The Skeptical Teacher

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

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.

19 Responses to “When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco”

  1. Kitty Lapin Agile said

    Thank you, we have to get the word out these people are not just harmless entertainment. I looked at only a few minutes of “long Island Medium” last night and she was talking to a small boy, his sister had died. He was so happy this witch was lying and saying she was in contact with his dead sister. The smug look on her face, I just couldn’t believe first that she was able to lie to a small child, and second that any TV show would put this on. It’s not just these liars, it’s the TV shows that make money off of them. They are also guilty for promoting these charlatans and morally corrupt liars.

    • themossy said

      Maybe she wasn’t ‘lying’ ? Maybe she believed what she was saying? Rather like people who claim to be ‘witness’ to ‘god’s presence’ in their lives?

  2. Woody said

    You sure weren’t being too hard on her mattusmaximus. While I always had a healthy dislike for cold-reading frauds, A few years ago I read through the ‘StopSylvia’ site by Robert Lancaster and my feeling about her now sound a lot like yours.
    Since then I have noticed a number of posts separating the claims and predictions of Sylvia and other ‘psychics’. Amazed at the lack of accuracy beyond chance revealed by these studies and the continuing belief in psychic powers shown by many others, it’s painfull to see and totally obvious how poor is the ability of most of humanity to make sound conclusions based solely on the evidence gathered.

  3. Michael said

    Matt – request permission to link to this on Facebook?
    Well said, man.
    Michael (aka “Maddog” on JREF)

  4. On a tangent, I think that the TV show “The Mentalist” actually does quite a service to science. It is of course very dramatized and it is not a documentary, but there is not a drop of woo in it. It is all about cold reading.

  5. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco […]

  6. Helena said

    From what I’ve read here in the Irish and British news, some Cleveland guy was given 4+ years in jail for giving false information on the whereabouts of one of the girls.

    Why can’t something like this be done to Browne and all the other so-called psychics who claim to “know”? Can’t prosecute them for being douchebags but surely they can (and should) be prosecuted for wasting police time.

    • mattusmaximus said

      I would agree with you, if indeed Browne wasted the time of the police; but I don’t think she did, because the professionals know better than to place any trust whatsoever in this psychic nonsense. Unfortunately, that won’t stop predators like Browne from preying upon the grieving and gullible.

      • Helena said

        She may not have wasted police time in this instance but she sure has claimed to have liaised with police in other missing persons cases – none of which she has solved! It’s so annoying that she gets away with it!

        I really hope the Berry family can sue the pants off the odious woman.

  7. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com) […]

  8. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com) […]

  9. Sylvia Browne is an “entertainer.” Montel Williams knew that every time she was on the show the ratings went up–I blame him for posing as a real person telling the “truth” to the idiots sitting in front of the TV all day! I’ll never forget Oprah’s discussions with the miserable white women from the suburbs who were crying because they couldn’t clean the 7 bathrooms in the 10 bedroom houses they lived in! Dr. Oz is also aware of what I refer to as “trained seals clapping” syndrome. Anything that gets the ratings up, these media whores will shove down your mindless, numb throat. I do believe in the “paranormal,” I believe that some people have wonderful intuitive gifts, BUT NOT ON DAYTIME TV!!!

  10. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco […]

  11. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com) […]

  12. “there are always contradictions.” (Mao Zedong) I am reasonably certain Martha Sammaciccia is a decent person. Yet is illustrative of how we humans can be deluded as we search for the reasons of our existence. thus the continuing belief in a master “creator.” Who watches over us, and for whatever reason, brings us “good” or “bad” luck. There is no “paranormal” power, and any religious program depends on a certain degree of human gullibility. And so, Ms. Sammaciccia contradicts her own denunciation of such as Sylvia Browne, who, possibly influenced the death of Amanda Berry’s mother.

  13. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco […]

  14. […] When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com) […]

  15. nme said

    Fuck this bitch

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