VOL. 22 NO. 4 SPRING 2010
As many of our readers know, TBS Report has been closely chronicling the career of internationally renowned "psychic detective" Noreen Renier since our infancy. The reasons for our special interest in Renier, as opposed to some of the others who ply her trade, have been primarily twofold. When we first discovered her, and for years thereafter, she was a resident of the Orlando area (eventually moving from Florida to Virginia in 2004). And her legal battles with skeptic John Merrell, a co-founder in 1982 of the Northwest Skeptics, have spanned a quarter-century, though a final truce may have been ordered in a Virginia courtroom on February 25 (see next issue for whatever information we can obtain).
Our Summer 2005 issue carried my review of Renier's memoir, A Mind for Murder, which I described as an "entertaining adventure [and] page-turner," though I concluded with this: "But as even a tasty meal begs dessert, A Mind for Murder leaves me hungry for a morsel of compelling scientific evidence to substantiate this sort of 'psychic' power as fact rather than fiction." A decade earlier, in the chapter about Renier that I contributed to Psychic Sleuths (Prometheus Books, 1994), I singled out one particular case -- about her assisting an FBI agent in locating a missing airplane in 1984 -- for special scrutiny.
Though Renier's website is frequently changing, as I write this, the top of its "Special Events" page features the chapter about the airplane case from her book. And the bottom of the page contains a blurb about her presentation, titled "The Psychic Connection in Criminal Investigations," to the International Remote Viewing Association's 2006 conference, along with a link to purchase the DVD of her lecture for $13.
Though the link didn't work, I did find the DVD on Amazon.com (a literal "steal" at $24.95). And, I must say, in terms of entertainment value, I enjoyed her IRVA presentation every bit as much as her book. Renier shines charmingly, and it is easy to understand why people predisposed to believe in "psychic" powers find her such a persuasive practitioner. Indeed, in a review of her appearance (posted on her website), an IRVA member describes her as "perhaps the most entertaining speaker of the conference
The DVD runs 47 minutes, the last 20 of which are a Q&A session. Renier enchants the Las Vegas audience with a necessarily fast-forward overview of her career as a master of "psychometry," the ability to read vibrations from objects. As she explains, depending upon what is required of her, she can "become" either the "victim" (missing or deceased) or the "bad guy," or can "float above" the crime and observe it as it happened. She almost had me believing her, though her stories about reading the minds of a horse and a "really chatty" oak tree were a bit much. I found her one-liner about canines to be much more credible: "I've [also] talked to a few dogs, but they really don't have much to say."
During the Q&A, one questioner offered, "It seems as though there's a skeptic from Tampa Bay that seemed to make a career out of debunking your fine work, and you ended up, I think, as I recall, going to court twice, beating them twice in court, when they tried to say that what you did was nonsense." He apparently had read chapters 17 and 18 of the first/canceled (see third paragraph of this article for the reason why) edition of Renier's book, which detailed her version of the Renier-Merrell lawsuits (removed from the second/revised edition) and concluded with a paragraph that began, "The most relentless [other detractor] is Gary Posner of the Tampa Bay Skeptics, who seems to be on something of a crusade to discredit me." Though neither Merrell nor I is mentioned by name on the DVD, the questioner apparently had morphed Merrell and me into a single entity. Renier does not correct him (in fact, she nods affirmatively), though as she proceeds to talk about the genesis of the litigation, she does refer to that nemesis as "the skeptic [with] I guess they're called the Northwest Skeptics."
Shortly thereafter, Renier excitedly discusses the aforementioned missing airplane case. Anyone can make a mistake, and I made a doozy in my Psychic Sleuths chapter, in which I quoted from an NTSB report stating that the crash had occurred "during a forced landing after a fire ignited in the aircraft." In fact, the news clipping I referenced pertained to another small-plane crash that had occurred in the same general area in the same general timeframe. As soon as I discovered my error, I added a prominent mea culpa to my website's posting of that chapter.
In contrast, despite having learned, two decades earlier, the actual findings of the crash investigation, Renier weaves a fantasy for her audience, as she has done in multiple prior venues such as in an Oregon courtroom in 1986, on the Joan Rivers Show in 1990, and in her 2005 book. As usual, she describes how she psychically became the airplane and "could see this dark landing strip below me," and then "sort-of quicksand and rocky stuff. And then, all of a sudden, a mountain there -- I'm not at the top, I'm in the middle. And the trees like open up and they swallow me." She even goes on to describe the "dirt road, like a ribbon, going up the mountain." But though she was right about the trees, there were no mountains, or even hills, within many miles of the swampy crash site.
And as she has done time after time, she describes an old, rusty gas station and an old, toothless woman (and her barking dogs), and says it turned out that the authorities "knew the old lady at the gas station
In another taped interview conducted by Merrell during his same investigative trip to the scene, Carl and Cheryl Wilber, the father/daughter duo who found the missing airplane, were equally adamant. Coincidentally, Carl, his wife Pat, and Cheryl derive their primary income from a family pet-care business, specializing in dogs, which has been serving their area for four decades. During their conversation with Merrell, Carl and Cheryl strained, unsuccessfully, to think of anyone who could have possibly fit the bill. They told Merrell that if such a woman had lived there in the early 1980s, they are certain that they would have known of her and her dogs.
There are many more details that could be dissected, but the coup de grâce is Renier's "psychic" portrait of the bodies as they were found amidst the carnage. In this 2006 DVD presentation, as in her prior TV appearances and her book, Renier tells of seeing, in her trance, a heroic occupant (the brother of the FBI agent's ex-wife) carrying his "headless" female companion from the crumpled plane and gently placing her against a tree, before succumbing to his own injuries. In all these retellings, Renier sees the remaining two male occupants still in the front seat, their necks broken. And, as always, Renier tells her spellbound audience that the officials found the scene to be just as she described it in her vision.
In reality, as I have previously reported in my book chapter, the medical examiner determined that all four occupants, including the brother, had "died immediately" upon impact -- no one had managed to walk away or carry anyone anywhere. But as I learned only later from Merrell's interview with the Wilbers, one of the two crushed occupants they saw (though admittedly without benefit of "psychic" power) in the crumpled front cabin -- still sitting next to the pilot -- was the woman. The brother and another male apparently had been thrown from the rear cabin upon impact, their dismembered bodies found strewn about in the snowy debris field.
But why quibble over details? Isn't it enough that Noreen Renier is a riveting persona who enjoys "artistic license"? Just shut up and enjoy your $24.95 DVD.
As Snake-Oil Science
By Valerie Grey
Integrative Medicine is the new, deceptively benign-sounding euphemism for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), which includes the likes of acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, iridology, reflexology, magnetic therapy, qi gong, Ayurvedic medicine, therapeutic touch, and faith healing. I admit to having fallen for mainstream news reports claiming that legitimate scientific research has provided evidence of the genuine efficacy of acupuncture and hypnosis. But it turns out these media claims are, at best, nothing more than scientifically ignorant, sensationalist reportage and, at worst, intentional falsehoods.
In his 2007 Oxford University Press book, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, biostatistician R. Barker Bausell, Ph.D., describes a large-scale NIH-funded study of acupuncture that he helped design and administer at the University of Maryland. (It proved that the acupuncture involved was a powerful analgesic placebo, but absolutely nothing more.) The book includes a comprehensive metanalysis evaluation of all the thousands of available CAM clinical studies to date and concludes definitively that there is no reliable scientific evidence whatsoever that any CAM therapy works better than placebo. Very little CAM research adheres to even minimum scientific-methodology standards for clinical trials (many studies violate all such standards), and the little that does is uniformly negative in outcome. It's reminiscent of tests of psychic phenomena: the tighter the controls to prevent cheating, the closer you get to results entirely predictable by chance. For CAM, simply substitute "placebo effect" for "chance."
Most CAM therapies postulate ludicrously bizarre hypothetical mechanisms which have not been proven, many involving wholesale violations of the laws of physics. In glaring contrast, the existence of the powerful placebo effect, especially where it involves alleviation of pain, is well documented, and some of the wholly physiological mechanisms that drive it have been empirically demonstrated. (There is an interesting hierarchy of placebo-effect strength: from small pills to large pills, then capsules, then injections, with fake surgery -- complete with anesthesia and real incisions -- the most powerful of all.)
Dr. Bausell explains the psychological pitfalls of cause-and-effect induction, and details the key components of a near-fully reliable clinical trial:
The endorsement of shabby research by pro-CAM organizations is like telling the public, based exclusively upon interviews of some ecstatic past winners, that playing Lotto is a good gamble. (My statistics professor called Lotto "extra taxes for the mathematically challenged.") How many CAM patients do you think can define the scientific method or list even a few of the essential ingredients of a solid, meaningful clinical trial?
Maybe CAM should instead be called SCAM (So-called Complementary and Alternative Medicine), SHAM (So-called Holistic and Alternative Medicine), or even SHAZAM (So-called Holistic and Zany Alternative Medicine). I cannot recommend Bausell's Snake Oil Science enthusiastically enough.
"Facilitated communication" is an alleged phenomenon reported upon in our pages some years ago during its 15 minutes of fame. Miraculously, a severely brain-injured person in a chronic vegetative state, with zero ability to communicate, is suddenly rendered able to express feelings and answer questions appropriately. All that is required is the help of a passive "facilitator," a trained therapist who holds the patient's hand, pointing one of the fingers down toward a computer keyboard, whereupon the patient's thoughts guide the facilitator to help tap out messages. Such a case, involving a 23-year-old Belgian named Rom Houben and his "facilitator" Linda Wouters, made international news late last year when Houben's mother announced that Rom would be writing a book about his experience. But, as University of Pennsylvania bioethics professor Arthur Caplan explained at the time, "That is Ouija board stuff. It's been discredited time and time again. [The] person doing the pointing [is] doing the messages, not the person they claim they are helping." And, more recently Houben's neurologist has concluded that FC does not work.
One of the most famous stories involving so-called "spontaneous human combustion" -- when a person allegedly bursts into flames for no apparent reason -- is the 1951 cremation of St. Petersburg's Mary Reeser. This elderly, obese woman was prone to falling asleep (with the help of pills) in her upholstered living room chair, with lighted cigarette in mouth, while wearing flammable nightclothes. The incident, which we have previously mentioned a few times over the years, was unusual in that while the fire was confined to a limited portion of the room, her body and chair (except for her left foot/slipper and the springs) were entirely consumed, as if they had burned like a candle. Adding to the mystery was the spurious report that her "shrunken skull" had also been found at the scene. Because of the oddities, the St. Pete. police have never officially closed the books on this case. But, odd or not, the greater mystery would seem to be how anyone could categorize this case of human combustion as having been "spontaneous."
As a cost-cutting measure, Britain's Ministry of Defence has shut down its UFO hotline and will no longer investigate sightings. Roy Lake, founder of the London UFO Studies group, says, "I think it's a stupid thing to do, because this could create a threat to national security.
(St. Pete. Times, Dec. 5)
We recently received notification that there is now once again a Mutual UFO Organization affiliate in our area. The Tampa Bay MUFON Group held its first meeting on February 13 at the Clearwater Public Library -- East.
The group's organizer is Bonnie Korniak, who is MUFON's State Section Director for West Central Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com.
TBS founder Gary Posner was interviewed for Stephanie Hayes' January 16 St. Petersburg Times article, "Are they true seers or just counselors?"
Though the tone of the article was sober, Hayes had indicated on the phone that it would be much lighter. One of her key questions asked what Posner would recommend to someone who was out of work and planning to spend their last $20 on a "psychic" counselor. In keeping with the "light" tone, Posner suggested that the person should instead give him their last $20, for which he would dispense priceless advice as to why giving it to a "psychic" would have been a waste of money.
Hayes laughed with apparent delight, as if that would be her preferred quote. But the one she chose to use (containing a grammatical error that was not Posner's doing) was to the effect that, in Posner's opinion, self-styled "psychics" are either intentionally deceiving the public or, if sincere, are deluding themselves.
Editor: You are absolutely correct in your article "Assessing the Credibility of CFI's Credibility Project," which I read in the Jan/Feb issue of Skeptical Inquirer. I teach psychology, including a skeptics course that emphases critical evaluation of paranormal claims.
In my book, When Good Thinking Goes Bad, I devote a chapter that urges the same standards be applied to global warming as a skeptic would apply to a psychic claim. I can't tell you how many readers seem to be upset by such a suggestion!
--Todd C. Riniolo, Ph.D.
Editor's reply: I don't place man-made global warming on a par with claims of the paranormal (of which we skeptics demand "extraordinary" confirmatory evidence), but I certainly believe that a degree of healthy skepticism is warranted.
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