Kookiness / Psychics / Scams / Skepticism · May 19, 2007

Psychics fail to foretell police sting, skeptics unsurprised

In Philadelphia, the Department of Licenses and Inspections was alerted to an obscure state law that banned fortune-telling “for gain or lucre.” Inspectors for the L & I department swung into action to enforce this older law, and in a week’s time they managed to close at least 16 different businesses. But by the end of the week, the City Solicitor’s Office told the L & I department to halt their actions. According to Andrew Ross, divisional deputy city solicitor:

… while the law was useful in fraud cases, “we felt it was hard to say what kind of evidence might be needed to prove someone was pretending to tell fortunes.”

The City Solicitor’s office got into the act when the attorney for Philadelphia psychic Monica Mitchell filed a request for a restraining order and preliminary injunction on the grounds that the city has to prove fraud before invoking the old state law.

Really? Prove fraud? Isn’t the fact that 16 different business owners didn’t suddenly decide to take a one week vacation while the city was busy chasing its tail proof enough? Of course their failure is a cliché. “My own fortune is blocked from my knowledge, but I am still able to foretell the future of others.” If such a thing is true, then perhaps psychics can join some sort of mutually helpful relationship, where they could spill the beans about each other’s future.

Joe Nickell, of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has recently written about this. This isn’t the first time that Psychics in Philadelphia were stung. (Wait, they were caught out before and they still couldn’t tell this was coming again?)

In May of 1995 Nickell worked with Philly television station WCAU and stung several psychics. From Joe Nickell’s recent article:

Denenberg’s team enlisted a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl named Kate. Although she was safely at home (for example playing softball in her front yard), the psychics were told that she had been missing since January. Some psychics “saw” her experiencing physical harm; one collected a fee of $50 for reporting her “confined against her will”; and another charged $180 to divine that the girl had run away and was “probably pregnant.” While one psychic envisioned her just two miles from home, another saw her far away in Florida. Not one among the several seers ever divined the truth, that the teenager was not missing and that Channel 10 was conducting a sting operation.


My own undercover work has repeatedly revealed psychic ineptitude—and worse. Using a false persona, a pseudonym, and disguise (necessitated by my frequent TV appearances), I revealed nationally known “police psychic” Phil Jordan to be a “Psychic Sleuth without a Clue” (Nickell 2004). He had no idea of my real background or identity.


Many times in my several decades of paranormal investigation, I have visited palmists, card readers, astrologers, mediums, and clairvoyants. Not one ever mentioned the profound fact that I had a daughter and two grandsons I was unaware of (until, wonderfully, she discovered me in 2003) (Nickell 2004; 2005).

Wow, that’s harsh. Mr. Nickell had a daughter and two grandsons that he was unaware of. And no psychic was able to tell him that! What devastating information for a skeptic. Perhaps with a single prediction, Joe Nickell could have been converted to a true believe, and a firm supporter of psychics.

Of all the psychics, card readers, palm readers and clairvoyants out there, Sylvia Browne is the absolute worst of them all. Remember Shawn Hornbeck? In October of 2002 he disappeared without a trace, at the age of 11. His parents never gave up hope that he would be found alive, and understandably tried even the desperate measure of talking to famous psychics like Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh, both of whom told the Hornbecks that their son was dead. Both also gave clues about where Shawn’s body could be found.

But Shawn was found alive, living with Michael Devlin, in January of 2007. Devlin is charged with kidnapping Shawn, along with another boy named Ben Ownby. Devlin is charged with forcible sodomy, production of child pornography, and several other crimes.

Sylvia Browne never saw any of this. Her psychic ability apparently wasn’t working that day.

Robert S. Lancaster runs a website called “Stop Sylvia Browne” and he documents all the other times that Sylvia has failed, or has apparently preyed on the bereaved. I’ll warn you about his website – if you’re a fan of Browne, you won’t like it! And if you go there in genuine interest, you will probably lose an afternoon or two reading all of his material.

But there is a much faster take on Browne, CNN’s Anderson Cooper talked about Sylvia Browne’s fraud. I’ll link to the Youtube archive of that show. (It has James Randi in it too!)

There’s an old joke that asks, “Why does a psychic have to ask for your credit card number?” Jokes about the lack of psychic ability only scratch the surface. If they can do what they say they can do, then why is there so little evidence?