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 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?