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updated 6/8/2011 3:57:52 PM ET 2011-06-08T19:57:52

The chaos that ensued Tuesday (June 7) as helicopters, reporters and onlookers descended upon what a "psychic" claimed was the scene of a grisly mass murder at a rural farmhouse in Houston, Texas, may suggest that psychics help out police on tricky cases.

Well, in this particular case, what the woman claiming to be a psychic insisted would be dozens of dismembered bodies, including those of children — a la "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" — turned out to be nothing.  

So not only was the tip unhelpful, it was all a waste of time and energy. "There's no validity to the report," one law enforcement official confirmed.

Part of the reason that Houston police took the psychic seriously is that they initially found some evidence corroborating her claims, including blood on the ground and the smell of decomposition on the property. The psychic also seemed to know the layout of the house and other details that weren't public knowledge. [ Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena ]

Mysterious? Not really: The blood was from an unrelated drunken incident that had occurred weeks earlier; and the smell was from rotting meat in a broken freezer. Police believe that the woman had been to the property at least once; her information came not from psychic abilities but instead from ordinary personal experience.

So does this case prove that police use psychics in investigations?

No. There's a big difference between police using psychics in an investigation and police listening to (or following up on) information provided by people claiming to be psychic.

Police must follow up on all credible tips about crimes, including those from dubious sources. They routinely deal with liars, hoaxers, jailhouse informants with dubious motives, people with drug habits and mental illnesses, and so on.

Police cannot simply ignore a lead or tip even if it comes from a psychic — after all, just because a person claims to be psychic doesn't mean that he or she is not involved in a crime. Suspects in criminal cases who have inside knowledge of crimes sometimes try to pretend that the information they have came from psychics.

For example, on March 15, a New Mexican woman called police to report that a woman named Ebelyn Garcia was at her front door with a garden shovel, demanding access to her backyard, where money confiscated from Mexican drug lords was buried. Garcia, who has a history of felony drug convictions, told police that she had nothing to do with the money, but that a psychic named "Flaco" instructed her to go to the woman's backyard and dig up the mafia drug money. It's not clear whether loot was buried in the backyard or not, but police recognized Garcia's "psychic information" as simply a ruse designed to divert suspicion away from her.

Police don't use psychics, though psychics, of course, tell a different story. Most high-profile psychics claim that they have worked closely with police departments to help solve crimes. One of the most famous is Allison DuBois, who inspired the now-cancelled NBC drama "Medium." Dubois claimed that she "consulted on a variety of murders or missing persons cases while working with various law enforcement agencies, including the Glendale Arizona Police Department [and] the Texas Rangers." When I contacted the Glendale police and the Texas Rangers, both denied having worked with Dubois.

Faced with evidence of such denials by law enforcement officials, psychics often invoke a conspiracy, claiming that police actually do use psychics to solve cases but don't want to make it public or share credit. Police rarely bother to refute this conspiracy theory, and so many in the public continue to believe that psychics are secretly employed by law enforcement.

In fact, psychic detectives have a track record of complete failure in finding missing persons, including Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway, Holly Bobo, and countless others. This incident is only the latest where police have wasted time, money, and resources following up on false psychic information. This case shows the damage that psychics can do, and why police don't use psychics.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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