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Sensing Murder

By Dave Owen, May 2006

Sensing Murder is a television show which has aired in various incarnations in several countries. I have seen a handful of episodes from the Australian and New Zealand versions, upon which I have based this review. The show is presented by former Halifax FP star Rebecca Gibney.

The premise is that two psychics are asked to investigate an unsolved murder. They are not told anything about the case beforehand — they must "sense" information about the case using only their psychic abilities and the audience is invited to judge the credibility of their findings.

Each show begins by stating that around 100 psychics were tested to see if they could provide any information about the case. In each show two succeed satisfactorily, which is quite a useful coincidence given that the show's format is based around using two psychics. As a side note, this also indicates that 98% of all psychics are completely useless when it comes to solving crime.

Once the two psychics are selected they are told they are working on an unsolved murder. Of course, as soon as they receive their plane tickets to work on the show, they will also know the general location of the murder. If they are sent a ticket to Wellington, it will be fairly obvious that the case will be in the Wellington region.

It would be interesting to know how many unsolved murders there are in Wellington, but I'm willing to wager it's a small enough number to research and remember a few key facts about all of them.

Upon arrival the psychic is shown a photograph and perhaps a personal item from the victim. The format of this procedure varies between different versions of the show, but at least in some cases the psychic must begin with the photo face-down. Only when they have made some statements about the case are they allowed to overturn the photo and see who it is. This is actually the most convincing part of the entire show. Taken at face value, the psychics do perform well at this task.

This is where it's worth noting the show's fundamental weakness: Lack of scrutiny. If the photograph test is legitimate, it represents a profound discovery which would rock the skeptical world. No scientist has ever been able to record such a phenomenon. So why does Sensing Murder undertake the test without so much as an independent witness?

We are simply expected to trust the show's producers that everything is above board. No university researcher gets to comment on the methodology, no member of the Skeptics Society gets to watch. The complete lack of corroboration really means that none of the show's claims have any validity, which would surely be history's greatest missed opportunity if it was real.

But anyway, let's move on...

One way or another the psychic sees the photo. If they have done their homework properly they now have all the information they need. This is an important point — the well-prepared psychic already knows everything they need to know about the case.

Around this time, some psychics pick up vague messages or feelings, others make direct contact with the deceased or some other spirit guide. Some psychics chat casually with the deceased and even share jokes. No-one thinks to ask the deceased who murdered them.

From here the psychic is driven by car into the surrounds with the intention of sensing the crime scene location. Again, no-one asks the deceased for an address. After some time the psychic leads the film crew to the crime scene, or in some cases (e.g. George from Wellington) the crew helpfully stops when the psychic is heading in the wrong direction and takes them to the correct location.

Much sensing follows. The psychic wanders slowly around the crime scene, picking up various vibes. The big guns are brought out as the psychic relates graphic, specific details.

Sadly and somewhat coincidentally, the information stream runs out at precisely the point where the public record ends. Every psychic is able to describe what happened up to a point which is already known, but mysteriously fails to sense (or even attempt to sense) anything particularly useful beyond that point. You would assume that in a missing person case, sensing the victim's location would be a priority. Apparently it doesn't work like that.

In one Australian case, the victim was known to have been abducted from beside her car in a city carpark and was never seen again. Two psychics both drove for miles and successfully located the carpark. They retraced her footsteps right up to where her car was parked. They were even able to sense that she had removed the car keys from her pocket as she approached the car (how could they have known she would do that?). It seems a shame that they couldn't then drive the extra distance to where she was taken to.

To be fair, in most cases the psychics do actually come up with a few new information bytes. These are mostly untestable, such as describing events which were never witnessed or clues which have since been lost. A lot of descriptions seem quite accurate but are not exactly unexpected at a murder scene, e.g. "The murderer was a strong man, very angry", or "There was lots of screaming, and lots of blood". It's no shock to hear Rebecca Gibney confirm that there was indeed a lot of blood at the scene.

One of the show's greatest claimed successes was in the case of Wellington George, when a psychic provided a name which she said was the killer. In another unfortunate coincidence, this person had since died so couldn't be questioned. Police were unable to find any evidence linking him to the crime.

This is where the program ends. A vast amount of impressive information has been provided but, at best, only a few fragments of anything new. This information is passed on to the police, who are occasionally "very interested", but that's the last we hear about it. The new leads don't make it into any news broadcasts and there are no breakthroughs in the case.

All of this brings us to the central question: With the wealth of very specific and accurate information these psychics provide which police already know, why is it that they provide so little useful information that nobody knew?

To this date, no case featured on Sensing Murder has been solved or even (as far as I'm aware) advanced in any fashion.