The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘psychics’ Category

Psychic Charlatan Sylvia Browne Dies… Good Riddance

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 21, 2013

The title of this blog post may seem harsh, but when it comes to douchebag charlatans who bilk the desperate and grieving out of their money, self-declared psychic Sylvia Browne was the bottom of the proverbial dung-heap.  And now she’s dead. Ironically, in 2003 she predicted that she would die at the age of 88, yet she died 11 years earlier than that…

ScumbagPsychicSylviaBrowne-7182

Good riddance to bad rubbish (image source)

Over the course of writing this blog, I have dedicated some posts specifically to the late Ms. Browne in order to point out just how much of a self-aggrandizing and deceitful person she was, claiming to have psychic powers and often failing spectacularly in her “predictions” (none of which she ever apologized for, even given the pain she caused).  In honor of her death, I shall reproduce those posts below in the hopes that people do not celebrate her as a “lost light to the world” or similar rubbish.  Rather, it is my hope that people take the time to reflect upon Ms. Browne’s life and death and think carefully about just how much damage she did by hoodwinking the most gullible and vulnerable among us.  Hopefully, perhaps people will be a bit more skeptical of the next psychic scumbag who comes along.

When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco

Psychic Charlatan Sylvia Browne Gets a Dose of Skepticism

Jay Leno Sticks It to Sylvia Browne — On Live TV

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2013

I make no bones about how I feel about various psychic charlatans who take advantage of the desperate, grieving, and bereaved: they’re pretty close to scraping the bottom of the barrel, in my view.  At the top of this list is none other than the queen of psychic charlatans: Sylvia Browne.

Ms. Browne has made a career, literally, out of taking advantage of any opportunity, no matter how sleazy, to get in front of cameras in order to promote herself and her supposed “psychic powers”.  In many cases, this takes the form of her going on a popular daytime television show, such as the Montel Williams Show, and giving readings to various audience members.  And sometimes, she has stooped so low as to give authoritative-sounding psychicly-guided advice to people who have lost loved ones.

Of course, such psychic predictions can backfire when people actually take the time to examine them critically (such as keeping track of the New Year predictions made by prominent psychics which are complete and total duds).  But sometimes, especially when dealing with those who are really going for the gusto (like Ms. Browne), these predictions can fail in a truly spectacular and despicable manner, as it did with what is turning out to be a huge fiasco regarding the discovery and rescue of kidnapping victim Amanda Berry in Cleveland, Ohio.  It just so happens that not long after their daughter went missing over 10 years ago, Amanda’s parents went onto the Montel Williams Show to consult with Ms. Browne, who told them – rather unequivocally – that their daughter was dead…

… yup, dead.  Which is kind of exactly the opposite of what Amanda really was… you know, alive and hoping someone would find her?  Whoops…

Sylvia Browne: TV Psychic Under Fire For Telling Family Kidnapping Victim Was  Dead

Sylvia Browne: TV Psychic Under Fire For Telling Family Kidnapping Victim Was Dead

Sylvia Browne is coming under fire after the television psychic told the  family of Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry that their daughter was  dead.

The case made national headlines this week when Brown and two other kidnapped  girls were found safe in Cleveland. But for the family of Amanda Berry,  that does not undo the heartache caused by Sylvia Browne.

Browne was a weekly guest on The Montel Williams Show, and in 2004 Berry’s mother  Louwana Miller appeared to talk about the case.

As Miller pleaded for her for information on her daughter’s whereabouts,  Sylvia Browne, got  it completely wrong:

Miller: Can you tell me if they’ll ever find her? Is she out  there?

Browne: She’s — see, I hate this when they’re in water. I  just hate this. She’s not alive, honey. And I’ll tell you why, here we go again.  Your daughter was not the type that would not have called you.

Miller: So you don’t think I’ll ever get to see her  again?

Browne: Yeah, in heaven, on the other side.

Brown was correct on the last prediction, though it does not appear to be  intentional. Berry’s mother would die of heart failure two years later — her  family said she died of a “broken  heart” after her hopes of a rescue were dashed by Browne’s vision.

Now Sylvia Brown has come under assault, with commentators calling her a “grief vampire” and her Twitter page coming under assault. [emphasis added]

And to me that is one of the real tragedies of this whole sordid affair.  Not only have Ms. Browne and similar psychic charlatans used the grief of people to take advantage of them in their most vulnerable moments to promote themselves and their cheesy, pseudoscientific agenda, but they have also propped themselves up as some kind of authority with no evidence to support their claims.  And then they go making terribly irresponsible statements such as what Ms. Browne did regarding Amanda Berry; sadly, because Louwana Miller gave some kind of credence to Ms. Browne and her psychic claims, because she trusted Browne, she was horribly and terribly deceived… eventually dying thinking that her daughter was dead.

[ **Side note: Lest you think I'm being a bit too hard on Ms. Browne, it should be noted that this isn't her first high-profile grade-A screwup.  For more history, check out her involvement in the Shawn Hornbeck fiasco. ]

I’m not one to say there should be a law against being a douchebag, especially such a self-aggrandizing and deceitful one such as Ms. Browne and her psychic ilk, but I do think it is incumbent upon those of us who call ourselves skeptics and critical thinkers to call these charlatans out on their lies and douchebaggery.  We need to call them out long and loud on their lies and deceit, and we need to use these sad episodes as a lesson in teaching others the use of thinking a bit more critically about such extraordinary claims.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments »

New Years Psychic Prediction Failures: 2012 Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 2, 2013

Well, here we are once again, and it’s time for that time-honored tradition of checking the accuracy of famous psychic predictions of the past year.  As you’ll see, when subjected to scrutiny, the vast majority of these predictions fail pretty badly.  However, there are all too many faithful followers of psychic woo who want to believe that it works.  One of the primary ways in which believers fool themselves is to cherry-pick the predictions and results; in skeptic-speak, we call this “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”.

psychic fair cancelled

Ummm… yeah.  It’s kind of like that.  Image source

And there are a LOT more misses than hits, folks.  In addition, many of these psychics tend to make very vague and ambiguous predictions which can be twisted and interpreted in a number of ways.  This creative interpretation of misses or vague predictions after-the-fact as hits is well documented in the history of psychic woo.  Let’s see how well those predictions for 2012 worked out by referencing this About.com article from one year ago…

A LOT OF people are looking at 2012 with a mixture of dread and hope. The last few years have been tough financially for many people, and there’s been all of that apocalyptic talk about Mayan calendars and doom and gloom. What will really happen in 2012 I’m sure will surprise all of us. Recently, readers like you made your predictions for 2012, but we always seem to be curious about what the professional psychics foresee. Here are selected predictions for 2012 from some of the most well-known and sought-after psychics, seers, and mentalists from around the world.

Let’s just begin this exercise by examining the first psychic on the list:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Psychic Charlatan Sylvia Browne Gets a Dose of Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 21, 2012

While at TAM2012, I saw some fine folks engage in some skeptical activism.  It ended up that at the same time TAM was taking place in Las Vegas, the queen of psychic scammers and charlatans – Ms. Sylvia Browne - was scheduled to do her show.  Well, the activist crowd thought it would be altogether appropriate for people to make an informed decision about Browne and her claims before attending her show, and they caught it on video…

**Note: I totally stole everything below this point from my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess – Thanks Kylie! :)

A group of skeptics organized by mentalist Mark Edward and Wikipediatrician Susan Gerbic gather to protest the presence of Sylvia Browne at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on July 13, 2012. Recording by Susan Gerbic; editing by Ross Blocher.

The group handed out a list of cold reading techniques that psychics use to give the illusion of knowing intimate details about their subjects. Another handout listed some of Sylvia Browne’s worst mistakes as a psychic. We encourage people to look them up: Opal Jo Jennings, Holly Krewson, Shawn Hornbeck, the Sago Miners, Terrence Farrell, Lynda McClelland, and Ryan Katcher.

Posted in psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! :D

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

ABC News’s “Beyond Belief” Illustrates How Badly Psychics Fail

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 25, 2011

In a welcome break from some of the usual credulousness that seems to permeate the modern media landscape regarding all things paranormal, recently ABC News did an episode of “Beyond Belief” on the topic of psychics and mediums.  Titled “Can Psychics Really Talk to the Dead?”, the episode focused upon famed dead-talker James Van Praagh.  The interview of Van Praagh by Josh Elliot is excellent, as Elliot is respectful but appropriately skeptical of Van Praagh’s claims, especially when he conducts a bit of a deeper investigation beyond simply swallowing Van Praagh’s parlor act whole.  In the interview, Elliot even nails Van Praagh for using time-tested tricks such as cold reading

 

Another well-done segment in the show focused on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge to anyone who can display, under a properly controlled setting, evidence of supernatural or paranormal abilities.  It is important to note that in the following video, all of the claimants agreed to the conditions of the tests they underwent before the tests took place.  After agreeing to these conditions, it is telling that upon seeing their obvious failure, the psychics still insisted they had legitimate psychic powers and also complained about how the test “wasn’t fair” (even though they agreed it was fair before they failed).  Take a look at this segment at this link (it’s the video at the bottom of the article).

So, even though they agreed to the test ahead of time, were fully informed of the conditions of the test and what was required to declare success and the million dollars, and the fact they were predicting (quite confidently in some cases) that they were “sure to win the money”, they all failed – and failed spectacularly.  But then they turn around and blame the skeptics for not making the test fair; I’m sure that if they had won the million dollars they’d be saying the test was fair!

To read more about the entire show and get a skeptical perspective on how it went, check out the JREF’s blog post on the matter.

Posted in psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific at it Again: This Time They’re Selling an “ESP Lamp”

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 20, 2011

You may recall that I made a blog post in 2009 – titled Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific Sells “Ghost Detectors” & Other Woo – wherein I strongly criticized the science teaching outlet called Edmund Scientific for caving in to the “ghost hunter” fad. They started to sell all manner of goofy things: ghost detectors (which are actually just electromagnetic field meters) and even DVDs on remote viewing. And all of this from a science teaching catalog – you might as well turn to the biology section and see creationist materials for sale!

[**Addendum (6/28/11): to get a good look at why I view such claims about EMF meters "detecting ghosts" so skeptically, take a look at this post - Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review - which outlines that so-called ghost hunters, when pressed, basically admit they aren't doing any serious science.  But they want to look like it]

Well, not to be outdone in their tumble down the rabbit hole, Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific now has for sale an “ESP Lamp”.  I kid you not – they claim this thing can actually read your thoughts… as in extra-sensory perception… as in psychic woo-woo… and it only costs about $200!  But don’t take my word for it.  Read their own description of the product:

Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific’s “ESP Lamp and Money Burner” :)

Lead your own experiments in the mind’s possible influence on machines, PSI testing, and more with this colorful LED lamp. Four different color LEDs are lighted dependent upon a random number generated from a miniature Geiger counter included on the back. You may even figure out how to use it to tell the future. And, when you need a break from the lab, it makes a very interesting lamp too.

I’ll agree that it makes an interesting lamp, but that’s about the only thing in the description that’s factual.  Everything else is pretty much pseudoscientific gobble-dee-gook because many decades of research has clearly shown that no such phenomenon as ESP exists.  And that part about “telling the future”?  I suggest just saving your money and buying a Magic 8-Ball, because it would cost a LOT less and give you just as accurate results! ;)

But, sadly, that won’t appear to stop Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific from catering to the lowest common denominator in their quest for a quick buck off the gullible.  Unfortunately for them, they don’t seem to have done the math on the other side of things: how do they think science teachers across the country are going to react when they see this sort of garbage for sale in their catalog?  I know that I’ve spoken to a large number of science teachers who are quite upset about this (and justifiably so) and who are boycotting Edmund.  I’m among them, and I encourage all of my skeptical colleagues (especially those teachers among us) to do likewise: until Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific pulls products like this “ESP Lamp” and their “ghost meter” from their shelves – or at least until they advertise them in an honest and scientifically-accurate fashion – we should refuse to give them any business.

Posted in education, ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Women Thinking Free Hosts an Un-Psychic Fair in Indianapolis!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 19, 2011

I just wanted to pass along to you some news which might interest those of you in the Midwest next weekend: another Un-Psychic Fair!  You may recall the first WTFF Un-Psychic Fair in Chicago last year, and we hope that this one will be even more fun, more skeptic-y, and more un-psychic-y!!!  Read on for details…

John Edward, un-psychic douchebag, endorses this event :)

… This event launches our presence in Indianapolis, a city where we’ve found great skeptics and the potential for a truly bad ass skeptical mofo community. Our only option was to invade Indy and bring some mofos together to help us save them from their little notch on the Bible Belt.

Come out to the Unpsychic fair this weekend and be a part of WTF Indy! We’ll give you all you can eat food and buy your first drink. Then, we’ll be raffling off an entire bottle of alcohol. And we’ll do unpsychic readings… by real fake psychics!

The Women Thinking Free Foundation has arrived in Indianapolis!

Please join us on June 25, 2011 for our first ever Indy event: Mysteries of the Totally Explained, an Unpsychic Faire.

Tarot card readings!

Psychic predictions!

Discover your fate with a oujia board!

You will be amazed at the occasional accuracy of your readings!
We can already sense your presence!


Tickets are $20 and include all you can eat appetizers, cash bar with drink specials and your first drink is on us!
FREE admission for ghosts entering through the Ouija board or other spiritual portal.
We predict an awesome time!

Register to attend

Contact

Louise Kellar
Women Thinking Free Foundation
louise@womenthinkingfre.org
312-869-9833

When

Saturday June 25, 2011 at 6:00 PM EDT

Where

Loughmillers Pub
301 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN

Posted in psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Another Spectacular Example of Psychic Fail in Texas “Murder” Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 12, 2011

It seems that in Texas an anonymous “psychic detective” tipped off the police to the fact that there was a gruesome scene in a farmhouse which contained the remains of about 30 people, including the dismembered bodies of multiple children.  Unfortunately, the police of the Liberty County’s Sheriff’s Office actually took these tips seriously, because after they mobilized a massive amount of resources, they found absolutely nothing at the site…

A false tip from a psychic prompted Texas authorities to swarm a rural home searching for a nonexistent mass grave and up to 30 bodies, including those of dismembered children.

A few hours later it was clear the tip was nothing more than a gruesome wild goose chase.

“There’s no crime scene,” Liberty County Judge Craig McNair told reporters as deputies, Texas Rangers and FBI agents wrapped up a fruitless search that gained national media attention. [emphasis added]

Yup, you read that right.  Not only did the local Sheriff’s Office get into the mix, but the Texas Rangers and FBI were also involved in this fiasco!  I think these agencies have opened themselves up to some much deserved derision, because it has been shown conclusively in great detail that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, psychics do not do anything to help with police investigations.  In fact, most police and detectives do not use psychics because they know the track record of such “help” (i.e. it doesn’t work), and they know that chasing down false leads provided by these morons would just be a waste of time and resources (as it was in the spectacular failure of the case in question).

So why is it that these alleged “psychic detectives” keep on cropping up?  Because they are very good self-promoters, and they are playing off people’s desire to have closure on certain topics – it is, after all, very difficult when dealing with certain crimes (especially child abductions) to be patient and follow established and well-tested investigatory procedures.  These psychics play on this sense of unease on the part of the family in question (or perhaps the community) to swoop in and offer a measure of hope (however empty it is) while  also garnering some fame for themselves.

In his article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine titled “The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives'”, I really like how skeptical investigator Joe Nickell puts it…

Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.

In fact, the media—especially Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, NBC’s Medium, and various programs of Larry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers, or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, was featured in an earlier SI [Nickell 2004].) …

… psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of “retrofitting,” psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994). It is bad enough that they are often able to fool members of the media; detectives, if they do not know better, as most do, should learn better. They should, well, investigate their alleged psychic counterparts.

Well, in the Texas case, there is a silver lining.  It seems the agencies in question disliked being deceived by the supposed psychic tipster, and they have decided to try charging them with filing a false police report – perhaps if more of these charlatans were actually held to account, then there would be fewer of the psychic glory-hounds clamoring for their 15 minutes of fame.  We can only hope.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

New Years Psychic Prediction Failures: 2010 Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 1, 2011

Among the New Year traditions that seem to get bantered about these days are psychic predictions for the upcoming year.  Of course, psychics are a bunch of hooey – ever seen a newspaper headline titled “Psychic Wins Lottery, Gives Money to Starving Kids!”?  You never will, because psychic & other related paranormal phenomena just don’t work, period.

However, there are all too many faithful followers of psychic woo who want to believe that it works.  One of the primary ways in which believers fool themselves is to cherry-pick the predictions & results; in skeptic-speak, we call this “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”.  And there are a LOT more misses than hits, folks.  In addition, many of these psychics tend to make very vague & ambiguous predictions which can be twisted and interpreted in a number of ways.  This creative interpretation of misses or vague predictions after-the-fact as hits is well documented in the history of psychic woo.

As a way of illustrating this, let us take some time to examine a series of predictions made one year ago by a number of famous psychics, shall we?

What the Psychics Are Predicting for 2010

By , About.com Guide

THESE ARE THE people who are supposed to be able to tell us the future, right? Okay, so here are 2010 predictions from psychics, astrologers and mentalists from around the U.S. and around the world about the economy, politics, Hollywood – and a few very weird things.

Christopher St John, Psychic

  • Another crash in the stock market… maybe a little bit later in the year.
  • Increased recording and reporting of sightings of UFOs will place pressure on world governments to admit “the truth” of extra-terrestrial life. …

Another stock market crash?  Hmm, let’s see how the ol’ market did this year.  According to Yahoo News Finance, it seems like it was a pretty damn good year for the market, specifically the Dow Jones:

Of course, if Mr. St. John wants to call the dip in the market from May to July (which amounted to ~1000 points over the course of two months) a “crash”, I suppose he could do that.  But given what the markets went through back in 2008, I think this two-month-long dip could hardly be called a “crash”.  I’m going to call this one a miss.

As for the supposed “pressure” put on world governments to release “the truth” of ET-life, I don’t seem to recall any major headlines on that front.  In fact, a brief search of Google News using the terms “extra terrestrial life ufo governments” revealed pretty much nothing; well, nothing except for this headline: ‘Cosmic masters’ call for Govt investigation into UFOs

I suppose this is marginally interesting, but the prediction was that world governments (note the plural there) would have these UFO files released and facing pressure.  As it is, it seems that this has only occurred in New Zealand, not worldwide as predicted.  Not to mention, in the last few years we have seen the release of a number of formerly secret files on supposed UFO sightings by a number of governments, so this sort of “prediction” comes as no big revelation.  If this is a psychic hit, it is a really vague & lukewarm one.

Who is our next psychic? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in astrology, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers

%d bloggers like this: