When Charlatans Die, Is It Wrong to Criticize How They Lived?

Sylvia Browne, the “psychic” whose appearances on talk shows like “Montel” and “Larry King Live” made her a well-known celebrity, died on Wednesday at the age of 77.

Yesterday, a number of skeptics who have debunked her tricks for decades released statements concerning her passing — and they held very little back in their distaste of her professional life.

DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation:

No one celebrates her death, but skeptics do criticize how she lived. Her dismal track record at predictions — she confidently predicted she would die at 88, not 77, for instance — would merely be laughable if they did not hurt so many people… The number of people she hurt with her pretend supernatural abilities is nearly as high as the number of her failed predictions.

James “The Amazing” Randi:

I agree with JREF President D.J. Grothe that we do not celebrate her death, even as we criticize the way she lived. But I’ll be quite frank with you, I cannot mourn at Browne’s passing — she really hurt far too many people, and always so unapologetically.

It’s unfortunate that she only stopped hurting so many people by dying.

Dr. Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry:

“Celebrity psychic” and professed medium Sylvia Browne has died. (Pause here while we all try to get a grip.)… To skeptics who gleefully claim she failed to foresee her own death, one must note that she did appear to recognize the end was near, but that that information came from medical science, not spirit guides.

Hers is a sad legacy.

There’s a widely-held belief that when someone dies, you shouldn’t speak ill of them. Even if you didn’t care for someone during his life, you should only say nice things when he’s in a casket, right? If you’re invited to the funeral, maybe I’d agree, but when you’ve criticized someone’s actions and scams over the course of many years, I don’t see the point in pretending none of that matters anymore. There’s a difference between delighting in someone’s death — which, even in cases like this, rubs me the wrong way — and pointing out the awful legacy that person will leave behind.

When Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson and James Dobson pass away, it’ll be a time to remember how badly they misspent their time on earth. It’ll serve as a reminder to make the most of the time we have, by helping others and making this world a better place, instead of spreading lies about those we hate due to our dogma-inspired bigotry.

Rebecca Watson put it very well:

In a way, it’s ironic: Sylvia Browne took people’s memories of their dead or missing loved ones and she warped them… in using the occasion of Browne’s death to talk about her misdeeds, the very worst that skeptics will do is underscore the truth of her life — and I have to say I’m okay with that.

That’s what I’m seeing all around — reminders of the way Browne chose to live.

When con artists die, it’s not a bad thing to point out their cons. When professional liars die, it’s not a bad time to remind people of their lies. For Browne’s defenders, there will never be a “good” time for anyone to debunk her predictions or call out her career choice as nothing more than an easy way to dupe gullible people out of their money.

I don’t see any reason to wait.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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