Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Activism or WTF?

On December 29, 2009, Mark Edwards — who has made a name as a mentalist/magician, as well as a skeptic — along with several of his friends, attended a Sylvia Browne performance at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Studios. By pooling together lottery chances, they managed to get Edwards a reading from the clawed one, and the entire episode was videotaped.

The picture quality is not great, but you can easily make out the voices of Sylvia Browne and her cohort Montel Williams. An apparently disgruntled man grills Sylvia about the age of his deceased father, and then Edwards steps to the microphone.

Edwards complains to Browne of being plagued by “spirits”; a seemingly innocent problem among believers that the medium can help with. But he quickly unveils an ulterior scheme when he names the spirits as Opal Jo Jennings, Terrance Farrell, and other deceased people whose memories Browne has desecrated over the years by giving horribly inaccurate “psychic” information. He claims the spirits of these dead people are pissed off, presumably because Browne disrespected them and hurt their already grieving families even more. He then fakes a fainting spell for some reason and is helped out of the theatre.

What is your opinion of the incident? Is this skeptical activism? Grandstanding? Waste of time? What might you have done in this situation?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Hilarious. I think it’s hilarious.

    Not at all useful, and perhaps a waste of time, but fuckin’ hilarious.

    I also don’t think it’s skeptical activism so much as a hilarious, hilarious prank.

    It probably would have been more useful and effective if he had gone along with the whole thing for a lot longer, feeding her false information, and pretending to believe her, then at the end, reveal that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

    Instead, he just mocked her. Which is freakin’ hilarious, but doesn’t really do a whole lot of good (and honestly just makes him look childish to those who believe in this shit), and it doesn’t do anything to even attempt to prove, one way or another, about her abilities (or rather, lack of abilities). It really did nothing — nada — to change anyone’s minds, and may have even did a bit of harm.

    But still, LOL.

  2. There are times when comedy is the ideal vehicle to attack various forms of nonsense. This, whilst funny, wasn’t one of those times.

    This isn’t going to do any good from a skeptical outreach point of view. It makes us skeptics chuckle because we know the ins and outs of the situation, but Browne’s audience is either going to 1) think he’s serious or 2) think he’s a prick.

    The best way to make fun of Browne and her ilk, and reach some of those who believe them is with satire or spoofs, such as Shirley Ghostman.

  3. I think using the names and memories of Opal Jo Jennings, Terrance Farrell etc for a stunt like this is just as unethical as Browne using them to get attention for herself. I’m sure Mark has done very well from the attention his video has gained, but I see no value in it personally.

    Plus, it’s waaaay too long, over 3 minutes of dead time at the start, which turns me right off. If you’re going to try and be cutting edge and clever, at least make sure your editing is also cutting edge and clever.

  4. Further to my previous comment, I would like to know if Mark got the permission of the families of the deceased before using their names in this stunt.

  5. @Andrew Nixon: Exactly.

    Funny to us, perhaps, but it’s just mocking, basically. Didn’t take much thought, either, imo.

    @Tracy King: You make a really good point about him using the names and memories of those people in poor taste, just like Browne. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that.

  6. I’m utterly WTF on this one. I didn’t actually think it was even that funny. And I didn’t see that it served any purpose at all.

    The thing that really killed me was Mark, at the end, saying that he wasn’t looking to get to her audience but to her, herself. Please. Sylvia Browne is NOT going to be guilted into any change of heart. Ever.

    Appealing to the audience is a much better approach. I’d recommend reading Robert Lancaster’s experience when he went to her show :

    Much more appealing to me, even if it wasn’t as dramatic.

    For any of you who haven’t

  7. @Masala Skeptic: I agree. I feel like there’s some kind of communication block with Mark Edward. I find most of his Skepticblog articles confusing. He’s an artist, moreso than most of the other skeptologists, so I think his approach to skepticism is a little different, and I appreciate that it might not be any worse, but I just don’t get it.

  8. I think it’s kind of a fail really. The audience obviously has no clue who these people are and Browne is such a clueless git I doubt she even remembers their names, as kd notes. If she DID recognize the names, I highly doubt she cared about anything other than keeping the audience in the dark about the thing so she could save face. She seems like she’s only barely able to conceal her contempt for her admirers, what with the little more than single word dismissive “readings” she gives, there’s no chance in hell she actually cares about the people she’s hurt.

    I do find the idea that someone should need to get permission from these people’s families before mentioning their names at all to be rather a little silly. If your intent is to shame someone who has wronged a group of people in some very public way without suffering any significant consequences for it, you shouldn’t really need permission.

  9. All the previous comments have led me to think watching the video would be a waste of time. That then would be my vote.

  10. @Masala Skeptic: Thanks for posting that link Maria. I hadn’t read that.

    I agree that it is important that we try to reach the fence sitters and that we do it in a polite and intelligent manner. There is a place for humor in skepticism but everyone needs to be in on the joke. Attacking a performing psychic with parlor tricks or sarcasm is much the same as debating a creationist. They always have a pre-planned way out. I think we should focus our energy on explaining WHY the psychic is wrong and showing how the tricks are done so they are less likely to con the next person.

  11. @Magnus: My point isn’t that they need permission. My point is that they assume some great hurt on the part of the families, and by doing this stunt are in many ways attempting to represent the victims of that harm.

    So if they haven’t actually spoken to the families to see how they feel about this stunt or whether or not they want their dead family members’ name used in this way, they then don’t really have much right to complain when Browne uses those names, particularly as Browne was doing it with the permission of the family.

    I’m not defending Browne, she’s a crass cow, I am merely saying that it doesn’t do to say Browne can’t use those dead people’s names for her own gain when that’s what’s being done here (‘gain’ in this case being attention for Mark’s opinions and name).

    Of course, Mark may well have spoken to the families of the victims beforehand and is doing this with their backing, but if not, then there’s also a chance that they’d be as unhappy with this internet stunt as they are with Browne’s lies.

  12. Addendum to the previous comment: I say this as the family member of a murder victim. If it was my family member’s name being used in this video, I’d be absolutely ******* livid.

  13. I guess if you view it as a stunt to further someone’s career (ehh, is it? I suppose it could be, though I’ve already forgotten the guy’s name.) some offense can be justifiably taken. But if it’s merely a form of protest against Browne’s evil charlatanism, it appears to me to somewhat mirror the sort of thing Anonymous does using the name of Lisa McPherson.

  14. The most bothersome thing about this whole shenanigan isn’t the amateur editing, the lack of comedic point of view, or its condescension toward Sylvia Browne’s victims. It’s the use of the word “punked.”

    This is not a punk. This is a prank. Ashton Kutcher may have invented the trucker hat, but he didn’t invent the art of put-on humor.

    In conclusion: “fail” is not a noun, I am a cultural elitist, and who is Mark Edward?

  15. She wasn’t “punked.” She gave her usual speech, and then ignored Mark Edward.

    I didn’t even know who he was talking about until I’d read it else where. While amusing, this video doesn’t take her down, fails to communicate it’s main message, and will not change any minds. It doesn’t even make you stop and think about the issues with Sylvia Browne and her fraudulent act.

  16. Well, the video has achieved at least one objective: we’re all now talking about Mark Edward.

  17. I think that Mark Edwards could have done some interesting things with this opportunity. Much Like Bob Lancaster in Vegas 2 years back. Droping the names of the deceased I thought was a nice touch except I agree with most comments above that the way in which he used them may be considered insulting, pretending he is hearing there voices much like Sylvia pretends to do. Then the fainting shtick at the end was the cherry at the top of a wasted opportunity.

    Edward could have used those names and openly questioned Sylvia’s legitimacy in front of her audience.

    Then to further over-hype this event, as @AmateurScientist has stated, those who posted the video flash the word “punked”

    All in all the spectacle and video has served no purpose.

  18. I didn’t think it was a very effective stunt. I think if I was in that situation I would have made up a dead relative or something that I wanted information about, then just let her dig a hole and bury herself. Then I would have shown the video to my mom, who dislikes Sylvia Browne due to her nauseating personality, but is still entirely convinced that she’s the real deal.

  19. I agree. Missed opportunity to more clearly expose her tactics. And in front of her own audience (I assume). So often “de-bunkings” occur in places where they are preaching to the choir and not helping the folks who need to see it most.

  20. Boring, then WTF, then grandstanding. I just didn’t see that it did any good. The guy before him who tried to corner her on “how young” was much better. She side-stepped that one with the usual carney speak.

    I wouldn’t call it punked, exactly, but it would be great if someone could get her. But she’s a vampyre preying on the gullible with the help of her Renfield, Montel, and surrounded by goons. It would be difficult for someone to really get to her. Since she doesn’t seem to have a conscience, I doubt anything will get to her.

    From the sound of her voice, she’ll probably croak soon. Then some other snake oil peddler will make millions claiming to channel her. Probably with the help of Montel.

  21. I have no idea what the hell went on in that video. There was a guy trying to get her to name specifics and then she starts telling them that they need to talk to God about it and not her, then Edwards does his thing and it makes no sense to me at all. I doubt Browne even remembers the names of those people, and it didn’t help Edwards at all that he used only their first names.

  22. What I learned:

    – Skeptics can be smug assholes who think they’re way smarter than non-skeptics.

    -Those skeptics are wrong, and look like fools when they underestimate their opponents.

    – Sylvia Browne doesn’t pander to hecklers.

    – Psychics should carefully screen their audience members for mental illnesses which could cause them to become unstable leaving other audience members concerned for their safety.

    – No one gives a shit if you can fake faint on cue.

  23. @Elyse: Seconded.

    I’m a grassroots skeptic, not a guerilla skeptic.

    The villainy that Mark cites makes their trade in cheap stunts….they appeal to the non-critical thinker and the moderate by going BOO! Skeptics are supposed to be appealing to people’s better nature, not saying “boo” again because “well, they started it!”

    It’s childish.

    I keep thinking that skeptics should be a force for positivity….that we can continue to push forth our love and inspiration of the natural world and the true empowerment that comes with understanding.

    Then I see a large number of skeptics that applaud the kind of grandstanding showmanship that we’re supposed to be better than.

    Mark calls what he did a victory, but all I feel is sad for our movement.

  24. I just wanted to say that Tracy pretty much summed up my feelings on this, which I appreciate. I most certainly couldn’t have said it so eloquently.

    When you lose someone, you know it’s not okay for someone to throw their names around as part of an incoherent stunt. If anyone else thinks this kind of thing is a good idea, skeptics might as well close up shop now and cut our losses. How big of a jackass do you have to be to come across as more insensitive and selfish than Sylvia Browne?

  25. we may or may not agree. But I like to point out that there are as many ways to be a skeptic, and an active skeptic, as there are people.

    I’ve done some guerilla skepticism that has generated the old “oh well we have to be BETTER than that” and “oh now you are acting all smarter and better than the woos and making fun of them”. Well, yeah.

    The name thing, I feel funny about. But then again, I think that might have been an oversight. I do know that Randi and Joe Nickell name names in their books. This happened, and it’s awful. It happened to these people. Different use, but still, it has to be hurtful.

    I joined the skeptic movement after a friend commited suicide after dealing with a psychic who is about as well known as Sylvia. Let’s say he’s the psychic most likely to be on “Dancing with the stars” and win. the family is so horrified that their dear relative was bilked by this guy for her entire life savings that they signed an agreement never to talk about the suicide (in return for a partial return of the money spent). Sure they are “protected” and no one will ever know how “dumb” their dead relative is. But, this allows this guy to keep on pulling in the bucks. I get really torn, do I spread the word and bring up the name of my dear friend and tell the story in detail (I attended several of the sessions) or do I respect the wishes of the family? I respect their wishes, but as time goes on, I think of my friend. She was basically murdered in my opinion. I think about her feelings. Then I am really conflicted. If someone wanted to use her name, to really tell what happened…with details and dates…well to heck with the family and their feelings. In a way, my friend deserves more than being pushed under the rug. It’s a rough spot to be in.

    And trust me Mark is NOT as ‘insensitive and selfish’ than Sylvia Browne. That’s like saying your annoying little brother is like Hitler. You don’t KNOW what she has done if you can write that.

  26. This rated as a fail to me simply because none of the audience members and probably not even Sylvia herself knew what was going on.
    I would have liked to have seen Mark ask Sylvia about her success rate in solving murders using her psychic abilities and then, if it was appropriate, mention these people’s names. That would have meant something to the audience and perhaps would have gotten some of them thinking.

  27. Activism, prank, guerilla theatre, all perfectly valid reasons to fuck with SB, but that was just lame.

    I thought Mark looked dumber than Sylvia. The only real success they can claim is to show that her staff ignored Mark while the theater staff helped him. But that might be protocol.

    And I wonder if that EMT might have had something more important to do, like care for a real patient.

  28. @OnlyCheryl: “From the sound of her voice, she’ll probably croak soon. Then some other snake oil peddler will make millions claiming to channel her. Probably with the help of Montel.”

    Robert Lancaster notes that when he saw her in Vegas she said she was on her last life. This may be an attempt to avoid exactly that.

  29. ohh I missed the question asked “what would you have done?” heck, I’d have thrown a shoe at her (though wait, in this world of 5 seconds of fame, shoe throwing is passe).

    I say this because when I expressed admiration for the shoe thrower a much younger skeptic from a more PC generation said that shoe throwing was “wrong” and “just rude” and really what he would have done was create an online video game where Iraqis could throw a shoe at Bush. It would have a counter and Bush could SEE how many Iraqis were upset with him. At first I was confused, because it seemed a great plan after the real shoe throwing. But my young skeptic that missed the whole Vietnam/ Civil Rights thing said ‘no no, instead of the shoe throwing… just the online thing’. I was “you think Bush would SEE that?” He was “well it could go viral! You don’t need to get all in his face, even if you don’t like him. How do his kids feel seeing that huh?”

    Okay. Direct confrontaion, just bursting the protective bubble that all people with any sort of fame live in, is sometimes a good thing. When you are surrouded by yesmen with a vested interest in you (usually financial) a noman is a good wake up call. It might not change anything, but then again, silence is as loud as a shout of support when it comes to something like Sylvia. But even a whispered no, can be like thunder.

  30. “And trust me Mark is NOT as ‘insensitive and selfish’ than Sylvia Browne. ”

    You missed the rest of my sentence. He may not BE as insensitive and selfish. I have no way to determine that, since I’ve only seen him in this video. But he certainly came across as more insensitive and selfish in the exchange. He’s making light of something everyone else (including Browne) is apparently taking very seriously.

  31. This doesn’t seem terribly useful. It seems that leading her on and then revealing it to be bs would be more helpful. Or if he actually explained who the people were it might have some usefulness.

    Now a separate question is was this amusing? In that case, marginally so but not terribly funny. If one were going for pure humor value I expect one could have come up with something a lot funnier.

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