know if that’s really true. I just kind of made that figure up. I mean, it sure feels true to me, but I don’t know if it’s really true. And for those of you who have listened to this show for a long time, you might have figured out by now what I’m really getting at here.
See, a couple of years ago, I did a fairly lengthy investigation of psychic detective work with Ben Radford. It’s taken a while. It’s taken two years, but you know, next week I’m going to have a chance to do an interview with Ben Radford again, and hopefully close the loop on some of that work that we did.
In advance of doing that, I wanted to kind of reintroduce you to the work that we did back then because I think it really paints a broader picture of some of the problems that we’ve talked about on this show. Really, it points back to the big picture change that we’ve made on this show in terms of saying, “Hey, you know what? It’s not about the data. It’s about all the other stuff other than the data.”
I know that’s a little abstract, so let me bring it down to a concrete example here, with this case that I did with Ben Radford. After spending a good month and hours and hours of interviews with police detectives, who you’ll hear in a minute, and the psychic herself, who you’ll hear in a minute, and presenting this information to Ben in the most concrete, straightforward way, we were then faced with Ben turning around and completely misrepresenting—directly misrepresenting—what was said by the detectives in another broadcast.
I think what that really calls into question is this broader issue of who can we trust? Can we trust the gatekeepers of science, the self-appointed gatekeepers of science, who are the skeptical science journalists like Ben Radford?
So with that as a bit of an introduction, let me replay for you one of the points that was raised during this long, drawn-out, probably eight-hours of recordings and edited interviews that we did. So here’s the situation: we interviewed psychic Nancy Weber about the work she did associated with a murder in New Jersey. You can go back and listen to all these interviews. I’ll provide links in the show notes here. You can really dig into this. It’s a fascinating case, I think, but for the purposes of this show I’m going to keep it really brief.
Here’s the interview that Ben did with Nancy concerning the information that she provided to the police:
Ben Radford: And what information specifically, in a nutshell, did you give Bill Hughes about Hopkins’ killer?
Nancy Weber: Sure. I saw a fairly tall, maybe 5’10” or 5’11” slim-built man, aquiline kind of shaped face. And I saw a lot of dark hair on his head. And then I saw the hair being taken off, almost like a wig, and it would be a buzz-cut with a very high widow’s peak. I kept seeing that.
Then I got the name, “James,” as I was riding. And then I got that he knew “the Hollow” in Morristown, which is a particular area in Morristown as we were riding around. I also smelled gasoline, smelled an auto shop or gasoline station, and I knew he was associated. Then I got the word, “brother.” So to me, his brother had either owned or worked at a station and the car that James would be driving would have that. Then I got “Polish,” and I connected that as Polish descent.
That took me to Florida, for some reason, where I felt a prison. And I felt him being locked away in prison for murder. And I remember saying to them, “Oh my God, he was in Florida in jail for murder. Not one. And they let him out.” And you know, as I’m saying it, I’m getting it. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anybody, but I didn’t know it and then said it. I was just letting the words spill out and I’d go, “They released him. Those idiots!”
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, first let me tell you the big picture. The police consistently, still to this day, say that Nancy provided valuable information and that her information was amazingly accurate. They said that to me; they said that to the original TV show they did; they said that to Ben Radford.
But in Ben Radford’s debunking exercise, what he attempted to do was focus on some inconsistencies. What he thought were inconsistencies. So I’m going to play you again one little clip out of there that he focused in on. It has to do with her saying that the murderer had gone to Florida and was incarcerated down there and then was released.
Let me play that for you again right now:
Nancy Weber: And I remember saying to them, “Oh my God, he was in Florida in jail for murder.”
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so Ben couldn’t refute the fact that Nancy’s information was amazing and the police thought it was amazing and thought it was accurate and after the fact it all matched up and all that. So what he focused on was this little point.
And he said in our interview with me, he said, “Hey, you know what? Those cops told me that she didn’t say that he came from Florida. Just that he came from the South.”
And I said, “Well, Ben, that’s not correct. I have it right here. I have the transcript of the interview that I did with Captain Moore.”
And he was insistent. Finally I said, “Ben, let’s get him on the phone.”
We called him and got him on the phone. And here’s what Captain Moore said:
Captain Moore: Hello, this is Jim.
Alex Tsakiris: Hi Captain Moore, this is Alex Tsakiris again, from Skeptiko. I have Ben Radford from The Skeptical Inquirer on the line.
Captain Moore: Yeah. How you doing?
Alex Tsakiris: So as I was explaining, Ben and I had an interesting chat with Nancy this morning. Then we got off the phone and we started arguing like we do. [Laughs]
Ben Radford: We do that.
Alex Tsakiris: But Ben has some potential inconsistencies he sees between the account that you gave to me and the account that you gave to him. We thought the easiest way to clear that up was to get you on the phone for just a few minutes. I’m going to let Ben take over. Go ahead, Ben.
Ben Radford: You know, Nancy claimed that she specified that Hoffman’s killer had come from Florida but both you and Hughes say that you recalled it wasn’t necessarily Florida; it was just in the South. Do you remember which one it was?
Captain Moore: Oh no. I said Florida. She told me that he lived in the Morristown area, went to Florida. While he was in Florida, he killed someone and went to jail. When he was in jail he killed an inmate. That’s what I told you.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s what you told me in my interview, and I have a transcript of that, as well.
Captain Moore: Yeah, okay. If you want to know what Nancy said to me before Koedatich was arrested, she told me that he, whoever committed this crime, went to Florida, was living in Florida, killed someone, went to prison in Florida, and then killed an inmate while he was in Florida. For some reason unknown, he got out. And after he got out of prison, he came back to the Morristown area. That’s what she told me when I first met her and she was going through what she could feel or sense.
Alex Tsakiris: I love that. You can kind of hear the strain in Ben’s voice as this veteran homicide detective gets in his face and says, “No, that’s what I told you. Now get it right.”
So then Ben and I went over it a little bit further and he said, “Okay, well yeah. What about the other guy, Lieutenant Hughes? He told me that Nancy said that the killer came from the South, not from Florida.”
As if that would make much of a difference! All of this amazing information and that’s the point he wants to raise, is whether she said specifically Florida or the South. But be it as it will, that’s the discussion we got into.
And again, I said, “No. You’re wrong. He said Florida.” He was insistent, and I said, “Let’s get him on the phone.” So we had a conference call. We got Lieutenant Hughes on the phone.
Here’s how that interview went:
Lt. Hughes: Lieutenant Hughes.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey Lieutenant Hughes, it’s Alex Tsakiris again from Skeptiko. Thanks again. I’m not going to take too much time. Let’s turn it over to Ben. Ben is concerned about some potential inconsistencies he sees between the interview you gave with me and the interview you gave with him, so let’s let him kind of take it over.
Lt. Hughes: Okay.
Ben Radford: Actually, I’m—not that inconsistency. I’m trying to reconcile what Nancy said. This is all regarding the information she gave in ’82 before Koedatich was arrested. For example, she says that she said specifically that Hoffman’s killer had come up from Florida, but from what you told me, and I think also other places, that you said that you didn’t remember her saying specifically Florida, just in the South. Is that right?
Lt. Hughes: No, no, no. She might—I might have said that, but no. She knew that the guy had killed before and that he had killed in Florida.
Ben Radford: Okay.
Lt. Hughes: And that he had done prison time in Florida.
Ben Radford: Okay. What you told me was that you said that he had done time in the South. You said, “I don’t recall her specifically saying he’d done time in Florida, just that he’d done time in the South.”
Lt. Hughes: Now, I do remember Florida. Maybe I was being generic or whatever the case might be…
Ben Radford: Okay.
Lt. Hughes: …but I do know that she said Florida.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so this is case closed. No reasonable person at this point, no reasonable journalist with any kind of integrity would at this point still hold onto this issue. Well, you know what that brings us to. Ben’s broadcast a couple months later on Michael Shermer’s Skeptic podcast. Here’s what Ben had to say:
Ben Radford: Nancy Weber said that she specified that Hoffman’s killer had served prison time in Florida. You said, “He came up from Florida where he’d been in prison for murder.” Well now, this is interesting because that’s not the same story that you hear when you interview the police officers. For example, Sergeant Hughes told me that Weber only stated the killer “had served time in the South.”
And it’s important to remember that the way that psychic detectives appear to be accurate and appear to have amazing information is by giving information that seems very specific at the time, but is in fact very general. For example, psychic detectives will say, “The body will be found near water.” So that’s a good example of how something that can seem very specific is, in fact, very general. That’s exactly the technique that Nancy Weber used in this case.
Alex Tsakiris: So I don’t know what you want to call that. Misrepresentation? Misremembering? Uh, lie? I don’t know what kind of words you want to throw at it, but it’s stunning. It’s stunning but it would be more stunning if it hasn’t happened over and over and over again on this show. We have countless examples. All you have to do is go through the archives and listen to Richard Wiseman and listen to Ray Hyman, and listen even to our beloved Steven Novella. Listen to James Randi.
I mean, it’s a consistent pattern. We can’t even call Ben out for being especially over-the-top in terms of misreporting this stuff. It has to do with the bias, the worldview. It clouds their vision and they’re just like the fanatical conservative religious folks that they so despise, that can’t get past the obvious problems in their logic. It’s the same situation repeated over and over again.
I know this is kind of hard and this is kind of a direct slam on Ben and some folks in the forum have suggested that I don’t even bring this up in advance of the interview that we’re going to have because I think there’s some productive things that we can get out of opening up a dialogue.
But by the same token, I just don’t think we can avoid talking about this stuff because this is really what divides skeptics and believers, if you will. And that’s that we have to be diligent about the truth. It’s not always easy to ferret out the truth. But in this case, I think it’s pretty darn easy. I mean, if you can’t jump over this hurdle, if you can’t look at what Ben’s saying and say, “That’s a distortion of the truth,” then I don’t know how much hope there is for a dialogue with a skeptic like you and a believer like me.
Well, that’s going to do it for this little mini-episode of Skeptiko. Again, in this posting I will have links to the previous episodes we’ve done on this topic. As always, I invite you if you’re interested in this show and some of the other information we’ve covered, to check out the Skeptiko website. It’s at skeptiko.com. You can also join us in discussing this topic on our forum and any thoughts or ideas you have I’ll try and incorporate into the upcoming interview scheduled for later this week.
That’s going to do it for right now. Thanks for joining me. Bye for now.
Radford’s extended clip: