The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘kidnapping’

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.

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The “Kony2012” Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2012

So this week the Internet basically exploded with a massively-popular viral video titled “Kony2012” by the non-governmental organization Invisible Children.  Apparently, it is about a brutal Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa and has perpetrated horrendous crimes (think mass rape, kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers, and that sort of monstrous stuff) in the name of doing the sort of nasty crap that warlords do in their pursuit of power.  The purpose of the video is, according to Invisible Children, to aim “to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Here’s the video in question; it’s long (~30 minutes), but a visit to the Invisible Children website will fill you in on the basic idea behind the video.

However, while bringing scumbags like Joseph Kony to justice is no doubt a laudable goal, the fact that this video and related message seemed to spread so quickly (and uncritically, it seems) across the Internet and Twittersphere made me express some cautious skepticism about the whole thing.  And it seems that my skepticism was not without some validity – check out this interesting article from Time.com on the whole “Kony2012” meme because I think it provides a bit of perspective that should be appreciated…

Why You Should Feel Awkward About the ‘Kony2012′ Video

Stuart Price / AFP / Getty Images
Leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, answers journalists’ questions in Ri-Kwamba, southern Sudan, Nov. 12, 2006.

Most Americans began this week not knowing who Joseph Kony was. That’s not surprising: most Americans begin every week not knowing a lot of things, especially about a part of the world as obscured from their vision as Uganda, the country where Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commenced a brutal insurgency in the 1980s that lingers to this day.

A viral video that took social media by storm over the past two days has seemingly changed all that. Produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO, “Kony2012″ is a half-hour plea for Americans and global netizens to pay attention to Kony’s crimes — which include abducting over 60,000 children over two decades of conflict, brutalizing them and transforming many into child soldiers — and to pressure the Obama Administration to find and capture him. Within hours of the slick production surfacing on social media, it led to #StopKony trending on Twitter, populated Facebook timelines, was publicized by Hollywood celebrities and has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube. Suddenly, a man on virtually no Westerner’s radar became the international bogeyman of the moment. …

… Yet for the video’s demonstrable zeal and passion, there are some obvious problems. Others more expert in this arena have already done a bit of fact-checking: the LRA is no longer thought to be actually operating in northern Uganda, which “Kony2012″ seems to portray still as a war-ravaged flashpoint — instead, its presence has been felt mostly in disparate attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation with its own terrible history of rogue militias committing monstrous atrocities. Moreover, analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends (save perhaps, in one embarrassing moment of blustering sophistry, for American radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh.) The U.S. military’s African command (AFRICOM) has deployed its assets against Kony since at least 2008— a fact that goes conveniently unmentioned in Invisible Children’s video. …

… Not once in the half-hour film do we hear the name of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, whose quasi-authoritarian rule has lasted over 25 years. Arab Spring-inspired protests last year were ruthlessly suppressed and the country’s opposition complains bitterly about the entrenched corruption of the Museveni state. The U.S. State Department voiced its concern over Uganda’s rights record last November. Speaking to the Washington Post, Jedediah Jenkins, a member of Invisible Children, shrugs off charges that the NGO is too much in bed with the status quo in Kampala:

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa. If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

So I guess the take-away from this one is pretty simple: just like with those chain emails that everyone used to get (and no doubt still does, in all likelihood), when you get a Tweet from someone about ‘an amazing new video’ or whatnot, perhaps it might be worthwhile to spend some time to investigate the issue before you re-Tweet.  Food for thought, folks.
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Psychic FAIL: The Sad Case of Jaycee Dugard

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 1, 2009

In 1991, at the age of 11, Jaycee Dugard was abducted, and she was recently discovered in the back yard of a couple’s home in Antioch, California.  In the 18 years that she was held captive, she was beaten, raped, and otherwise abused – even to the point of being forced to give birth to her rapist’s children.  Needless to say, this poor woman has gone through a nearly unbelievably horrific experience.  And even more sadly, the psychic scumbags are hard at work attempting to claim credit for the “discovery” and “successful recovery”of Miss Dugard.

As skeptical investigator Ben Radford points out at LiveScience.com…

Amazingly, a Reno psychic is now claiming the case proves the accuracy of her abilities.

Dayle Schear, who was paid by Jaycee’s parents to help locate their daughter, says she told Jaycee’s mother not to give up searching for her daughter: “I looked her in the eyes and I said… eventually she’ll walk through the door, you’re going to see her again.”

Schear also claims that she correctly described the general area where Jaycee was being held. The psychic’s “information” is typical of what happens when missing persons are eventually found, dead or alive. Psychics come forward years later after the person was found to make retroactive claims about how they “knew” certain pieces of information.

Read the rest of this entry »

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