Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Guerrilla Skepticism of Sylvia Browne on Wikipedia

Anyone that knows me understands that I hold the "grief vampires" like Sylvia Browne, Robbie Thomas, James Van Praagh and John Edward on the top of my to-do list. Anyone that can tell a desperate family that their loved one has been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Japan needs to be slapped down hard. The grief that is heaped on these families must be overwhelming and adding these sick opportunists to the stress is just uncalled for. Whether or not they offer to do it for free or not is not the case, if they manage to even get it partly correct they will claim victory (heck they will claim that even if they get nothing right). They are hoping for publicity which will lead to fame and money. As they say "given enough time, enough monkeys...eventually the monkeys will type out Hamlet".

I'm not going to rant on and on about how much I hate these people because I really need to keep my blood pressure down. Lets just say that of all the woo out there, psychics that reportedly receive messages from the dead are right up there with the worst of the worst. (We all know that anyone can "talk" to the dead, I do, its getting messages back that is the problem).

I've just finished reading an amazing book that came highly recommended to me from Mark Edward and James "The Amazing" Randi. Nightmare Alley (and the movie version) follows the fictional story of Stan who begins his career as a magician in a carney act, over time he becomes a slick medium that cons people into believing he is in contact with their dead loved ones. Though this is fictional it does show how far these people will go to pull off a con. Another great read by Lamar Keene is The Psychic Mafia which is about his years working as a psychic. He exposes the whole gaff. Mark Edward's soon to be now published book Psychic Blues is a modern update of the years he spent working in the psychic industry and is also a "tell all".   All three of these books I highly recommend to expose psychics for what they are.

So now with that background on to what this blog is supposed to be about. Sylvia Browe's Wikipedia site. I'm writing this June 8th, 2011 and maybe by the time you read this there may be a lot of changes to her site, but essentially reading it through right now you will find almost nothing positive about her as a spiritual medium or as a person.

Wikipedia prides itself on having a neutral point of view and just reporting the facts that are carefully cited in the media. They do not allow opinions (except when quoting an article that is giving an opinion), no eye-witness testimony and no stories stating how great something is. So that really doesn't leave much when it comes to Sylvia Browne except negative articles.

Her many books are listed on her site which is only appropriate as she is an author of many works. Her personal very pro-Sylvia website is also listed and that's about it. Because of the amazing Robert Lancaster, we have been shown the way to create a website where the facts are laid one on top of the other until there is a mountain of evidence showing Sylvia Browne for what she is. He repetitively has asked Sylvia and her followers for just one case where she has been correct. Other than Sylvia hiring private detectives to find dirt on Robert, and her also having a lawyer send him a "stop" letter no word has come from the Sylvia Browne camp, nor from any of her many followers.

The opening bio on her page reads thus..."Sylvia Browne is an... who describes herself as a psychic and spiritual medium." Awesome, very appropriate. Often times these pages are written by a fan and you have to watch out for "peacock words" which violates the neutral policy of Wikipedia.

The second paragraph about Sylvia Browne includes what I call Guerrilla Skepticism, carefully cited facts that should be neutral in tone, but come from reliable sources. "In 1992, Browne was convicted of investment fraud and grand theft, and has been involved in numerous controversies regarding her claims and predictions, with reports about her failed predictions and claims appearing in several newspapers." All factual and relevant as to the character of Sylvia Browne.

"Critics such as James Randi, with whom she has had a long running feud, say that she is a cold reader whose readings are indistinguishable from those achieved by mentalists using cold and hot reading techniques. Recent press coverage has asserted that she is overall inaccurate." Again here the editor is using facts to state terms that readers can follow to explain how psychics appear to do what they do. This sentence also exposes readers to James Randi who has a long-standing feud with Sylvia Browne.

"A detailed three-year study of her predictions about 115 missing persons and murder cases, published in Skeptical Inquirer, concluded that despite her repeated claims to be more than 85% correct, "Browne has not even been mostly correct in a single case." This final sentence from the second paragraph should be the last straw to anyone who is not a total fan of Sylvia Browne. (face it trying to convince them will take more than this Wikipedia article, but as Robert Lancaster has reported over and over, he receives emails from her fans telling him that after reading his site they are now ex-fans).

Love this line, "She has given thousands of one-on-one readings and with a wide variety of groups and individuals; as of 2008, she charges $850 for a 20-30 minute telephone reading." All factual and in-your-face about what kind of money we are talking about, any reader with any common sense can see why Sylvia is in this business. If she just did 100 readings in a year at that rate then she earned $85,000 for 50 hours of work, unbelievable! Wikipedia does not have to do the math (that wouldn't be neutral) but hopefully anyone reading the article with a critical eye will discover this outrageous amount.

"Browne claims to have provided information to police departments and the FBI as a psychic detective. James Randi has researched this and in at least one case found that a police officer Browne claimed to work with did not work at the police department." Again the word "claims" and the citation at the end of the article (which isn't here BTW) leads to where this information was published. Even if you aren't a fan of James Randi you have to wonder why this article still is allowed to be up if it isn't factual?

"She was married to Gary Dufresne from April 1959 until 1972 in that time she moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Dufresne said in a February 10, 2007 interview that he does not think Sylvia has any paranormal abilities, and that she admitted it, saying that the gullible deserve to be taken advantage of. Dufresne again called Browne a "fraud" in a 2010 interview with KMOV-TV" Really don't think I would place much credibility on an interview with an ex-husband, but if you follow the links you will witness his genuineness on the video, and that with the mountain of other evidence just is overwhelming.

"Sylvia acquired the surname Brown from Kenzil Dalzell Brown during the third of her five marriages, and added a final e after she was indicted on security fraud charges." It just keeps getting better and better.

"Browne appeared on CNN's Larry King Live eight days before the September 11, 2001 attacks, but did not predict the event. After the fact she claimed she had disturbing dreams involving a lot of fire in the week preceding the attack". This is a stab at all psychics that did not prevent the 9-11 attacks.

I'm not going to go on and on about all the failed predictions that are listed (and correctly cited) on her Wikipedia page, spend some time yourself and enjoy the facts... But I do want to mention one of my very first edits to Wikipedia. I added Mark Edward's punking of Sylvia Browne to her page, I went back and forth about how to go about writing it in the article. I finally decided on this blurb, "At the Gibson Amphitheater, Universal Studios, Los Angeles, Dec. 29, 2009 Skeptic/Mentalist Mark Edward approached the microphone during the question portion of Sylvia Browne's show and said he had been hearing voices in his head, they were giving him the names...Opal Jo Jennings...Terrence Farrell...Holly Krewson and the Sego Miners. Browne could not tell he was lying and explained the voices were his spirit guides" the video if you haven't already seen it has a surprise ending and really shows what kind of person Sylvia Browne is. If you have already seen it, watch it again, this time with friends.

Many causal readers are not aware of what goes on behind the main Wikipedia page. Little do they know that with a click of a button "Talk" which is usually a blue tab next to the word "article" you can discover that the editors are real people.

This is where the discussion about what to put on the page, take out, rewrite ect... goes on. Here are a few interesting exchanges you might be interested in.

Question: "Rarely has so much negativity been contained in a biographical article. It should be split in two, one called 'Sylvia Browne' and the other, 'Sylvia Browne Criticisms.'"

Answer: "It's really not the right way to write an encyclopedia article, it should contain a description of all the relevant facts in an article of appropriate length for a person with this degree of popularity. The criticisms should be shortened to one section of appropriate length and linked to references."

Question: "Rather than removing critical material, why not just add more supportive material? As long as it can be cited, it should be fine."

Answer: "Thing is though, there are many referenced and verifiable facts that show her failure as medium and clairvoyant and how many that that show her success? Oh yes, I remember, bugger all." AND "I concur. How could this entry be anything BUT overwhelmingly negative?"

another Answer: This is absurd. Your idea of "weight" is a destruction of reality. If you look at the article for suicide, you don't see an argument that more "positive" effects of it should be added for "weight". You won't find people arguing the "sex abuse" article should have more positive points made either. If a person's public life overwhelmingly consists of fraudulant activities, it is disingenuous to try to alter reality in an article by intentionally "weighting" it down with positives, and acting to remove the negatives. But this is precisely what most of you are proposing."

Question: Sylvia is notorious yes, to a certain audience. But she's also written book after book that have all made it to New York Times Bestseller status as well as thousands of fans on online social networks, indicating that a separate group of people find sufficient validation in her work. Who are any of us to say what is "obvious" when so many people support her, and so many people do not? She needs to be represented fairly for both her successes and failures. As this article stands, it is still tangibly negative to a neutral reader."

Answer: "That would be false balance, again. Wikipedia isn’t about balancing info from fans and detractors, it’s about verifiable information from reliable sources. It’s obvious what’s right and what’s wrong when the “many people [who] support her” are fans and the “many people [who] do not” are people with training, education and experience that clues them in to her tricks and low rate of success."

Another person posted a headline in January 2011 that said that the article was overly negative towards Sylvia Browne. They wrote..."I realize that much of this page is dedicated to discussing the bias of the article and whether or not that bias is justified. But all that notwithstanding, the "Predictions" section needs special attention for bias for a few key reasons...Basically, whether or not one believes the bias of subject matter in this section is justified, bias in the writing is not and needs to be removed. I plan to do so in the near future, though I encourage anyone reading this to do so before I do."

The response: "Given that your plan to address the claimed bias (which has been discussed before ad nauseam) in the "near future" has proven to be as accurate as Browne's predictions, I'm going to go right ahead and assume you couldn't find well sourced balancing information or a better way to put the section in the intervening 2 months. I'll take that tag off for you." March 2011

Here is another section again talking about how slanted the article is toward criticism of Sylvia Browne...near the end yours truly chimes in.

Question: "It's beyond pathetic. This whole thing needs a re-write. It's so negative and Browne-bashing, how could this have gone so long without action being taken?"

Answer: "How so? Her claims are extraordinary and the reason for her notability are those claims. It seems most if not all serious sources that look at those claims critically have seen no indication of them actually being true. As such the biography should definitely be written to reflect that her claims have serious scrutiny. What would you change more specifically?"

Another response: "I personally worked with Browne and Company, and I can say that they are all frauds. This article is really too nice and gives Browne way too much credit. Browne is a self-promoter, and those who think that people are too hard on her do not know who or what Browne and her money making empire are really all about."

Apparently there was a tag saying that the criticism section was too large, and the next person removed the tag (in other words saying that we were going to stay with the article as is).

Answer: "I removed the tag. There has been four months to add in "positive" references. The reason the article is "slanted" is because there are no WP:RS to prove her claims. There is no proof she has been right once. If anyone has any positive sources, add them in. Until then, we won't be removing WP:RS. The article reflects WP:RS"

Supporter SmithJones "Don't bother trying to get people to be more reasonable here. Sylvia Browne being a fraud is an article of faith here; when even the takedown of the StopSylviaBrowne site isnt enough to convince people to reconsider, nothing said here can do that. Rob Samuels - your operation w. Browne and her FAMILY is unverifiable, and FOUR MONTHS is HARDLY enough time to do any serious research on any academic subject. I ask you politely and with reaspect to SERIOUSLY CONSIDER extending our time limit to find more reliable sources that fit within Wikipedia policies and write more additions to this article. the psirit of Wikipedia depends on it; if only u can edit, how can this be an OpenSource WIkpieda"

It was mentioned several times on the talk page about the history of being taken down, the fact was that the webmaster Robert Lancaster had a stroke and he lost the URL while he was in the hospital. The site was turned into a pro-psychic page. Friends of Robert purchased the URL and transferred all the articles to that site. Many of Sylvia's followers do not understand the history behind it and claim that the original site was "taken down" because it was wrong.

Sgerbic: "Smith Jones - why do you need 4 months, it should take you 4 minutes to find credible sources that show Browne has actually solved a unsolved crime. If you can't find it in 4 months then you won't find it in 4 years. Browne has been asked repeatedly for evidence of her best case, so far nothing has come out of her camp except testimonials from people who claim to have been helped, which proves nothing. BTW Lancaster's site was NOT taken down, he had a stroke and the domain got purchased out from under him, so now is alive and well."

SmithJones: "no disrespect but its obvious you have no serious background in serious scientific reserch endeavors. I do, and I know it takes MUCH longer than 4 minutes to do much even the basic underpinnings of a major resarch expedition. Its much more than just a Google event; it is most required that you can go to libraries, resarch museums, and find sources that are NOT ONLY deeply incredibly detailed to provide information but are also have meeting the WP:RS statutes. I admit that 4 months is in error; it should require nearly .5x times with that, to do such a good job that would meet the standards of Wikipedia."

Sgerbic: "Smith Jones - Gee we are only asking for ONE example. Well the scientific community will be waiting for that evidence. Why don't you just ask Sylvia? Seems she should be able to supply some evidence. Good luck on that."

Another editor answers SmithJones: "Smith Jones, see WP:THEREISNODEADLINE. Wikipedia will wait for you to find a reliable, verifiable source to substantiate the claims Browne makes. Until then, the article must rely on the already substantiated evidence against her."

SmithJones: "very good, and i was not aware of that policy. is it new? either way, i thank you for your patience and forbearance and i agree with your assertionthat we must rely on the allegedly "substantiated" evidence against her for now. BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE this will not stand as the status quo inedefinitely. just because the truth has been scoure d from theInternet doesnt mean thtat it exists nowhere on earth. I just hope that these policies will be respected continuously when that day comes very soon on wings of rosyfingered dawn...SGerbic -- as for; it's only a matter of time..."

Sgerbic: "Smith Jones - Really? Can't wait to see what could possibly take down a website like that. Guess I'll set the stopwatch. LOL" This was from November 2010

When it hits November 2011 I guess I better go in and add that we are all still waiting...


  1. You may want to learn the difference between "accept" and "except".

  2. Also "weather" and "whether" -- in the very first paragraph. You need an editor. It is hard to take your writing seriously when the usage is so poor.

  3. It's hard to take critiques seriously when they don't address anything in the post, other than grammar. Perhaps if this was a post about writing, and instead of a blog this was in the New Yorker, perhaps then your complaints would be valid.

    I enjoyed the post, despite the "glaring" grammatical errors that in no way impeded me from understanding it.

  4. Ignore the grammar wanker, great article!

  5. Whilst I enjoyed the article, I do agree that it probably should have been edited.

    Still, good reading either way

  6. Should be "whether" not "weather" in this sentence: "Weather or not they offer to do it for free or not is not the case, "

  7. Making money by communicating with people's dead loved ones is very easy. 99% of the job is finding people who are desperate to believe that you can communicate with their dead loved ones.

    1. No. 99% of the job is conducting the readings. 1% of the job is finding a place to practice and setting up advertising. Word of mouth is your best bet for attracting new clients, so you had better do a good job and send people away satisfied. Happy customers result in good business, just like anything else.

      Of course, before you get started you had better brush up on your psychic skills- you don't want to look like a fool!

  8. Thank you for your comments. I'm on it.

  9. Proper spelling does matter. Although I enjoy reading well organized criticisms of frauds like Browne, I admit that the spelling errors are distracting. If you can't be bothered to spell words correctly, why should anyone be bothered to take you seriously? For those of you who don't have a problem with basic spelling errors, you are simply more evidence of the enormous popularity of stupidity.

  10. Good article. People like Sylvia Browne who profit by distorting peoples memories of their dead loved ones have either no conscience or a deeply perverted one.

  11. Scooter. Whatta think about working a 50 hour month and make $85K? I have no idea what kind of person she was before she started in this business (judging by her fraud conviction she probably already had a narrow understanding of what is right and wrong) But that kind of money can really make you look the other way.

    Besides, the people who go to her shows "love her" just sicking. Listen to the video I mention in the blog above, "Sylvia I love you!" "Love you too honey".

    Mark Edward tells us that when you are doing readings it is easy to fall into the "I'm doing no harm" category. The testimonials from believers really gives you pause, after hearing how wonderful and accurate you are, at some point you start to believe them yourself. "Maybe I do have the gift?" Mark says that when he would get close to this point he would re-watch Nightmare Alley again. It brought him back to reality.


  12. sgerbic - Most people would jump at the chance to do what Sylvia does, or at the very least contemplate it. It's hard not to when you live in such a materialistic society. Hence why we have people like this in the first place.

  13. I'm interested in things deemed "paranormal", I am. However I despise most mediums, especially Sylvia Brown. However, I don't take it upon myself to make it mission in life to defame her or to tell the world what to think. Do you really not see where this will end? There will be burning of books, people will have to swear off any belief in what they feel helps them because there are bad apples out there and everything else gets lumped together with those. It will be the Spanish inquisition all over again with the burning of heretics in the name of the Almighty Science, in this case.
    You're not just after the bad apples, you're after everything that doesn't fit in with your ideal world. You will create a horrible dictatorship where science is god. Not real science, the objective and inquisitive, but the the science dogma.
    I have fought all my life for the right to be me, everything that I am, not limited by others. I will not be stuffed in any box, ever. I am FREE! My IQ is above 140, I can come to my own conclusions and I will. You can lump me together with all the other "loonies" if you want, I'm just seriously concerned about this guerrilla skepticism and I will always fight censorship in every form.

    1. How can you despise most mediums? It would take many lifetimes to meet a small fraction of the practicing mediums on the planet. And those in the media are hardly representative of the whole. I've met a number of mediums in my time and they are as different from each other as random strangers are on the street. As long as you find one who is honest, able and of good will then all will be well!