Skeptical Sunday: Stop Sylvia Browne

Exactly what it says, really.

Sylvia Browne.

It’s a name which causes strong reactions in a lot of people.

To her fans, who believe that she is a “true psychic medium,” she is a down-to-earth, spiritually deep woman who, with the help of her “spirit guide” Francine, can see the future, diagnose illnesses, find lost children, and communicate with the dead.

To skeptics, who believe that she has not proven any of her purported abilities, she is almost certainly a fraud, using stage tricks such as “cold reading” to simulate psychic abilities, preying on the grieving, the ill, and the spiritually needy.

Who is right?

The site used to have a different URL, but that has lapsed, so if you’ve bookmarked or blogrolled it before, you need to update the link. Please sort that out ASAP, it’s important for linkjuice.

I noticed this on a Facebook friend’s page, and it reminded me of some other links I’d been sent about “psychics” who purport to relay special knowledge about events surrounding murders etc. There’s a group of them currently operating in WA alleging that they have had revelations about the Claremont serial killings, for example. It is interesting to note that they “sold out” at least one “psychic taskforce” show:

The night will include readings amongst the audience but the high light will be our real time live investigation of a major Western Australian unsolved crime.

Needless to say, there have been no announcements since this event took place more than a month ago to say that a body has been found or a murderer identified.

“Psychics just want to make money from other people’s grief and misfortune,” Mr Spiers said.

“It upsets me that they are still trying to gain from the death of my daughter and the other girls after all these years.”

He said he had been so desperate to find his daughter after she disappeared more than 10 years ago that he had listened to the “shysters”.

The psychics involved in the event could not be contacted for comment yesterday.

Leeches. Do they get more kicks out of the people hanging on their every word or from the ill-gotten gains, do you think?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, law & order, skepticism, violence

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24 replies

  1. The number of people who go to these shows and breathlessly suck it all up is mind-boggling. The Claremont killings still have quite a hold over my generation here in Perth, and the fact that these opportunistic, harassing leeches are still finding ways to spin cash out of their sick fantasies ruffles my obstreperal lobes something fierce.

  2. Honestly I believe the woman to be a huge fraud and I think that what she is doing to grieving people is just wrong. She has made a fortune off of this, between books and her “cruise with Brown”. Every time I see her on television I become ill.

  3. I went to one of these shows as a freebie after I interviewed the psychic. It was very sad. All those desperate people in the room wanting to be told something. The grief in the air was a physical presence. The dude just stands up the front plucking letters from the air, whether there’s anything true about it or not – he’s making a tidy living charging $50 a head for the 50 to 100 people who turned up.

  4. The site is now at, because the man behind the site had a stroke, and “someone” managed to buy the domain name before he got back on his feet…

  5. I hate, hate, hate this sort of stuff. It’s just exploitation of grieving people, who course, are at their most vulnerable. I bet she’s making a motza out of skills, all the time pretending she’s doing it for altruistic reasons.

  6. I’ve been reading this site now for a while. I read with fascination the whole Monica Dux saga and have been keeping up with the RSS daily but this article has just totally thrown me. How can people who fight against discrimination be so…. discriminating?
    While I agree that some people who claim to be psychics are frauds (they are generally the ones who try to charge thousands of dollars to get rid of ‘curses’) most psychics aren’t. This sort of article just perpetutaes the exact same kind of discrimination and prejudice against psychics that you are fighting against as femininists.

  7. Sylvia Browne and the psychics mentioned over in Perth ARE charging people big bucks to go to their shows and have readings etc. No other “psychics” are referenced in the article.
    Perhaps you need to read our information page on Skepticism. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there simply is no such evidence for psychic powers.
    I don’t think all “psychics” are deliberate frauds, but I think the ones who aren’t are hugely ignorant about the power of coincidence and confirmation bias.

  8. Lying to yourself doesn’t make lying to other people OK.

  9. “Leeches. Do they get more kicks out of the people hanging on their every word or from the ill-gotten gains, do you think?”
    This sentence is pretty inclusive of anyone who claims to be psychic.
    Having read your Skepticism page and discovering that you consider James Randi an authority on the subject, I don’t think you’ll take anything I have to say seriously.
    For what its worth- not all psychics are money grubbing frauds and liars. People who go to see psychics are not all easily duped fools. I’m curious about how many psychics you have sat down with and had long in depth discussions with about the hows and whys of how it all works- you may very surprised. Aside from being a tarot card reader, who considers herself psychic, I am also a subscriber to New Scientist, a regular participant in many varied discussions and a feminist. Strangely enough my brain didn’t fall out when I discovered my abilities. And I’m not alone. There are many very intelligent and decent people who also make their livings by helping people in a way that science has dismissed because it can’t prove it in a double blind study.
    Lastly, Sylvia Browne may not be my favourite person but as a celebrity and hugely in demand psychic, she can charge what she likes for her shows or services. Especially if it dissuades the merely curious or deliberatly belligerent from wasting her time. I believe fame has a rather inflationary effect on ones income, doesn’t the same thing happen to famous actors?

  10. @ Laiste:
    You seem determined to be offended. I wrote about Sylvia Browne and one particular group of psychics, whose website I linked, and described those people as leeches.
    I am quite sure that many people who believe that they are psychic are warm-hearted and intuitive counsellors who do help people by being a willing ear and offering sensible advice. I am as yet unconvinced that there is anything paranormal behind this.

  11. I do find psychic bashing offensive. Especially when it comes from people that I have, up till this point, admired.

  12. Laiste, there is no requirement whatever for any feminist to believe in the paranormal. There is certainly no requirement for anyone to approve of fraud.

  13. I’ll add to the consensus. As a supernatural entity, I stand firmly opposed to all sensible advice.

  14. There are an awful lot of psychic phenomena that can just be explained by recourse to observation. I think “intuitive” people are often just being very observant.
    A lot of it is also priming. If a psychic talks to you about particular kinds of events then memories of a similar nature will come readily to mind and later occurrences of that nature will seem particularly significant because the idea was primed by your conversation.
    A suppose it is better to leave the door open for possible physical explanations for some psychic phenomena though. We don’t know everything about the universe. Which reminds me of my favourite physics joke. A New York physicist explains the concept of the “missing mass” of the universe to his neighbour who replies “Let’s hope it’s not all in cockroaches”.

  15. I think “intuitive” people are often just being very observant.

    Agreed, and probably subconsciously so.

  16. I agree with Su and Tigtog, intuition and ‘psychic powers’ are often observation processed through very flexible human minds. Artificial intelligence communities have spent decades trying to work out how to make extremely smart machines do very simple human things. Expert knowledge is very hard to replicate.
    That doesn’t mean it’s paranormal though. I have been witness to free shows where magicians or pseudo-psychics have generated exactly the same results as a psychic through cold reading techniques. If ‘cheats’ can so easily imitate ‘psychics’ then you have to ask what protection exists for consumers? How do you prove that you are a real psychic and not a fake one? Especially, when you’re taking money from people.
    Feminism is not about switching your brain and mouth off lest you discriminate against someone! That’s like Sarah Palin saying that critical reporters are infringing her First Amendment rights to say critical things. People who claim psychic abilities should be prepared to defend themselves. Quid pro quo.

  17. I once had an argument with a fellow student who was convinced that she knew of her lottery win in advance. To me it was an obvious example of Hindsight Bias . Everyone imagines winning when they are scratching their card so it is very easy to misconstrue that heightened arousal as precognition once the result is known. Depressingly she, like me had studied cognitive biases, the Barnum effect etc but chose superstition over science.
    There are some things that make me wonder, like the otherwise rational people who claim to have not only seen but spoken to ghosts (Woo -I must look for a copy of the The Stone Tape again) and those who wake at the moment of death of a relative but I remain unconvinced that there aren’t alternative explanations *cough weed* for the former and the latter can easily be coincidences.

  18. Andra said: “Feminism is not about switching your brain and mouth off lest you discriminate against someone! ”
    No, but hopefully feminists would be the first people to actually look into a subject before deriding it. Hopefully feminists would be in the best position to realise that sometimes a popular point of view isn’t necessarily the right one. Hopefully feminists would be the first to defend the rights and dignity of the mostly female psychic population.
    “Intellectual” people like to think they know everything when in fact the only truth that can really be trusted is that the more you study the world the more you realise that there is so much more there is to know.
    Perhaps more education is the key. Charging a lot of money when you are a celebrity doesn’t automatically make you a fraud. And, as modern science doesn’t take psychics seriously, their information is rarely, if ever, used for solving crimes- even if they turn out to be right.
    Might I suggest actually talking with a genuine psychic before deciding that they are all frauds or delusional.

  19. Ah, but how does one distinguish the genuinely psychic from the non-genuine? I’d be interested to know if there’s such a thing as divination accreditation.
    And on your claim about policing—I’d love to be the lawyer defending a client prosecuted on a psychic’s evidence.

  20. Laiste when I find a genuine psychic I will talk to her/him before deciding whether they are fraudulent or delusional. It’s finding one that’s the tricky bit.

  21. “I’d be interested to know if there’s such a thing as divination accreditation.”
    There is; a simple google search will bring up tons but a good one to start with is This is the Code of Ethics that members of the Australian Psychics Association adhere to.
    If you are looking for a geniune psychic you could start here. Any half way decent psychic would be happy to discuss how they work with you if you are geniunely interested.

  22. Laiste, I understand that you feel defensive here, but responding to people doubting the paranormal with

    hopefully feminists would be the first people to actually look into a subject before deriding it

    is very patronising and dismissive. You have no idea at all exactly what investigation and examination into extraordinary paranormal claims the people here have made. I have come to a stance of skeptical materialism after much study and thought. There’s nothing reflexive or automatic about it.
    I am sure that people can believe that they are psychic and still be good people who do not defraud those who come to them for help, but I do see it all as a delusion, and also that the whole field is tainted by the many people who tout psychic powers to make a lot of money through it, who I see as nothing other than exploitative frauds. (It’s good that some people who believe in the benefits are promoting ethical practise, but they’re still caught up in smoke and woo, IMO.)
    I think exactly the same thing about those claim special religious insights and healing powers – scratch a televangelist and find a snake-oil salesman.
    If that’s enough to make you stop reading here, then that makes me a little sad, but not ashamed or guilty. I’m happy to just agree to disagree on this particular area, and hope that you can feel the same.

  23. I don’t see how my statement was patronising or dismissive. Based on the comments posted here, most of the commenters have not had any personal experience with psychics.
    Yes, I will defend those I identify with when I feel they are being unfairly dealt with. If your article had been about someone who had personally been ripped off by someone claiming to be psychic then I would be the first in line to agree that the ‘psychic’ was a fraud. However your article was about a celebrity psychic who charges a lot of money because she is famous. And about a group of psychics who do what they do and- as far as I can see- don’t defraud or defame anyone.
    I’m not trying to make you feel ashamed or guilty. Far from it. I don’t think its too much to ask for fairness when dealing with people even if those people can, or claim to, do something you personally don’t believe in. Its one thing to say “I don’t believe in psychic or paranormal phemonena” and quite another to say that these “leeches” should be stopped.
    Anyway you are right. I am happy to agree to disagree. I never wanted to ‘convert’ you in the first place. I would just prefer to see more fairness and less, as I have said, psychic bashing.

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