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Sylvia Browne: Psychic Guru or Quack?

Bryan Farha, Ed.D.

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." [1]

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 [2], 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 [3]. Does that sound like proper commercial activity for someone who has no medical license, just a master's degree in English Literature?

Sylvia in Action

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." [4] 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:

Caller: Sylvia and Larry, I enjoy you so very, very much. I listened to you for years and I just wanted to get on for a long time. Randi, I feel sorry for you as well, because we have to believe in something. My question is, Sylvia, I never had a chance to say good- bye to my husband. And I am wondering if he knows how much I loved him.
Browne: Not only did he know that, but what was the -- clot or whatever that let loose? Because it looks like there was something about a clot.
Caller: Yes, he had a severe brain hemorrhage at the very last minute.
Browne: Because it looks likes it was, not only that, but this was massive.
Caller: Yes, it was.
Browne: Yeah.
Caller: Right through the top of his head.
Browne: And he really -- you know, there are so many times, like when I lost so many people. I don't care how many times if you can say good-bye, you never have enough good-byes. But see, aside from Randi, he hears everything you say, especially when you talk to him.
Caller: Well, I don't really know whether I can say anything to him. There are people like that. But I feel sorry for them. Because we have to believe.
King: I thank you, ma'am. (Turning to Sylvia): Now, help me with something.
Browne: Yes?
King: Did you see that clot?
Browne: I saw the clot letting loose.
King: How do you explain? . . . .
Browne: I don't know. It's like Randi said one time to one of the psychics, a lot of psychics just say chest. Of course, because a lot of people have chest problem. But not everybody has a massive embolism.
King: How would you explain that. A massive...
Browne: I know what he is going to say, it's a guess.
Randi: Larry, you're asking me to explain specific things. I don't know who this woman is who called. I don't know whether she is a ringer. I'm not saying she is, and I'm not suggesting that.
Browne: Oh.
Randi: But it is possible. There are many possibilities here. We have made a lucky guess, and we have hit. An embolism. A clot.
King: There are many possibilities. Is one of them, Randi -- is one of the possibilities Sylvia is right.
Randi: Absolutely [5].

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 [6].

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.

One Evasion after Another

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 [7].

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: I have never been offered this challenge.
King: You would take it?
Browne: I would take the challenge. I have tried to run around the table [Randi] ran away from me.
King: She will meet with Randi and take the challenge.
Browne: He ran way from me [8].

Browne failed to contact Randi, but on the September 3 show, she told Randi she would take the test.

King: Randi has offered a million dollars in the past to those who would take his challenge. Would you first -- let's start with Randi -- explain what the challenge constitutes? You will pay a million dollars if?
Randi: A million dollars in negotiable bonds, Larry, to any person or persons who can provide evidence of any paranormal, occult or supernatural event or ability of any kind under proper observing conditions. It is that simple.
King: OK, and the observing conditions would be?
RANDI: It would depend upon what the claim is. I have got a whole outline right here that will tell Sylvia exactly what the test would be if she agrees to take the test.
King: Sylvia, in the past you have not agreed to this.
Browne: Well, I don't even want his million dollars. I don't want his million dollars. I mean, the reason I came on is because he kept you know, my web site, yeah, yeah, and said I would never come on and face him. But I don't care about his million dollars. I mean, I don't need his million. . . .
King: Are you willing to take his test?
Browne: Yeah, whatever test it is.

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:

King: Oklahoma City, hello.
Caller (me): Sylvia, 620 days [ago] on Larry's show, you agreed to take James Randi's $1 million paranormal challenge, and on a later show you even agreed to the specific terms of the test.
Browne: Yes, but let me tell you something. I also found out that he won't put it into escrow. He won't put the money into escrow.
Caller: You agreed to the terms of the test.
Browne: No, not until he puts the money into escrow. I mean, why would I do it when the money can't be validated?
Caller: Have you contacted James?
Browne: I don't want to contact him. I already know about this Russian person who the lawyer contacted and said he won't put it into escrow.
Caller: OK, so you agreed 620 days ago to take his test.
Browne: I'm not going to do that -- I'm not going to do that if he doesn't have the money.
Caller: If I can arrange for James to come up with the money, would you take the test?
King: You said you would.
Browne: Yes, yes, I will. But if he won't come up with the other girl, why would he come up with me?
King: If you come up with it, sir, she'll do it.
Caller: And will you arrange for it, Larry?
King: Sure.
Caller: You got it.
King: Be happy to do it [9].

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:

Ms. Browne:

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 [10]

On May 22, Sylvia refused to accept Randi's letter [11]. 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.

The Bottom Line

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?

References

  1. Brief history. Sylvia.org. Accessed, June 30, 2003.
  2. Burelle's Information Services offers transcripts to 67 "Montel" appearances by Sylvia from the fourth quarter of 1995 through the fourth quarter of 2002. A few quarters do not have complete lists; and transcripts for 2003 have not been posted.
  3. Psychic readings. Sylvia.org. Accessed, June 30, 2003.
  4. About the Foundtion. JREF Web site, accessed June 30, 2003.
  5. Are psychics real? CNN Larry King Live, Sept 3, 2001.
  6. Randi J. Reluctant, Wizard Sylvia Browne -- At Last, and Geller in Hungary. Swift, Sept 7, 2001.
  7. One million dollar paranormal challenge. JREF Web site, accessed June 30, 2003.
  8. Interview with Sylvia Browne. CNN Larry King Live, May 16, 2003.
  9. Are psychics for real? CNN Larry King Live, March 6, 2001.
  10. Randi J. Sylvia emerges! Swift, May 23, 2003.
  11. U.S. Postal Service Tracking Service . Enter 7003 0500 0002 3034 8133 into Track & Confirm" function. Go to

____________________

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 bfarha@okcu.edu.

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This article was posted on July 1, 2003.