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When Sylvia Comes to Town... PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

Derek Rogers ran into the JREF crew at the recent CFI World Congress in DC. He had an interesting answer to the question "What should you do when Syvlia Browne comes to town?" Derek and his friends at the Skeptics and Secularists of Atlantic Canada decided to attend. He gives us this very interesting, if somewhat disheartening report:

Sylvia Browne is well-known to readers of Swift.  Like all professional mediums, she makes a living on the grief, pain and desperation of people who are usually blissfully ignorant of cold reading, Barnum statements and the tendency of the human mind to see what it wants to see. The best way to combat ignorance is through education and when Sylvia announced that she would be coming to Halifax, Nova Scotia as part of her latest tour – a farewell tour, apparently (let's hope she's not like Cher) – the Skeptics and Secularists of Atlantic Canada decided to give her audience some information that could save them future heartache and empty wallets.

Visit the Skeptic's Dictionary for more information on Barnum Statements. They're very powerful.

We decided to focus on two areas – some of Sylvia Browne's more famous cases of failed prediction involving missing persons, and some basic techniques used by professional psychics to convince an audience that they can obtain information through psychic means.  Finding three missing persons cases was very easy. Sylvia was a frequent feature of the Montel Williams show and apparently her spirit guides had an unfortunate tendency to make mistakes – readers are probably aware of Shawn Hornbeck, who was declared dead by Sylvia while he was a captive in his abductor's apartment; Holy Krewson, who had been lying dead for quite some time when Sylvia told her family that she was working in Hollywood; and Opal-Jo Jenkins, who again was already dead when Sylvia's “psychic gifts” apparently revealed that she had been sold into white slavery in Japan. The problem was picking these three cases out of the many, many demonstrations of what Sylvia Browne's predictions can do to destroy a family's hope.

Readers can learn more about our coverage of Sylvia Browne at our page devoted to her. Don't forget her flip-flop on the mine tragedy. That was very telling.

When it came to techniques used in psychic readings, we chose to focus on cold reading. As mentioned, many audience members may never have heard of cold-reading, much less be able to spot the clever tricks used by a fake psychic to “read” a person. Our description included instructions on shotgunning an audience with generalized statements while watching carefully for a response, the use of Barnum statements and tactical questions designed to uncover information while retaining an air of knowledge. We also produced a handy checklist on a small card that could fit easily into a wallet, to allow anyone to play Sylvia Browne Bingo if they so wished.

Having produced this flyer, our largest problem still lay ahead – how do you give this information to someone who doesn't want to hear it, have them at least skim it enough that some healthy seeds of doubt are planted and have a chance to sprout, and have this all happen at the optimum time – just as Sylvia was about to come on stage? The solution was to make it seem attractive. Together with a small pencil, we placed a flyer and checklist into each envelope and sealed it with a sticker that instructed the recipient to keep the package sealed until they were seated in the auditorium. A few hundred of these fake psychic detection kits were put together the night before the show. In order to make ourselves seem like the kind of people you would want to take a sealed envelope from if you met us in the street, we donned badges on lanyards that simply said “SASAC – volunteer.” SASAC, of course, stands for Skeptics and Secularists of Atlantic Canada.

With envelopes in hand and badges clearly visible, we headed up to Halifax Metro Centre on the morning of the show. A crowd had begun to gather rather early and as we started to offer envelopes, verbally reinforcing the direction to keep them sealed until the holder was in the auditorium, we rather expected to be challenged. However, not a single person stopped to ask what SASAC stood for. Not one person asked why they should wait to open it, and the closest anyone came to enquiring as to the contents was a young man jokingly asking if it contained information on his spirit guide or totem (it did not, in case you were wondering).

Our supply of cold-reading kits was exhausted within minutes by people eager to snap them up. As we left the area, our only real regret was that we had not printed more. We did not anticipate how easily and unquestioningly people will take information when presented in an appealing format. But then, I guess that's how Sylvia makes her living.

Indeed. Don a badge or a uniform and people will instinctively trust you. The bad guys know this well.

We did have a "man on the inside" who braved the steep ticket prices -- $100 for the worst seats in the house! (which was more expensive than tickets to see Bill Clinton speak a few weeks later) -- to see the action first hand. Here are some of his eyewitness comments:

I was shocked at the number of people in attendance, it must have been hundreds. And the tickets weren't cheap! Even more shocking were the people I recognized; professionals, university friends. I had a comfortable stereotype that this stuff was just for bored housewives--boy was I wrong.

The first half of the show was just some mundane spiritual mumbo jumbo ... something about coloured lights of love surrounding us all. Who can keep track? I noted a few helpful predictions, like that the world will end in 95 years and the economic crisis will turn around in June. I have my calendar marked. For you science-types, you should be fascinated to hear that global warming is caused when we shoot rockets into space and literally tear a hole it the ozone layer. So that's something we should, you know, stop doing.

Like many of Sylvia's proclamations, this one has a tiny resemblance to an actual fact. Check out this ScienceDaily article. Yep, Sylvia can read the news, though like everything, she misrepresents it.

My amusement stopped when we got into audience questions. It was sad how few people even asked anything that would call on her to exercise any talent as a cold reader ... a lot of "What's my spirit guide like?" and "Does my [insert dead relative] love me?" (The answer to that last one is always, yes, by the way. If there is an afterlife, I promise to hold grudges, just to give the psychics a chance to shake things up).

The really frightening part was when she got into giving people medical advice ... referring to specific medications that folks should "ask their doctor for." One woman was told not to worry about her mammograms, that all she needed was more oil in her diet. That, I can't really make a joke about. That's crossing the line from entertaining, to exploitative, into potentially causing serious harm. That's when I started to regret paying for a ticket.

Sylvia has long demonstrated her ability to give advice that could harm others. Hey, it's just business, right?

I saw a few people with the SASAC flyers, but didn't hear any discussion about them.  Then again, there weren't piles in the garbage, either. My hope is that people read them and it created some kind of granule of doubt to counteract the harm Sylvia was spreading to the audience.

Good tip about the rockets, though.

We weren't able to witness how much of the information the audience chose to read, but we provided an email address on the flyer itself for those who wanted to discuss it with us at any point afterwards, and the URL for stopsylvia.com for those seeking further information or support. Our hope is that somewhere, even in just one or two people, the seeds of doubt we planted are growing.

Thanks to Derek, Katie Sandford, Travis Whalen and the SASAC for their efforts. Like them, we hope they reached a few people, at least. Sadly, evidence abounds that we need more efforts like the SASAC's and the JREF's to educate the public. Consider these comments from a Halifax bookstore regarding the same appearance that the SASAC attended:

My purely unscientific eaves-dropping on the crowd as we all departed told me that many were deeply moved and inspired by the talk.

I was surprised by the large number of mini-readings she offered. The rapid fire Q&A allowed many to ask Sylvia for psychic guidance or confirmation that departed loved ones were safe and well on the Other Side.

I (as a Sylvia Browne newbie) feel that this is the strength of her work. She gives the family and friends of the departed comfort and reassurance that death is not the end and that the loving connections we feel in life survive after the death of the physical form. Clearly, knowing that loved ones watch over us is a valuable key to healing from loss and grief.

No, actually... accepting the fact that your loved ones are no longer here and cherishing their memory are the valuable keys to healing from loss and grief. Ignoring that fact that they're gone leads to prolonged pain and suffering.

I'll let the words of Penn Jillette sum up how we at the JREF feel about Sylvia and her ilk and how they prolong the grieving process. From the very first episode of Bullshit!:

We have nothing but empathy for the people who are experiencing the loss and grief of the death of a loved one. That guy who lost his mom rips my heart out. I'm a momma's boy whose mom died a couple of years ago, and I'll never get over it, and my dad died at around the same time, and I was very close to both of them. I loved them so much there isn't a moment that goes by that I don't miss them. Houdini didn't really go nuts busting these mediums until he lost his mom. Once you've felt that pure grief, seeing it exploited can take away your sense of humor. Once a loved one has died, all we have is our memories of them. There is nothing more precious to me than my memories of my mom and dad. We don't give a rat's ass about the money these bastards are taking from the grief stricken; what we do care about deeply is the desecration of memories. These "performance artists" are in a very real sense mother-f*****s. That poor guy's grieving memories of his mother are now all f****d up by somebody else's images. All he will ever have left of his mom are memories, and this pig has pissed on those for a buck and a little un-earned fame. I'm sure these lame f***s tell themselves that they're easing the grief, but skits for money can not replace loving memories. How low do you have to be to exploit someone's true grief to sell some bullshit book?

Hey, it's just entertainment, right?

 

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written by Skemono, April 23, 2009
These "performance artists" are in a very real sense mother-f*****s. That poor guy's grieving memories of his mother are now all f****d up by somebody else's images. All he will ever have left of his mom are memories, and this pig has pissed on those for a buck and a little un-earned fame.

Lest anyone think that this is unfair hyperbole, I remind you all of this article: http://www.stopsylvia.com/arti...ndma.shtml
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written by MadScientist, April 23, 2009
Sylvia just can't get anything right; even that article on ozone loss due to rockets is highly dubious.

The combustion of rocket fuels has to be one of the most studied subjects over the past 60 years; the end products are known, rocket trajectories are known, burn rates are known, for many if not all of the combustion products the "atmospheric residence time" would be known, atmospheric transport is fairly well understood, and the messy chemistry of catalytic ozone depletion in the polar regions is also fairly well understood. Add to that the fact that a nation must declare its intent to launch (as well as a little more info) before actually launching a rocket so the history of launches for at least the past 40 years is very well documented.

To make a statement that rocket combustion products may contribute more to the destruction of the ozone layers than CFCs ever did is just grubbing; there is already enough information from past studies to make a definitive statement; there is no need for "further studies", someone simply has to take the time to put the available information together. I find it quite laughable that an economic impact assessment is made, which presumably should be based on an analysis of the various types of information I mentioned, and yet the authors don't have a definitive statement to make - the article looks to me like a public plea for money because the hair-brained ideas presented by the alleged 'scientists' just don't stand up to peer scrutiny and cannot attract funding.
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written by Strange Quark, April 24, 2009
We did have a "man on the inside" who braved the steep ticket prices -- $100 for the worst seats in the house! (which was more expensive than tickets to see Bill Clinton speak a few weeks later) -- to see the action first hand.
Part of the trick, I think, is that paying that much makes people more likely to believe it. You're literally buying into the delusion. After all, you'd hate to have to admit to yourself that you shilled out that much money for a fraudulent party trick. Cognitive dissonance at work.
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written by GusGus, April 24, 2009
No, actually... accepting the fact that you're loved ones are no longer here and cherishing their memory are the valuable keys to healing from loss and grief. Ignoring that fact that their gone leads to prolonged pain and suffering.


That's "your" and "they're".
.
EDITED BY JEFFWAGG: Fixed, thank you.
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article style
written by sibtrag, April 24, 2009
I found this article somewhat difficult to follow. You may want to make a visual distinction (in the background color, perhaps) between the Derek Rodgers's letter you are quoting and quotations from other sources.

EDITED BY JEFFWAGG: Yeah, we don't have a style for quotes within quotes. I'll see if I can do something about that. Usually it's not a problem because they're short.
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written by Rustylizard, April 24, 2009
In countless churches around the country, similar scenarios are repeated ad-nauseam every Sunday. The parson assures his flock they will be reunited with loved ones in a glorious afterlife. Told what they wish to hear, children and adults sit starry-eyed in the pews and gratefully accept the pronouncement without question. Then the collection plate is passed.

So, is it any wonder that a large percentage of the population accepts, uncritically, fantastic statements like those made by Sylvia? After all, most of us have been “pickled” in the brine of supernatural explanations since childhood. The belief comes easily.

Kudos to the SASAC team for their efforts!

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We did nearly the same thing when she came to Ottawa last week
written by JonA, April 24, 2009
We here at the Ottawa Skeptics did nearly the same thing as SASC. We 'borrowed' and modified the flyer that SASC used , printed it out on an 'electric blue' paper, folded it, printed "How To Be a Psychic" on the front, and handed them out. We removed the part about Sylvia Browne's failures, and just included the bits on how to do a cold reading. We figured that if we directly attacked the person these people just paid big money to see, they might just throw out the flyer. Instead, we aimed to 'plant seeds'.

People were very eager to snap up the flyers. We handed out 200 flyers in about 15 minutes. We didn't have anyone on the inside to tell us if people were reading them in the auditorium, but people were clearly reading them in the lobby. The colour of the flyer made it so that they were very easy to spot, and really drew the eye. People seemed to get a kick out of them too. A couple people even came back to us asking for more, so that they could give them to friends.

It was a fun time handing out the flyers, and I think it was a big success. Big thanks to Derek and SASC for providing us with great material, and the idea to go out there and hand out flyers.
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An earlier attempt to educate
written by jerrybuch, April 24, 2009
We at the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Hollywood tried a similar reveal when Sylvia came a-callin' in November of '06. We were ready for her again recently when she had scheduled another "farewell" appearance, but then canceled. You can read all about it at http://www.iigwest.com/investi...rowne.html

I wish we had thought of the "IIG volunteer" badges. We didn't use any stinking badges.
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written by Diverted Chrome, April 24, 2009
For you science-types, you should be fascinated to hear that global warming is caused when we shoot rockets into space and literally tear a hole it the ozone layer. So that's something we should, you know, stop doing.

It's unclear to me who's conflating Global Warming with Ozone Depletion (two separate issues). The linked article doesn't. It almost looks like Derek Rogers' mistake.
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Heavenly Rest?
written by StarTrekLivz, April 24, 2009
@RustyLizard,

sadly I've had occasion to attend several family funerals in the past 2 years; I've been amazed that the pastors of the various Protestant denominations all present death as a gate-way to a perpetual family reunion picnic in some state park campground, like a 4th of July gathering, except we'll all be barbecuing and playing games forever.

Given my family does NOT hold family reunions but is quite content to restrict our big gatherings to the occasion of a wedding or funeral, I'm not certain if this depiction of eternal togetherness is heaven or hell.

I'm admired the honesty of the rabbis (on the Jewish side of the family) who starkly state that the person is dead, they are gone, this is sad, we need to move on.
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written by kaivulagi, April 25, 2009
""spot the clever tricks used by a fake psychic to “read” a person.""

Fake psychic?
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written by Kuroyume, April 25, 2009
Fake psychic?


Do you know of any other type? smilies/wink.gif
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written by agenttimmyk, April 26, 2009
@Kuroyume

I think the point is that there is no such thing as a psychic PERIOD, and so there can't actually be anything known as a "fake" psychic. The use of the word "fake" itself implies that there must also be "real" psychics out there that are being impersonated by the fakes. You can't have a fake of something that doesn't exist.
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Punctuation
written by scurvytech, April 27, 2009
Just an annoyed (or, perhaps annoying) comment on punctuation: without a hyphen the phrase "fake psychic detection kits" is ambiguous; are these kits for detecting counterfeit psychics or are these psychic detection kits that have been shown to be counterfeit? I presume the former meaning was intended in which case the phrase would be better written "fake-psychic detection kits".

Thanks for your indulgence.
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