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Sensing Murder or making a killing? Television psychics stir up debate

By Katherine Armon

Mediums and psychics have a long history in the church. The best known Biblical example is the medium who King Saul summoned to contact Samuel in his time of distress (1 Samuel 28).

Psychics Deb Webber, Kevin Cruickshank and Sue Nicholson attempt to track unsolved cases on Sensing Murder.

In the late 1840s mediums and psychics were at the height of their popularity in the West, performing to packed theatres. This spiritualist movement was severely damaged, however, when it was revealed that many performers were charlatans using stage magic tricks to fool people. Since then mediums have been treated with scepticism.

Within church circles there are three schools of thought about them: some are open to the possibility that mediums have God-given gifts, some think they must be frauds, and some think their abilities are real but that mediums are demonically possessed. The numerous passages in the Bible related to the subject seem to cover all these possibilities.

The hit television show ‘Sensing Murder’ has rekindled debate about psychic mediums in this country. Since its first appearance on our screens in January 2006, Sensing Murder has consistently topped the ratings in all age groups. Kiwis’ reactions to it range from fascination, to annoyance, to dismay.

Sensing Murder has the format of a reality show. At the beginning of each episode, narrator Rebecca Gibney tells us the psychics know they are working on an unsolved murder but they have not been given any details of the case or the people involved. The psychics are under constant supervision to prevent them from researching the case. The production team only confirms their positive statements.

To date the show’s psychics are yet to solve a case. Information they have given to police have led to a number of new enquiries, however.

In some cases the psychics have provided the police with names of people they believe to be involved with the murders, and police have confirmed these people were in the relevant areas at the time of the crimes.

TVNZ producer David Baldock has said that Sensing Murder is “changing the way people think, even hardened police detectives are contacting us saying the series is giving their cynicism a blow”.

Christchurch-based Anglican minister Rev Michael Cocks is an editor of the Ground of Faith website, which explores science, mysticism, philosophy, and the paranormal. Michael says there are churches in England that encourage research on psychic phenomena, as does the Vatican, and he has written a supportive article about Sensing Murder.

“Sensing Murder appears to genuinely demonstrate facts about spiritual reality I already know to be true. It is always good to be a little sceptical rather than to uncritically accept things.

“But the people who call themselves sceptics are really militant philosophical materialists, who refuse to accept 150 years of scientific research into the paranormal by eminent scientists. They refuse to accept the holistic picture of the universe painted by leading quantum mechanics physicists and they dismiss the recorded personal testimony of countless individuals.”

Michael says some sceptics don’t seriously investigate issues but rather resort to abuse.

“Sceptical people habitually use the words ‘could have’ when attacking evidence of events that disprove the idea that the universe is composed of matter which somehow generates minds in brains. ‘The medium could have cheated’, ‘they could have told her in advance’, etc. ‘Could haves’ contaminate the discussion and aim to discredit the opponent, without providing evidence to substantiate the accusation. This is the logical fallacy of Appeal to Ignorance.”

Michael singles out the website www.sillybeliefs.com as sceptics at their worse. The stated aim of Silly Beliefs is to expose scams and delusions involving pseudoscience, the supernatural and the paranormal.

In response to Michael’s comments Silly Beliefs spokesman John Ateo says “sceptics don't have to prove that psychics don't exist, we merely have to demonstrate that the evidence provided by psychics is insufficient to prove their case.

“Our article on Sensing Murder doesn't prove or attempt to prove that psychics are impossible, merely that what we see on the show could have a rational explanation. What Michael Cocks believes is compelling evidence for psychic ability is nothing of the sort. He has been fooled in the same way a magician fools a five-year-old,” John says.

“Of course exposing a party magician as fake does not prove there are no real magicians, anymore than exposing Sensing Murder proves that all psychics are fake. It is even possible that the psychics on Sensing Murder are real, but they need to come up with far more compelling evidence. All we've demonstrated is that the show provides insufficient cause to believe in psychics.”

Vicky Hide of the New Zealand Sceptics is also very critical of the programme. She says Sensing Murder is a piece of “exploitainment” that uses the cold reading techniques of stage magicians and the psychic industry to take advantage of vulnerable grieving families. “We find the franchise unethical and distasteful,” Vicky says.

Opinions on the show and psychic phenomena vary within the Methodist Church. Rev Peter Williamson echoes some of the points made by the secular sceptics. He doubts the credibility of psychics in general and Sensing Murder in particular.

“Let’s not be fooled by this,” Peter says. “Sensing Murder is television done for entertainment. We can debate the issue of psychics but this show tramples on the grief and hope of victims’ families. I struggle to find the gospel of hope in that. It promotes the gospel of false hope and that is not a Christian approach.

“I am also sceptical about the ability of these psychics. They have always stopped at the limit of what is publicly known. If they really solved anything, trumpets would sound around the world but this simply hasn’t happened.

“There may be some unexplained phenomena involving the spirit world or humans that we do not understand. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I note that when psychics have been offered to prove their abilities in scientific settings they have been abysmal failures.”

Rev David Bell agrees the programme is edited for entertainment purposes but says it is well worth watching.

“The psychics seem to do better than I might have expected. There can be little doubt that a range of psychic phenomena do indeed occur. Telepathy among twins is well-documented, as is precognition and awareness of the presence of the past, to name just a few.

“Related phenomena also occur in the field of medicine. These include near-death-experience, energy fields that defy Western scientific models such as acupuncture, and cell-memory such as in organ transplants.

“It is beyond my knowledge and capacity to understand all of these things. But the few personal experiences I have had, convince me that there is much, much more yet to unfold in the universe,” David says.

How should Christians approach the question of psychic mediums? The question is vexing, and many people do not want to share their views. Surely the way forward with an issue like this is to bring it out into the forum for healthy discussion with open minds, open hearts, and God’s word to guide us.