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'Sensing Murder — Insight'

A Skeptic Defects to the Dark Side


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Sensing Murder In this special episode of 'Sensing Murder' a die-hard skeptic was permitted to watch the filming of a psychic at work. So how did it go?

Shortly after the episode appeared on our screens, 'NZ Reality TV', an internet site that gossips about NZ TV shows and celebrities posted this message:

In our last post, we reported that clinical psychologist Nigel Latta believed Deb Webber's demonstration of psychic investigation to be genuine. [4]
To reinforce that this isn't just their interpretation of Nigel Latta's comments on the show, they continue with:
Nigel Latta confirms that he believes Deb Webber is a genuine psychic and not a fake. [4]
Is this true? Given full access to 'Sensing Murder' have skeptics been unable to find any evidence of trickery? Not only that, did we discover evidence of paranormal activity instead? Could it all be true after all?

No of course not. It's all a scam where a nave psychologist is taken in by simple tricks and his confusion used to massage the low IQ of gullible people.

UPDATE: Since writing this critique of 'Sensing Murder — Insight' we have had email responses from both Nigel Latta and the Director of 'Sensing Murder'.

FURTHER UPDATE: We have reinstated images on this page that expose the fake and embarrassing shots created by 'Sensing Murder'. We had removed them as a result of an email from Cinna Smith, a representative of Ninox Television, the company who produced the NZ version of 'Sensing Murder'. Ninox Television threatened us with legal action if we didn't remove their faked shots, along with the 'Sensing Murder' logo and photos of the psychics and Rebecca Gibney that were associated with 'Sensing Murder'. Cinna Smith evidently was a writer and associate producer of 'Sensing Murder — Insight', although she didn't mention what position she held with the company or her connection with the program in her email. She also did not challenge our accusation of cheating, merely that we remove the visual evidence of it. It has since been revealed that Cinna Smith falsely represented herself as belonging to Ninox Television. It appears Smith, an independent freelancer merely contracted to work on 'Sensing Murder', has clearly acted illegally by threatening us with legal action by pretending to be employed by and in a position to represent Ninox Television. We have also been advised that we are legally entitled to show the images under 'fair use' conditions.

Keep in mind as you read this article that Ninox Television has resorted to legal threats to hide images of their faked shots. What honest, reputable company would need to take this action?

Note: You can also read our analysis of other 'Sensing Murder' episodes here. Blatant cheating is even far more obvious in them.


Introduction

In the words of the TV2 promo, this 'Sensing Murder' episode will 'silence the sceptics once and for all'. That was their first of many errors. This special episode of 'Sensing Murder' screened the week prior to the second series proper and was called 'Sensing Murder — Insight' [1]. It investigated the 1972 death of Wellington woman Margaret Walker. The narrator informed the viewer:

For the first time the 'Sensing Murder' filming process is laid bear as we invite a die-hart skeptic and professional clinical psychologist to scrutinise a psychic reading...
Not only did a die-hard skeptic called Nigel Latta get to sit in on the filming, a second film crew also filmed Nigel and the main film crew as Australian psychic Deb Webber did her reading. During this reading Deb is sitting alone on a sofa facing the film crew. Nigel is sitting on a sofa touching and at right angles to Deb's sofa. Deb is on his right and the film crew on his left. Crucially, he can't observe both Deb and the film crew at the same time. This is a serious flaw.

We were also informed that:

'Sensing Murder' provoked a huge response from the public. Viewers were divided into two camps. Believers and skeptics. The skeptics slammed the series as a con and branded the psychics fakes.
So this special episode was their attempt, not only to silence skeptics, but to actually get skeptics to question their criticism of the show. They obviously thought, 'We can easily fool the believers, but what if we could also fool a skeptic, and film it happening?' And that basically is the main thrust of the show, getting psychic Deb to run through her tricks and filming a skeptic called Nigel being seduced and mystified by her pronouncements. Having assisted his journey to the Dark Side, the narrator wraps up by informing us that Nigel the Skeptic:
in a dramatic about turn... ends the day with his skepticism seriously dented, in no doubt that Deb is genuine.
Oh dear, oh dear. Woe is me. I guess we'll have to stop picking on psychics now that they're genuine. But wait a minute, maybe we should double check Nigel the Skeptic's conclusions before we trash this website and cancel our subscription to the 'Skeptical Inquirer'. This episode needs to be examined more than any other because believers will state ad nauseam that this one had a die-hard skeptic monitoring every aspect of the filming, and that this person who was 'more hard-core than your average skeptic' could find no evidence of trickery.

So what statements from Nigel the Skeptic and the 'Sensing Murder' narrator will believers focus on?

Here are the probable favourites:

  • Nigel the Skeptic: I can't explain the stuff that she did today rationally, I just can't.
  • Nigel: I can't explain what I saw that day, I've tried, but I can't. [2]
  • Nigel: The crew didn't lead or direct Deb in any way that I could see. [2]
  • Nigel: I can't find a way to rationally explain what I saw today.
  • Nigel: I can't explain how she found the house or the position of the body. [2]
  • Nigel: I started off the day kinda an atheist, you know, an atheist skeptic.
  • Nigel: I cannot explain in any rational way what I saw. [2]
  • Nigel: That gives my skepticism quite a generous knock.

  • Narrator: Nigel is more hard-core than your average skeptic... If any one can spot a liar or a fake, Nigel can.
  • Narrator: To really put the pressure on our psychic and our process we selected a particularly difficult and little known case.
  • Narrator: Clinical psychologist Nigel Latta is a fully-fledged member of the skeptic camp.
  • Narrator: Top forensic psychologist Nigel Latta... can easily detect when someone is lying.
  • Narrator: In a dramatic about turn, clinical psychologist Nigel Latta ends the day with his skepticism seriously dented, in no doubt that Deb is genuine.
Quoting these statements believers will gleefully gloat over how a skeptic attempted and failed to expose any trickery on 'Sensing Murder', and that this die-hard skeptic is now in no doubt that [psychics] are genuine.

And as far as Nigel's statements are concerned, and the final one by the narrator, I believe they are all true. Nigel honestly can't explain how psychic Deb Webber and her partner in crime, the 'Sensing Murder' production team, perform their magic. But fear not, we can and will explain rationally how gullible people can be fooled into believing psychics are real.

Index


Who the hell is Nigel Latta?

Nigel Latta For a start, let's look at the skeptic that featured on the show, Nigel Latta. No doubt you've heard of him and his past investigations into the paranormal? You haven't? Well actually neither had we. But maybe Nigel is an active member of NZ Skeptics or some other Skeptic organisation? The narrator doesn't mention anything so I guess not. Maybe he has an interest in or knowledge of the tricks employed by psychics and perhaps some experience in testing psychics? Again nothing was mentioned so I suspect not. As this essay will show, it would appear that this is Nigel's first foray into the field of debunking psychics.

One of Nigel's initial statements would even suggest that his skepticism isn't as die-hard and hard-core as the narrator makes out:

Nigel: When I first watched 'Sensing Murder'... I guess my first thought was either this is a complete jack-up or this is completely spooky.
So he's actually not sure whether it's fake — a jack-up, or real — completely spooky. He's sitting on the fence, and could fall either way.

So what makes Nigel eminently qualified to debunk TV psychics? First and foremost it seems it's nothing more than the simple fact that he calls himself a skeptic. However unlike the title 'doctor' or 'architect', anyone can call themselves a 'skeptic'. For example further into the program the narrator states that Nancye O'Reilly, mother of murdered child Alicia, 'was in no doubt her daughter was communicating with the psychics from beyond the grave'. Nancye then informs us that she also is 'a healthy skeptic'. Here is the ludicrous situation of a believer in psychics labelling herself as a skeptic. So apart from calling himself a skeptic, what else might make Nigel believe he's suitable for the task? It seems he's a clinical psychologist experienced in interpreting the body language of criminals. While this is no doubt a valuable skill that would be useful, relying on this alone is foolhardy, as the false conclusion he draws at the end of his investigation demonstrates.

Twice we're told that 'Sensing Murder' invited Nigel onto the show, but later they tell us that he approached them. We suspect that he approached them and they concluded that they could put his visit to good use. (UPDATE: In his book Nigel claims that 'Sensing Murder' approached him in 2005 prior to the first series to perform a psychological profile. After a couple of discussions he declined but immediately called 'Sensing Murder' researcher Cinna Smith after the first episode to discuss the bewildering things he observed. 'Sensing Murder' then approached him again prior to the second series and he jumped at the chance to be involved. The reading took place on 21 Jan 2007. So he wasn't as independent of 'Sensing Murder' as we might believe. They chose him it seems, but it's never a good sign when people get to choose who will be their investigators [6]. Further UPDATE: Nigel has come clean. He has completely changed his webpage entry [2] and now admits that the story he told in his book was a lie. He admits that he did approach 'Sensing Murder', not the other way around as he claims in his book. So we were right after all, but why did he fudge the truth in his book? Perhaps to suggest that he was such a famous psychologist that 'Sensing Murder' would naturally seek him out?)

Nigel will be familiar to some TV viewers in his role as a psychologist, and thus viewed as a respected 'expert'. After talking to him they probably realised he wasn't someone experienced in debunking psychics and if their psychics could fool entire halls of people, they could surely fool one person, especially since they already knew all the facts they needed their psychic to provide. And fool him they did. All 'Sensing Murder' needed was someone prepared to label themselves a skeptic and they would do the rest, repeating this description over and over and adding adjectives such as die-hard and hard-core. They needed to make it appear that Nigel, while appearing alone, was actually representing skeptics everywhere.

Immediately after the show screened we received an email to this website gloating over how 'renown' skeptic Nigel Latta couldn't fault the psychic. So already people are starting to falsely describe him as the 'renown skeptic' when he is no more renown than my cat. On an internet forum we have one person claiming Latta is a member of the 'Skeptic Society' and another that 'actually, he's a psychology professor at some uni (I forget which)' [8]. The fact is that Latta is not a member of any skeptic organisation, he is not a professor and he does not teach at any university. We suspect that the producers knew this would happen, that the gullible public would credit Latta with qualifications, experience and skills he does not have. 'Sensing Murder' has exploited him as the official skeptics' representative. And since his reputation as a skeptic has been elevated in the eyes of viewers, this makes his switch to the believers camp even more important.

There are many examples of where TV shows edit comments from invited skeptics to make them appear to say things and reach conclusions that they didn't intend. Maybe this is what happened with Nigel's comments? But no, we can rule out this possibility since on his website he makes it perfectly clear what his view is:

The producers didn't edit me into saying something I didn't, and they didn't cut out anything I especially wanted in... The final version was a fair representation of my thoughts and impressions. [2]
So what was Nigel's impression again?
Nigel: I can't explain the stuff that she did today rationally, I just can't.
And what was the impression the narrator left us with again?
Narrator: Nigel Latta ends the day... in no doubt that Deb is genuine.
OK then, but just because Nigel can't explain something does this mean it must be due to psychic powers? If I watched a magician make a woman dressed in a skimpy costume disappear, I could honestly say that I couldn't explain what I saw. Would that mean it was real magic? Of course not. I would still believe it was a trick, even though I couldn't explain how it was done. I'm sure that if I was given full, unrestricted access to the stage while the trick was being performed, and with advice and suggestions from experts on what to look for, I'm confident I would be able to rationally explain how it happened. Even without this special access, I can still conceive of rough outlines of rational explanations, such as false compartments, mirrors, distracting my attention etc which are far more likely to be true than real magic.

Unfortunately for Nigel, he was like a member of an audience invited up on stage to participate in a magic performance, mistakenly thinking that he had a privileged view, unaware that his actions were being manipulated. On the 'Sensing Murder' stage Nigel had no real control, he wasn't an independent observer, he was actually part of the trick. He ended up as a promotional tool, praising the show he set out to expose. Like someone setting out to denounce Nigerian bank scams, he ends up writing out a cheque instead.

Nigel's statement falsely implies that since he can't think of any rational explanation, then there is no rational explanation. The narrator made this comment about Nigel's skills, 'Nigel is more hard-core than your average skeptic... If any one can spot a liar or a fake, Nigel can'. To paraphrase this statement, if Nigel can't think of a rational explanation, no one can.

Well sorry Nigel, but there are plenty of rational explanations.

And by the way, we did email Nigel with the hope that we might ask him some questions about the show but he declined, referring us instead to a brief page on his website about his 'Sensing Murder' appearance [2]. Here he tells us that he is reprinting one of his books with a new chapter detailing his day on 'Sensing Murder' [6], and that if we want to know more we'll have to buy it. So I guess Nigel can think of this essay as 'our chapter' detailing his appearance on 'Sensing Murder', only he can read it for free.

What do we have to explain rationally?

To counter Nigel's assertions we have to rationally explain the things that Deb said and did that 'appeared' to match elements of Margaret Walker's life and death, the case that 'Sensing Murder' chose to investigate. Nigel's claim that there are no rational explanations will be taken as meaning one thing and one thing only by most viewers, that Deb's information was therefore obtained psychically from the paranormal realm. However a rational explanation suggests ways this information could have been obtained without resorting to spooky stuff.

Nigel insists there are no rational explanations, yet strangely enough he himself offers one on his webpage:

it's logically possible that the production crew told the psychic all that stuff before she came [2]
So here he is contradicting himself, admitting there are indeed rational explanations. He may refuse to accept this rational explanation, but he can't go on denying that he can't think of any.

As we see it, there are at least six options as to how psychic Deb Webber arrived at her information:

  1. Deb was in contact with Margaret's spirit
  2. Unbeknown to the production team, Deb was personally aware of the case before hand — ie. cheating
  3. Someone on the production team advised Deb of the case prior to filming — ie. cheating
  4. The film crew deliberately provided cues to Deb during the filming — ie. cheating
  5. The film crew unknowingly provided cues to Deb during the filming — ie. cheating
  6. Using slick editing, Deb's performance was manipulated to produce false impressions — ie. cheating
Option one is the paranormal one, the rest are all rational explanations involving various levels of cheating which we will support with evidence further into this essay but we will summarise them here.

Nigel's apparent choice, the first option, can be immediately rejected since no new information about Margaret or her death was provided. The spirit wouldn't even say her name! Deb gave no information that can't be explained rationally or that couldn't be obtained by you or me, eg obtained from published reports. If it wasn't mentioned in the newspaper or police report, Deb didn't mention it either. Examination of the other options makes this one extremely unlikely to be true.

As for the next two options, prior knowledge can't be ruled out since Nigel had no control over this aspect. There is no way of determining whether Deb was already familiar with the case. The rules 'Sensing Murder' put in place to prevent her cheating are woefully inadequate, and one actually promotes cheating. As for the production team briefing her, Nigel mistakenly says he can ignore this scenario because he believes the crew wouldn't have been able to hide this fact from him, that their actions would betray them [2]. However if this ploy was used it would make sense for the production team to keep the crew in the dark so that they appeared as surprised and amazed as Nigel was.

As for option 4, the crew providing cues is not only possible, we actually see it happening, as in nodding when the correct letter is mentioned and in helping Deb by driving her to the location of the death and pretending she located it herself. The crew unwittingly providing cues also happened as Nigel mentioned them reacting to some of Deb's answers. Whether Deb picked up on any of them is unknown, but involuntary cues were definitely being provided.

The final option of slick editing also occurred, such as the fake segment with the photo on the stool, the different pub shots, the house door that miraculously opens and Deb travelling back in time.

So clearly we have good evidence of the crew providing cues intentionally and unintentionally, and excellent evidence of the video footage being faked. We don't have good evidence for prior knowledge but the close match with newspaper and police reports is damming. So rationally we have evidence for three options and circumstantial evidence for two others but no real evidence for the paranormal option. Yet Nigel Latta, a forensic psychologist and a die-hart skeptic, ignores the five options that have varying degrees of supporting evidence and instead opts for the one option that has no good evidence or support.

To ignore critical inquiry, reason and evidence is not the sign of a true skeptic. If he's a member of any skeptical organisation he should be unceremoniously kicked out.

Of course Nigel and other believers will now be screaming, 'What are you talking about? There's no evidence of cheating. I challenge you to produce something that could even vaguely be interpreted as cheating'.

Well, since you insist.

The Evidence of Cheating

We'll start with the most obvious and serious examples of cheating first. We'll do this because the evidence for these examples can't be refuted. It's extremely robust and not open to interpretation. After reading this section readers may consider the case proven and simply not bother to read any further.

Using slick editing, Deb's performance was manipulated to produce false impressions — ie. cheating

The narrator informs the viewer that:

Like most skeptics Nigel was convinced the results were due to slick editing rather than psychic ability.
This statement is the denial from 'Sensing Murder' that they use video editing to create or enhance the psychic's performance. But even my cat has picked up examples of slick editing in 'Sensing Murder — Insight'.

The first evidence we get of blatant cheating from the 'Sensing Murder' production team is when Deb Webber actually commences her psychic reading. It is the very first image we see.

Narrator: She begins her reading by tuning into a down turned photo of Margaret.
The viewer is shown the 'photo' being placed face down on a small brown leather stool sitting in front of a sofa (center photo, below). This image fills the screen and Deb can't be seen in this shot. Yet when Deb picks up the photo 30 minutes later, it is from a box with its sides covered with a bright red cloth and a patterned cloth on top (right photo, below). The brown leather stool and the sofa next to it do not exist in the room with Deb Webber.

Photo on stool

Why did the 'Sensing Murder' editors fake this segment? Perhaps because in earlier footage the photo can be clearly seen sitting facedown on the cloth covered box when Deb enters the room and sits down next to it (left photo, above). For the entire time the crew is setting up, that photo is sitting in front of Deb. How much time did she have to sneak a look while the crew was distracted? The inserted fake segment suggests that the photo was only produced when Deb started the reading. This is false. She had plenty of time to cheat if she wished. We're not saying that she did cheat, but the purpose of this show was to show that the psychics couldn't glean information about the case from the film crew or objects in the room, that it all had to come from psychic sources. Yet this clearly shows that a slack and incompetent film crew did provide opportunities for cheating if the psychic decided to go down this path. Nigel is supposedly there to detect and highlight this type of potential cheating, so why no mention? And regardless of whether Deb cheated, this fake shot of the stool is blatant, incontrovertible evidence that the 'Sensing Murder' production team has cheated, even if Deb hasn't. They inserted that fake segment to colour the viewer's perception of what was happening.

The next piece of obvious cheating involving editing occurs with Deb attempting to locate the pub that Margaret visited on the night of her death. With no explanation of how Deb directed the film crew to the pub, we next see her, still in the van, indicating it to the crew. (For those familiar with Wellington, she indicates the pub now known as 'Sandwiches', located at 8 Kent Terrace.)

The first thing that you notice is that when Deb says 'I think I'm looking at that one', the camera filming her does not swing around and show us what she is looking at. Instead a new scene flashes on the screen. It is the view from a camera taken inside a vehicle parked almost directly across from the correct pub. We are meant to assume that this is the vehicle that Deb is sitting in. It is filming through the windscreen and zooms in on the pub. It shows the pub covered with scaffolding and with 5 large, red bins on the footpath outside (left photo, below). The narrator then tells us that 'Deb leads the way and makes a beeline for the pub'. So Deb supposedly crosses the street from where they are parked, and we next see Deb walking along the footpath near the front door of the pub and about to turn the corner. Yet in the next shot of Deb waffling on she hasn't yet reached the pub! Why did the production team reverse these shots? They insist that what we see is exactly what happened. But obviously it isn't. What impression did they hope to create in the viewer's mind by this 'slick editing'? Remember that the sole purpose of this special episode is to convince skeptical viewers that no 'slick editing' is being performed, so you'd think they'd be ultra careful not to do any, especially unnecessary edits like this.

Pub

Yet the most obvious and blatant piece of cheating is exposed by the second film crew filming everyone walk along in front of the pub. The 5 large, red bins that we just saw in front of the pub through the windscreen of Deb's van are missing from the footpath! Amazing! Disappearing bins (right photo, above). That must be what Nigel refers to as the 'spooky' stuff. These separate scenes of her supposedly indicating the pub with red bins and then immediately walking past the same pub without red bins were obviously filmed on different days. Also note that the scene shot through the windscreen is of a very dull day, whereas Deb appears in brilliant sunshine, yet more evidence that they were shot on different days. It's probable that Deb wasn't present when the production team filmed the pub from across the street. But this would mean that she didn't identify it at all, and she wasn't in that parked vehicle. This is why they have no video of her telling the van to stop and no video of her and the pub in the same shot as seen from the van. It was faked. Another aspect of the pub identification bit that shows it was faked was Deb's piece in the van. As Deb supposedly identifies the pub, behind her we see an empty section, covered with high grasses and there are at least 8 small trees, planted several metres apart, running at right angles to the road. If she were really parked on Kent Terrace opposite the pub as implied by the production team, it would be impossible to have this background. Wherever she was parked, it wasn't opposite the pub. 'Sensing Murder' faked this shot as well. (UPDATE: In his book Nigel Latta has now accidentally confirmed that Deb Webber didn't identify the pub from the van [6]. He says he was completely dumfounded that Deb was walking in the direction that she was, towards the pub on the corner, and was expecting the crew to stop her at any moment and tell her she was going the wrong way. If she had really identified it from the van as we were shown (and Nigel was sitting behind Deb), he would not have been surprised when she walked towards it. He says she did not identify it until she was walking past. To further prove that they were not parked across the road from the pub as the program pretended, Nigel also writes that they were parked in Kent Tce across from an old building ready for demolition, which he initially thought was the house where the death occurred.)

Remember that the 'Sensing Murder' team claims that all the footage we see featuring the psychic was filmed in one day. The disappearing red bins shows that this is obviously false and that the 'Sensing Murder' team has once again inserted fake video footage into the show. Why didn't Nigel pick up this fraud when he viewed the show? (UPDATE: In his reply to this essay the director of 'Sensing Murder — Insight' admits that shots such as the red bins and the leather stool were filmed much later and inserted into the footage of Deb.)

Another faked shot appears as Deb is shown locating the house where Margaret died. We see Deb choosing one of two houses:

Deb: That one.
We don't see what Deb is pointing at, although the background suggests she is pointing at the correct house. The scene then cuts to another camera showing her approaching the correct house and walking through the open front door with the film crew in tow. The scenes building up to this point have appeared to shown Deb walking up the street, crossing the street, indicating the correct house and strolling inside without any assistance from the film crew whatsoever. The 'Sensing Murder' production team want the viewer to believe that this is exactly what happened, that no 'slick editing' occurred, that no shots were staged or re-shot for the program. What we saw was what happened. But this is false.

We must remember that there have been two film crews at work, one filming Deb and another filming the main film crew as they film Deb. This second camera exposes a problem when it films everyone crossing the street towards the house. The important thing to notice in this segment is that the front door is firmly closed (left photo, below). Yet when Deb finally approaches the house with the film crew following, the front door is wide open (right photo, below). How did the door magically open? It's obvious that once they were on the footpath outside the house the film crew went and opened the door, ready for their shot of Deb finding the house. They must have then filmed Deb walking up to it. This is a staged, fake shot. If Deb had walked straight up to the house the door should have been closed. What really happened between Deb crossing the street and finally entering the house? Did she really find it or did they have to give her a hint by opening the front door? What footage did they delete? Why did they have to fake the shot of her entering the house? Perhaps Deb didn't recognise the house from old newspaper photos since it had been renovated since Margaret died there in 1972. It originally had a wooden door with a distinctive round porthole and a veranda, whereas it now had no veranda and a mainly glass door in a wall at least six feet further forward.

Open door

Also Deb walks straight into the house and wanders around. No knocking to see if anyone is home or asking permission to enter. Thus as Deb enters she has already been informed by the film crew that the house is empty. Again we didn't see this information being exchanged. We're simply led to believe that Deb walked across the street and walked straight into a private house. Nigel must have observed that Deb didn't walk straight to the front door, that the shot was set up, but he said nothing except expressing his amazement that Deb located the house so easily.

Now that it's proven that the 'Sensing Murder' production team has cheated not once, but several times, how can we ever be convinced they haven't cheated elsewhere? And of course they have.

People could argue that Nigel would have had no knowledge of what fake material was added after he left, but this is only partially correct. He has since viewed the entire episode, and possibly even saw it before it went to air, and yet he still maintains that no trickery went on. Adding fake material is proven trickery, and if he hasn't noticed the addition, then just how critical, how skeptical was his scrutiny of the filming and the resultant episode? While you or I might miss it while casually watching the show, he was there specifically to look out for this sort of deception. Missing it destroys his credibility.

Let's look at another example of 'slick editing'. Nigel had explained to us why he approached 'Sensing Murder':

Nigel: I would really like to see the unedited process because I'd want to know what's been said, how much people are getting right, how much people are getting wrong.
We agree with Nigel here. We also would love to see what was said and how much the psychics were getting right compared to how much they were getting wrong. But nowhere in this show do the production team or Nigel inform the viewer about these ratios. We see the few snippets that Deb appears to get right but we're not told how much she got wrong. So I guess it's up to us to calculate just how much she did get wrong, but why do we have to? Nigel went there to obtain this information, then neglected to tell us.

We're not far into the reading when the narrator informs us:

Narrator: Thirty minutes into the reading Deb looks at Margaret's photo for the first time.
So Deb has been talking for a full thirty minutes, making statements, claims and providing information about Margaret and her life. Of this thirty minutes, how much has 'Sensing Murder' decided to show the viewer? Approximately one minute and forty three seconds. That's right. They decided to only show us 103 seconds from a total of thirty minutes of video footage, or just under 6%. That means that over 94% of what she said to the 'Sensing Murder' film crew was deemed worthless or plain wrong. Would you be happy if your child only got 6% correct in an exam? Just think what this really means. If your grandfather told you 100 things about his life and you knew that 94 of them were wrong, you'd say he was lying for some reason or had dementia. You wouldn't focus on the six things that were true, but would instead be amazed and shocked at how many things he got wrong about his life. Likewise we should be concentrating on how much Deb got wrong in her reading, rather than focusing on her lucky guesses or actual cheating. You wouldn't trust a surgeon or a pilot with a 6% success rate. Anyone that can only succeed 6% of the time in their chosen career is obviously pathetic at what they do. But this is a standard ploy of TV psychics, they highlight their few lucky guesses and bury their multitude of failures, and unfortunately the viewer doesn't get to see how pathetic they really are.

But Nigel Latta was there. He sat through the whole reading, which according to an internet forum comment from the 'Sensing Murder' production team are quite long:

The psychic is offered a photograph of the victim - however they do not usually look at this until several hours into the reading, if at all. [3]
Several hours of video yet the viewer might be surprised that we saw less than 12 minutes of video footage featuring Deb Webber in the entire program, and some of this had no audio so we have no idea what she was saying or what people were saying to her. (UPDATE: The Sensing Murder director has now informed us that Deb was in fact filmed for 6 hours [5].) So 6 hours of psychic reading and we get to see less then 12 minutes!!! This is even worse than the first 30 minutes. Her overall success rate has now dropped from around 6% to around 3%. What rubbish was she spouting for the rest of the time? Would you be happy if your wedding photographer filmed for 6 hours at your wedding and gave you a tape with less than 12 minutes on it? Surely there must have been something of interest on the rest of the tape? And if as Nigel says, this is TV and they are limited by time by what they can show us, why waste it with video of facts we already know? Just show us the new facts that will crack the case. Revealingly it seems that there were none.

Sensing Murder

Nigel should have realised that Deb had an absolutely pathetic success rate, even though the viewer didn't. Even if he was genuinely surprised at what she seemed to get right, he should still have mentioned the enormous amount she got wrong. Was he blinded by the rare lucky guess? He'll no doubt remind us again that this is still a TV show and the large amount of footage deleted was bloody boring and nothing important to the show was lost. But this is our point, that most of what Deb says is boring and unimportant, or to put it another way — WRONG. The missing footage is certainly not important in solving a case, but vitally important in demonstrating that she is talking crap 97% of the time.

The film crew deliberately provided cues during the filming — ie. cheating

The best example of the crew helping Deb is when she is trying to guess the name of the dead woman, made even more relevant when Nigel comes on immediately afterwards to deny this sort of thing ever happened during the filming.

Deb is shown picking up the photo of the woman and stroking it. The view flashes to the film crew and we hear Deb saying:

Deb: M must be the first letter... of her name.
As Deb says this, the second camera pans to the film crew sitting in front of her and a woman in the crew is seen nodding in agreement about the letter M. A man with a headset is sitting behind this woman and is almost obscured from the camera's view, but he would be clearly visible to Deb. He also nods in agreement. We then flash to Nigel speaking:
Nigel: It's not like when she was running through the letters of the names people were kind of going... [Nigel indicates nodding or shaking their heads]... you know like particularly during those moments there was very little movement...
Here Nigel claims that no one was nodding when Deb was running through letters of names, yet clearly they were when Deb came to the letter M. Why didn't he acknowledge this or didn't he notice? Possibly not, since it's impossible for Nigel to closely observe Deb, which he claimed was his purpose, and watch everyone in the film crew at the same time.

At this point people may state that nodding is allowed some times as the narrator has said:

Under the rules of 'Sensing Murder' positive statements can be, but are not always confirmed.
But this is irrelevant in this case. Regardless of whether they were permitted to nod or not, Nigel insists that he was there, he was watching and there definitely wasn't any nodding going on. This shows that the film crew was helping Deb and Nigel was unable to detect it. (We'll look at the problem of the crew confirming positive statements shortly).

Also very important here is that Nigel appears to admit that Deb was running through letters of names. He states that she was going through at least some other letters but simply stresses that no one told her when to stop, or so he thought. Finally Nigel is some use after all as he exposes the old psychic ploy of running through names until you strike it lucky, and in the case of TV, deleting all your mistakes. Why were we not shown her initial attempts at the first letter? How many letters had she rejected before the film crew nodded? Please tell us Nigel, wasn't that what you were there for? We're also given the impression that immediately on seeing the photo Deb was able to come up with the letter M, but this is clearly not the case since immediately before the M statement she has the photo in her hand and when she mentions M it's gone. More 'slick editing'. (UPDATE: In his book Nigel claims that Deb got the name 'before she even looked at the photo' [6], yet the edited video indicates afterwards. Has Nigel again demonstrated that he wasn't a great observer or has 'Sensing Murder' performed yet more slick editing?)

Here's another example of the film crew providing help to Deb:

Nigel: It seemed to me that she pretty much made a bee-line for the house and there wasn't a lot of feedback...
This statement from Nigel is revealing in that he freely admits there was feedback from the film crew as Deb tried to locate the house. He just wants to emphasise that, as far as feedback goes, there 'wasn't a lot'. How much is not a lot? Yet the 'Sensing Murder' team continually tell us that the psychics can do these things without any feedback. I repeat, without any feedback. Nigel states that locating the house was one of the most impressive things the Deb demonstrated yet here he clearly acknowledges that she had some help.

The film crew unknowingly provided cues during the filming — ie. cheating

By this we mean the psychic could unknowingly say something factual about the case and a member of the film crew could register surprise that the psychic got this correct by raising their eyebrows perhaps. An astute psychic would take this reaction as a signal that they were on the right track. Most people can't stop themselves from sending out involuntary signals in this way, nor are we normally aware that we're doing it. This is commonly known as body language. Thus the crew would be unwittingly providing cues as they react to Deb's psychic reading. Whether Deb picked up on any of them is unknown, but involuntary cues are definitely being provided.

And Nigel the Skeptic must surely agree with this, since early in the show we were informed of a special skill Nigel brought to 'Sensing Murder':

Narrator: Top forensic psychologist Nigel Latta works actively with the NZ Police interviewing criminals. He's an expert in body language. By observing facial expressions and speech patterns Nigel can easily detect when someone is lying.
Nigel believes he can expose fake psychics by observing body language, but body language will also work in Deb's favour. Deb would be able to read the body language of Nigel and the film crew as she throws out bland statements and guesses, looking for an almost imperceptible reaction that what she said is correct or on the right track. At one stage Nigel admits that the film crew was reacting to Deb's statements (and it would be impossible not to), although he believes Deb wouldn't have been able to pick up on these reactions.
Nigel: I mean I have to say, there wasn't any cueing from you guys [the film crew] of what she was doing. I couldn't pick up from what... I couldn't have taken a guess from what you were say... how you were reacting, it wouldn't have, umm... not to the level that she was able to get.
Yet if Nigel could detect their reactions, their body language, why couldn't Deb? As a body language expert and 'hard-core and die-hart skeptic', Nigel will have heard of the true case of Clever Hans, the counting horse [7]. Clever Hans lived in Germany at the end of the nineteen-century. People would ask the horse questions like 'What is 2+2?' He would then tap his foot four times. Amazing everyone thought. Eventually someone convinced them to try it with out the owner being present, and the horse wasn't quite as good at counting. They eventually discovered that if the horse couldn't see the person who knew the answer, the horse suddenly lost the ability to count. The owner wasn't cheating, the horse was merely able to pick up on subtle body movements. For example the owner would be tense then relax slightly when the correct number of taps was performed, and thus the horse knew when to stop. Without knowing it, the owner was giving the horse information. If no one in front of the horse knew the answer, the horse was lost. Since the 'Sensing Murder' film crew knew the right answers, it's quite possible that Deb can pick up on these cues, since if a horse can do it, I'm sure a psychic can. The only way to prevent this accidental transfer of information is to ensure the crew doesn't know the answers.

Think about it. Why did she have to have an audience while she gave her reading, that is, a film crew, directors and other bystanders, including Nigel? Why couldn't she have contacted the spirit and relayed her thoughts to an automatic camera in a room with no other persons present? The psychic knows exactly what information they need to provide — intimate details of the crime, location and killer. The production team could later view the footage to discover whether the psychic said anything of relevance to the case. The psychics have supposedly already done this to win a place on the show.

No other people being present would mean that there was no possibility of getting cues, deliberate or otherwise, from them. If a film crew had to be present, why were they made aware of the details of the crime? Since all or at least some of those present at the filming knew the details of the death, it's impossible to rule out that Deb wasn't picking up on subtle body language cues. Again, if a 'dumb' horse can do it, Deb could too. Why do psychics insist on having an audience that knows the answers if not to get cues from them?

Nigel should have been aware that you can't test psychics if you don't have control of their surroundings. Imagine letting someone take an exam without supervision, knowing that they have the relevant textbooks under their desk. They pass the exam with a good result and you may be convinced that they're honest and didn't cheat by peeking at the books, but you'd also have to admit that you couldn't be 100% sure. The obvious solution would be to get them to repeat a similar exam with the textbooks removed. Can they still perform? If not, then they cheated the first time even though you didn't observe it

To the psychic, the film crew are their textbooks, the answers are contained within them, and the psychic can take a peek without us even realising. Remove the film crew and we remove the answers, we remove this possible avenue of cheating. If the 'Sensing Murder' team controlled the surroundings in this way they'd eliminate one aspect of the reading that we skeptics can challenge. Remember that this is what 'Sensing Murder' is saying they're trying to do with their rules, yet they refuse to take this obvious step. Psychics always want an audience, specifically an audience that knows the answers.

Nigel should have highlighted this as one possible rational explanation of how Deb was also able to count, up to 23 in the case of Margaret's age.

Unbeknown to the production team, Deb was personally aware of the case before hand — ie. cheating

Murders and unsolved or mysterious cases by their very nature get wider publicity than do incidents of someone loosing their car keys. Thus many people, including psychics, can innocently pick up facts about them over the years. Also if psychics know they are going to be quizzed on crimes from a particular region they can actively research them, like a teenager cramming for an exam.

It's important to employ a psychic from outside the region where the crime occurred, thus minimising the chance that they had heard of it, and to keep the location of the region secret so no research can be done. Also important, especially in this episode that was to answer a challenge from skeptics, would be to choose a particularly obscure case that people would be unfamiliar with.

This said, 'Sensing Murder' explained the case they had chosen:

Narrator: To really put the pressure on our psychic and our process we selected a particularly difficult and little known case. In 1972, 23 year old Margaret Walker was found in a pool of blood... Initially Margaret's death was treated as a homicide, but police and the coroner soon concluded she died accidentally, after falling down the stairs drunk. But Margaret's son, David Roil, is convinced the circumstances were more sinister.
Old 1972 newspaper articles flashed on the screen, then another entitled 'Son queries mother's mysterious death'. What they don't highlight is that this last article is dated '29th May 2005', or that Roil featured in a 20/20 TV documentary around this time — 2005 — detailing the case and setting out his misgivings. Contrary to their claim that this was a 35 year-old 'little known case', it had recently received nation-wide attention in this countries largest newspapers and on prime time TV. We recognised it immediately. And to show that other viewers were familiar with the case, here are two comments from an Internet Forum on the morning after the show screened:
I love [Sensing Murder] too... great show. Was good recapping last night and the Margaret story... I have seen this story before on TV.
        Posted by Kiwikazza, 08:25 AM, September 05, 2007

I LOVE IT TOO! ...I've seen that Margaret story before as well.
        Posted by Hannah, 08:33 AM, September 05, 2007

So it's definitely not a little known case and was an extremely poor choice. We see lots of overseas 20/20 segments here in NZ so there's a good chance that this 20/20 segment even played in Australia as well. Deb may have watched it. Deb may also have seen it while traveling around NZ on her psychic tours. It doesn't matter whether she did or not. The point is that Nigel claimed that there is no rational explanation as to how Deb could know facts about the case. Well here's another for you Nigel — she watched it on TV.

Unfortunately there is no way of determining whether Deb was already familiar with the case, either innocently or by deliberately researching old Wellington cases. By stating the 'Sensing Murder' rules prior to the reading the narrator implies that it would have been impossible for Deb to do any research:

Narrator: Psychic Deb Webber flew from Brisbane to Wellington. Under 'Sensing Murder' rules she was only told her destination at the airport. Deb is not given any details of the case.
At the same time text on the screen states that psychics:
  • Do not know the location
  • Filmed in one day
  • Kept under constant supervision
  • Only correct statements confirmed
Let's be clear here, the 'Sensing Murder' production team has put these rules in place for one reason and one reason only, to try and reduce the possibility of psychics cheating. This is an absolute admission by the 'Sensing Murder' team that there is a perfectly rational explanation as to how many psychics get their information. They cheat. To then get offended when skeptics suggest that psychics such as Deb Webber might cheat seems a little contradictory.

Let's look at these rules and see why they're not as reassuring as you might think.

Psychics 'Do not know the location'.

To catch her international flight Deb was told in advance of the day and time to turn up at the airport. It would be a simple matter to ring the airlines and ask what flights left for NZ at this time and what their destination was. Thus Deb could have known days in advance that she was flying to Wellington, and would have had plenty of time to research cases around this area, and plenty of time during the wait at Brisbane airport and on the flight over with aircraft telephones.

'Psychic Deb Webber flew from Brisbane to Wellington'.

But when did Deb actually arrive in Wellington. The episode doesn't say but implies that she is brought straight from the airport to studio. However since filming took up a good part of the morning, it's probable that she in fact arrived from Brisbane the previous night and stayed overnight in a hotel. A little research indicates that there are no flights from Brisbane that arrive in Wellington in the early morning. (UPDATE: Nigel Latta has now confirmed that Deb Webber did in fact fly in the previous day and stayed overnight in a hotel [6].)

Psychics are 'Kept under constant supervision'.

The mere fact that they say they keep every psychic under supervision means that they accept that psychics can cheat if left alone. So how good was their supervision? Supervision supposedly began when she arrived in Wellington, but was she supervised in the hotel overnight if she did arrive the previous day (which has now been confirmed), or just at the studio? How strict was the supervision? Did they frisk her for cell phones, pagers etc?

In fact not only do they not frisk them for cell phones, they knowingly let them keep them. An internet forum comment from the 'Sensing Murder' production team states that the psychics 'are not permitted to use their cell phones' [3]. Seemingly they are allowed to keep them but simply asked not to use them. How trusting. Do they supervise her when she goes to the toilet? If you think that this is getting a bit extreme, that surely we can trust the psychic with a cell phone in the toilet, then why can't the 'Sensing Murder' team trust them in and around the studio? Why would they trust them when they're alone (in the toilet), but not in the studio with others around them? Why even supervise someone you trust at all?

Even Nigel is fooled into believing he is keeping Deb under supervision, but he has no idea what she was doing or where she was prior to her walking into the room. Also some members of the crew are obviously good friends with Deb Webber, as is evidenced by her waving and blowing kisses to them as she first walks in to the room. Due to this friendship, would they have scrupulously supervised someone they no doubt trusted?

Psychics are 'Filmed in one day'.

The 'Sensing Murder' team say they do this because it prevents the psychics researching the case overnight. But do they follow this rule? No, since as we saw when Deb arrived at the pub, the pub was covered with scaffolding and had 5 large red bins on the footpath. Deb supposedly crosses the street and we next see Deb walking along the footpath outside the pub. Yet now the bins are missing! The scenes of her finding the pub and then walking past were obviously filmed on different days. Personally we don't believe Deb was present when the production team implied that she located the scaffold-covered pub. But whether she was or not, the 'Sensing Murder' team claimed that all the footage we saw featuring the psychic was filmed in one day. Obviously this is false and the 'Sensing Murder' team has once again created and inserted fake video footage into the show. Also, as we've already mentioned, Deb was in Wellington the day prior to the filming and may have been able to do research.

Only correct statements confirmed.

This 'rule' is a major flaw in the program's design and is one of the main reasons why psychics 'appear' to eventually get the right answers.

While this rule may seem innocent enough, all it does is let the psychic know that their guesses are correct, and they will phrase their following statements and questions accordingly. It also means that if a statement isn't confirmed then the psychic can safely assume it to be false, and they can quickly move on to something else.

By their silence the crew is in effect saying to the psychic, "No, that guess or statement is wrong". Whether they realise it or not, they are providing the psychics with information. They are guiding the psychic through a maze, telling her when she has made a correct turning.

Remember when Deb was shown trying to guess the woman's name:

Deb: M must be the first letter... of her name.
We saw members of the film crew confirming this statement by nodding, so they weren't actually cheating according to their own rules, but remember also that Nigel stated that she was running through other letters prior to reaching M. It was only this confirmation from the crew that told her to stop with M. If she was really in contact with Margaret, why does she need the film crew to confirm stuff that Margaret is telling her? Do spirits lie more often than not and thus all their statements have to be verified by film crews?

Nigel actually comments on this confirmation of correct statements but this just raises further problems. We start with a scene of Deb talking:

Deb: Seven, seventies... go back... it's alright darling, it's alright.
This segment stops and we cut to another segment of Deb talking. We have no idea what she said between these two points. Did she go back too far perhaps?
Deb: I have to concentrate on the two, for some reason, umm... two, two, two... take me back she's saying. Alright I'll take you back. 72... 72...

Film Crew: That's correct.

We then cut to another segment of Deb talking. We have no idea what she said between mentioning 72 and this next comment.
Deb: January... January... January...
This segment again stops and we cut to another segment of Deb talking. Again we have no idea what she said between these two points. Did the film crew confirm January as being correct? If they hadn't, would she have then said 'February... February...February... '?
Deb: Six, sixteenth or six, six, sixteenth, one of those, umm... January sixth... that it happened.

Film Crew: That's quite correct.

How many numbers did she try before settling on six or sixteen? Again all this footage was deleted. Would she have kept throwing up dates if the film crew hadn't stopped her? We'll never know. The narrator then informs us:
Narrator: Under the rules of 'Sensing Murder' positive statements can be, but are not always confirmed.

Nigel: There were, I think, three times when you said 'Yes that's correct', and that was about particular pieces of fact. It was about her name, umm, I think the date that she was murdered, umm, and I think it was her age.

Nigel says he heard 'Yes that's correct' on three occasions, yet we the viewer heard nothing when her age was revealed, also nothing when her name was revealed, but we did hear two confirmations when the murder date was revealed. Why were some confirmations that Nigel says he heard edited out? Perhaps the only reason we heard any at all was because Nigel is on record saying that he heard some. Strangely enough, never before in the 'Sensing Murder' series have we heard the film crew openly confirming correct statements, even thought they have always said they will do this. Yet in this short reading the viewer hears two and Nigel says there were at least two others. Since he noticed them I guess they couldn't edit them all out as must have occurred in the previous series.

Also note that Nigel believes that the crew said 'Yes that's correct' whereas they actually said 'That's correct' and 'That's quite correct'. This shows that he can't remember exactly what was said during the reading and this can be very beneficial for psychics. For example a psychic may say something vague such as 'Your father might have been in the navy or something' and the client later relates this to friends as the psychic saying 'Your father was in the navy'. Yet they didn't. The client has conveniently forgotten the words 'might' and 'or something', which could have meant the army or airforce or sea cadets. The omission or addition of one word can change greatly what a psychic actually said, and can make her appear more accurate than she actually was. Nigel misquoting the film crew shows that he also is incapable of accurately relating what was said by Deb or the film crew. That's why it's vitally important to record a reading and to go back and look at what was actually said, not what you think you remember as being said.

Another problem is that remember when Deb got Margaret's name, Nigel came on screen to reassure us that the film crew did NOT indicate by non-verbal signals that she should stop there, and thus we are obviously meant to assume they didn't tell her verbally either. Yet now he says that the film crew told her 'Yes that's correct' when she revealed the name. This only makes matters worse, demonstrating that we now have evidence that she was signalled both verbally and non-verbally to stop, although the production team edited out the verbal confirmation. More slick editing to make us think it's all down to psychic ability.

The 'Sensing Murder' team knows that if they don't stop psychics when the stumble upon a name or location they will just generate hours of meaningless rubbish. Confirming positive statements allows them to guide the psychic to the required answer. Imagine a student seen using a cell phone during an exam. He could claim he wasn't cheating because his school actually allows him to use his cell phone to 'call a friend'. As his school rules go he'd be in the clear, but it should be obvious to the rest of us that he is receiving outside information unrelated to his own ability, information that he himself can't provide. He is taking credit for information that in fact came from a friend. His friend is influencing his answers in the same way that the film crew is influencing Deb's answers.

With this ploy of confirming correct statements, all 'Sensing Murder' has done is legitimise a form of cheating by writing it into the rules.

Someone on the production team advised Deb of the case prior to filming — ie. cheating

There is no conclusive evidence that Deb was briefed on the Margaret Walker case. However it's possible, and even Nigel offers this explanation, although he goes on to discount it.

I guess we'll never know unless someone was to confess, but without this confession, does the scenario of prior knowledge fit any of the known facts?

Deb appeared to get correct facts about Margaret such as her first name, her age, the date she died, six kids, prostitute, prison, stealing, leaving the pub with a man etc.

But rather than concentrate on what she did appear to get, more importantly how do believers, and Nigel, explain why Deb never got Margaret's surname. Likewise she never got the address where she died, or the reason she went there, or the name or any info about the man she was with, or the names of those she was drinking with all night etc?

There was not one single piece of information that Deb produced that the newspapers hadn't already reported. Margaret would have been a veritable font of new information, yet Deb's account merely matches that of the newspapers. This is how people are caught cheating in exams, when their answers match those of another too closely to be a coincidence. In Deb's case this is deeply suspicious and any rational person would assume that newspaper reports are the most probable source of her 'reading'. Had someone faxed her copies of the newspaper reports? Maybe the reason that she could only repeat facts from the newspaper was because that was all that she was given.

In fact Deb could have easily shown she was in contact with Margaret by producing verifiable facts that weren't published or recorded by police. Such as the names and birthdays of her six children, where she was living when she had each of them, where she went to school, where she was buried etc. For example, using our non-psychic abilities we can tell you that Margaret had a daughter called Louise, born 31 July 1964, another daughter called Sharon, a son called David Roil, that two of her children were twins, that her maiden name was Perrett, that she was born in Napier on 23 Jan, 1948 and her last known address was 9 Molesworth St. These are actually all facts, but they didn't appear in newspapers. Why couldn't Deb produce some of them? She couldn't even tell us that Margaret's surname was Walker.

And here's part of her psychic reading that suggests she's familiar with the wording of the newspaper reports:

Deb: She was found in the house on her own, like umm... they're saying that she was on her own, in the place.

Deb: Some people saw her leave with someone, alright, from the pub, cause there's witnesses, with her leaving, with a man.

Narrator: Witnesses did see a man help a staggering Margaret as she left the pub.

Deb: He hasn't been seen again that man or something I don't think.

Narrator: The man never came forward after Margaret's death.

Notice how Deb's statements resemble the newspaper reports of the death. This is what you or I would say if we had read about the death and described it to a friend, of how 'they're saying that she was on her own'. Who are they? The police, newspaper reporters? She describes how witnesses saw her leaving with a man and that the man never came forward. This is not how Margaret would describe it. She would say "I left with Joe Bloggs or a British sailor and Pete and Joe saw me leave". She could also say why the man never came forward, such as being afraid or setting sail the following day. She could provide details, whereas readers of the newspaper reports couldn't, just like Deb couldn't.

So it's quite obvious that all of Deb's psychic reading came from published reports, not Margaret. The only thing we can't determine is whether she had knowledge of them prior to the reading or did she have to play 'Twenty Questions' with the crew, throwing up guesses until they confirmed she had said something that matched the newspaper report.

That concludes our look at the various options one has to rationally explain what happened on 'Sensing Murder'. Next we'll look at some other criticisms that can be directed at the show.

Index


Voices from beyond

Another important example of trickery that is demonstrated in this episode is the problem that all psychics and mediums seem to encounter, a problem that seems to revolve around a dodgy 'mute button' on the spirit remote control.

Going through Deb's reading, we can make a list of 14 separate occasions that we saw where Deb says the spirit of Margaret is speaking directly to her:

  • She said I don't need help
  • She's saying young lady
  • I can hear the accent, the Maori sort of tone to her voice
  • She keeps saying I couldn't look after them, I couldn't look after them
  • Take me back she's saying
  • She said nowhere
  • She keeps telling me to go round the corner
  • She told me to come around the corner
  • She's chatting
  • She said cross the road
  • She's going look there, look, look, there
  • She keeps saying down the stairs and fall
  • She said falling, she keeps saying I've fallen down
Yet when it comes to telling us her name, Margaret strangely becomes silent. For some unknown reason she refuses to speak. Deb says that 'she keeps showing me M A R and then there's a stroke'. Why do spirits resort to charades at important times, yet you evidently can't shut them up when they're gabbing about trivial matters?

Strangely psychics, and believers in psychics, never seem to notice that spirits lose their voice when they're asked for crucial details, like their name, their sex, their age, their address, the location where they died, how they died, and most importantly, the name of their killer. On at least 14 occasions Margaret spoke clearly to Deb, and her voice was so clear she could pick up her accent, yet not once did crucial facts pass Margaret's lips. Why not? Why didn't Nigel highlight this anomaly, or like a lot of other things, didn't he notice it? Psychics are worse than politicians when asked tricky questions.

How did she find the house?

The simple and factual answer is that she didn't, but I guess most believers won't accept this without an explanation.

Two of Nigel's major reasons for accepting psychic ability were evidently Deb's uncanny ability to locate both the house and the position of the body.

Nigel: I can't explain the stuff that she did today rationally, I just can't... and certainly not the walk to the house and the stuff that happened inside the house...
So let's look at how she actually made her way from the studio to the house. It starts with a challenge.
Narrator: Next Deb is challenged to locate the house where Margaret Walker died.
In many other 'Sensing Murder' episodes we see the psychic waving their hands vaguely over a map, but we see none of those theatrics in this case. Deb is simply shown hopping into a van and setting off. (UPDATE: Nigel Latta has now confirmed that Deb Webber did in fact try to locate the house on a map but failed miserably [6]. He admits that the crew decided to simply drive her to the appropriate area. Another piece of her psychic reading that the 'Sensing Murder' team decided to hide from us.)

But as any fool can see, Deb isn't driving the van when they set off, she's a backseat passenger. (And thanks to Nigel's revelation in his book we now know why). She appears to take little interest in her surroundings and is not seen giving any directions or advice. Instead the film crew is simply driving her to the spot where the death occurred. She isn't locating the area, the film crew is. She gives no indication that she has any idea that she knows what street or even what suburb she is looking for.

And we need to remember that in the next episode of 'Sensing Murder' Deb is confidently claiming to locate a murder scene that is 15,000 kms away from her location. Thus it can't be argued that psychics have to be physically close to the crime scene to sense their energy, even though in this particular episode the crew have to drive her to within spitting distance of the pub before she starts to feel the vibe.

Narrator: As she approaches the area Deb begins to tune in to where Margaret spent her last hours
Indeed Deb has plenty to say as the van travels along but at no stage does she issue directions such as 'straight ahead, turn left, stop here'. We know Margaret spent her final hours in a pub and Deb eventually says she's looking for a pub, on a corner (which frankly is quite common for pubs).

With no explanation of how Deb directed them to the pub, we next see the van stopped, with no indication that Deb asked to them stop at this particular place. If she had we would have seen film of Deb shouting 'Stop here. It's near here'. It's important to reiterate that when Deb first issues a direction, they are already stopped, supposedly across the road from the pub. She is filmed speaking inside the van and indicates that she has found her pub.

Deb: A corner pub, over there.
We hear an almost inaudible whisper from someone in the van:
Film Crew: Where are you pointing? I can't see.

Deb: I think I'm looking at that one.

There is possibly more than one pub or pub-like building at this intersection since the film crew doesn't know which one she is indicating and her statement 'that one' suggests she has a choice of more than one. Even more revealing, when she says 'A corner pub, over there' she is looking in one direction, then after the whisper from the film crew, she twists and turns to face a different direction and says 'I think I'm looking at that one'. Did the film crew do something to cause her to change her mind? Did they hint that she was looking at the wrong building? We have no proof that she did identify the correct pub or building since we have no idea where the van was parked when she was filmed making her statement. When Deb says 'I think I'm looking at that one', the camera filming her does not swing around and show us what she is looking at. We never see her and the pub in the same shot. For all we know she could have been parked outside the studio! And there is good evidence that she wasn't across from the pub. (UPDATE: As we've already seen in the section on slick editing, in his book Nigel Latta has indirectly confirmed that Deb did not identify the pub in the manner we were shown. [6])

We have already discussed how the production team faked the shots of Deb locating and pointing out the pub from across the street. Remember how she supposedly indicated the pub with red bins outside then immediately walked past the same pub without the red bins. So we can be quite confident that Deb played no part in finding or identifying the pub, and thus she has really failed the challenge of locating the house. She can only go on from here and attempt to find the house because the crew has cheated and dropped her on the footpath.

We next see the film crew following Deb on foot past the hotel, which isn't named. They don't go in.

Deb: I can noise, music, all the sounds and whatever coming from a hotel.
This is an example of bland statements that psychics make and that no one like Nigel ever questions. If Deb heard music why didn't the film crew check if this pub had a jukebox or live bands playing around the time Margaret died?
Deb: She keeps telling me to go round the corner.
Deb walks around the corner.
Deb: She told me to come around the corner.

Deb: Like she's chatting and everything. The guy's with her still.

Deb: I feel sick when I go up there...

Deb turns and walks up Roxburgh St., which is the correct street.
Deb: Well she stopped me. I don't think that's it. She crossed the road. She said cross the road.
Deb crosses the street and is show standing outside the correct house, although she still hasn't identified it yet. We next see her saying:
Deb: I actually feel really nausea here, in front of these places here.

Deb: My guts is saying to stay here. Right here. Ok. So it must have been one of these two?

Why is Deb now relying on her guts, what happened to Margaret and her instructions?

We can't see what she's looking at but we're expected to believe she is still standing outside the correct house, as we saw in the previous shot, but she has in fact moved and is now standing outside the neighbouring house. We know this because we saw a bright red car parked in front of the correct house and a white car in front of the neighbours. We can see the white car behind Deb. It's also a little suspicious that when Deb was shown turning the corner into this street we can see the white car but not the bright red car outside the house. This could simply be a result of camera angles, but it would be wonderful to view the entire footage of Deb entering this street to see if she did go straight to the house, or did she walk up and down allowing time for the red car to park outside?

A segment with Nigel is inserted here to highlight how unerringly accurate Deb was.

Nigel: It seemed to me that she pretty much made a bee-line for the house and there wasn't a lot of feedback...
As we've mentioned, this statement from Nigel is revealing in that he freely admits there was feedback from the film crew as Deb tried to locate the house. He just wants to emphasise that, as far as feedback goes, there 'wasn't a lot'. How much is not a lot? Yet the 'Sensing Murder' team continually tell us that the psychics can do these things without any feedback. Even Nigel admits that locating the house was one of the most impressive things the Deb demonstrated, yet he clearly acknowledges she had some help.

Next we see Deb's face and hand pointing and choosing one of two houses.

Deb: That one.
We don't see what Deb is pointing at, although the background suggests she is pointing at the correct house. The scene then cuts to another camera showing her approaching the correct house and walking through the open front door with the film crew in tow.

As we've already seen, the production team faked the shot of Deb walking up to and through the front door of the house. Since this was faked, can we really trust any of the footage of her finding the street and the house? Nigel will no doubt say its all genuine, but then he has implied that the fake shot was genuine as well by failing to highlight it. Nigel must have observed that Deb didn't walk straight to the front door, that the shot was set up, but he said nothing except expressing his amazement that Deb located the house so easily.

Nigel: I couldn't explain the afternoon. I could remember the physical address of the house... I couldn't have found it without a map, from standing outside that pub, even knowing the address of the house. She kind of went straight there.
Finding the pub was absolutely crucial to finding the house, without the pub she would have been lost. The pub was the starting point, yet as we've said we were shown no footage of Deb contributing in any way to directing the van to the correct spot. She was simply driven there by the film crew. Why didn't she drive or at least be seen directing the driver? Since they gave her such unbelievable help in finding the pub, why wouldn't they give her a few hints on finding the house as well? Once there Nigel admits that she received some feedback on her walkabout. Also note that Nigel said he knew the address of the house, yet earlier he claimed that he had deliberately avoided learning much about the case. What else did he know about the case? Did this knowledge, knowledge that the film crew also had, slip out accidentally and unknowingly, or based on the cheating we've already encountered in this episode and others, was it offered voluntarily?

So there's nothing mysterious about Deb finding the pub, which in turn allowed her to find the house. It can all be explained by cheating. If there was any psychic involvement it was completely discredited by the production team splicing in all that fake footage.

So let's move on to finding the position of the body.

How did she find the position of the body?

Deb is next shown in the house, happily wandering over the place where Margaret died with no hint that she realises this. What happened to the energy she can detect around these sites?

Deb: There must have been another door, I've lost a doorway. There was door somewhere, somewhere over there, at the back.

Narrator: There was a back door directly where Deb is indicating. It's since been walled over.

False. There may be a missing backdoor, but Deb is actually standing in the front of the house next to the stairs and the point she is indicating actually contains a new doorway into the kitchen. There was a wall there when Margaret died. Standing where she was she should have been confused about the addition of a doorway, not the loss of one. This is an example of the production team trying to make some sense of what the psychic is rabbiting on about and getting it wrong.

Deb then goes upstairs.

Deb: I can see her going in using a bathroom, so I assume that's why she showing me...
Why would Margaret waste time showing Deb a vision of her on the toilet and not be at all concerned at showing her where and how she died? The narrator then goes on to show how important this toilet revelation is:
Narrator: The coroner's report revealed Margaret had an empty bladder when she died, so it is possible she recently went to the bathroom.
Yet she had spent all night at the pub getting drunk, and from our experience with pubs, it's more likely she went to the toilet before leaving the pub. Either way it's a useless piece of information that psychics love to dredge up that can never be confirmed. It's also another example of Deb regurgitating facts from published reports. Why isn't she telling us new facts about the case, things that the production team doesn't already know?
Deb: When she was found I think she was downstairs, OK, she's pointing down, down there.
Again, why can Margaret show Deb a vision of her on the toilet yet not one of her lying on the floor? Deb goes downstairs as directed.
Deb: She wants me to look in the corridor here, cause she's going 'look there, look, look, there'. So I'd say this is where she was found. OK.
Wrong! Deb is standing to the left of the stairs looking down the corridor. The police believe Margaret tripped and fell while descending the stairs and thus the body was found at the base of the stairs, not in the corridor alongside the stairs where Deb is indicating. The point Deb is looking at contains a large dark stain on the carpet. It looks very much like a blood stain, but it isn't connected with Margaret's body since this carpet wasn't there when Margaret died. Deb obviously doesn't know this and gives the carpet stain undue attention.

The production team then attempts to confirm Deb's location for the body with a segment from the 'skeptic':

Nigel: And she pretty much went to the spot where the woman died.
Well, no she didn't. 'Pretty much' is not close enough, and Deb reaffirms her error by continuing. She is looking directly at the place where the body actually was, but then she looks down the corridor and points directly at the stain on the carpet:
Deb: That part seems to be significant to me.
She's confident but we know she's wrong. Unfortunately we don't know how much time has passed between this statement and the next, where she now becomes unsure:
Deb: Don't know, don't know. I need to see. Hang on. Margaret show me.
Then again we get Nigel saying Deb is spot on, when in fact she still hasn't identified the spot at all.
Nigel: Then she's in a house saying she died right here. And again, I was watching the crew, and I couldn't see people nodding or giving her hints or doing any of those sorts of things really.
Perhaps it's not what the crew is saying or doing, but more importantly what they are not saying. They have not confirmed Deb's statement as being correct, which they say they will do, so Deb will continue to fluff around until the crew indicates she is correct. She continues to chat away, suggesting that it was an accident and not a murder, while still remaining near the carpet stain.

We have Nigel talking again and then next thing Deb reappears and she now appears to know exactly how Margaret died. We have no idea how long it took her to reach this new conclusion. It seems suddenly Margaret has found her voice and is talking again.

Deb: She keeps saying down the stairs and fall.

Deb: I think she's toddling down the stairs, you see, because I have to come down the stairs and I lose my footing... trip down the stairs. Trip down the stairs!

Deb: She died from falling...

Deb: But I'm falling. She said falling, she keeps saying I've fallen down.

Deb: So I don't think it was associated with murder. I think she basically fell down.

Deb: Yeah, feels like an accident.

The video of Deb realising how Margaret died shows her flip-flopping between the bottom of the stairs and back to the carpet stain. We have no idea how much footage was deleted between each of these sentences or if they're in the order that Deb actually uttered them. The viewer is now supposed to assume that since Deb believes she fell down the stairs then the body would be at the bottom, but this is not necessarily so. Deb could still believe that she crawled fatally injured along the corridor before dying. We must remember that the only definite location Deb has made for the body was alongside the stairs near or on the carpet stain. While she has determined how she died, at no stage does she point to the bottom of the stairs and proclaim, 'This is where the body was found'.

Why did she focus on a point in the corridor alongside the stairs? Two possibilities present themselves. One is the suspicious looking stain, remembering that Deb believes Margaret died in a pool of blood, and the second is an old newspaper photo showing a detective crouched over this spot. But there was no body in this photo and it simply showed them measuring the length of the corridor. Both of these false clues could cause Deb to concentrate on the corridor.

Apart from Deb's final epiphany, most of what she says in the house is vague or wrong. Also remember that like the reading in the morning, most of the video footage of Deb in the house has been deleted. We are probably seeing less than 10% and without viewing it all we have no idea how many false suggestions Deb made before she finally, with cues from the crew and by the process of elimination, guessed how Margaret died.

Since Nigel was so impressed by this cheap trick that can be simply explained by 'cold reading' and 'slick editing', he would no doubt be blown away watching magician David Copperfield make an elephant disappear! We're surprised that someone who claims to be so skeptical of psychics that they would lobby the show's producers to go on TV could be so easily fooled.

How do we explain the amazing facts Deb got correct?

No doubt some people will still harp on about how Deb appeared to get correct facts about Margaret's life such as her first name, her age, the date she died, six kids, prostitute, prison, stealing, leaving the pub with a man etc. How do we explain these if not by spooky psychic powers?

We've already explained that while we don't have direct evidence that cheating was involved in obtaining the above facts, the simple fact is that cheating is the simplest explanation. The fact the cheating was used in obtaining other results in the show proves that the production team was prepared to cheat, and did cheat, so why should we assume that they were scrupulously honest in obtaining these few facts? Likewise, why was the psychic perfectly capable of obtaining this information but incapable of gleaning other facts, meaning the production team had to resort to cheating?

These are just examples where the production team hasn't left conclusive evidence of their tampering. The continual cutting from one shot to the next is good evidence that suggests the production team is hiding something, but it's not conclusive. Until we get to view all the video footage and until we have control over who the psychic interacts with we can't discount cheating, and thus these few facts are not evidence of the paranormal.

Focusing on these few successes is as silly as a child saying, 'If the magician doesn't use real magic, how did he know what I wrote on that card I sealed in an envelope?' Although an adult may not understand the trick, based on all the magic tricks he does understand the most likely answer is that this is a trick also. He doesn't think, 'I can't explain that one, therefore it must be magic'. Yet believers in psychics do follow this silly logic. Although they can be shown numerous examples of the psychic or production team cheating, as soon as they strike something they can't explain, they throw their hands in the air and exclaim, 'I can't explain that one, therefore it must be psychic'. Why don't they think, 'Well, all the other bits that I couldn't explain turned out to be the result of cheating, so it makes sense to assume that this is probably cheating too'. But no, if there is one piece that skeptics can't produce ironclad evidence for it is seized upon and proclaimed authentic. This is like a child having magic tricks explained to them but still hanging onto the hope that one little trick somewhere in the world is real magic.

How did Deb know there was no murder?

After Deb had run through her tricks, it was left to hard-core skeptic Nigel Latta to put the final stamp of approval on her effort.

Nigel: In a show that's called 'Sensing Murder', if you're taking punts, that's a pretty big bet to actually leave out the murder part because that's, I would imagine, what you would think you're there for.
How did Deb know there was no murder? Again the most likely answer is cheating. As she gleaned more and more facts about the death she would realise that the film crew was leading her to the conclusion that it was simply an accident. Her first thoughts would have been murder and she later moved to accident. Nigel denies that this was the case with the following statement about Deb's performance:
Nigel: She didn't start vague and then shape her responses based on feedback from the crew. She started specific and stayed that way. [2]
Yet we see by the footage in the house that it was only at the very end did she mention it was an accident, and nowhere in her psychic reading did she mention an accident. She didn't start with 'accident', she started vague by seeing Margaret on the toilet and only much later was she led to 'accident'.

We need to remember that Deb was initially moving towards a murder. When she first entered the house she said:

Deb: There was a struggle, I keep getting a struggle, there was definitely this struggle going on and I think it was the guy she left the pub with.
So 'struggle' at the start and only later turning into an accident. Why did she change her mind? What happened in all the video footage that we didn't see that made her reject this struggle that she definitely saw and never mentioned again? Did the crew influence this change of heart?

How do psychics locate the appropriate spirit?

We've come up against a wee problem, and that is, how do the 'Sensing Murder' psychics summon the spirit of the dead person? For example, on psychic stage shows it's claimed that spirits hang around loved ones, but in 'Sensing Murder' no one in the room has any connection with the spirit so that can't be it. In the world outside TV, psychics are usually given the name of who they need to contact, so no doubt they can put out a psychic scream using the appropriate name. However the psychics on 'Sensing Murder' are given no information whatsoever — no name, no gender, no idea when they died or where. They are offered a photograph but most claim to have contacted the spirit long before they ever look at it. There is seemingly no way they can summon a certain spirit since they don't know anything about that spirit, and yet the spirit is there right from the beginning. Why does the spirit of Margaret Walker, perhaps watching a rerun of 'Coronation Street' for the millionth time in a heavenly boarding house suddenly find the urge to drop in on a studio in Wellington? Is it the photograph perhaps? When we die, is our spirit condemned to hang around old photos of us? But this doesn't make sense as there can be photos of us everywhere, which one would we hang around?

Has 'Sensing Murder' got such a reputation in the paranormal world that all the victims of unsolved murders rifle through the studio files to see if their particular case is going to feature? And thus forewarned, the appropriate spirit turns up at the appropriate time and place? Of course this would suggest that the spirits are interested in helping the psychic solve their case, whereas once contacted they all go to great lengths to reveal nothing of importance.

We can't think of any logical way they can summon a specific spirit when they have no knowledge of who they are trying to summon. So I guess it's just more cheating, just pretending to talk to a spirit while they get more information from the film crew.

If psychics or believers in psychics can answer how the spirit is summoned they can contact us. And please, no vague psychic babble such as, 'Spirits just know when they're needed'.

The fact that the psychics are forced to perform these parlour tricks is further evidence that 'Sensing Murder' is pure drivel, designed to entertain, not to inform. Revealing these basic facts may be entertaining for the gullible viewer but they achieve nothing. The police already know all these things. Why don't they save time by telling the psychic everything they know about the case and then say, 'Tell us something that we don't know that will help us solve the case'?

When we see a psychic consistently do that we'll re-evaluate our stance. But until then, their cheating ways, their refusal to be properly tested plus their failure to solve any crimes makes us quote what Nigel the Skeptic initially said about psychics before he migrated to the Dark Side: 'they're faking'.

Conclusion

So what conclusions should the reader of this essay have reached? Hopefully that it's indisputable that the 'Sensing Murder' team cheated by creating and inserting fake video segments and that the sloppy design of the show provides enormous opportunity for a psychic to cheat if they wish to. While this debunking of 'Sensing Murder' certainly does not prove that psychic ability doesn't exist, it shows that everything that we observe on 'Sensing Murder' can be rationally explained without resorting to psychic powers in any way. The numerous examples of definite, probable and possible cheating means that 'Sensing Murder' can not be taken seriously, and that those that use it as proof of psychic powers are gullible in the extreme. Nigel is wrong, there is no evidence of spooky stuff whatsoever. Not only does he destroy his reputation as a skeptic, he tarnishes the reputation of skeptics everywhere.

Where does that leave us? We'll still have believers claiming that 'Sensing Murder' trickery aside, some psychics are real. However it remains a fact that no crime worldwide has been proven to have been solved by a psychic and few lost car keys have been located. As long as psychics refuse to be tested under controlled conditions and instead waste their time fleecing people at staged shows, private readings and on 0900 phone lines, believers will just have to have faith and leave it at that.

Remember that psychics are like magicians who want to control exactly where the audience sits and what the audience sees. We know why magicians need this control, and it's quite evident that it's the same for psychics. It's all a trick.

In closing we invite people to contact us to discuss the points we've raised or suggest ones we've missed. Please don't just say that we're wrong or that you disagree or that you just feel psychics wouldn't cheat. Explain why we're wrong, state which point you disagree with and why. Perhaps we've overlooked something and we'll happily change it if we have, but unlike Deb we're not psychic so you'll have to put it in an email.

Return to 'Episode Transcripts'

P.S. New TV shows following the 'Sensing Murder' format are on the horizon. Go here to read Jon Bridges' excellent 'Listener' article. It's short and well worth the read.


Authors:   John L. Ateo,   Rachel C,   Gordon S.
Copyright 2007, by the 'SILLY BELIEFS' website. All rights reserved.


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References

[1] 'Sensing Murder — Insight' - Screened on TV2, 8:30pm, Tuesday, Sept 4th, 2007
[2] 'Sensing Murder: Some Answers' Nigel Latta's website - 'Goldfish Wisdom' — [Update by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 24 Sep, 2008: Don't bother going to Nigel's website as he has — not surprisingly perhaps — deleted all reference to his appearance on 'Sensing Murder'.
[3] 'Sensing Murder' internet forum. Comment from the production team
[4] 'NZ Reality TV' Sensing Murder — Genuine psychics
[5] Response to this essay by Geoff Husson, Director & Associate Producer, 'Sensing Murder'
[6] 'Into the Darklands and Beyond', 2007, by Nigel Latta. This book contains a new chapter on his 'Sensing Murder' experience.
[7] Articles on Clever Hans the counting horse. Go here and here and here.
[8] Internet forum: 'Re: Sensing Murder - Bullshit or what?

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Last Updated Sep 2008