I Can Smell Onions
By Ken McLeod
This article about the failure of psychics in Search and Rescue (SAR) originally appeared in Skeptical Briefs, 16(3), 3-4, 2006. The author is Secretary of the Australian National SAR Conference, lecturer at the Australian SAR College, Editor of the Australian SAR Manual, and Vice-Chairman of a UN Committee on SAR.
The recent explosion in psychic detective shows on TV such as Psychic Investigators got me thinking about my nearly thirty years in Australian Search and Rescue. During that time we had many brushes with psychic detectives just as the police still do. Many psychics claim great success in solving crimes, and in locating missing people, boats and aircraft.
Sometimes, in spite of our dedication and the best that science could offer at the time, our search for a missing aircraft or boat would fail. We never called on psychics. No, they called on us. If ever the media reported our failure after any long search, then as sure as night follows day the phone would bring one of those little rays of sunshine into our lives. It's not as if we were bumbling around in the dark. Search and Rescue is a highly technical business. The planning and allocation of search teams is based on probability mathematics, research on how the eye and brain interact to register objects, the effects of weather and ocean currents, the ease of navigation, etc, and since 1990 the use of global positioning satellites to locate distress radio beacons anywhere on the planet (see www.cospas-sarsat.org).
Generally we found what we were looking for, plus no end of marijuana plantations and World War II aircraft wrecks in northern Australia. The failure was usually due to thick jungle obscuring aircraft wreckage or a vessel sinking in the wide expanses of ocean without leaving any floating evidence. Occasionally, if a search failed, the families of the missing persons would call in psychics for assistance. That was always a recipe for a difficult situation. In their desperation these poor people would clutch at any straw, and there was no shortage of rip-off artists, charlatans, and the deluded to take their money. Having been presented with their urgent search suggestions, we were in a difficult position, torn between sympathy for these families and using common sense.
The advice from psychics always followed the same format: (1) The psychic, usually female, appeared to be genuinely concerned, convinced of their powers, and very persuasive. (2) The advice was so vague as to fit almost any location. (3) It would be our fault if we ignored the advice and the lost people died. (4) Usually the advice made no sense at all. Psychics seem to have no understanding of how aircraft and boats work, and no understanding of geography. They really are on a different planet.
Were we ever assisted in our searches by a psychic's advice? No. It invariably wasted our time while we tried to make sense of it and deal with the families. Never did it lead us to missing people. In one difficult search for an aircraft missing between Coolangatta and Sydney, Kerry Jones (who claimed to be Australia's most respected psychic) contacted us as follows:Me: Hello, Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
Psychic: It's Kerry Jones. I have some information about the missing aircraft.
Me: Go on, please.
Psychic: I can smell onions.
Psychic: 1 can smell onions. Tell your searchers to try to smell unions, that's where you'll find the wreckage.
Me: Thanks very much, if you'll leave your phone number ...
Picture the Rescue Co-ordination Centre. There was much furrowing of brows, much mumbling into coffee cups, and much poring over navigation charts. Where had we omitted the Onion Factor? Try as we might, we couldn't find "Here There Be Onions" on the charts. I still lie awake at night asking myself "Should we have told the search aircraft to open a window?" Careful checks revealed that our people on the aircraft had eaten hamburgers before the flight, so I suppose the psychic's advice could be classified as "Microsoft Help", technically correct but no help at all. All of our involvement with psychics was as useful as that.
During my time on the United Nations committee on Search and Rescue, my colleagues and I occasionally discussed the assistance we had been offered by psychics. After much selfless research in some of the best pubs in the world, none of us could recall any psychic as being more than a nuisance. For example, during a search for a missing yacht in the Coral Sea between northeast Australia and Fiji, a psychic told the Rescue Co-ordination Centre that the survivors were resting under a tree on an island. Not that this was much help, because between northeast Australia and Fiji there are thousands of islands and billions of trees. At least it ruled out Antarctica. What was really surprising is that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had officially advised their staff to "consider the advice of psychics", which led to many thousands of taxpayers' dollars being spent on hiring aircraft to search islands. As a result they were awarded the Australian Skeptics Bent Spoon Runner-up Award of 1997.
As for psychic detectives solving crimes and locating missing bodies, I recently became stirred from tranquillity on my boutique farm when the ABC (our most respected media network famous for its science programmes and excellent research) broadcast what was clearly bunkum. On the programme The Spirit Of Things, the host Rachael Kohn PhD says: "Allison DuBois is a forensic psychic whose information has helped police locate bodies and murder suspects". And: "Allison DuBois has helped to solve murders for the FB1". Note that Kohn says "has helped" not "claims to have helped."
I found this difficult to believe, so I asked Dr Kohn what checks had been made of Allison DuBois's claims. The answer was: none. These bizarre, nonsensical and untrue claims had been accepted without checking. This is now all too common in the media, where any charlatan or whacko is guaranteed air time if it will support the belief system of the presenter, fill a time slot, and boost ratings and profits.
But before we get puffed up and indignant about this, does it really
matter? Does it really matter that self-promoting psychics have conned
gullible TV producers into endorsing them? Or is it just the price we
pay for being skeptics assaulted on all sides by lazy thinking?
(1) The families of the missing are deeply traumatized by unsolved murders and missing bodies. Many are the occasions where psychics have made the heartache and trauma worse by leading the families to focus on unrealistic hopes, engage in conspiracy theories, pester politicians, spend their life savings and in some cases even sell their homes to fund hopeless aerial searches. (2) No psychic bas ever solved a murder, located missing bodies, aircraft or boats. (3) The urgings of psychics and of the families they persuade only hinders the work of police and Search and Rescue organizations. (4) The endorsement of psychics' claims on TV can only raise their credibility, thus causing more grief for the bereaved and more difficulties for police and rescue authorities.
It's very sad that our society has come to this. In the pursuit of ratings and the almighty dollar, the best interests of the bereaved have been trashed.