The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘mentalism’

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

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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 »

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 »

How I Use a Card Trick to Teach About Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2010

Every year when I start a new class, I always take some time on the first day to discuss science & the scientific method. But I have my own fun & unorthodox spin on it: I first tell the “Dragon in My Garage” story, and then I go on to describe the scientific method in a very fun manner.  In short, I do a card trick…

The way I start is to ask my students if they’ve ever been to a family reunion or other gathering where someone present is doing card or magic tricks (suppose this person is “Old Uncle Harry”).  And say Uncle Harry does a particularly impressive card trick (some kind of “mind reading” or mentalism trick); what is likely to be the first response from the children present?  If you said “Do it again!” that’s a pretty good guess, but second to that I’d say the next most common response is “How did you do that?”

“How did you do that?” – contained within this question is a lot of information, folks.  First, it shows that even little kids can think critically & skeptically, because if Uncle Harry responds “It’s magic, kid (wink, wink)” even children know something’s fishy.  Second, it shows that kids want to know some kind of plausible, naturalistic solution to the supposedly “magical” phenomenon they just witnessed.

Then I play off this curiosity & natural skepticism: I ask my students what a particularly curious kid might do to figure out Uncle Harry’s trick (because really good magicians don’t reveal their tricks too easily).  Invariably, they respond that perhaps the first step would be to do some research on card tricks by looking up info on the Internet or going to the public library.  Then, once they think they’ve got an idea of the process, what’s the next step?  “Experimentation” comes the reply – in other words, the student might try to replicate just how the trick is performed by getting their own deck of cards and trying to repeat the phenomenon they observed earlier.  Depending upon their relative success or failure at replicating the trick, they may have to go through this process multiple times before coming to a meaningful conclusion as to how the trick is done.

And that, as I tell my students, is the scientific method in action.  Scientists are going through the very same investigative process as are those kids attempting to figure out Uncle Harry’s magic card trick.  They are attempting to figure out the “tricks” that nature is playing upon us all the time, and to do so they must study, research, hypothesize, and experiment in order to form a coherent & naturalistic explanation for the phenomena we observe (sorry, no “magic” allowed ;) )

And then I ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask for the entire class: “So, having said all of that, do you want to see a trick?”  The answer is always yes, and it’s always a satisfying and enjoyable trick.  This very trick I performed at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 8 for about 150-200 people, most of whom were teachers, and it was a real hit.  In fact, it was such a hit that I decided to write up the solution for it, and I share it with you here… enjoy… :)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, magic tricks, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Entry 4

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

Now it is time for some fun… The Mentalist ‘Mystopher’ and Carolee, “Serving Fork-Fulls of Magic and Imagination”.  Mystopher used to be a Baptist preacher back in the day…

He became interested in magic & deception from the shell game which takes place all too often on the streets of Chicago.  He calls himself Mystopher because when he wanted to bring this magic show to his church but ran into resistance his fellow church-goers didn’t want to do it because “magic”, “illusion”, etc were somehow evil.

Okay, Mystopher is now working on his tricks, so I’m going to stop blogging because I’m going to miss them!…

What’s the difference between magic, luck, and miracle?  “God did it!” (joke from the audience)

I just got pwned in a great card trick by Mystopher – very slick & well done! :)

Now the straight-jacket is coming out – this is going to be good… he has been put into the straight-jacket, tied up with locked chains, and is now escaping this mess – wow!!!  He has one arm free and is opening an envelope to get a deck of cards so he can perform a reveal… undoing the back of the jacket now, both arms free… less than one minute to go!

30 seconds to go… he’s free and the revealed card is coming out of his mouth! Awesome!!!

The next trick is to disappear a $20 bill, make it into a $1 bill, and the original $20 bill (signed) was reappeared into a lemon.  I have no clue how he “miracled” the $20 bill into the lemon. Nice…

Now for some mentalism.  Mystopher’s wife Carolee has come to the front and been blindfolded by Adam Walker’s tie.  In the meantime, Mystopher is regaling us with some poetry… miracles for less.

Now some interesting mentalism from Carolee, using “clairvoyance” to tell people’s names on their nametags, what is in their pockets, how many fingers they’re holding up, the name on the back of a man’s tie, a picture in an envelope, etc.

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

Telepathy Tricks for Your I-Phone/Touch

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 1, 2010

I recently got an I-Touch, and I’m discovering a whole bunch of neat little apps for it.  Among one of the most interesting I’ve downloaded recently is an app called “Telepath” made by skeptic Dr. Richard Wiseman, which allows you to give the illusion that the I-Touch/Phone itself (or the operator) is telepathic! Dr. Wiseman knows quite a lot about psychology and how easy it is to fool people – or in this case how easy it is for people to fool themselves.  So he put together this little app in order to teach people a little lesson in critical thinking…

Of course, there’s no actual telepathy to it, but it is a really neat trick (it fooled me the first time I saw it).  To learn more about it, check out this Youtube video that Dr. Wiseman put together…

In order to learn the secret behind the trick, you’ll have to purchase the app from the I-Tunes store – considering what it does, it’s a real deal for only 99 cents!  So if you have an I-Phone/Touch, I suggest that you go pick up “Telepath” and start having some skeptical fun with it :)

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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