The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘psychics’

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 »

The Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio – LIVE!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 14, 2012

I know I’m posting this a little late, but I wanted to let you all know that I’m going to be interviewed tonight (Monday, May 14th) live on Darkness Radio at 11:00pm CDT.  If you recall, I blogged some time ago – almost two years – about a very interesting discussion I had with paranormal investigator Dave Schrader at Convergence 2010 on the topic of “ghost hunting”.  Despite the fact that Dave’s a believer in ghosts and the paranormal and I’m a skeptic, we hit it off and he invited me to be on his show so that I could give my perspective as a skeptic… well, it took awhile, but tonight’s the night! :)

If you can catch the show, please click the Darkness Radio icon below to listen live.  Otherwise, try looking it up on the Darkness Radio archive afterwards.

Darkness Radio 

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 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 »

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 »

Where are the Psychic Security Agents?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 3, 2010

With all of the attention that airline security has gotten of late, specifically regarding new security procedures put in place by the United States’ TSA, I think it is worthwhile to ask a seemingly tongue-in-cheek question which has a serious side: where are the psychic security agents?

Think about it, seriously… if psychics really could read minds, or talk to the dead, or somehow get “forbidden” information through whatever method of divination they employ the way many of them claim, then why the hell aren’t these people working for the TSA by probing the minds of suspected terrorists?  The question kind of harkens back to one asked by many people a little over 9 years ago: Why didn’t any of these psychic gurus see 9/11 coming before the fact?

In any case, I want to give the last word on this to skeptical investigator Ben Radford, who wrote a really good article on the matter.  Check it out…

Psychics and Airline Security

Analysis by Benjamin Radford
Thu Dec 2, 2010

Security-zoom

Amid all the discussion, anxiety and outrage over heightened airline security this holiday season, there’s one group of people whose important information is conspicuously absent: psychics.

There are thousands of people who claim to have psychic powers. Some, like convicted felon Sylvia Browne, are New York Times best-selling authors; others are seen on talk shows; still others, like Alison DuBois (of NBC’s Medium), serve as consultants for their own television shows.

While many dismiss psychics as frauds or mere entertainers, tens of millions of Americans believe in psychic abilities. For example, a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that nearly one-fifth of American women (and one-tenth of men) believe that psychic powers exist.

What do psychics have to do with national security? Everything — if they are real. [emphasis added]…

Posted in humor, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2010

I want to share with you all a couple of Halloween-related lessons I give to my students every year.  That’s because this time of year is the perfect time to inject some explicit critical thinking & skepticism of all things spooky that go “bump” in the night.  I also tie it all in to scientific inquiry…

The first lesson I give my students is that I show them James Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics” video from NOVA. Though it was released in 1993, it is still one of the most well-done videos on the topic, and it is the perfect length & tone for a high school or college class.  Below is a link to Youtube where you can access the entire episode (50-60 minutes long), and I would also like to share with you the notesheet that I have my students fill in as they’re watching the video – Secrets of the Psychics Notesheet

Over the next few days, I will share with you part 2 of my Halloween lesson.  I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, so stay tuned :)

Addendum: In addition, I share some good Halloween & skeptically-themed weblinks with my students on the course website.  They are the Snopes.com page on Halloween urban legends and the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Halloween – I highly recommend sharing these with your friends, family, and students.

Posted in astrology, education, ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 25, 2010

**Update: It seems that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the interviewed may have to be postponed.  Stay tuned!

==============================

As a follow up to my earlier post regarding Dave Schrader’s talk on paranormal investigation at Convergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis, I wanted to let everyone know that Dave will be interviewing me for Darkness Radio in the next few days.  I’m not exactly sure when the interview will be airing (probably within the next week or so), but if you watch this blog I’ll be letting you know.

The nature of the interview will basically be me & Dave talking in general about the paranormal, ghost-hunting, and the role that science & skepticism play (or, as is often the case, don’t play) in such investigations.  Here are some points that I plan to bring up in my discussion with Dave…

1. What is a “ghost”?  Has anyone ever come up with any kind of quantifiable definition for such an entity?

2. What is the proposed mechanism by which ghosts interact with the physical world around us?  How can they be measured?  Why would ghosts interact in this manner with the world?

3. How can we distinguish a potentially legitimate “ghost signal” from other phenomena?

4. Do any ghost hunters conduct double blind experiments?

5. Are the investigations by some believing ghost hunters replicable by skeptics?

6. Is there any way to “catch” a ghost, or its essence (ectoplasm, etc), for study?

7. Why is it that much of ghost hunting seems to be arguments from ignorance (i.e., ghost-of-the-gaps reasoning, I call it)?

I’ll also tell some stories from my own experiences ghost hunting, going all the way back to my high school years, as well as why I’ve come to the conclusions that I’ve never seen any evidence for a ghost or anything supernatural or paranormal during my life.

I anticipate that this will be a fun discussion, and I eagerly look forward to it.  If you have suggestions for topics to discuss and/or questions for me to ask Dave Schrader, please let me know.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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