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.

  • invivoMark

    I don’t celebrate her death – an event which surely causes grief to her friends and family. But I sure as hell celebrate the fact that she is no longer alive. I celebrate all the misery she will no longer be causing.

    • The Vicar

      I seem to recall that she told a couple of parents of missing children that the children were dead (when they weren’t), including one mother who died before the child turned up, and therefore spent the remainder of her life in mourning. Anyone who was willing to overlook those incidents and remain her friend probably has skin thicker than a rhinoceros and will not notice what we say.

      • kristi

        Umm yea. Those were the 3 girls the Ariel Castro kidnapped for a decade, raped, killed the unborn, tortured etc. The one girls mother died before the girls escaped. Who knows how much harder her mother would have fought to beat disease and stay alive long enough to see her child again. I personally think her mother let her broken heart eat her up. Ms. Browne certainly did not help her keep any feet out of the grave. Telling someone their child is DEAD and you KNOW this for sure because you can talk to them and send “messages” from another realm is DISGUSTING.
        I’m not ever happy when anyone dies. Although there are lots of people who I am glad they aren’t around anymore.

  • Brian K

    The title of this article makes me think I know your answer…

    • 3lemenope

      Betteridge’s Law strikes again!

      • Brian K

        I had the opposite reaction! By calling the departed a charlatin in the title, obviously it’s OK to insult them.
        I figure Bettridge’s Law breaks down when it comes to op ed pieces.

        • 3lemenope

          The headline asked “Is it wrong to criticize…”. It is NOT wrong. So the answer to the headline question is “no”. Betteridge’s law holds!

          • UWIR

            It’s not wrong to not speak well of a dead person? So Betteridge’s law hasn’t failed to not be inaccurate?

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I see nothing wrong with criticizing a person’s beliefs or actions after they are dead, anymore than I do while they are still alive.

    I also see no conflict between my humanism and my belief that there are people whose death benefits society. I do not call for the death of such people, nor do I celebrate their deaths. But neither do I regret it when they die.

    • baal

      One small difference is that when alive, at least in theory, a person could reply, explain or recant on one of their bad acts. I faulted a number of xtian orgs for flat out lying and other wise defaming Hitchens. So long as folks are accurate, I’m a-ok with’speaking ill. We’re not all perfect at sorting the two cases.

      In Sylvia’s case, however, it’s pretty clear she was a force for ill.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        There is a heinous practice of putting out books about people after they are dead full of gossip and unproven assertions because living people can sue for libel and dead people cannot. There’s a whole industry in publishing that waits for people to die to put out their crap biographies. I think that’s disgusting.

        But in this case, I haven’t heard anyone say anything about her that they weren’t saying while she was still alive.

        • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          There is a heinous practice of putting out books about people after they are dead full of gossip and unproven assertions…

          The major religions have been doing that for a very long time.

          • The Starship Maxima

            Is this the fashionable thing to deflect any and all criticism by saying “but, but, but the Christians did it too?”

            • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              It’s just an observation.

              That said, I hardly see it deflecting any criticism- it just extends it to more parties.

              • 3lemenope

                “When everyone is guilty, no one is to blame.”

                A slight problem I have with that “just”, there. It’s not entirely an observation; it’s an observation that has the effect of diffusing responsibility.

                • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                  That certainly wasn’t my intent. I suppose it might be fair to say that when everyone is guilty, no one is to blame, when applied to a single incident, (although that’s arguable). But I wouldn’t say that if lots of unethical people exhibit the same sort of behavior in multiple, unrelated incidents, that those actions in any way diffuse the responsibility each party has to operate ethically.

                  In fact, however, my comment wasn’t intended to address the ethics of the situation at all. I was only making the observation that the Bible, Koran, etc represent the ultimate example of what Houndentenor was talking about.

                • The Starship Maxima

                  Um, not quite. Taking the view that religious texts are nothing more than made up fairy-tales, there’s a difference between made-up fairy tales and books written by people with an agenda, and a clear mission to smear a specific target for financial gain.

                  If someone made a movie about George Takei’s life and presented him as a child molestor (or some other vile lie) you couldn’t just write it off by saying “Well Star Wars isn’t accurate either.”

                • 3lemenope

                  The problem is that it is implausible in the extreme (especially knowing what is known about the composition of the canons of these religious books) that they were not compiled with specific mundane and theological agendas in mind.

                  Your second paragraph is right on (eh…Star Trek?).

                • The Starship Maxima

                  (Salutes) Live long and prosper.

                • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                  I’m not aware of any major piece of religious scripture that I wouldn’t consider to be written or compiled by people with an agenda, and with the specific intent to defraud or manipulate- often for financial gain.

                  I’m not sure what your comment about Takei has to do with anything I said. You are perhaps under the misapprehension that I’m writing something off? Nothing could be further from the truth.

                • The Starship Maxima

                  Clunky example. Your point about religious texts…(thinks)….got me on that one.

              • The Starship Maxima

                I guess I’m a bit wary because I see plenty of Christians dodge responsibility for all the fucked up shit we’ve done with either a) But we do plenty of good stuff so it doesn’t matter that we call confused young girls ‘whores’ who want an abortion, b) Well, how come nobody says anything about this liberal/Democrat/atheist/gay or c) it’s just a few exceptions. (few = a whole lot).”

                Sometimes if something is wrong, the correct response is, “yes, yes it is.”

      • Tiny Tim

        And politically speaking, at least, so was Hitchens.

    • Tiny Tim

      LIke Christopher Hitchens for example…that war mongering apolgist for the Bush Wars was a hater.

      I don’t regret that he is gone.

      • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        I am much more concerned about the concrete actions people take that change society than I am about their philosophical beliefs alone. I judge people on the sum of their contributions, negative and positive alike.

        There are many people (like Hitchens) in whom we might find things to criticize. And also to praise. But being critical of some aspect of a person who is dead is quite different from not regretting their absence.

        In my eyes, society is poorer without Hitchens (even with his flaws). I’m not at all sure that’s the case with Browne, however.

  • WallofSleep

    “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?”

    I do not agree with this policy at all, but I do have a personal policy of taking a break from speaking ill on posts announcing a death. Just a standard I hold myself to, I don’t judge others for not doing the same. At least I try not to.

  • KMR

    In answer to your question, no. In fact, I don’t even have a problem when people are honest at private funerals as long as everyone agrees that the dead person was an asshole. If not then yes, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself. The same rules do not apply to a public figure though.

  • cyb pauli

    How many people exactly do you have to cheat, swindle and emotionally hurt before it’s okay for the public to say, once you are dead, this person cheated, swindled and emotionally hurt so many people?

  • Rationalist1

    Is this discussion in preparation for how we should act when Bernie Madoff dies?

  • Joshua Barrett

    She had her entire life to considered how people would think of her after she was gone. She did not care. We shouldn’t either. She deserves no respect.

  • Todd Heath

    It does everyone a disservice when you selectively only remember the good things about a person and ignore their faults. The person you then remember is nothing more than mere mythology. It is extremely important that her critics shout her faults from the rooftop to prevent the damage she has done from continuing through mythological means.

  • sam

    To paraphrase Hitchens, give her an enema and you can bury her in a matchbox.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Speaking of Hitchens, people didn’t refrain from criticizing him upon his death (nor would he have wanted them to). I think anything we would say of the living should be said equally of the dead.

      No, she’s not here to defend herself, but she didn’t bother to defend herself from criticism when she was alive, and she’s still got plenty of fans who are perfectly welcome to prove Sylvia’s prowess.

  • Stephen Yang

    Harry Houdini would probably agree. :)

  • Mick

    Just for the record I am celebrating her death. When I heard she had died I gave a silent cheer and hoped that she had at least a few seconds at the end where she was able to recall her worthless life and say to herself, “Oh shit, I fucked that up.” But she probably departed in blissful ignorance.

  • Spectrall

    It reminds me of how after shootings, it’s too soon to talk about gun policies and how after hurricanes, it’s too soon to talk about climate change. Well, what exactly is the correct timeframe? I’d say when it’s fresh on people’s minds, that’s a pretty good bit of timing.

    • UWIR

      Never mind that “Through research, GFDL scientists have concluded that it is premature to attribute past changes in hurricane activity to greenhouse warming”? http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/hurricanes-and-climate-change

      • Spectrall

        That’s an actual argument, which I’m fine with, not an attempt to shut down argument, which I’m criticizing here. If people are incorrect, tell them they’re incorrect, don’t just say, “hey, we can’t talk about that now.

        Your pull quote here is wildly misleading anyway. The word “premature” is not fundamentally equivalent to something being false or not worthy of discussion and study.

        • UWIR

          To specifically pick the aftermath of a hurricane to discuss climate change exploits the disaster, and implies that there is a connection. To claim that the current atmosphere is one ill suited to rational discussion certainly can be an attempt to shut down argument, but not all such claims can be dismissed out of hand. Late September of 2001 was clearly a bad time to discuss anti-terrorism policies, for instance.

          I’m not sure what you are claiming the quote misleads one to. What I find not just misleading but dishonest is the equivocation on climate change, and claiming that there is a widespread consensus backing it. When people present this consensus, they do so for a narrow definition of “climate change”. But climate change, as discussed in mainstream society, includes such things as Katrina being caused by AGW, and there being 20 feet of sea level rise in the next century, things for which there is NOT a widespread consensus.

  • Hypnox

    I will quote what I understand was Bette Davis’s reaction when informed of the death of Joan Crawford. “They say one must always speak good of the dead. Joan’s dead. (long pause) Good.”

    • pRinzler

      That’s brilliant.

  • LesterBallard

    How many people died yesterday? How many of them preyed on the desperate and grieving?

  • L.Long

    What when the various serial killers all die, they said what a pleasant nice person he was. Or did they say its nice to know he’s dead and buried – he can’t kill anymore.
    I feel nothing about her dead or alive. I don’t blame her for the dumb assed moroons that believed her, she is no more right or wrong then the con men priests or re-puke-ians. I fear the people listening to Rush more then the ones who listened to her.

  • Todd

    Death itself is not deserving of respect. If a person wants respect after he/she dies, that person needs to live a life worthy of respect.

    • Alierias

      that is true while you are still alive — respect is earned, never given.

  • rhodent

    I think Grothe, Randi, et cetera, are handling this properly. It would be inappropriate to actually celebrate her dying (and they are wise to not only refrain from doing so but also explicitly state that they aren’t doing this), but there is no need to refrain from pointing out her legacy.

    There does come a point where a person’s actions are so outrageous, so offensive, or so evil that celebrating their dying doesn’t strike me as inappropriate. However, I don’t think Browne’s actions go quite that far. Of the other people listed in the article, the only one I think might reach that point is Phelps. The others have certainly caused torment, but I don’t think they have done so deliberately or with relish the way Phelps does.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    When Dobson, Lively, and their ilk die I will gleefully celebrate their deaths. Anyone that causes such human misery do not deserve to be eulogized and I will not pretend that I am not happy that they are dead.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I will be sad only that they chose to spend their lives hurting others. It’s a waste. Waste is nothing to celebrate. But there are definitely people about whom one could say, “the world would have been better if you have never lived.” Like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse.

  • 3lemenope

    It was Kierkegaard who said that life is absurd primarily because while we must live it forward, we can only understand it in reverse. A life can only be summed up when it is over. There is no other, better time to praise or criticize, because the specter of potential to be realized or squandered is no longer a factor.

  • Bdole

    When con artists die, it’s not a bad thing

    Full stop.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I’m sure there are at least a dozen lined up to take her place as the celebrity psychic. So this doesn’t really change anything. There is always going to be someone out there ready to take advantage of the gullible. The solution is to be less gullible.

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

        How long do you think it will be before a con artist shows up claiming to be channeling the ghost of Sylvia Browne? I’m sure there are still plenty of gullible sheep waiting to be fleeced that would go for that.

    • tsig

      Unfortunately the con lives on.

  • John O’Brien

    Many will disagree with me but when people like this die I am happy. It is one less horrible person on this planet who living has no value to this world and causes pain to so many.

  • 3lemenope

    I will say what I don’t particularly like, and has become a theme as of late, is visiting how people feel about an event such as another person dying. We’re told we’re not allowed to feel certain ways, that we should be ashamed of our feelings if they do not comport to some abstract standard, that we should never express or say aloud things that spring from dark humor, or anger, or remembered hurt, or Schadenfreude.

    People who are scolds in this way will claim they are reaching for moral behavior, that their standard is an ethical standard. They are mistaken. They are reacting to their own feelings of impropriety, and in responding to those feelings seek to impose a selfish rule upon others. Just as funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living, so is the impulse to smother all criticism and hate towards the reposed dead. And the feeling I can understand, the feeling I would not criticize. But to attempt to cloak it in moral language and use shame and force to prevent others from feeling how they will, that is despicable.

    If a bully grows up to help others, is the person who was bullied no longer entitled to feel towards that person resentment and anger? Future good acts do not wash out old bad ones; they coexist. Nobody is required to take another’s life in a holistic sense, because what they experienced is only a sliver of that life, and that experience is what affected them; that is who that person is to them. Don’t dare tell them they are not entitled to their feelings.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      “Don’t dare tell them they are not entitled to their feelings.”

      This applies to, well… just about everything,

  • Neal Stanifer

    Dying is neither an achievement nor a virtue, and being dead does not ennoble a person or do anything to atone for their wrongs while alive. Browne lived a callous life of deception and greed, harming many people with her lies, and she was and remains fair game for critics. The trashing of her reputation, both in her lifetime and after her death, should serve as a cautionary tale for charlatans everywhere.

  • Spuddie

    I think the people running the cemetery she is buried in have to worry about runoff on adjacent plots from all the people coming to piss on her grave.

  • Philbert

    She wrongly predicted the date of her own death on Larry King. Even her death is an example of her fraud.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    So answer this. When Bernie Madoff dies is the story going to be about him being a husband and father or about what a crook he was? This woman was a charlatan. she defrauded people out of money her entire adult life. Am I supposed to pretend like she wasn’t a heinous excuse for a human being because she just died? If she didn’t want to be remembered that way, that’s her own fault.

  • The Starship Maxima

    That “don’t speak ill of the dead” bullshit is some lame-ass stupidity fed by both the Bible-thumpers and the “but don’t OFFEND!” liberals.

    The truth is the truth. This psychic preyed on the weak and used people. Her death, while not a cause of celebration, IS most certainly a cause for relief. My own father was an abusive, hypocritical asshole. I refused to gloat over his death, but I wasn’t hiding my approval that there was one less asshole in the world.

    And where I myself am concerned, I don’t expect any different. As discussed in the article about the Methodist minister fired for performing his son’s same-sex wedding, I’d like people to say nice things about me when I’m gone.

    Because of my views, some people might rejoice in my death, considering it “one less backwards ass Christian.” And that’s perfectly okay. As long as I was true to the right thing, as best as I knew it, I can live with not everybody missing me.

    Perhaps it’s time we all stop caring about how we speak of the dead, and focus more on how speak to, and treat, the living.

    • cary_w

      Very well said, Starship. One thing we will never know about Browne is whether she was actually delusional to the point that she really was hearing voices and truly believed she was hearing the dead, or if she realized she was no more than a con artist. In some ways I just feel sorry for her because she may have never realized how much she hurt people.

      I didn’t read all the comments about the Methodist minister, and I certainly don’t claim to speak for anyone here but myself, but, personally, I appreciate Christians and other theists who come on this blog and defend their views. Part of why I read these blogs is to explore my own beliefs and have my beliefs challenged. So I certainly would not celebrate your death, or even just your disappearance from this blog. I agree with you that we should focus more on treating other with kindness and respect even when we disagree with them.

      • The Starship Maxima

        I’m Starship. Pleased to meet you.

  • more compost

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


  • mikespeir

    I was going to point out that we seem to be more respectful of her than we were at Jerry Falwell’s death. Then again, I don’t recall Sylvia Brown telling people they would suffer for all eternity for disagreeing with her.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      And some of us have grown since then.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    She was a fraud, yes, but she still deserves some dignity in death. There will be plenty of time to criticize and crack jokes later.

  • primenumbers

    Speak of people in death how you’d speak to their face when they were alive. Death should not cause us to become hypocrites.

  • Layla13

    Sylvia Browne was a shameless fraud. Now she’s a dead shameless fraud.

  • maddogdelta

    Aside from the normal dead people I routinely hate on (Hitler, Stalin, etc)…. I have a special amount of vitriol for people who claimed they were doing good and wonderful things while they cruelly hurt people they took money from. That means every celebrity psychic, TV preacher and General Douglas Haig.

    The only time I wish there was a hell is when I think that dying wasn’t bad enough for those people.

  • John the Drunkard

    I don’t know the circumstances, but many such charlatans die notably lonely and pitiful deaths. Arthur Ford, the Fox sisters etc.

    When your profession requires you to treat your fellow human beings as prey, it seems to be expected that you will die alone and unmissed.

  • mdoc

    I disagree. Her family isn’t on this site reading what we say. And if they were, that would be weird and I still would have no problem with criticizing her.

  • Paul Zimmerle

    Speaking of terrible people, my eyes went red at seeing DJ Grothe quoted here. That guy has a lot to answer for in his deplorable behavior regarding sexual harassment cases.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Fraud is a crime. They certainly didn’t catch her very often as a percentage of the times she committed it but catch her they did.

    She was a convicted criminal and what’s worse, a horrible person.

  • Drakk

    As much criticism as you would have given them in life, no more and no less.

    I would however say that it is not proper to use their death as an opportunity to spread potentially libelous statements. Don’t level accusations just because they’re not around to defend themselves, but when speaking of factual points of their life, fire away.

  • revyloution

    What’s bothered me from our community isn’t the valid criticisms of her life. It’s been the gleeful celebrations. I didn’t find any joy when Osama Bin Laden died, nor when they hung Sadam Hussein. I find no justice in the sudden death of a horrible person. True justice in these cases can only be found in showing them the error of their ways, and having them admit their wrong. It rarely happens, but it does. When it does, that’s the moment that I whoop for joy. When someone dies, anyone, I mourn the loss.

  • Nox

    Depending on the medium, it might be wrong to criticize charlatans right after their death.

    The point of not speaking ill of the recently deceased is to not compound the suffering of those who are mourning their loss. Losing a loved one is hard for anyone. No matter how much of a scumbag someone was, there may be people who are hurt by their passing. And those people should not have to open a newspaper and see an article about how evil their recently deceased loved one was.

    This doesn’t apply less when the person in question spent their life preying on that same grief to line their own pockets (unless every person who cared about Sylvia Browne was involved in her chicanery which seems unlikely). This does apply less to blogs than major news outlets (and even less to personal speech, assuming it is not spoken directly to those who would be hurt by it). Of course that is a double standard, but if a rule serves a valid purpose in one context and not in another, then a double standard is what is called for.

  • Patrick James Bayham

    i wonder how many people to ripped off and destroyed their lives..

  • bickle2

    The only thing that’s wrong is their lack of conviction and prison time for their fraud

    When Fred, Dobson and the gang die, there should be epic crowds singing “ding dong the witch is dead”, preferably in full Oz regalia, hopefully causing maximum pain to the mourners. And before you say that’s wrong, anyone who’s mourning him is likelwise an unethical, sociopathic monster and criminal.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/OffensivAtheist bismarket

    I’ve no problem AT ALL about the happy thoughts i’m having today after hearing the news of this monsters death. I make no apologies either (maybe i did learn something from her after all?). Good riddance this place is just a little better IMO without her in it!

  • James Ogilvie

    I love this blog, but the constant hijacking of my browser by unscrupulous advertisers, which keeps redirecting my iPad to some game or another at the App Store, is making it unreadable now. Ads are fine, but ads which redirect your browser as soon as the page loads are just too much.