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October 28, 2007 1:25 AM   Subscribe

Jon Ronson on a cruise with controversial psychic Sylvia Browne.
posted by ClanvidHorse (38 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can't have a Sylvia Browne discussion with youtube links:

1 2 3 4

Whoops!
posted by Mach3avelli at 1:46 AM on October 28, 2007


The Guardian magazine in which this ran yesterday had the front page headline: Silvia Browne: Fake Or Psychic?

Which shook me up. I'd always thought she was one of those real psychics, you know, like... um...
posted by Devonian at 1:55 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Read that yesterday... Seen her on youtube before - a real charmer. At least the other psychics manage to appear even vaguely caring. I tempted to suggest we bring back witch-burning.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:12 AM on October 28, 2007


Yeah, I wanna know who the uncontroversial psychics are. I'd be interested to hear one of those speak. That said, I like the fact that she seems like a callous old fuck. She sounds like the W.C. Fields of psychics to me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:13 AM on October 28, 2007


Those clips Mach3 linked to are cringe-inducing, especially the first one. When the lady in the audience sits down you can see the look on her face as she realizes it's utter bullshit.

I think John Edward was a pretty non-controversial psychic. My mom used to watch his show religiously.
posted by Brittanie at 3:24 AM on October 28, 2007


From her website:
Fees
Phone reading with Sylvia - $750
Phone reading with Chris - $450

A phone consultation with Sylvia or Chris lasts approximately 20-30 minutes.
I obviously wasted a lot of time and effort getting CS/Engineering degrees. I could be fleecing stupid people for a hell of a lot more than I make now.

The sad thing is that people like Harry Houdini were debunking scum like this more than a hundred years ago and people are still falling for it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:21 AM on October 28, 2007


I wrote this very long paragraph that was a sort of joke about confusing the John Edward of Brittanie's comment with John Edwards the presidential candidate but then I started wading through the articles and now I just feel sick about the whole subject. "Psychics" are horrible people.
posted by jiiota at 4:41 AM on October 28, 2007


I am very skeptical about anything like psychics, paranormal, etc. But my wife is sort of into watching shows about psychics and ghosts, etc. and sometimes I watch with her.
Only once have I seen something I can't explain rationally. There was this guy, who works for the FBI, I believe, and lives in Virginia. He does drawings of what he sees, without information, without leaving his living room. He found some guy's elderly mother in Japan - and the drawings and maps of this rural Japanese town were scary accurate. I mean accurate enough to identify the town, and then navigate in it.
Also, IIRC he doesn't do this for money. I wish I could remember his name.
posted by bashos_frog at 5:06 AM on October 28, 2007


bashos_frog, my daughter and I watch shows like that for kicks, although neither of us believe them for a second. I've studied magic since I was 9 years old (nearly 40 years). I know just about every psychic trick there is, and what I don't know, I can usually figure out.

But there are a LOT of things on those shows I can't explain, with the information given. For one simple reason: the shows don't give you all the facts. Many times, they present outright lies. The purpose of those shows is to get an audience, not to present a critical and accurate case study. So, the guy you saw has no power. You just weren't given the whole story. And don't let the "no money" angle make it seem legitimate. There are countless people who dupe others and themselves for other reasons.
posted by The Deej at 5:47 AM on October 28, 2007 [6 favorites]


I love the part at the end where Sylvia calls the journalist a "pale little man," a "creepy little worm," and a "dark soul entity."
posted by jayder at 6:29 AM on October 28, 2007


I sense that Madeline McCann, Lindbergh baby and a group of supposedly dead miners are actually hiding in the same chateau in the south of France.

I'll have my $750 now, please.
posted by Avenger at 6:39 AM on October 28, 2007


My parents are long-retired, now in their seventies. A couple times I've caught them watching preachers at full volume at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning. These are people who never went to church. I ask them, "You aren't going to go loopy and start sending all your money off to those guys, are you?" They respond by telling me that he has a good message.

A couple times I've been at their place while my father is checking the TV guide. I've heard him tell my mother that Sylvia is on Montel at 4, and they seem to be scheduling their day around that. My father doesn't feel up to traveling anymore, but my mother still goes places. She has a widowed friend whom she travels with. Last spring they spent a weekend in Toronto, staying at the Royal York. When she returned I learned that they went for the Psychic Fair. I've never known her to see psychics before. When I asked if Sylvia Browne was speaking there, my mother answered that she was.

Thinking back, I believe it was upon her return from Toronto that my mother told me that her and her friend were going on a cruise to Turkey and the Greek islands. Now I'm frantically searching the web looking for some consoling sign that my mother isn't traveling to Greece to listen this batty conlady. It's a good sign that The Mediterranean Spiritual Connections Cruise ran from Sept. 25th to Oct. 5th. My mother flew out about September 29th, and she never mentioned anything about Yugoslavia. But now I'm worried that maybe they helicopter Ms. Browne, her wheelchair and her four musclemen from one ship to another. It's too early for the we've found you a nice home where we'll be certain you'll be happy talk.
posted by TimTypeZed at 6:40 AM on October 28, 2007


If Sylvia could prove one instance responsive to this challenge she could save herself 1,333 hours of work.
posted by vapidave at 6:43 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I believe Ms Browne has had some two or three unsuccessful marriages, which is a good indiction of her ability to see thingsnow and in the future with great clarity.
posted by Postroad at 6:58 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ronson's book Them: Adventures with Extremists is an entertaining read, notable for his hopping the fence at a Bilderberg Group retreat...
posted by wfrgms at 7:12 AM on October 28, 2007


If Sylvia could prove one instance responsive to this challenge...

She's been sidestepping Randi's challenge for years. From the SkepticReport.com post, Dodge Ball Deluxe — The Sylvia Browne Chronology:
...Sylvia has made 3 public promises on live, international television to take the JREF One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. It is apparent to me that Sylvia never intended to take the challenge. I believe she got caught accepting a challenge that she thought would go away. I also think she began playing dodge ball so that she could further take advantage of being promoted by Larry King and Montel Williams before she got called to the table. Montel and Larry are lining her pocket book for someone who likely doesn't have a lick of psychic ability. The fact that she avoids keeping her promise, and yet continues her meteoric popularity probably says more about us than it does Sylvia.
Perhaps Ms. Browne foresees her own future all too clearly, even if her audience doesn't.
posted by cenoxo at 7:26 AM on October 28, 2007


So... did she do really well at the slots?
posted by phrontist at 8:31 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I wonder if she won big at the slots on that cruise.

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by TedW at 8:47 AM on October 28, 2007


Christ, what an asshole I am for not hitting preview.
posted by TedW at 8:48 AM on October 28, 2007


Michael Shermer's book is good for those falling for 'psychics', TimTypeZed. See also the grandaddy of American psychics, who at least was much more compassionate in his work than Ms. Browne.

People need to believe, I guess.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:53 AM on October 28, 2007


Successful "psychics" tend to have two things in common: they are extremely good at reading people and picking up on their cues (spoken and unspoken), and they are extremely confident. (It's amazing how far an aura of cool confidence can get you, but that's a comment for another post.) Anyone who can master the techniques of cold reading can pass themselves off as a psychic to a good chunk of the population. Throw in some basic psychology and a few stock newspaper horoscope-like profiles (since they can apply to everyone), and you're set. Michael Shermer (mentioned above) wrote an interesting article about his experiment in cold reading that illustrates this.

It's all about confirmation bias - people will believe what they want to believe, rationality be damned. Psychics thrive on this. They know that people want closure, to hear that things are going to be okay, that the afterlife is a warm happy place and that grandpa is looking out for them, and so on. They take the money and say what they know people want to hear.

At this point, it's pretty obvious that Sylvia Browne is just phoning it in (so to speak). The only thing that keeps her afloat is her fame - it's definitely not her charisma. I don't know anything about her early career, but she has to have been a better cold reader than this to amass such a following in the first place.
posted by I Said, I've Got A Big Stick at 9:05 AM on October 28, 2007


I understand, in theory, how psychics can do what they do. Cold reading, listening carefully to people's verbal and nonverbal cues, etc.

But Sylvia just baffles me. Not only is she gross-looking, abrasive, and mean, but she doesn't seem good at what she does at all. And I don't just mean the trainwrecks linked to above. Most of her answers, even the "right" ones, are very, very dumb.

If she didn't interrupt people midsentence, she might have time to come up with slightly less dumb answers. I really don't get what anyone likes about her.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:10 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Michael Shermer's book is good for those falling for 'psychics'

From the Amazon review: "At various times in the past, Shermer has believed in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abductions, Ayn Rand, megavitamin therapy, and deep-tissue massage."

This guy is a MeFite, isn't he? I'm sure I've read his posts on here.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:23 AM on October 28, 2007


I really don't get what anyone likes about her.

When you're in a deep, dark hole of despair, you'll reach for any rope that's dangling in front of you. I imagine that for many, psychics offer a powerful psychological comfort to those in need. To the desperate (and irrational), psychics "know" things that are otherwise unknowable, and give quick answers that provide either hope or closure.

So I don't think it's a matter of liking Sylvia. It's more a matter of the comfort that "knowing" can bring.
posted by illiad at 11:57 AM on October 28, 2007


I knew this was going to happen.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:23 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Psychics are only "controversial" in the same sense that Global Warming is controversial.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:29 PM on October 28, 2007


See also the grandaddy of American psychics, who at least was much more compassionate in his work than Ms. Browne.

Woah I haven't seen Edgar Cayce mentioned in a while! ;-)

Sometime in 1999 I found myself in Virgina Beach, VA and stopped by the Association for Research and Enlightenment (which at the time was open to the public, not sure about now.)

The Cult of Cayce was still in full swing back then ridding high on a resurgent interest in the paranormal (thanks in part to the success of the X-Files.)

The people who worked there - the "volunteers" - had that glassy eyed, thousand-yard stare that I've only seen among the most hardened evangelicals and scientologists. They were a creepy lot.

It was a cool building though - the "meditation room" was very trippy and featured an unobstructed view of the ocean. Their second floor library had one wing devoted to Cayce's readings and the rest was a collection of everything paranormal. Bigfoot, UFOs, vampires... it was all there. What I found most fascinating was the collection of very DIY publications - sort of 'zines - for paranormal enthusiasts. Some of these were very old.

I remember reading in about 2000 how the institute was undergoing some sort of internal struggle between the paranormalists and an evangelical component who wanted ARE to focus on Jesus-related stuff. Ah well...
posted by wfrgms at 12:39 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also worth reading: Spook by Mary Roach. It's a rigorous, intelligent, and wittily-written study of the afterlife by the woman who wrote Stiff. [/PepsiBlue]
posted by pxe2000 at 1:04 PM on October 28, 2007


Montel Williams: Utter Moron, or Shameless Asshole?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:40 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Heck, if we're going to recommend books, Carl Sagan's 'The demon haunted world : science as a candle in the dark' is a great look at why rationality is so important, and that has clear application here.

At the public library I work at, Browne is extremely popular & her books (of which there are many) are seldom in. It hasn't been mentioned in-thread yet, but Browne is not only a psychic, but also a channeler of spirits (who in turn write their own books), and a writer on Christianity and angels as well.

I Said, I've Got A Big Stick: It's all about confirmation bias - people will believe what they want to believe, rationality be damned. Psychics thrive on this. They know that people want closure, to hear that things are going to be okay, that the afterlife is a warm happy place and that grandpa is looking out for them, and so on.

Very well put and, in speaking to the older women who, anecdotally speaking, are Browne's exclusive audience, sadly accurate.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:01 PM on October 28, 2007


Only once have I seen something I can't explain rationally. There was this guy, who works for the FBI, I believe, and lives in Virginia. He does drawings of what he sees, without information, without leaving his living room. He found some guy's elderly mother in Japan - and the drawings and maps of this rural Japanese town were scary accurate. I mean accurate enough to identify the town, and then navigate in it.
Also, IIRC he doesn't do this for money. I wish I could remember his name.
posted by bashos_frog at 5:06 AM on October 28


great story very compelling i want to believe
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:23 PM on October 28, 2007


But then, perplexingly, Colette had a moment of seeming psychic brilliance. Apropos of nothing, she told a woman called Jean that her recently deceased husband loved to ride around on his all-terrain bike and enjoyed eating tuna sandwiches. Jean practically shrieked that the bike and tuna were indeed her dead husband's two very favourite things. Colette looked thrilled and you should have seen the smile on Jean's face. It lifted everyone's spirits.

I'm surprised that Ronson (whose "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is also excellent and very creepy) doesn't raise the possibility that Browne (1) plants ringers in the audience, and/or (2) has agents trolling the audience pre-show (perhaps at dinner), gathering info she can later "psychically" devine. Both are standard "psychic" tricks.
posted by words1 at 3:32 PM on October 28, 2007


Sylvia has called [ex-husband Gary Dufresne] "a liar and dark soul entity, but at least the asshole gave me children".

Her psychic gifts are roughly proportional to her grasp of anatomy.
posted by rob511 at 4:24 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


an actress i know pretended to be a psychic and it went all too well.
posted by bruceo at 4:36 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kirth Gerson: "Montel Williams: Utter Moron, or Shameless Asshole?"


Sylvia Browne:Montel Williams :: Dr Phil:Oprah
posted by who squared at 5:13 PM on October 28, 2007


[fixed the link in the post]
posted by jessamyn at 5:59 PM on October 28, 2007


Of course Sylvia is a real psychic. She's been on TV. QED.
posted by Sparx at 12:19 AM on October 29, 2007


who squared, as much as a jerk as Phil is, and as much of an empty celebrity as Oprah is, I don't think their system is equivalent to the Montel/Sylvia one. The exploitation of grieving survivors is what makes it different. Probably Phil&O have done that once or twice, but not as a staple.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:54 AM on October 29, 2007


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