Most assuredly you've heard the phrase "innocent until proven guilty." I'm pretty much a believer in that saying. Our legal system is built around it -- and justifiably so. But what if an alleged psychic makes three promises on international television to test her extraordinary claims, yet makes no effort to do so? Should the phrase for that person become "guilty until proven innocent?" In any event, I'm referring to one of the most popular "spiritual mediums" in the country -- if not the world. Sylvia Browne -- herein after referred to simply as "Sylvia."
Sylvia's Web site (sylvia.org) states:
Sylvia began her professional career as a psychic on May 8, 1973 with a small meeting in her home. Within one year her practice had grown very large and she decided to incorporate her business as the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research. Wanting to make her work as professional as possible, then as now, Sylvia maintains required business licenses, is a member of a national consumer protection agency, and donates a lot of time to charitable organizations and working with police. Her business has remained in the same general vicinity since beginning her work.
Sylvia's family line includes several practicing psychics and mediums. Her maternal grandmother, Ada, was an established and respected counselor and healer in Kansas City MO. This familial psychic talent has also passed on to her son Christopher Dufresne. There seems to be a genetic component necessary to create exceptional psychics, Sylvia's blood line carries that predisposition to excellence. As Sylvia says, "Anyone can learn to play the piano, but not everyone is a concert pianist." 
Sylvia "diagnoses" health problems, purports to communicate with the dead, and even claims to have proven there is an afterlife. Her recent books include Contacting Your Spirit Guide and Past Lives, Future Healing: A Psychic Reveals the Secrets to Good Health and Great Relationships. For several years, she has been popularized by TV talk-show hosts Montel Williams and Larry King. Montel, who has hosted Sylvia more than 70 times since 1995 , will have absolutely no part of skeptical perspectives. Larry has included skeptics as guests on two of her three recent appearances during the past three years. But neither Montel nor Larry has shown the slightest interest in checking out her monumental claims -- and I do mean monumental. And, as far as I know, neither Montel, Larry, or Sylvia have investigated -- or even care -- whether Sylvia's health advice causes people to delay appropriate treatment or to undergo needless tests to look for nonexistent problems that Sylvia "sees."
With respect to health, you can get a "reading" from Sylvia for only $700 by phone or $750 in person . Does that sound like proper commercial activity for someone who has no medical license, just a master's degree in English Literature?
On September 3, 2001, Sylvia was challenged on "Larry King Live" by James Randi, the conjurer/skeptic who heads the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 to "promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today."  During the program, Sylvia claimed that she had worked with 350 doctors and had cured a child of seizures. When asked how he thought Browne worked, Randi replied that she asks questions, makes guesses, offers suggestions, throws out words, wait for answers, and builds on what she gets a method commonly referred to as "cold reading." Randi also pointed out that people tend to remember what seems to fit and forget what does not. During the program, she demonstrated her technique to one caller, as follows:
Randi was actually overgenerous. A clot might be involved in a heart attack, a stroke, or a few other rapidly fatal conditions. Because heart attacks and strokes are among the most common causes of sudden death, the word "clot" had a fairly good chance of being correct. However, in this case it was not. Although Browne and King seemed to think that Browne's "diagnosis" was on target, it actually was dead wrong. The caller said the problem was a severe brain hemorrhage. A clot is just the opposite of a hemorrhage. As Randi notes on his Web site:
Now, to me, this sounds as if the caller is describing an impact of some sort to the top of the head! Clots don't go through the top of the head. They originate inside the head and stay there. Notice, too, that the term "embolism," which was introduced by Sylvia as applying to the cause of this death, and never by the caller, refers to a blocked blood vessel, and could not apply here. She said, amplifying her reading, - the caller had already been disconnected by that time - that I claimed "psychics" frequently refer to "chest problems" as a cause of death, while "not everyone has a massive embolism." She then predicted what I would say about this remarkable "hit," that I would call it a guess. She was wrong; I say that it's a dead miss. And it is. No, not everyone has a massive embolism, nor a clot, both of which Sylvia put forth as the cause of death, and this man had neither.
An MD friend said that in his opinion, Sylvia is not just full of baloney but also dangerous. She mentioned to one caller that she should check the "bilirubin," which she told King "is a liver enzyme." The fact is that bilirubin is not a liver enzyme but a degradation product of human hemoglobin. This is routinely checked when blood tests are done. No need to check it separately, as any elevation of bilirubin will give the very obvious clinical appearance of jaundice. You just have to look in the persons eye to see that. And there is no test for Epstein-Barr disease related to the examination of fecal matter, as Sylvia, in her vast medical expertise, offered to a caller. And, she prescribed the drug Tegretol, as well, for another caller's disorder. This type of medical advice, which by law Sylvia cannot offer, is dangerous as it can mislead the caller. Who is she to give medical advice? Larry King was amazed at her facility with medical terms. Facility does not necessarily equate with accuracy .
Later in the program, Browne said that Randi needed to see a doctor because had a problem in his left ventricle (the chamber in the heart from which the blood is squeezed out into the body's general circulation). Soon afterward, Randi saw a cardiac surgeon, who found no problem. If you think this example is benign, consider that most of Sylvia's readings are with people who believe in her alleged psychic ability and therefore take her seriously. Health-related readings like this are commonplace with Sylvia.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) offers a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The prize is in the form of negotiable bonds held in a special investment account. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the "applicant" becomes a "claimant." So far, no one has ever passed the preliminary tests .
Sylvia has promised three times to take the test. On March 6, 2001 Larry King Live hosted a discussion about criticism aimed at medium John Edward, who hosts "Crossing Over." Sylvia and another alleged psychic (James Van Praagh) participated together with skeptics Leon Jaroff and Paul Kurtz and three others. During this program, Sylvia insisted that Kurtz had a prostate problem, which Kurtz denied. Jaroff urged Sylvia and Van Praagh to take Randi's "million-dollar challenge" and Sylvia agreed to do so:
Browne failed to contact Randi, but on the September 3 show, she told Randi she would take the test.
After Randi suggested the specific type of psychic ability he would test, Sylvia agreed: All that was needed was for her to contact Randi. But by April 2003, she had made no contact. On May 16, she appeared again on "Larry King Live," this time as the only guest. As usual, the program began with Larry's unskeptical questions plus phone calls from viewers who sounded like true believers. About 40 minutes into the show, I managed to get past the screeners by telling them I wanted to ask about "my dead cousin." I'm not proud of being deceptive, but I don't believe the screeners would have let me through if they knew that I would question her about Randi's test. As far as I know, nobody has ever been able to do this while she was on the air. Here's what took place:
Promise #3, this time from Sylvia and Larry King: Larry will arrange for the testing, and Sylvia will take the test if the money she previously dismissed as unimportant can be validated. Randi, who has posted a "Sylvia's Browne's Clock" page, corrected my figures. Sylvia had agreed to take the test 808 days before I had called -- 620 was the number of days since she had agreed to the specific protocol.
On May 18th, Randi emailed me a scanned copy of document from Goldman, Sachs & Company stating that the JREF prize money account contained $1,054,656.70. I immediately wrote to Larry King, with copies to Randi and Sylvia, and Randi sent the following letter to both by certified mail:
Though proof of the JREF prize money is easily available on request, you have not made any such request. Your May 16th appearance on the Larry King Live TV show, seemed to indicate that you were ignorant of the facts, and since we are an educational foundation, we therefore enclose a notarized copy of the account status showing the balance in a special "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account" in excess of one million dollars. Also enclosed is a formal statement from the agency holding these assets, verifying that the funds are in place. I'm sure that you are aware of the grave legal consequences that would result against the JREF, if either of these documents were to be found false or altered.
As you are also aware, we have legally committed ourselves to awarding this prize money to anyone who successfully passes both the preliminary and then the formal test, as agreed to between the applicant and the JREF. This is described on our web page, which also clearly states all the conditions for assuring that the prize money will be awarded if the conditions are met. Since you have already heard and accepted the terms and protocol of the test, and your understanding and agreement have been broadcast across the world via CNN, it only remains for you to give us a date upon which we can conduct the test.
One caveat: Several of the persons who responded more than a year ago to our request for suitable subjects -- one of which would be chosen at random -- have since died. It would be necessary for us to re-issue the request, of course, and that would mean that a suitable date would have to be set sometime in July, but no sooner.
Now that this issue of the prize money has been resolved, and there can no longer be any impediment to your involvement, we anticipate hearing from you with a renewed acceptance of our challenge. Of course, if you are afraid of taking the test, or you are aware that you cannot pass a simple double-blind test of your claims, you may wish to further obfuscate the matter by producing more excuses and problems. That's entirely up to you.
Since Larry King has agreed to "arrange" that you be assured of the existence and availability of the prize money, a copy of this letter is being sent to him for his information 
On May 22, Sylvia refused to accept Randi's letter . On May 26th, I emailed Sylvia a copy of Randi's letter and asked "any office personnel" who receive it to make sure she reads it herself. On May 27th, I left a telephone message for Larry King's producers, to which they have not responded.
Sylvia Browne would like people to believe she has the psychic ability to communicate with the dead and to diagnose their ailments. She has broken three promises made on international television to take the JREF One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. More than two years have passed since her first promise. I don't believe she ever intended to take the test. Do you think any talk-show hosts will care?
Bryan Farha is a professor at Oklahoma City University, where he teaches a course entitled, "Psychology & Skepticism." He is also an astrology subcommittee member for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.