Selected articles from
VOL. 9  NO. 1  SUMMER 1996



'Psychic Detective' Noreen Renier
"Put to the Test" -- Hollywood Style

by Gary P. Posner

I can vaguely recall a weekly television program from the '50s called "Stump the Stars," in which regulars Ross Martin and Beverly Garland, I assume with some degree of success, would attempt to determine the answer to something (hey, I was probably still in diapers!).

Less anciently, "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret" were TV staples, and my recollections of these programs are much more vivid. I believe I can report authoritatively that the "lines" and "secrets" were very often correctly determined by the celebrity panelists. I believe I can further report, without fear of contradiction, that despite their successes week after week, Kitty Carlisle and company made no claims of "psychic" ability.

A much more pretentious incarnation of these variations of the children's games of "Hot and Cold" and "20 Questions" aired most recently on April 29, when Orlando "psychic detective" Noreen Renier was one of three subjects on the ABC-TV program, "Put to the Test," an irregularly scheduled series co-hosted by two leggy blondes and a guy. The show's purpose, as explained up front, is to "challenge our basic understanding of what can be, and what we've come to accept as truth," by subjecting the guests' claims to "objective" testing.

Renier's segment begins with her looking into the camera and making this modest claim: "If you give me the first name of a victim and something from that crime scene, I can tell you who did it, and how it happened." Her résumé is then summarized, and testimonials of praise are offered by Ft. Pierce Sheriff's Dept. Capt. Robert Miller and retired New York Detective Ray Krolak (see TBS Report, Summer 1992 and/or my chapter on Renier in Psychic Sleuths [Prometheus Books, 1994]).

Renier's test, conducted at her home "over a two-day period," involved three previously solved Glendale, California, homicides. We are informed that on day one "the results were split," although Renier was "accurate on over 75% of the facts." A "day two" case was selected for showing -- that of an 89-year-old woman named Josephine, who was brutally murdered in 1994. Appearing in the room with Renier are one of the blondes (Alison Holloway -- on the far right and more modestly attired in this setting), Glendale Police Dept. Sgt. Jon Perkins, and a sketch artist (far left). A few moments earlier, a retired judge was shown rolling a die to determine which case Renier would do next.

Renier is handed Josephine's hearing aid, and she then begins to describe the killer: "I feel some [increased] width to the mouth. Might be a strong overbite. Lips -- short." To my eyes, she was wrong on all three counts, and her associate's composite sketch, unveiled later, seemed to me to bear little resemblance to the killer's face.

But her "psychic" reading of the crime was more (excuse the pun) dead-on. As Sgt. Perkins, who had worked the case, conducted the questioning, Renier described the place where the murder occurred: "It seems like there's a lot of white in it. And there's some strong slant . . . with the roof. . . . A house or church, or a house near a church. Screen door creaks." Even if Renier did not research the Glendale newspapers, and scout the murder site in advance of the test (How many Josephines could have been murdered there recently?), her description may be representative of many/most homes in the area. (Interestingly, although the actual screen door does not "creak," it does, like many, scrape loudly along the porch surface.)

Now the game of "hot and cold" begins in earnest, as Renier offers bits and pieces of her "psychic" vision to Perkins, who plays dutifully along:

Renier: In the [killer's] name or associated with him in some way I see [the letter] "J" again.

Perkins: I can't confirm that. (Skeptic's comment: "Cold.")

R: She was sitting, standing, back turned. There would have been some blows from the back, or from behind.

P: I can't confirm that. (Bad luck. Good try, though. The odds were definitely in your favor.)

R: Close together, or lived together, or close together. I don't know. Is that right? Is that right?

P: Yes, I can confirm that. (What? OK, the killer did live very close by. Try another "psychic" guess along those lines.)

R: I feel a relative, a friend of a relative is involved.

P: I can confirm "a relative or friend of" (The murderer was actually a "friend"/neighbor of the victim, not a relative or a friend of a relative.)

At this point, the taped replay of the session is interrupted with a brief description by Holloway of how the murder occurred. When they return to Renier, it cannot be determined if she correctly found her way into the kitchen without the assistance of Perkins' feedback.

Renier: Maybe some weapon that was in the kitchen could have been used.

Perkins: OK. Can you describe the weapon?

R: A knife? (Logical deduction, even if tentatively offered. But a "psychic" might have discerned the non-obvious -- it was a pocket knife!)

P: OK, where are we going to move to? Can you see that?

R: I think we go through two more doorways. (You mean we move from one room to another one? Given the last hint, even I can confirm that!)

P: OK, I can confirm that. (Too late!)

I cannot assert with certainty if Renier's "success" thus far is the result of mere intuition, prior knowledge, Perkins' feedback, "psychic" power, or some combination thereof. What I can tell you is that once she "psychically" enters the bedroom, Renier's play-acting becomes painfully absurd. A knife already having been established as one of two murder weapons, the viewer is treated to the spectacle of Renier simulating a repeated stabbing motion with her right arm: "I get this motion with him, and I don't quite know what this motion is. But I keep doing this. And I have sort of a lunge and pull back, and lunge and pull back motion." She then immediately makes a series of campy-looking puffing faces/sounds, as if exhausted from reliving the kill. Even if I were initially inclined to believe in her "psychic" powers, this ridiculous acting and feigning of ignorance would be (forgive another pun) a dead giveaway.

As the test approaches its conclusion, Holloway says, "Noreen [then] had her most startling vision of the reading -- a fact that was never printed in the newspaper, never testified to in court, a fact no one but the investigators knew. David had hidden one of the murder weapons in the oven." Renier to Perkins: "I think you had trouble finding one weapon. Uh, there was a little disguise in the one weapon." Perkins: "I can confirm that." But Renier does not say that the knife had been hidden in the oven. And if this one "vision" was the "most startling" of them all because it involved one fact that had not been previously publicized, does this not imply that Renier indeed had an opportunity (whether or not she availed herself of it) to come up with her other "visions" through prior research?

When the Renier-inspired sketch of the killer was shown to Perkins at the conclusion of the test, he rated it as "very accurate . . . a strong 7 [or] weak 8" (I'd give it a "strong" 3). He added, "I think she was probably 90% accurate on the facts and the information that occurred during the course of this murder." But even if she was, did she exhibit sufficient evidence of "psychic" power to cause a rational, critically thinking person to reassess his or her skepticism of the paranormal? Haven't magicians, psychology instructors and others performed similarly "accurate" readings, to demonstrate for the public how easy it can be to simulate "psychic" power?

In my chapter on Renier in Psychic Sleuths, I describe on page 80 a simple test protocol which, if agreed to by her, would allow, with mathematical precision, a determination as to whether or not her "psychic" powers are genuine. Renier wanted no part of such a test, even for TBS's "$1,000 Challenge." And not even the lure of James Randi's new jackpot (now worth more than $600,000) has caused her to change her mind.

Renier has recently received national press for helping the Williston, Florida, police to locate a body missing for two years. We plan a full report on that case in our next issue.

[Note: A version of this article appears in the Sept/Oct 1996 Skeptical Inquirer. ]


CHAIRMAN'S CORNER

by Terry A. Smiljanich

Life After Death

While waiting in a supermarket check-out line the other day, I perused the various publications for sale prominently displayed all around me. "Messages from the Dead," "Reincarnation of Dali Lama," "Faces of Angels in Distant Galaxy," "Embraced by the Light" -- all beckoned to the shopper with promises of life after death.

Is there any more central desire than the perpetuation of self? Hundreds of thousands of years ago, ancestral Homo sapiens was already preparing its dead with artifacts for the next world. The common denominator in almost all religions (I can't think of one exception) is a promise that death is not an end, but a beginning. Who among us, skeptic or otherwise, has not faced the loss of someone close and desperately desired to believe that a happy hunting ground awaits us all?

Carl Sagan, a fellow of CSICOP and co-founder of the Planetary Society, wrote in the March 10 issue of Parade magazine (which reaches millions of Sunday readers) about his own very personal "near-death" experience. He was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disease that is fatal within six months unless a successful marrow transplant can be performed. Luckily for Dr. Sagan, his sister was a perfect bone marrow match and, after several procedures, his disease appears to have been cured.

Through it all, Sagan never waivered from his firm belief that, should he succumb to the disease, he would simply cease to exist. How, he was asked, could he face death without the certainty of an afterlife? In explaining his ability to find comfort elsewhere, he quotes (who else?) Albert Einstein:

I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I -- nor would I want to -- conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

Einstein's views come close to Spinoza's rationalist and naturalistic theology (but not religion) which finds justification for a "god" without the need for either a willful creator or an afterlife. Small comfort here for "feeble souls" looking to perpetuate their egos.

As we skeptics face down the psychics and fortune-tellers, and attempt to educate the public in the importance of critical thinking, we need to recognize how deep-seated the opposition is to our message. Science is so unpopular at the check-out counter because it offers scant consolation to a person facing an indifferent universe. The religious impetus is much stronger than rational thinking will ever be. Thus, for every would-be psychic feat we "debunk," a hundred explanations and excuses will be offered, and few minds will change.

It is the chance, however, that those "few" may be willing to take the lesson from the incessant failures of psychic claims and then look for meaning and beauty in this indifferent universe, that makes it worthwhile to continue our efforts. For me, anyway, there's more beauty in the soft glow of comet Hyakutake hovering above the Big Dipper than there is in a deck of Tarot cards. There's more meaning to be found in the billion-year struggle of life on Earth than in any psalm for the dead.

And if there is no life after death, how much more important our time here, and how foolish it would be to sleepwalk through it.


USF/St. Pete sponsors "Psychic Fair"

by Jack Robinson

While on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida (USF) on April 12, I discovered that on the previous day, there had been a "Psychic Fair" sponsored by the university. I was disappointed that I had not known about it beforehand, so that I, and perhaps some other representatives from TBS, could have been there.

I contacted, among others, the Director of Student Affairs at the St. Pete. campus, Steve Ritch, to talk about this matter. I expressed to Ritch my thought that it would be unfortunate to give such a function respectability by organizing it in such a way as to suggest that the university endorses psychic phenomena. I was told that a disclaimer had been present on the larger promotional posters (there was no such disclaimer on the smaller notice that I saw).

I was also informed by Ritch that one reason USF had the psychic fair (and has had others in previous years and may again) is that they are very popular among the students, and are extremely well-attended. The fairs are arranged for by a campus committee consisting of about a dozen students and faculty, mostly students.

I suggested to Ritch that in the future, if USF sponsors another psychic fair, it would be appropriate to somehow have the skeptical point of view represented at the same time, or at least at some other appropriate time. I mentioned that a good way to represent the skeptical point of view might be to invite one or more members of the Tampa Bay Skeptics. He seemed interested in the idea of presenting both points of view, and requested that we send him copies of our newsletter. I also volunteered to come back over and talk to the entire committee, if they would like that, about the idea of presenting both sides of the question of "psychic" phenomena.

While on the campus, I decided to go to the library to see if it subscribes to the Skeptical Inquirer. I was pleased to find that it does, and that it has back issues for about three years.


Snippets

Puerto Rico's version of Bigfoot is known as the "chupacabras." Until this past March, reports of this alleged blood-sucking beast had been confined to that island. But sightings of what has been described as "part reptile, part insect, and part UFO alien" are now spreading throughout the Hispanic communities of south Florida. And the discovery of a dead goat in Tampa has raised the specter that the chupacabras have arrived at our own doorstep! But lest you fear for your hide (and your goat's), Miami zoologist Ron Magill, who has investigated some of these "mysterious" goat suckings, has offered a prosaic explanation. "Contrary to the popular belief, all the animals were [still] full of blood," found Magill, and the bite marks were "classic canine punctures from dogs." Further, he was able to identify dogs' footprints, as well as evidence of dogs digging their way under the fences. Having thusly reassured the community's residents, were they relieved to learn that their monster appears to be just a figment of collective imagination? Well, not quite. Says Magill, "They were just totally not listening."

(St. Petersburg Times, March 21 and 23)


Recently, Thomas Passmore, a 32-year-old Norfolk, Virginia, construction worker, thought he saw the demonic number 666 on his right hand. Not one to disobey a biblical command -- "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off" -- he did just that, with a circular saw. Taken to the hospital, he refused surgery, claiming he'd go to hell if the hand were reattached, and a judge advised the hospital to obey the patient's wishes. Passmore is now suing the hospital and doctors, claiming incompetence (his own), and that a relative should have been contacted to overrule his decision. I predict he'll win 6.66 million dollars.

(St. Petersburg Times, May 26)


Return to TBS Report Online


Copyright (c) 1996 by Tampa Bay Skeptics.