Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jon Ronson on Sylvia Browne

Jon Ronson, the author of the excellent books Them and The Men Who Stare At Goats, went on a cruise with Sylvia Browne. He tells the story at the Guardian Online, and it's a good read.

An excerpt:

Famous anti-psychics, such as Richard Dawkins, are often criticised for using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Dawkins' last television series, The Enemies Of Reason, was roundly condemned for making silly, harmless psychics seem too villainous. This criticism might be true were it not for the fact that, when the likes of Sylvia Browne make pronouncements, the police and desperate parents sometimes spend serious time and money investigating their claims.

In 2002, for instance, the parents of missing Holly Krewson turned their lives upside down in response to one of Sylvia's visions. Holly vanished in April 1995. Seven years later her mother, Gwen, went on Montel, where Sylvia told her Holly was alive and well and working as a stripper in a lap-dancing club on Hollywood and Vine. Gwen immediately flew to Los Angeles and frantically scoured the strip clubs, interviewing dancers and club owners and punters, and handing out flyers, and all the while Holly was lying dead and unidentified in San Diego.

Ronson also links to Robert Lancaster's

(Hat tip to Jeremy Goodenough on the SKEPTIC list.)


Hume's Ghost said...

I'd like to see some sort of effort directed at Montel Williams to quit putting her on his show (she is a regular feature every Wed.) How can he possibly in good conscience continue to put her on after what she has put families through with her false pronouncements?

The thing I have a hard time wrapping my head around is how are these people impressed by her? If you watch her on Montel she barely even seems to be cold reading people. She just makes stuff up and everyone oohs and ahhs.

Typical exchanges run something like this:
Q:What should I do with my life?
Sylvia: You're going to be a writer.

There's some good footage of her on YouTube striking out when she does try to cold read.

olvlzl said...

Montel Williams still has a show? I thought he was shilling for the pharmas.

I've got no problem with exposing someone who is doing this kind of thing. Gives the harmless fortune tellers a bad name.

I'll hold my reservations about some of the claims made about "cold reading" for another time. Though there are certainly those who do it.

Einzige said...


You seem to almost be implying that there's something more to cold reading than simply "cold reading". What are you getting at?

Kat Lippard said...

Einzige, please stop baiting olvlzl!

olvlzl said...

Kat Lippard, don't worry. I don't fall for bait unless I want to.

Einzige, that discussion about "near death experience" we had here led me to read some things. "Cold reading" is kind of interesting, since it comes up in "skeptical" circles so much. I'm wondering if it has ever undergone rigorous testing of the kind that alleged paranormal abilities are, I've yet to see evidence, though I hadn't gotten around to asking yet. Some of the claims made by uber-"skeptic" Ray Hyman a number of years ago, that given a year he could learn how to do cold reading without any direct information coming from the mark seem to be absurd and preposterous, even unbelievable. That's as far as I've gotten. Apparently, Hyman too. I've got no problem with "skepticism" so long as it's willing to play by the same rules it insists on. As it is, "cold reading" seems to be in danger of turning into a standard smokescreen when skepticism fails to come up with an explanation.

I've got more problems with a corporate whore for big pharma like Montel Williams having a talk show than I've got with the harmless version of fortune telling. He's in a position to hurt a lot more people than your average palm reader. Though this Browne character seems to have gone past the harmless phase.

olvlzl said...

Happy All Saints Day, by the way.

Lippard said...

The most comprehensive book on cold reading that I'm aware of is Ian Rowland's _The Full Facts book of Cold Reading_, 3rd edition, from

Also excellent is a work for mentalists by Banachek, called _Psychological Subtleties_.

olvlzl said...

Jim Lippard, if his website is anything to go by, Rowland's idea of "Test Conditions Demonstrations" fall well short of the kind of rigorous testing I had in mind. I'd expect it to be a bit more sophisticated than what is mentioned there. I've seen very little evidence of "skeptics" or even real skeptics subjecting themselves to the same level of rigor they insist on for even legitimate scientists who do the kind of research they continually look for ways to debunk. I'd include the tactics of the presumption of cheating being among the requirements for sufficient rigor. Rowland's descriptions of his "testing" don't seem to match that one.

I know that you will assume I'm calling for a lowering of the level of rigor demanded by "skeptics" and even some skeptics but I'm actually asking that they abide by the standards they promote so well for other people.

Einzige said...


Isn't the burden of proof on the one who is making the claim that they are doing something outside the realm of known physical laws--i.e., the "psychic"?

Lippard said...

Rowland and Banachek's books explain how cold reading methods work and how to use them. Both are professional mentalists, not scientists. They aren't intended to be scientific studies of cold reading.

olvlzl said...

Isn't the burden of proof on the one who is making the claim that they are doing something outside the realm of known physical laws--i.e., the "psychic"?

Einzige, the burden of proof is on anyone making claims of any kind. That includes those who claim that people are guilty of fraud, even when there is no evidence of fraud and those who are increasingly throwing out the term "cold reading" as if it explains everything. It is especially on those, such as Ray Hyman, who have said that they could do cold reading in the absence of any signals to read from the mark.

I'm in agreement with Marcello Truzzi, that the burden doesn't all fall on the side the "skeptics" are skeptical of. That the "skeptics" have decided to frame things that way is pretty transparently self-serving.

I'm unaware of any "known physical law" that would preclude communication with the dead. What is it? Are there equations? I'm skeptical that it happens but I'm not going to pretend that my skepticism is based in science when it isn't. As to the work of people who scientifically study PSI, the habitual "debunking" of their work would sink much of experimental science, if it was required to pass the "skeptic's" level of rigor. Just about any experimental evidence could conceivably be forged or misinterpreted. I'd like to know if Ray Hyman has subjected the bilge called research in psychology, his own field, to his level of experimental design criticism. If there is a field that regularly publishes rotten science, it's psychology.

Jim Lippard, I'm aware that they aren't scientists, it couldn't be clearer. I don't think the "testing" described on the website you linked to passes the ground floor of credibility as testing. Do you know of any scientifically conducted testing of the claims made by "cold readers"? Shouldn't there be such tests if it is going to be used to "explain" so much? Or is it going to be as non-existent as the "scientific testing" of PSI done by "skeptics"?

Einzige said...

Lemme make sure I'm understanding what you're getting at, olzlvl...

A person claims that they are communicating with the dead or using some other "psychic" ability. A mentalist comes along and says, "I can duplicate everything the 'psychic' is doing using cold reading techniques."

...and you're saying that the burden of proof is on the cold reader to prove that they're not in fact using psychic abilities?

Am I misunderstanding you?

Lippard said...

Einzige, I think you are misunderstanding him. He's making the claim that the burden of proof falls upon whoever is making a claim of any sort. If you claim "the psychic is using cold reading," the burden of proof is on you to provide evidence to show that. If you claim "the psychic is using psychic powers," the burden of proof is on you to show that.

olvlzl: Surely the burden of proof on what constitutes reasonable evidence to support something that is well-known, well-understood, and doesn't multiply entities beyond necessity or violate known laws of physics or logic is going to be significantly lower than for something that is opaque, occult, adds new entities that have no independent evidence for them, or that violates known laws of physics or logic. There is a background of well-supported facts that are used as the basis for any judgment. In that sense the burdens of proof aren't *equal*.

Einzige said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jim.

olvlzl said...

Einzige, duplicating effects isn't necessarily the same thing as proving that the thing imitated has been reproduced. A magician can produce all kinds of effects, the thing that is apparently produced isn't the same thing as what it appears to be. And the exposure of frauds doesn't prove that the genuine effect doesn't exist. Frauds happen in science, it doesn't debunk science that they do.

As for cold readers, since they claim that they aren't using some kind of paranormal ability, I take them at their word. What I'm saying is that their claims of what they do haven't been tested. For all I know their claims of success are a fraud or show biz style promotion. Exaggeration is a known feature of show biz hype. I'd like to see some evidence that they can actually produce the effects they claim to with real consistency. Isn't that what you demand from those you claim they can reproduce?

Jim Lippard, how can anyone know what the unreasonable multiplication of entities are in cases such as this? You have to have a sufficiently defined question before you can even begin to apply those old saws, Occam's razor or the principle of parsimony. I recall reading something that pointed out that before they were discovered, isotopes would have had to be discounted as "unnecessary multiplications of entities". Well, there are many things in the universe that are undiscovered no one can say exactly what is an unnecessary entity in this. And who knows if they would even apply in cases of the paranormal? You have to start out with a prejudice that the "known laws of science" are sufficiently comprehensive to allow you to start cutting things out of consideration when there is no evidence that is true. And in these questions you also have to start out with a prejudice that materialism is a fact when it isn't. There is no way to know if these minor tools of logic are applicable to anything except what we understand of the physical universe already. You do know that Occam's razor isn't universally accepted, I believe Kant was unimpressed with it, for example. Though it's been a long day and I could be mixing him up with someone else.

You do realize that Occam was not a materialist, don't you? He was a Franciscan. Considering what he must have believed to be a member of that order, including St. Francis' direct apparition of Jesus, your bringing up the razor is too ironic to pass up.

Hume's Ghost said...

He actually put known physical law in scare quotes. Amazing.

Let me try this out ...
I heard this guy say "that" he can communicate with rocks. I"'"m "skeptical," but "I" don't "know" of any "physical laws" that preclude communicating with "rocks."

olvlzl said...

Hume's Ghost, I put "known physical law" in quotes because that was the phrase used by Einzige. I was using the phrase he used, isn't that the form of quotation you learned in the fourth grade? If that's the best you've got, I must be doing all right in this discussion.

So, you need a "known physical law" to convince yourself that it's not possible to communicate with rocks? I'm not quite as exigent in that example. Let me know if the rocks start communicating back, that's when it could get interesting.

So, where is the "known physical law", with the necessary equations, that would be violated by communicating with the dead? I didn't make the claim that those "laws" exist so I assume you can produce them.

olvlzl said...

Oh, I just checked my e-mail. Someone tells me that the Sainted Galileo, himself, as well as Kant was less than a whole-hearted enthusiast of Occam's razor. I guess I should find out where he expressed that opinion and put it on my to-read list.

You know that "the razor" isn't a foundation of logic but a kind of rule of thumb, don't you? Its status among "skeptics" sort of elevates it way past where it belongs.

Sorry if those quotes scared you, H.G. Pretty jumpy for a Ghost, aren't you.