Sensing Failure

23 03 2010

Sensing...Absolutely Nothing

Despite being the only author of this blog resident in the UK I’ve managed to keep tabs on the NZ version of ‘Sensing Murder’, a particularly abhorrent TV programme which under the guise of helping people, exploits the families of murder victims in order to promote their own group of ‘psychic investigators’. Not only does the show gleefully promote the frankly ludicrous notion that certain ‘specially gifted’ people can communicate with the dead, it also does it on TVNZ which receives 10% of its income from ‘government sources’ ie your taxes

Despite various woolly claims over the years that the psychics have come up with ‘new and exciting evidence’ – the show has in fact come up with exactly what every right thinking person would have predicted (non-psychically) from the word go.


Not one success in four seasons (32 odd cases). Despite alleging being able to talk to the actual murder victims!! Despite allegedly being able to pick the sex of the victim from a hidden picture 100% of the time and being able to identify murder scenes without ever having been there or knowing anything about the case!! What is more amazing – the assertion that they can talk to the dead or that once they manage to do so the victims are so unwilling to help catch their killer? On top of this the programme goes out of its way to shift blame onto the NZ police, accusing them of failing to follow up new leads brought to light by the psychics. Now the police are by no means infallible – but the murder clear-up rate in NZ is pretty good and I do not believe for one second that the teams investigating these crimes initially didn’t do everything they could and now just can’t be bothered to follow up leads. The fact that some twit on a TV show goes ‘oh I sense you should investigate Mr. X’ does not constitute a ‘new lead’, and to their credit the NZ police have publicly stated they do not use psychics.

The psychics have also refused to undergo any 3rd party testing despite claiming they want to, and despite being offered large sums of money to prove their so-called special powers. NZ businessman Tony Andrews has offered them $NZ 20,000 each for just being tested – an offer yet to be accepted, which tells it’s own tale.

However there is some light at the end of the tunnel… the programme makers Ninox Television went into receivership last year and there may be no more Sensing Murder. They did however keep a web forum running…until last Sunday (21 March 2010) when the plug was abruptly pulled after one member posted less than complimentary first hand information about one of the SM psychics Kelvin Cruikshank. Interestingly a number of supporters of the programme who participated in the forum had also recently started to question SM given its complete lack of success. Engaged in discussion by a number of skeptical members it seemed that the previously committed were perhaps starting to have second thoughts. However before any real questioning took place the forum was shut down and it now seems that the members have joined a thread on the JREF forums instead – ironically a forum devoted to skeptics.

Radio interview with Cruikshank cold reading here

More Sensing Murder criticism here, including some stuff on Cruikshank in the comments

Sensing bullshit site – Alan is not known for pulling his punches.

Silly Beliefs – another great site debunking Sensing Murder again including a lot of interesting exchanges in the comments section.


2010: What’s In Store – Could the Answer Lie in Your Vege Garden?

31 12 2009

As the year draws to a close the usual bunch of psychics and deluded souls queue up to make vague predictions about the year ahead. This year one in particular caught my eye however – step forward English ‘mystic’ Jemima Packington. Jemima holds no truck with tea leaves or tarot cards, her psychic weapon of choice is none other than …asparagus. She throws sticks of asparagus into the air and makes predictions based on their position when landing.
Unfortunately her soothsaying is of the fairly generic variety – Gordon Brown will lose the UK election and England will go out of the World Cup in the first or second round. Other forecasts she has made include a royal engagement and a high profile royal health scare or death. In showbiz, she also predicts George Clooney and Helen Mirren will win Oscars in 2010.

When you examine these claims they show a combination of guesswork and research – nothing to do with any ‘mystic ability’ at all. Obviously asparagus divining is an extreme example, but there are plenty of other so-called psychics who employ the same tactics.

Most people expect Gordon Brown to lose the next election – hardly mystic. It is extremely likely that there will be a ‘high profile royal death or scare’. The Queen is 82 and her husband is 87 – again, hardly mystic, and she has cynically hedged her bets by including ‘scare’ which could be anything from a hospital trip for a check-up to a heart condition. The England football prediction is a straight guess made after seeing the group stage draws. I happen to think she will be wrong on this one, England for the quarter-finals at least. As for George Clooney and Helen Mirren winning Oscars – that seems pretty specific doesn’t it? But not quite so much when you realise the Golden Globe Awards nominations are already out, and they are seen as a guide to who will win the Oscars. Guess who are up for best actor and actress…Mirren & Clooney. So once again Packington has drastically narrowed her odds – and if she guessed correctly…well the asparagus did it.

UK Roundup 02/09/09

2 09 2009

The British Humanist Association has sparked a bit of controversy by attacking a creationist zoo called Noah’s Ark Farm, near Bristol. The BHA claims that the zoo misleads large numbers of visitors and wants the British and Irish Zoo Association and a number of other tourism agencies to delist them from their promotional material.

 Creationism - No. Tapirs - Yes

Creationism - No. Tapirs - Yes

It’s an interesting case because the zoo seems to be quite open about it’s stance and features a ‘creation research’ link prominently on it’s website, leading many to ask what the problem is. Personally, although I think the zoo’s owners are as mad as a box of frogs, I don’t really see why they can’t run their own private zoo in whatever way they see fit provided it’s quite clear to visitors what they’re in for, and as long as the government isn’t promoting it or paying for it. Hopefully people can see straight through attempts to equate creationism with science and concentrate on the animals instead. Apparently they have some nice tapirs.

Keeping on the theme of animals, a group of USA based atheists have come up with a terrific money making scheme involving post-Rapture pet care. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets offers pet care to those who believe that the worthy (ie those who believe in Jesus) will be swept up to heaven in what is commonly know as ‘The Rapture’. ‘You’ve committed your life to Jesus. You know you’re saved. But when the Rapture comes what’s to become of your loving pets who are left behind?’ the group’s website asks. Having signed up a number of certified blasphemers and sinners to act as animal minders, they are able to guarantee first rate pet care to those animals left behind post-Rapture – for a fee of course.

If you would like to cast your eyes over a truly bad piece of journalism, The Telegraph can help. This week someone called Lucy Pinney wrote a cringe-inducing article on the possibility of ‘remote viewing’ being useful in healthcare. Apart from being possibly the most credulous journalist in print, she was even criticised by her subject Andrew Usher (dean of British Institute Of Homeopathy), who took umbrage at an incorrect statement stating the NHS was investigating remote viewing. So not only does she write a piece free of any journalistic balance, she happily includes references to CIA studies on remote viewing (which found no evidence for it) as evidence, and on top of that misrepresents one of her main subjects. Way to go Lucy.

Stop Boris Kreiman

4 11 2008

A person going by the name of Boris Kreiman has whipped up the domain while its owner, Robert Lancaster is recovering from a serious stroke that he suffered some months ago.

Initially a psychic service operated by Kreiman was put on the site that directed users to Upon being informed of his actions (presumably in many colourful words from many angry sceptics) he offered to sell the site back for $20,000. When his offer was (unsurprisingly) refused he then tried to sell it on Ebay.

Kreiman left a post on Randi’s swift blog that said:

Hi My name is GM Boris Kreiman and I did buy domain I dont know why you people writing this bs. I offered to sell it to the owner and his friends. There is NOTHING WRONG with buying GOOD DOMAINS. I am not pro or against Sylvia Browne. I tried to put up objective content but got many insults in the email. Please stop this harassment because I dont want to file any law suits. I hope we can call it as misunderstand and you guys put your money where your mouth is and BUY

Kreiman picked up the domain at auction for $495 when it expired and the proper thing to do given Robert’s unfortunate circumstances would be to sell it back for a reasonable amount.

For those of you who have links to Robert’s website, the new domain is

The Light Ship Has Arrived….Well Almost

14 10 2008

Well it is October the 14th and as of yet there is no sign of the UFO that psychic Blossum Goodchild predicted as visiting earth. Goodchild’s channelled a message that a UFO would appear in the sky and remain for three days has provided an interesting blend of psychic ability and UFO’s. Apparently the aliens have come to “give us hope” and currently there are many bankers and employees of financial institutions who are hoping that this will come true. Judging by today’s rebound on the stock markets perhaps that they have arrived, but not revealed themselves yet.

For reasons unknown this prediction has whipped up some fervour among UFO believers and psychics alike (and the tongue in cheek reports in the main stream media probably are not helping). Some people who on the face of it have reality impairments have incorporated additional conspiracies like this cracker on an associated blog that says:

Some people have been emailing me wondering when the light ship will show up. It will show up tomorrow, the 14th within the North American time frame. The goal of this sighting is to have the light ship present themselves to the United States as they are the central area of the Illuminati.

Of course…it all makes sense to me now! What I am looking forward to is Goodchild’s revised explanation that will come out over the next few days when the UFO fails to materialise. My prediction is that the time was not right and a new date will be announced. It is a common ploy with the various religious dooms dayers, but unfortunately the true believers will continue to believe the various predictions (Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are a good examples, they have both previously predicted dates for the end times which have come and gone, and they have successfully rationalised the failures).

On a more serious note, is that it is quite fascinating how people find themselves in the position of having such beliefs. While mental illness can account for a small proportion there are many people who are of a sound mind and yet will believe the likes of Goodchilds channelling. They do not believe things on a whim either as they will base their decisions to believe in things on some type of evidence. However, it is the quality of the evidence that is important.

When making the decision about whether to believe any proposition, evidence always plays a role. For a ‘believer’ in a particular idea the form that the evidence takes is going to be very relevant.

If you are prepared to accept as evidence what you personally observe and experience (anecdotal evidence) then it does open up many doors for a range of things whether it be channelling, psychic abilities, psychic healing, remote viewing, homeopathy, or UFO’s. The amount of weight you place on anecdotal evidence appears to dictate how much something throws themselves into the realms of belief of a particular phenomenon.

However in determining something as important as say psychic belief, my position is that anecdotal evidence is insufficient, there needs to be a systematic approach to its examination to determine whether there is a basis to this particular claim. Furthermore, if there is a basis then further research needs to be examined to establish what the underlying processes are that cause the phenomena (as it is one thing to observe psychic ability, but it is another to explain how it happens)

To reach a scientific level of ‘proof’ (which in science you never actually prove anything, but I am using the term in an every day sense) for a phenomena, then for me personally, anecdotal evidence is not enough as there are to many alternative explanations and variables that may impact upon the senses to make it reliable. This is why for subjects where a scientific basis is lacking I am sceptical of its existence or claims. This does not mean that I can rule it out (although there are some concepts where it is reasonable to rule them out due to their flawed underpinnings or outlandish claims – chemtrail conspiracies spring to mind), but take the position that until the scientific evidence is available then I would not commit to a particular belief.

It is interesting that some people can also be sceptical of science itself and it can and has been accused of a range of things including elitism and dogmatic. However, these are actually criticisms of the scientific community, not the process of scientific investigation, which has proven to be robust and an incredibly effective tool in the advancement of our knowledge and technology.

Anyway, with that said, lets bring on the alien visitation!

The Threat of Defamation

8 10 2008

An Australian poster going by the name of AndyD on the JREF forums has recently had a run in with Ezio De Angelis, a self described psychic medium who was a finalist in the recent television series The One. This show pitted various psychics against each other in a showdown to determine who was Australia’s top psychic.

AndyD edited and posted on Youtube a satirical video of De Angelis conducting a psychic reading from ‘The One’. The principal edits were of the sitter providing many more negative answers than what was shown and the rationale of the video was to highlight the number of misses that had made their way to the cutting room floor during the editing process for the episode.

In late September De Angelis contacted AndyD and told him:

“This video is part of a pending Defamation and compensation action. It has already been removed from Bad Psychics.Com as part of this legal process.

In order to ensure that you are not implicit in the litigation you are required to remove the video and commentary immediately.”

This threat of legal action upset AndyD sufficiently to not only remove the video from Youtube, but also remove half of his posts on his blog. He has since reinstated most of the posts, but the video has not been put back on Youtube.

Without the benefit of viewing the video, it is difficult to judge if it is actually defamatory (and anyway I am no lawyer), but this is a common tactic attempted by some of the more high profile psychics to have blogs, articles, and websites that are critical of them removed from the Internet. Uri Geller is notorious for his litigation and famously filed action against Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and James Randi which inadvertently resulted in James Randi and CSICOP parting ways.

Threats of defamation are not restricted to those who dabble in the supernatural world, but also in pseudoscientific realms such as the recent threat of legal action made by New Zealand Chiropractic Association against the New Zealand Medical Journal.

For those sceptics who have an Internet presence, they are open to the threat of litigation (whether it has a basis or not) and for most people the prospect of having the hassle and expense of a civil hearing is sufficient to give in to such threats.

In New Zealand the Defamation Act 1992 provides  are two defenses that can be used, the first is that the defamatory statement is the truth, which on the face of it seems straight forward. However, the burden of proof lies on the person making the statement to show that it is true. The second defense is that it is an honestly held opinion. With this defense, the facts presented must be correct and it must be clear that it is the personal opinion of the person making the statement. Furthermore, the opinion must be genuinely held.

This should not be taken as legal advice and if you are the subject of legal action then make sure that you get advice from a suitably qualified solicitor.

Sensing Murder – Series Three

16 07 2008

It’s back!!! I am of course talking about everybody’s favourite show – Sensing Murder. Okay obviously the show is not to absolutely everyone’s taste and it certainly elicits strong responses from both side of the debate on psychic’s ability. It was one of the reasons I was inspired to start posting my views on paranormal and pseudoscience on the Internet. It is therefore a prime candidate for a dedicated article on this blog.

In reviewing the programme and new series I hope to avoid the whole argument over whether the Psychics on the show are genuine or not. All of the main contributors to this blog are hardened veterans of the many heated debates on the Sensing Murder and JREF forums around the lack of hard evidence for the claimed abilities. These discussions boil down to Believers believe because they have seen with their own eyes while Skeptics require proper controlled testing to convince them. The discussion’s generally deteriorates quite quickly into accusations of close mindedness, thrown by protagonists from both sides.

Instead I wish to look at the programme from the point of view of journalistic fairness and balance. Even if the Psychics have the ability they claim they could still be wrong or mistaken in a particular case. Does the show allow room for the audience to make their own mind up or have the makers decided to push a particular agenda and view and then reinforce that as much as possible?

The first two series of Sensing Murder quickly established the formula for the programme. This can best be summarised as Crimewatch lite with a couple of Psychics thrown in to the mix. Essentially a standard 90-minute programme is split into distinct segments. The first part of the show is focused on providing the background of the case and person who was murdered or went missing. Then a recreation of the known facts of what happened is shown, similar to recreations made for Crimewatch.

At this point the paranormal side of the show kicks off. The two psychics, (always two, but not necessarily the same two), are introduced. After a brief run down of the exhaustive search process the programme makers undertook to ensure only the best and most accurate psychics were used for the show they start doing their thing. While this article is not touching upon testing of psychic ability I must admit I would love to get my hands on the raw test data and test protocols for this to see how thorough and controlled this testing actually was.

The Psychics spend the next segment of the programme connecting with the ‘spirit of the murdered or missing person and allowing the audience to get the impression that they have indeed got some connection to a dead person. They then proffer up some possible scenarios about what actually happened. This is often accompanied by a scene visit where the psychics take a field trip to a locale where the crime may have occurred. This last bit is usually not much more than 15 minutes in and hour and a half programme.

Interspersed throughout are interviews with friends and relatives of the deceased. These confirm bit and pieces of the back-story and/or psychic revelations. All of this is held together with the super serious presenting style of Rebecca Gibney, use of eerie and sinister mood music and graphics for dramatic effect, and is topped off with the musings of a private investigator, (Duncan Holland), who the show employs to follow up the ‘leads’ provided by the two Psychics.

So how does the new series structure compare to the previous two? Superficially all the various elements are still there so it could be said that nothing much has changed. The background and recreation of the case, friends and family of the deceased, the two psychics, a field trip, Rebecca, Duncan et al. The producers of the show have obviously decided why mess with a winning formula and you can’t really blame them as it has served them well.

I did notice a few slight differences. The introduction to the programme has been ‘jazzed’ up. There is lots of flashing lights and quick cutting between shots of the Psychics and a recreation of the show tragic topic. Someone on the SM forum described these effects as if the Psychics had magic lights bursting from their eyes. There is also a bit more time ‘bigging’ up the individual psychics, (Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank were featured in this particular episode), success outside the show, (TV shows, workshops, etc), and how much more confident they are in their ability since starting on the series. Another small variation from the majority of previous shows was the fact that it was mentioned that the family of the deceased to do the show called in the SM team.

It is probably a good idea to give some of the background of the particular case the episode was featuring. Unlike the majority of the previous shows the case in question didn’t involve either an unsolved murder, (at first glace anyway), or a missing person. The situation being investigated was the case of the death of Blake Stott, a young man who was tragically killed in his new car by a fire late at night sometime in 2006. Police and forensic/fire investigators couldn’t establish any foul motives behind the crime and the current official thinking is that his death was likely the result of an accident. The family disagreed and employed the services of Duncan Holland to investigate the case, (according to this report in the ODT). Mr Holland then recommended the family contact the Sensing Murder team.

Cases on Sensing Murder seem to me to fall into either one of two categories. The first is a straightforward unsolved murder or abduction case. The second category is one in which someone has gone missing or has been killed but there is no definitive evidence of a crime being committed. Examples of this sort of case are those involving Jim Donnelly and also Blake Stott.

On balance there is probably a lot of benefit in profiling the first category of cases on a national television programme like Sensing Murder. Even if the information provided by the psychics doesn’t reveal anything new or useful at least the extra publicity that the show provides might encourage witnesses to come forward with some additional information. The second category of cases has much less to recommend them. This is especially true if the Psychics proffer up a scenario that is controversial and at odds with the known facts of the situation. This is what happened in the Blake Stott case.

It is at this junction that I would like to start to address the shows balance. As stated the case being featured on the show was not a cut and dried situation where we could be confident that foul play of some sort had occurred and the psychics try to provide information about the perpetrator or perpetrators. The official explanation of the Blake Stott case was a tragic accident and hence no one was thought to be directly responsible. This was not what the show led us to believe however with an alternative hypothesis put forward by the both Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank that something more sinister had happened.

The rather shocking and controversial revelations was telegraphed pretty early on in the show, in the introduction at the start of the programme, in the numerous teasers before each ad breaks, and in the various rhetorical questions made by Rebecca Gibney asking whether the Psychics had identified some other cause of his death (Hmmmmm, do you think they might have?).

How did the show handle the fact that the Psychics had come up with something seriously at odds with the Police view of the case? Well the show pretty much did all it could to support the hypothesis the Psychics put forward. Not only were the Psychics and their abilities given an awful lot of credibility during the first part of the show and presented as though they might have additional supernatural abilities (such as shooting magical lights from their eyes) but, by using of suitably eerie and sinister mood music and visuals, the audience were made to feel as though something was slightly amiss in the case.

Efforts were made to enhance the credibility of both the show and the Psychics a number of times during the programme. The most obvious way this was done was showing a great number of ‘hits’ Sue and Kelvin got and having Rebecca confirm verbally that they were indeed correct. I counted an impressive amount of factually accurate information provided by the Psychics during the show. In fact I didn’t see anything that looked remotely as though it was wrong or even a guess on their part. There was one moment that I thought they might have shown Kelvin struggling a little with describing what Blake Stott looked like however it soon became apparent that even this was turned into a hit when it was suggested that he couldn’t make out his features because they had been destroyed in the fire.

I suppose it is within the realms of possibility that the Psychics were amazingly accurate. Although I would suggest that it is highly improbably, especially considering some of the reviews their live performances get. I also accept that, given the limited time available in the programme, there is a need to edit what the Psychics are saying so that it is pertinent and fits into the shows time and format but that just highlights that the programme is an unbalanced portrayal of the facts of a case.

Unbalanced is also how I would describe the way the show handled the official explanation for Blake Stott’s death. Doubts were raised about potential accidental causes of the fire in the car. Both the car and the car stereo were brand new, (the implication being they couldn’t possibly have malfunctioned), and it was made clear that Blake did not smoke cigarettes, (Although no mention was made of whether this non smoking also included Cannabis). These rebuttals were reinforced with interview quotes from Blake Stott’s family and friends. Kelvin was especially scathing of the Police investigation of the case, basically accusing it of taking the easy road to get the case closed as soon as possible. No other evidence was proffered to support this accusation.

These may all be valid criticism of the official position but at no time did we get to see someone from an alternative viewpoint from that expressed by the Psychics. Duncan Holland did look to take on the role of presenting the facts of the official case but he was employed much more in confirming whatever the Psychics came up with. Duncan also identified there were potential ‘suspects’ that fitted the general description of the two perpetrators who had started the fire ‘as a joke’ (according to Sue and Kelvin view). Duncan helpfully advised that one of the two had subsequently left the area. The implication seemed to be that his departure and the death of Blake Stott were somehow linked.

Given the controversial nature of the Psychics accusations and the fact that two potentially innocent people were being accused, (if not actually publicly identified); did the programme makers give various parties a right of reply? In short – No they did not.

To be fair though they did mention during the programme that the Police were offered the opportunity to participate and turned it down. The makers to the programme responded to questions about this with the following reply on the Sensing Murder forum –

“Dunedin Area Command ordered Balclutha Police not to take part in Sensing Murder because, as far as police are concerned, Blake’s death was an accident. Police were informed, prior to broadcast, of the psychic’s findings and were given all of the investigator’s research and a copy of the programme in advance. We have ongoing communication with the police over the case.”

However it is not clear why there wasn’t more input from potentially neutral parties such as forensic investigators or local journalists.

I accept that the Police can be incredibly unhelpful and are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to defending their actions. I myself contacted the local Police about the case to ask them what they thought about the allegations made by the Psychics on the show. The response from the Dunedin and Clutha area command was frankly disappointing.

“Police will investigate any new evidence raised in the Sensing Murder programme screened on TV2, said Area Commander: Dunedin & Clutha, Inspector Dave Campbell.

“While this case has been investigated thoroughly, as with any investigation, we are open to examining new evidential information that comes to light,” he said.

At this stage, police have no further comment to make about the programme, Inspector Campbell said.”

What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Police did not find the additional ‘evidence’ provided by the show compelling enough to warrant the case being reopened immediately. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the show. So, while sympathising with the Sensing Murder team in their lack of support from Police, it doesn’t really excuse the complete lack of balance in the production of the programme, More of an effort could have been made to present the other side of the debate even without Police buy in.

When it comes down to it does it really matter if the show lacks balance and pushes the view that the Psychic ‘revelations’ are one hundred percent accurate? The show after all is classified as a light entertainment reality show and as TVNZ argued during the recent complaint to the NZ Broadcasting Standard Authority it is ‘not a news, current affairs or factual programme… there was “an expectation in society that programmes about mediums are told from a particular perspective”’.

To an extent this is a fair enough position to take however I would argue that, given the subject matter, an unbalanced show does matter. As stated at the beginning of this article, the programme does elicit strong responses. Whether the makers of the show choose to acknowledge it or not many people are going to blindly accept that a crime has been committed and two individuals in the local area are guilty. As a journalist from the Southland Times said to me the community in question is incredibly small and throwing accusations around like they did can have devastating effects.

The sensitive nature of the subject matter, they are dealing with real events and real people after all, suggests to me that Ninox has a duty of care in their production to at least inform their audience of the dangers of jumping to conclusions about the case. Even if they don’t have the time to present both sides of the debate fairly they can at least downplay some of the emotional manipulation that they engage in.

The makers obviously have a desire for the show to be taken seriously given references to steps they undertook to test and control the Psychic readings, (coupled with how they spun the whole Nigel Latta experience with the show). If they really want to be taken seriously then they should start acting a little more responsibly.

In the interests of fairness and balance I will attempt to get a response to this article from the makers of the show and will post them on the forum if I am successful.