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Philadelphia Atheists Meetup Message Board Philosophy and Critical Thinking › Sylvia Browne activism

Sylvia Browne activism

A former member
Post #: 1
Hello all,

I'm a new member of the Atheist Meetup Group. This is this is the closest thing to a group of organized skeptics in the Philly area that I have found, and I want to make you aware of an initiative I am involved in.

Sylvia Browne is a woman who claims to be a psychic medium. She writes books and makes appearances on such shows as Montel Williams, in which she claims to speak to the dead loved ones of audience members and dispenses medical "advice" to people who are ill.

There are many reasons to be be bothered by Sylvia Browne. Skeptics of the paranormal will note that Browne is not really in touch with the psychic world, but is merely utilizing the toolbox of trickery that "psychics" have been using for centuries to take advantage of the credulous. Humanitarians might be concerned by the fact that she charges astronomical fees for BS readings, and often makes false predictions with devastating emotional consequences for the emotionally vulnerable (on Montel, she has told grief-stricken parents that their missing child was dead, and he was later found alive; she has also told people that their children were alive, when they had in fact been murdered). Medical practitioners may be bothered that Browne gives unqualified and harmful medical advice: if this performance in Philly is like the rest, she will tell cancer patients to stay away from clinical treatments, advice women not to get mammograms, and so on.

Sylvia Browne will be appearing in Philadelphia on June 12th (7pm at the Philadelphia Convention Center) for her Farewell Tour. I represent a group of concerned individuals who will be staging an informative campaign outside the venue, passing out materials in an effort similar to a successful one undertaken in Halifax, Canada recently (http://www.randi.org/...­. The intent is to mitigate the damage that Browne's brand of junkthought can wreak on the people whom she preys upon.

We need all the support we can get; mostly moral, although we'll need some help stuffing envelopes before the show, and also passing them out. If you feel that it's unfair that a person like Sylvia Browne has gotten to be a millionaire by playing on people's vulnerabilities, please reply to this thread and let me know you're willing to lend a hand. Please forward to any groups or individuals whom you think would be interested. Thank you.

-Daniel Glass
George M.
user 8857463
Philadelphia, PA
Post #: 1
My "gut instinct" makes me want to align my efforts with yours. However, when I add a bit my own thought I see:

(1) that the belief for and against paranormal powers are equally ill-founded -- or ill-informed. Has there really been a careful test of this question. (I suspect that there has -- I just not informed about the "scientific" studies of this subject.) However, as a professional statistician I am suspicious of any such test. Think about this: what is Browne claiming ?-- what is the "service" she offers? Is it some promise of power over nature? or is it some sort of warm cuddly feeling? Can this "service"she is offering be defined in measurable terms? If not, then how can a statistical test be made? Thus, it would not be easy (or perhaps even possible) to devise a reliable test, and in any case, the results of such a test cannot give us certainty -- only likelihoods of truth. Are claims of certitude, whichever side they are for, only lies of a different sort?

(2) my libertarian leanings cause me to say "buyer beware". Browne is merely providing a "service" that some people think has value for them. You and I may think that these beliefs in the value of Browne's services are totally misplaced. But is it our role to tell another person that his/her values are "wrong"? I may (and do) think that orange lipstick is ineffective in accomplishing whatever it is that lipstick is supposed to do. But my belief in this matter does not make me wish to convince others to shun orange lipstick or orange lipstick users -- regardless of how much money may be involved in the traffic of orange lipstick

Do the best tests you can dream up; publish the results Browbeat? Proselytize? No. Let freedom ring.

George Murray (fellow Atheist Society meetuper)
A former member
Post #: 2
Points taken, George, thanks!

With regards to #1, you're correct; the name of the game is "skepticism," and people who hold a rational, skeptical, scientific one theoretically can't be 100% CERTAIN of anything, whether or not its the existence of god(s), the power of a crystal to give eternal life, or the ability or inability of Sylvia Browne to communicate to the dead. The underlying concept is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that the burden of proof lies upon the claimant making the more extraordinary claim. As a statistician, you'll appreciate the concept of "reduction of uncertainty" or "increase of probability." I can't say with theoretical absolute certainty that nobody can speak to the spirit world, or even that Browne cannot, but the absence of any evidence of this should give us skeptical doubt, the same way it gives me doubt that God exists, even though I can't disprove him any more than I can disprove unicorns or fairies.

Sylvia Browne need only demonstrate that she has access to specific knowledge that she could not otherwise know or guess, except by communication with the dead, to prove her claims. She has never done so, and she has in fact publicly gotten things egregiously wrong. Such "tests" that you refer to have been done on other people claiming to have paranormal powers, most notably by the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the people have failed, but Browne is too shrewd to subject herself to them. It could mean she truly has these powers, but more probable is that she does not have them. If you're interested in this type of thing, I urge you to read more about Sylvia Browne's abhorrent record, JREF's challenge, and the Skeptical movement.

And as of your second point, I appreciate what you mean. A lot of us feel that way, too, "live and let live." I'm that way about certain things. Drugs, for example. But us in the skeptical movement tend toward informing ("preaching" and "proselytizing" are synonyms, sure, but they have negative and religious connotations, so ick!) because we don't want people taken advantage of by predators. If Sylvia Browne was giving away free benign advice "Your mommy loves you," then I probably wouldn't care; but to charge hundreds of dollars to the desperate and vulnerable is odious to me, and giving gullible followers medical advice that could kill them is more serious yet. Telling Shawn Hornbeck's horrified parents that their boy was dead and buried next to a rock, when she knew full well of her own ignorance on the matter, was scandalous, and when the boy turned up alive, she had the cold, cynical crust to make up some excuse as to the imprecise nature of psychic reading. I'm not trying to argue with your viewpoint, because it is valid, but I'm explaining mine: I care enough these silly people I'm never going to meet to want to give them the information they need to be skeptical. We're not trying to go against these people; we're trying to go against Sylvia Browne by informing them, and the worst thing we can do to them is give them a piece of paper they don't want.

See, when I am tempted to leave people like Sylvia Browne alone, I think...there are people out there who deserve to have good lives. They deserve to have a nice house, a nice car, and enough food to live comfortably and feed their children. Some of them are teachers, some of them are talented musicians, some of them are single-moms who work three jobs to make ends meet. And they barely scrape by. Sylvia Browne is a conniving sociopath who makes millions of dollars a year off the grief and suffering of the aforementioned, despite having no skills other than the ability to make educated guesses about others at no more than the level of chance and a conscience blithe enough to allow her to do so without guilt. It's not just, and although we live in a system that allows this type of thing to happen, as an intelligent primate, I have a natural tendency to want to punish unfair distribution of wealth to the nondeserving who gain it at the expense of others, and to champion the interests of my screwed-over, downtrodden conspecifics. Don't think us skeptics are just pushing our arbitrary values onto others; it's a lot more than that!
George M.
user 8857463
Philadelphia, PA
Post #: 2
A very thoughtful reply Daniel -- thank you. I may have helped you articulate more clearly the purpose of your opposition to Sylvia Browne. That doesn't displease me at all -- quite the contrary. I see your point. I'm not sure I'm ready to join you yet -- I simply don't feel as strongly as you do. Me use her services -- heaven forbid -- never! Attempt to dissuade others from doing so? I'm not ready to take that step. But you have given me some more ideas to ruminate about. I intend to do that. If I come up with anything interesting, I'll be back.

In any case, I salute your careful thought and honesty. 'been a pleasure talking to you.

George Murray
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