Archive for the ‘Astrology and psychics’ Category

Sylvia Browne: I can’t read Germans

June 15, 2007

Robert Lancaster has an article that dissembles Sylvia Browne’s 1989 appearance on a TV show called “Exploring Psychic Powers Live!”.

Sylvia Browne on Exploring Psychic Powers Live!

This is an appearance in which she failed miserably and afterwards claimed that she was set-up because, in her words “…they were all German, and they couldn’t understand one word I said. And that was a setup, as you well know.”

Robert has posted a link to the video of this appearance and it’s pretty clear that the audience were not German. According to James Randi who was there at the time, there was one German who was also fluent in English.

The terms of the test being conducted on the show meant that Sylvia couldn’t solicit information from the audience, they could respond simply with yes or no. Of course, this condition makes it very difficult for a cold-reader to do much but it shouldn’t be a problem for a genuine psychic.

I’m going to look at the transcript from the site and examine what happened. The transcript is taken from Robert’s article and includes his annotations.

Sylvia introduces herself by saying “What I’m going to do tonight is I’m going to go through this audience, and I’m going to do readings. And the only thing that I want you to do is to validate or invalidate anything that I say. Because a lot of times things can be in the future.”

Although she reinforces the rules of the test, she immediately gives herself a get-out clause. Some of what she says may appear untrue since she could be describing a future event. Based on this disclaimer, it is almost impossible for Sylvia to fail unless we follow the lives of all the participants until death.

Here’s the first reading.

[Brown chooses a woman at the far end of the front row.]

Brown: This lady over here. You’ve never met me before, have you? [the woman shakes her head “no.”] There is a young male in your life that has very, very puppy dog eyes.

[At this point, the camera mistakenly shows a long close-up of the wrong woman.]

Brown: You know what I mean? The eyes droop down at the corners… He is going to come back into your life and then leave your life and come back into your life. This looks like a direct connection to you. He’s kinda slender, he’s athletic-looking, he has sort of large bones. Ummm, and this is going to cause you a great deal of problems. Do you understand what this is about? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Woman #1: Uh-huh. Yes I do.

Brown: And what part?

Woman #1: Umm… The… person coming back and forth and cause problems.

Brown: Who is that to you?

Woman #1: [pause, shakes her head] I think it’s somebody I know, I’ve met recently.

Brown: That keeps coming back and forth. [the woman nods her head “yes.”]

Note the vague nature of this boy. I think that most people would recognise the young male being described by Sylvia. The participant comments that it’s someone she met recently so it’s most likely not even a relative. Sylvia created a vague character and it’s not surprising that the woman searched her memory to find a match. By the way, the participant seems to be a native English speaker – you can watch the video yourself to confirm that.

The next attempt wasn’t quite as successful. On to the second participant.

Brown: All right, there’s somebody here too, this lady right next to you. [turns to audience behind her] I’ll get over to you in just a minute. [turns back to second woman] Uhhh, the name Bill keeps coming through so strong from you. Do you know anyone at this point by the name of Bill?

Woman #2: No, I don’t.

Brown: There’s a heavy-set, full-faced man with jowls, very, very blue eyes that really has something to do with real estate or property that’s going to help you. This is aside from the Bill, because this William is also another person.

[The woman shakes her head “no.”]

Brown: And this has to do with a two-layered property. In other words, an upstairs and a downstairs.

Woman #2: No, I…

Brown: Not at this point.

Woman #2: [shakes her head “no”] Not at this point.

Brown: Okay. ‘Cause this person is going to be very significant to you by the name of William. All right? [the woman nods her head “yes.] Because a lot of times these things can be in the future.

Strike one, the woman does not know anyone called Bill. Strike two, the woman doesn’t know this other man by the name of William. Sylvia mentions a two-story property but the woman knows nothing about this. That’s surprising since a lot of people would answer yes and then volunteer information that would allow the cold-reader to make more accurate predictions. That wasn’t allowed in this case so Sylvia remains in the dark. This participant sounds very much like a native English speaker.

Sylvia finishes by invoking her deus ex machina, claiming that William could be a man in her future.

Sylvia then moves on to the German.

Brown: [turns to a man behind her] Let’s go, let’s go to you. There is a two-year, two and a half-year period in which it looks like you are going to be – I don’t want to say without a job, but there’s a flat period in which you’re not doing what you want to do. [the man is smiling] And that’s going to cause you a lot of dissension. And it’s a two-and-a-half-year period, then you’re going to get into a lot of marketing and sales work. And this marketing and sales work has to do with three other men that you’re going to be training.

Man #1: I understand you not so good, I am a German.

Brown: I don’t care whether you’re German, you still work or not work, don’t you? [the man laughs] I mean, we do that in France, or in Germany, or wherever, don’t we?

Man #1: I’m [unintelligible] speak English, and I understand your words.

Brown: Okay. Two years of no working that you like.

Man #1: Yes.

Brown: Okay. [To rest of audience] That’s my German. [laughter] Okay. [back to man] Then you’re going to be traveling and doing some telemarketing work. Marketing and sales.

Man #1: Yes.

Brown: Yes. Is that yes for me, or yes for you?

Man #1: Yes for me. [laughs]

Presumably, this conversation is the basis of Sylvia’s claim that the show was rigged and all the audience were German. Clearly that isn’t the case so far. Even if we assume that Sylvia’s spirit guide Francine doesn’t understand German, where is Sylvia getting her initial reading from? She confidently provides information but only complains after the show that there was a communication issue. Sylvia herself said “I don’t care if your German”. Note again the vague nature of the reading and the fact that it’s a future event.

Brown: Okay, let’s see, who else? [Walks up aisle. To young woman] Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. [the woman laughs] She’s sitting here saying “Please don’t let her call on me.” All right. Who is Kathy?

Woman #3: I don’t know.

Brown: This girl by the name of Kathy has dark, curly hair, and she is a friend that looks like she’s going to be in school with you. She has very, very beautiful blue eyes, and she does a lot of paperwork with you – which looks like school, ’cause everybody young is in school usually. This person is… by the name of Kathy. Also looks like you are going to get into some sort of therapy work.

Woman #3: [shakes her head “no.”] I don’t know, that doesn’t sound familiar.

Brown: Do you know what you’re going to do?

Woman #3: Yes.

Brown: Okay, but it doesn’t have anything to do with therapy. [the woman shakes her head “no.”] But it looks like you’re going to be dealing with people that have to do with therapy. In other words, advising people, helping people, talking to people. Okay? [the woman raises her eyebrows in a doubtful expression.] All right.

This attempt was a total wash-out, despite the woman being a native English speaker. Strike one, Kathy doesn’t exist and the woman is not getting in to some sort of therapy work. Sylvia, trying to gather information asks the strange question Do you know what you’re going to do? You really cannot come up with a more open question than this. To a question like this, the only response is 42.

Sylvia finishes by stating that this is a future event and then provides a remarkably vague definition of therapy. Based on Sylvia’s definition of therapy, a job in Internet tech support would fit the bill, as would counselling suicidal teens. Quite a broad range. On to the next customer.

Brown: Let’s see, who else? [walks to a young man] Umm, it looks like you’re going to get into show business.

Man #2: Uh, no.

Brown: No, well you don’t know that yet, you’re not psychic. [laughter] But it looks like you’re going to do something in show business that’s going to be really wonderful for you.

Just plain wrong, unless the man rather unexpectedly breaks in to show-business. This man sounds like a native English speaker.

With that, Sylvia closes by reminding us that she isn’t God. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could watch the movie, read the transcript and still credit Sylvia as having psychic powers.

For a fair and balanced analysis of Sylvia’s antics, please visit..

Stop Sylvia Browne!

Montel Williams – Torturing The Desperate

May 6, 2007

The president who can cure HIV/AIDS

President Yahya Jammeh, the President of Gambia, has been widely condemned for claiming that he can cure HIV/AIDs by administering a mix of secret herbs to the head of the sufferer while reciting verses from the Koran.

This is bad enough but the president also requires that his patients cease taking conventional medicine. Not only is he giving them false hope, he is actively shorting their lives. The president also claims to be able to cure Asthma and is going to begin work on curing diabetics. Will no due respect, he is clearly delusional and dangerous.

What does this have to do with Montel? Not much but we’ll come back to this later to help illustrate a point. So, on to Montel…

Montel: Gullible dupe or willing accomplice?

Stop Sylvia Browne has a very interesting article containing an excerpt from an Interview in which Montel participated. During this interview, he admits that he doesn’t believe that Sylvia Browne has psychic powers. He believes that “this woman has a little bit more intuition than most people I know” but that’s hardly a basis for allowing her to use his show to provide false information to some very desperate people.

Open Letter to Montel Williams: An Answer?

So what does this have to do with the African guy?

The president and Syvlia have much in common. Both claim to have supernatural powers – they are both liars or deluded. Sylvia is not psychic and the president is not able to magically cure people. Both raise false hopes and damage their patients. While the president is busy shorting the life expectancies of his patients, Sylvia is causing distraught parents to waste time searching for missing loved ones in the wrong places.

Montel is happy to have Sylvia on his show so why not the president? HIV/AIDS is a terrible condition so why not have a regular spot on his show in which the president treats those suffering from HIV/AIDS?

What can I do to stop this callous piece of shit?

If you read Robert Lancaster’s article, you’ll already know that writing to Montel is pointless. Instead you can direct your letters to the networks that carry Montel’s show. Contact his sponsors and the charities that he is involved with. Explain to all of them why you believe that his show is exploitative and damaging to the most vulnerable people in society. Ask them how they can possibly consider it ethical to be associated with such vermin?

Montel does a lot of work for charity – providing time and money in large measures. He is a remarkably active man which is all the more impressive considering he was diagnosed as suffering from muscular dystrophy. However, good deeds do not change the fact that he facilitates the exploitation and suffering of vulnerable people.

Novus Spiritus. Is it time to call shennanigans?

May 2, 2007

I’m very slowly working on some research regarding Novus Spiritus – the religion that Sylvia Browne appears to have pulled out of her arse – with the assistance of her curiously inconsistent spirit guide ‘Francine’.

In the mean-time, Robert Lancaster has posted some excellent articles regarding this religion.

When is a diamond not a diamond? When it’s a cubic zirconia sold as a diamond.

From the horse’s mouth – A Novus board member responds.

Control that Scientology would be proud of.

It’s strange that a religion founded by Sylvia Browne could be attracting this kind of controversy. Why hasn’t Francine warned Sylvia?

Go Sylvia Browne!

March 30, 2007

The Sylvia Browne damage recovery team move in to action. Go Sylvia Browne has been launched, presumably to fight the nasty truth being spread by Robert S. Lancaster’s Stop Sylvia Browne site.

Stop Sylvia Browne have been doing some pretty neat detective work regarding the identity of the author. The author is Heather Brown, the girlfriend of Paul Dufresne. Paul is the son of Syvlia Browne.

[Originally I stated that Paul performed psychic readings. Heather was kind enough to point out that this is incorrect and so I have made a correction.]

Robert has already done a good job of exposing this site so I’d suggest you read his Write-up. What I want to tackle is the blog post that explains the reason for Heather to start her site.

My First Blog

Media bias

She begins by railing against the media, bloggers and “free thinkings” (her emphasis). She goes on to say that they are being selective and presenting information in the way that they want you to perceive it.

Two wrongs make a right?

A quick browse of Heather’s site shows that hers is remarkably biased. Robert has actually provided a link to her site, she has not returned the favour. Also, it’s strange that all posts on her blog and forum appear to be drastically in favour of Sylvia. Heather has stated that she is removing ‘troll’ posts but I am wondering if she is simply removing all posts that criticise Sylvia. If this is the case, it’s hardly a good way to combat a perceived bias in other outlets.

Sensationalism

Heather says that the news tends to focus on the nasty events in life. This is true, “dirt sells” as she says. The problem here is that this does nothing to disprove the claims that Sylvia is a fraud. Besides, does Heather seriously believe that the media would ignore Sylvia if she actually proved her abilities? This is like saying that scientists would ignore God if he were to appear in Times Square and started handing out miracles. The media publishes nasty stories about Sylvia because she has done some nasty things, the Hornbeck incident being one of many false predictions that put a family through unnecessary pain.

Grrr, them pesk freethinkers

Heather does not like the so-called “free thinkers”. Here is what she has to say about them.

Lying in wait for this negative media attention are the so-called “free thinkers”, skeptics, atheists, and opportunists. The people who badmouth Sylvia and identify themselves as any of those labels make me laugh. Ok, so you’re a free thinker. Good for you. I’m a free thinker as well. For instance, I am free to think that you are ignorant. And by your own account, Godless.

Godless, good lord what a strange accusation. Syvlia’s claims about God are loosely based on Christianity but are considered blasphemous by mainstream Christianity. Heather claims to be a free-thinker but this seems unrelated to free-speech and open debate. Her web site has one purpose – glorify Sylvia. There is not one trace of question on the site. On my site I encourage all to post and the only comments I will ever delete are spam and illegal posts. I will never delete a comment that criticises me or what I write.

Criticism is ignorance

In Heather’s rather bizarre and skewed view of the world, anyone who badmouths, by which I assume she means those who criticise Sylvia appear to be ignorant. Kettle calling the pot black? Not really since the strongest criticism has come from reputable sites such as the JREF and Stop Sylvia Browne. Both sites provide ample evidence for their claims and the JREF has invited Sylvia to prove her abilities.

Some facts

Heather goes on to provide the following facts.

Fact: Billions of people in this world over the course of thousands of years have believed in a higher power.

Fact: Sylvia Browne, through her research, teachings, knowledge, and love for others has literally saved lives and given lost souls a new beginning while spreading hope and faith in God.

Fact: You can’t disprove God.

A large number of people believe that women should be killed for adultery. They also believe that the world was created a few thousand years ago. This claim made on the site is hardly evidence for the existence of Sylvia’s supernatural powers.

The second ‘fact’ is a rather vague one. Fundamentalist religion can make the same claim. If the Bible is anything to go by, Sylvia is actually helping to damn Christians. God doesn’t appreciate people who have other gods before him and Sylvia’s god is certainly not Yahweh. I wonder if the Hornbeck family appreciate the help they received from Sylvia.

The final ‘fact’ really shows Heather up for what she is. A rather simplistic and logically naive person. The fact that we can’t disprove God means nothing. We can’t prove that God doesn’t want us to kill babies but that isn’t an endorsement for infanticide.

Arguing that God can’t be disproved is the same hollow argument that intellectually barren religious people have used for some time now. We can’t disprove the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn either.

Aren’t you freethinkers supposed to reject or accept ideas based on proof?

Heather finishes up her facts with this statement.

So according to the definition, by judging Sylvia, ignoring her success stories, and discounting all of the other people in the world who believe in God, these “free thinkers” are hypocrites! They are supposed to neither reject nor accept ideas without proof. They don’t have proof that God doesn’t exist. Why do they always want people who believe in God to prove his existence? When they can prove that he doesn’t, then maybe I’ll listen. Until then, I just won’t take them seriously.

Despite her providing a Wikipedia definition of the term freethinker, she seems to have neglected to read it herself.

I would be totally willing to believe in the powers of Sylvia Browne if she provided proof. Anecdotes and lucky guesses are insufficient. Proper scientific testing is the only proof that any reasonable freethinker (or rational adult) should accept. Curiously, when offered the chance to provide this evidence, Sylvia agreed but then changed her mind. See JREF for details.

God will never be disproven since by definition this is impossible. Belief in God is based on faith, not fact or reason. Faith in Sylvia is just the same since she’s refusing to be tested scientifically.

Heather, I’m afraid I can’t take you seriously either. Enjoy your new site and the act of surrounding yourself with yes-men. Together you can reinforce your shared delusion in a way that would make L. Ron Hubbard. I provided the Scientology example because Sylvia has gone beyond being a simple psychic, she is at the heart of a worrying cult.

Astrology is science now according to Toyah Wilcox

May 21, 2006

Toyah Wilcox introduces us to the magic of Astrology.

The article begins on a high-note.

I have studied astrology for the past 20 years and it has become a part of my lifestyle. On certain levels, it is a science. I follow a Moon diary, a Sun diary and where Mercury is throughout the year. It goes into retrograde three times a year – the last time was 2 to 25 March – and anyone working with computers or cars will experience some kind of breakdown at these times.

Astrology is no more scientific than slaughtering an animal and making a decision based on an examination of the entrails.

As someone who works in tech support, I unfortunately haven’t seen evidence of an increase in the rate of computer failures caused by the cheeky actions of Mercury. As someone who owns and works with quite a few computers and electrical items, you’d think I would be very likely to experience a breakdown based on her claim that “anyone working with computers or cars will experience some kind of breakdown at these times”.

The phases of the Moon give tangible evidence of astrology; people with mental sensitivities and depressive people are undoubtedly affected by the full moon.

There is no evidence for this, it’s an urban legend better explain by the Skeptics Dictionary. Some people may be affected by the moon, you can’t dispute that. The problem is, this doesn’t provide any evidence for astrology. Take this example..

A person with mental-health issues can be affected by a large number of things. If you are a nervous person, a noise heard late at night can give you a fright. Does this mean that there is evidence for ghosts or proof that there is an intruder in your house? I think not – Correlation does not prove causality.

You could note that since global warming has increased while the pirate population has decreased, there is a link between the two. This clearly can’t be established without evidence. You can’t connect mental-health issues with astrology without sound evidence.

Toyah leaves us with this advice.

“There is no way that horoscopes printed in newspapers can be totally accurate – they are too general and sometimes do not help the reputation of astrology at all. But I would recommend that anyone interested in astrology should keep a diary, noting down moods and days when they were creative or non-creative in work, and then look up the dates when Mercury was in retrograde and the dates of the full moon.

This is true. Newspaper horoscopes are proven to be nothing more than guesses. If you predict something for a large enough group of people, you will without doubt seem to score some hits. I predict that capricorns June is a good time for them to find love or a new friend. Although this will not apply to everyone, it will certainly apply to some. Those people who find love or a new friend will think “Wow, that’s uncanny.”

Personal horoscopes are not much better. At least if someone is speaking to you, they can learn a bit about your personality and they can make predictions that fit you. Still, they’re not using some supernatural powers, they are just good at reading and deceiving their audience.

Her suggestion that you keep a diary almost seems plausible. After all, how can you argue with documented evidence? You can argue very easily. There are a number of ways in which you can convince yourself that astrology works.

You are biased – you can’t escape this fact. If you are expecting a particular day to be significant then you will notice events that would otherwise seem mundane. You will ignore facts that don’t back-up your belief. This is a common mistake made when testing supernatural claims.

Testing the claims of psychics is often flawed because a researcher allows their beliefs to determine what data are relevant and discard those considered unimportant. If the person being tested fails to chose the right card in 8 attempts but succeeds with 2, you can claim that there was an external influence affected the psychic.

Good researchers recognise this fact and take steps to compensate for this. Toyah’s test does not and will lead to nothing better than comforting anecdotes that will simply confirm what you want to believe.

Toyah is free to believe that horoscopes work but it’s pretty silly to claim a scientific basis. By making such claims, she joins the ranks of the Intelligent Design crowd, flat earthers and others who seem to revel in their scientific ignorance.