Columbo, the Paranormal and Science

To identify and apprehend criminals, all detectives are compelled to rely to a greater or lesser extent on science – particularly forensic science, that is to say, science used in courts of law. Nowadays, scientists at state-owned forensic laboratories perform essential investigations to assist the police and give expert evidence in court in support of their findings.

Peter Falk (1927 -2011) as Lieutenant Columbo

In the nineteenth century, however, the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes conducted his own scientific investigations to solve the crimes that he was investigating. But his knowledge of science was, to put it mildly, suspect. For instance, we are told in the first novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) that not long after he met his companion Dr Watson, the latter discovered to his amazement that Holmes was completely ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the composition of the solar system. Holmes justified his ignorance of astronomy on the basis that such knowledge is useless in his profession and mastering it would only ‘elbow out’ (as he put it) the useful knowledge. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes The Complete Illustrated Novels P.11). However, by the time that Conan Doyle wrote the last Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear in 1914, he had forgotten what he had written earlier. On the second page of the book, Holmes informs Watson that his arch foe Prof Moriarty once wrote a treatise called “The Dynamics of an Asteroid”. (Complete novels P.356)

But to return to A Study in Scarlet, Watson also investigated his friend’s knowledge in other fields. His knowledge in the field of botany Watson found to be ‘variable’, that of geology ‘practical, but limited’ while his knowledge of anatomy is described as ‘accurate, but unsystematic’. It was only in the field of chemistry where Holmes excelled. According to Watson, he had a “profound” knowledge of the subject. (P.12). 

Most readers of the 4 Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories accepted this assessment. But in 1980 an article, written by Isaac Asimov who had a PhD in chemistry, with the title Sherlock Holmes as Chemist appeared in the magazine Science Digest. (It was subsequently reprinted in his book The Roving Mind P.127-132). He found, after examining all the novels and stories, that Conan Doyle was ignorant of the most basic principles of chemistry and made numerous blunders in writing of the subject. For instance, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (reprinted in Sherlock Holmes The Complete Illustrated Short Stories P.119-136), Holmes confused a diamond and a carbuncle, describing the latter as “crystallized charcoal” (P126). That is not Conan Doyle’s only mistake. As Asimov points out, carbuncles are always deep red and a “blue carbuncle” is a contradiction in terms. 

Incidentally, in the same story, Holmes inferred from the fact that a man wore a large hat that he had a large brain and that he therefore had to be, according to him, “highly intellectual” (P.122). That is, however, absolute nonsense. As Stephen Jay Gould conclusively demonstrates in his book The Mismeasure of Man (P.73 – 112), neither head nor brain size is an indication of intelligence. 

There are also some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories that were not only scientifically untenable but downright ridiculous. In the Adventure of the Creeping Man, for instance, a certain professor Presbury became infatuated at the age of 61 with a woman by far his junior. To demonstrate his virility and impress her, he obtained a so-called “Serum of Anthropoid” from a scientist in Prague with which he injected himself. It allegedly gave him the agility of an ape, enabling him to scramble up walls and swing in trees. (The Complete Illustrated Short Stories P.845-862). No wonder Asimov writes that “Conan Doyle was surprisingly poor in science … and Sherlock Holmes, as a scientific detective, does not come off well for that reason.” (The Roving Mind P.127).  

Are modern fictional detective stories any better? Between the years 1968 and 2003, 10 seasons (containing 69 episodes) of the TV detective series “Columbo” were televised worldwide. Columbo, played by the actor Peter Falk, was perhaps one of the most memorable and endearing characters ever to appear on TV with his glass eye, cigar, rumpled raincoat, the jalopy that he drove and his persistent pestering of the suspects in the murder cases that he investigated.

 Although Columbo is never portrayed as a scientific detective, I think that the Columbo stories are on a higher scientific level than those of Sherlock Holmes. But I do have a few reservations. Much as I enjoyed watching Columbo, there is still some criticism that can be levelled at its approach to science. We shall come to these isolated episodes later. Generally, though, the paranormal is dealt with responsibly and innovatively. I was pleasantly surprised by the episode titled Death Lends a Hand (season 1 episode 3). According to the story, a woman was struck through the face by the suspect using the back of his hand. As she fell to the ground, her head hit a sharp object that caused brain damage leading to her death. During the post mortem examination, her cheek was found to have sustained an unusual cut. When Columbo was later introduced to the criminal, he shook his hand and told the suspect how credulous he is. “I’m a superstitious guy”, he said. “I believe in… palmistry and astrology and that kind of thing.” Taken aback, the man allowed Columbo to examine his hand to establish what the future held for him.

When the criminal was eventually arrested, he wanted to know from Columbo how it came about that he had suspected him. “I got it from the cut on her cheek and your ring”, Columbo explained. “You never should have let me read your palm. I felt the ring and the two diamonds sticking out and that raised rectangular border. That matched up with the cut on her cheek.”

Equally entertaining and notable for its debunking of the paranormal is the first episode of season eight titled Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. It concerns a so-called “psychic”, Elliot Blake, who claimed to be able to demonstrate the reality of what is known as “remote viewing” to members of the American military establishment. They wanted him, they said, to read the thoughts and actions of their enemies. To ensure that Blake did not cheat during the trials, the army hired a renowned magician and sceptic known as Max the Magnificent to monitor the process.  Three persons called transmitters were each issued with a book containing a portion of the map of the city on each page, a rubber band around the book, a pen, an eye shield and a camera. Before they drove off, the transmitters put on the shields over their eyes, opened the book at random and, using the pen, marked the page with a dot. They then put the rubber band around the book at the page and removed the eye shield before driving to the spot that they had selected. When they arrived, they were required to identify the most prominent landmark, take a photograph of it and transmit a mental picture to Blake.

To everybody’s astonishment, Blake obtained a 100% success rate in all three cases when he produced his drawings of what had been transmitted to him. However, it subsequently transpired that Blake and Max knew each other well since both of them had served prison sentences in the same jail. When they were incarcerated, they taught each other how to swindle others. But at some stage, Max double-crossed Blake and left him behind when he escaped. Blake, however, learned of this treachery and although Max had assisted him to commit fraud during the remote viewing experiment, killed him by decapitating him with a magician’s guillotine.

If Blake thought that his secret was safe, he was mistaken. Columbo not only solved the murder, but he also discovered how the remote viewing trick was done. Unknown to the transmitters, they had all been issued with a magician’s map book. Each book contained a large number of pages, but they were all copies and designed to lead the transmitter to a specific landmark. The three books accordingly each had a small portion of the map repeated on each page with the landmark already marked with a dot. To prevent the transmitters from discovering the trickery, they were required to wear their eye shields and keep their books sealed with the rubber bands. The pens with which they had been issued were fake – they were unable to make a mark on a page.

The particular episode, which dates from the 1980s was topical at the time. During the 1970s a paper was published in the prestigious science journal Nature by two parapsychologists, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, who claimed that they had been able to perform remote viewing experiments under more or less the same circumstances as the one described in the Columbo episode. Their claims were investigated by two professors of psychology from the University of Otago in New Zealand, David Marks and Richard Kammann. At first, they tried to replicate the experiments. When they were unsuccessful, they requested Targ and Puthoff to hand over the records of what was said. Targ and Puthoff, however, refused. Fortunately, Marks and Kammann eventually managed to obtain transcripts from the independent judges. An examination of these records later revealed that extensive cueing had taken place, rendering the whole experiment useless as proof of extrasensory perception (ESP). (Marks and Kammann The Psychology of the Psychic (1980) P.12-41). 

In other episodes, science is used in an original way to demonstrate Columbo’s investigative skills. Take for instance episode 6 of season 2 called A Stitch in Crime. In it, a prominent surgeon performed a heart operation on a colleague of his who was suffering from heart failure. Although it is a standard procedure that non-dissoluble sutures or stitches be used internally in such operations, the surgeon, who wanted to appropriate his colleague’s work for himself, used dissoluble sutures. This normally has the effect that the patient succumbs to heart failure when the sutures dissolve. However, one of the nurses who assisted the surgeon discovered what had happened but before she could alert the authorities, she was murdered by the surgeon. Columbo, who was assigned to the case, soon suspected what had happened and what the motive had been for killing the nurse. But while the patient was still alive of course, his suspicions were simply unsubstantiated conjecture. Columbo knew this, so he warned the surgeon that if the patient dies, a post mortem examination will be performed to determine whether the correct sutures had been used. In a panic, the surgeon operated on the patient to remove the sutures before they dissolve and tried to hide them afterwards. Columbo, however, found them and arrested the doctor.

The questions that arise are whether it is indeed so that non-dissoluble sutures are used internally during heart surgery and how long it takes for dissoluble sutures to dissolve. In the story, a considerable time elapsed before the second operation was performed. After I consulted the Internet, it appeared that the information in this episode of Columbo is correct. Sutures that are used during heart operations do not dissolve and it takes up to 8 weeks for dissoluble sutures to disappear. See: The Different Kinds of Sutures Used by Surgeons (omnisurge.co.za) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surgical_suture#Absorbability 

 Chemical substances are used in several episodes to achieve certain ends. The writers of the stories generally made sure that their information in this regard is correct. The murderer in Troubled Waters (episode 4 of the 4th season) inhaled for example Amyl Nitrite (C5H11ONO) to create the impression that he suffered a heart attack. He correctly surmised that he would be admitted to the ship’s sickbay. That provided him with an alibi when he later committed the murder. Amyl Nitrite dilates the blood vessels and causes blood pressure to drop while it also increases the heartbeat. It accordingly creates the impression that someone is suffering from heart disease. Unfortunately, in the episode, the terms Amyl Nitrite and Amyl Nitrate are used interchangeably. The two are, however, as different as chalk and cheese. Amyl nitrate is added to diesel fuel, where it acts as an “ignition improver” by accelerating the ignition of fuel.

Poison is since time immemorial a favourite murder weapon of those who wanted to dispatch others without using violence and without leaving an obvious clue that an underhand method was used. Columbo investigated such a case in episode 5 of season 9 called Uneasy Lies the Crown. According to the story, an inventive dentist used Digitalis which he placed underneath a crown in his victim’s mouth. It released a slow-acting poison and so brought about his death. The drug Digitalis is made from the plant known as Foxglove and is used to treat congestive heart failure. An overdose may well cause the death of a person, but after having read the article on its toxicity in Wikipedia (Digoxin toxicity – Wikipedia), I doubt whether Digitalis would in this case have been successful in killing the intended victim. Only a tiny amount of the substance was used which would have reduced its effectiveness. Moreover, with only 27 deaths out of 2,500 reported cases in the United States in 2011, the chance of success seems abysmally low.

The writer of the screenplay was probably on better ground in Caution: Murder can be Hazardous to Your Health (season 10.1 episode. 2). In it, the murderer decides to inject Nicotine sulphate into the cigarette of his victim who was a chain smoker to make his death look like a heart attack. Nicotine sulphate is a highly concentrated form of Nicotine that is found in tobacco and can indeed cause the death of a person. However, someone cannot, as is correctly pointed out in the story, get Nicotine poisoning from smoking a cigarette. Yet Nicotine is a deadly poison and even those who harvest tobacco plants have become ill by merely touching them.

The murderer denied throughout that he was ever at the scene of the crime. However, the dog of the deceased jumped up against his car when he arrived. Unfortunately for the criminal, the nail of the dog was broken and left a unique scratch mark on his door which distinguished it from scratch marks of other dogs.   

The particular theme, namely that animals can assist the police in identifying criminals, also occurs in Death hits the Jackpot (season 10.1 episode. 4). In the story, the murderer visited the apartment of the deceased and played with his tame chimpanzee before hitting the deceased over the head and drowning him in his bathtub.  Here too, bad luck plagued the criminal. The chimpanzee played with the medal around his neck, leaving his fingerprints on it and so rebutting the murderer’s allegation that he was never at the scene of the crime. I initially doubted whether chimpanzees have, like humans, identifiable fingerprints. Yet it seems to be the case. See Do Animals Have Fingerprints? » Science ABC  

In Make me a Perfect Murder (season 7 episode 3) there is a reference to so-called alternative medicine. At the start of the story, someone drove with his car into the back of Columbo’s and injured his neck so that he was compelled to wear a neck brace. As might be expected, it was very noticeable and elicited all sorts of comments. In reply to the question what the matter is with his neck, Columbo replied as follows: “My doctor thinks it is whiplash. The chiropractor thinks I got a bad massage. My wife’s osteopath, he thinks it might be a back problem.” The other man, however, disagreed with the latter diagnosis: “It doesn’t look like a back problem”, he replied. “That is what the orthopaedic man said”, Columbo informed him. Since Columbo knew how he had injured his neck, his reference to the erroneous diagnoses of the chiropractor and osteopath was apparently made to demonstrate just how unreliable they are. Incidentally, it is a good thing that Columbo didn’t allow the chiropractor to manipulate his neck. See: https://quackwatch.org/related/chirostroke/

As far as the osteopath is concerned, it must be pointed out in all fairness that although osteopathy was dismissed by Martin Gardner in his classic 1957 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (P.199-2001) as unreliable, Dr Stephen Barrett is of the view that, despite some dubious practices, osteopathy is moving closer to orthodox medicine. See: http://www.quackwatch.org/04ConsumerEducation/QA/osteo.html   

There are only two episodes in which the producers of the series completely erred in their approach to science. The first is A Deadly State of Mind (season 4 episode 6). It concerns a psychiatrist who hypnotised his patient, with whom he had an affair, and told her that when she goes to her apartment that evening, she will receive a telephone call. When she hears the name “Charles Whelan” over the phone, she will fall into a hypnotic trance, go to her balcony on the fifth floor and because she will feel hot, she will take off her clothes and dive into the cool swimming pool on the ground floor. No sooner said than done. When Columbo arrived later that evening, she had jumped to her death and he had a murder investigation on his hands. The problem with the story is that hypnosis doesn’t work that way. As Robert A Baker explains in his book They Call it Hypnosis P.28-29, an experienced hypnotist cannot hypnotise someone over the telephone. Moreover, and more importantly, a hypnotised person will not carry out instructions from the hypnotist where they conflict with his or her values. They will, in particular, not commit suicide against their will.

Another problematic case is Double Exposure (season 3 episode 4) in which a motivational speaker Mr A decided to kill Mr X. He gave a party at his office and encouraged X to enjoy salty snacks while withholding them from the other guests. Shortly thereafter, A showed a promotion film. He had, however, inserted a single slide into the film showing a glass containing Coca Cola with ice. He had also earlier recorded his uninterrupted commentary on the film so that he could play the tape to the audience from behind a curtain and they would think that he was delivering his address in person. When the slide was shown subliminally, X got up and went into the lobby to drink water. A, however, was waiting for him and shot and killed him. He subsequently removed a device known as a calibre converter from the firearm and hid it in his office. He then went back into the auditorium without being seen and again stood behind the curtain.    

Columbo started to suspect A of the murder after reading his books on the subject of subconscious motivation. He decided to pay A back in kind and consequently instructed a police photographer to take photographs of him while he was searching A’s office for the murder weapon. One of these photographs he inserted into a film that would be watched by A. While the film was showing, Columbo hid in A’s office. Just like X, A reacted to the subliminal image and hurried to his office to see whether the calibre converter was still safe. When he checked and tried to remove it, Columbo arrested him. 

The particular episode of Columbo was enthusiastically received by the critics and it is the only one ever to win an “Emmy Award”. Unfortunately, however, it conflicts with science. It will be noted that the same question arises here as in the case of hypnosis. Can a person, without resorting to violence, be manipulated to such an extent that he or she acts involuntarily? For this reason, Anthony R Pratkanis titled his article on the subject The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion (Skeptical Inquirer vol 16(3) P. 260-272). After all, the question is not whether observations can be made subliminally, but whether people can be persuaded without being aware of it. He points out that although claims of this nature date back to 1863, there is no reliable research that supports it.  

 According to Pratkanis, there was a great deal of interest in subliminal persuasion from the year 1958. What set the ball rolling, were articles that were published in which it was reported that a certain James Vicary, an expert in advertising, had done research showing conclusively that subliminal advertisements can persuade cinema-goers, without them being aware of it, to buy Coca Cola and popcorn. With claims of Communist “brainwashing” still fresh in their memories, the Americans were extremely upset by these claims. The Federal Communication Commission, for instance, threatened to revoke the licences of any television stations that televise subliminal advertisements while a judge in Nevada, on the other hand, held that subliminal communication does not qualify to be protected as free speech in terms of the Constitution.  

Meanwhile, researchers at other advertising agencies tried their best to replicate the findings of Vicary. But they were unable to do so. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for example, subliminally showed the words “phone now” during a phone-in program on TV. Yet they did not receive more telephone calls than usual. When they requested their viewers to guess what the words were, not a single one of the approximately 500 who responded was able to do so. Perhaps that is to be expected. After all, the message was only displayed for one-third of a millisecond. Moreover, as Terrence Hines points out in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, it becomes even more difficult to see such a message if it is not flashed on a blank screen but is shown during regular programming. Under those circumstances, he says “…the message will be garbled by the picture on the screen at the time the message appears.” (P.312). The mystery was eventually solved when Vicary decided to own up to his wrongdoings. In an interview conducted with him in 1962 by the magazine Advertising Age, he confessed that the original study was a fabrication; a stratagem designed to lure clients to his business that was experiencing financial difficulties. 

As is usually the case in such matters, Vicary’s sensational claims initially received far more attention in the press than his subsequent confession of the fraud that he had committed. People kept on believing that one can be influenced by subliminal advertising while they were encouraged to do so by those for whom it was more important to make money from the lectures that they gave on the subject than to tell the truth. One of these hawkers of nonsense was a certain Wilson Bryan Key who wrote several best sellers in which he propagated the effectiveness of subliminal messages. It may not be a coincidence that Key’s one book, Subliminal Seduction, was published in 1973, while Double Exposure was aired on TV for the first time on 16 December 1973.     

 Key’s evidence was eventually rejected in the American case of Vance and Robertson v CBS Inc. and Judas Priest that was heard in the state of Nevada in 1990. The parents of two teenagers who had committed suicide sued the rock band Judas Priest and their record company and called Key to testify that a subliminal message “Do it!” had been inserted in a song recorded by the band with the title “Better by You, Better than Me”. This message, he alleged, prompted the teenagers to take their lives. Why Judas Priest was sued is a mystery, because the song was merely a cover version of the original written and performed by the British rock group Spooky Tooth. Be it as it may, the judge was not impressed by the evidence and held as follows: “The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.” Did this finding put an end to the claims of subliminal persuasion? It is difficult to say, but it does seem to me as if one hears less of it these days.      

In those episodes of Columbo where the treatment of science can be criticised, it is probably because a number of writers, and not just a single one, wrote the respective stories. Some did their homework before they wrote and others did not. Even so, I must confess that these shortcomings detract little from the entertainment value of the series.

Published by Christo Roberts

I am a retired prosecutor living in Pretoria, South Africa. Reading about evolution caused me in 1974, at the age of 20, to lose my Christian faith.

3 thoughts on “Columbo, the Paranormal and Science

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