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Rest in Peace, Sylvia

Online Extras

Bryan Farha

November 25, 2013

This article will appear in a future issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

One of the world’s most popular alleged psychics and spiritual mediums in history, Sylvia Browne, died on November 20, 2013 at age 77 (although she predicted on CNN that she would live to age 88). She suffered a heart attack in 2011 and reportedly had multiple strokes as well. These afflictions could explain why some very recent scheduled appearances were cancelled for “health reasons.” She claimed to also communicate with the dead and she engaged in health readings, which I consider dangerous and, essentially, practicing medicine without a license. She was fortunate the California medical board didn’t elect to pursue this.

Primarily due to a simple concept called subjective validation, she was able to convince much of the unsuspecting public of her self-proclaimed powers—resulting in authoring or co-authoring 45 books, building a multi-million dollar psychic empire. It is unclear how much of the books were her own words—especially after Joe Nickell convincingly illustrated how some of her writings eerily resembled his previously published work.

Larry King and Montel Williams promoted her more than any other media sources.

Although she made a fortune and was likely laughing all the way to the bank (for example, one of her non-profit 990 forms indicates a single operation brought in $417,051), her reputation was controversial, primarily due to her career-long record of inaccurate predictions and readings—which was mostly revealed by James Randi, Robert Lancaster, Benjamin Radford, Ryan Shaffer, and me (there were a few others as well). Lancaster’s superb website, StopSylviaBrowne.com—as well as Randi’s—represented almost daily efforts to keep the public apprised regarding the truth about Sylvia Browne. She endured justified criticism after repeatedly agreeing to be tested by the James Randi Educational Foundation for her alleged ability—yet never doing so. Sylvia avoided the test because she claimed Randi didn’t have the one million dollar prize, as advertised. Thereafter, I went on CNN’s Larry King Live and showed indisputable visual evidence of the $1,000,000 (an account statement from the independent investment firm, Goldman Sachs)—an embarrassing moment for Sylvia on live, international television. To my knowledge, this was her last guest appearance on the show—previously averaging about three appearances per year.

Because she dodged Randi’s test (in which she even agreed on CNN to the specific protocol), I decided to test her without her knowing it. A few days after Sylvia made several predictions on the Montel Williams Show for the entire upcoming year of 2005, I asked my niece’s fourth grade class, individually, to predict on the same measures. Data analyses indicated that the fourth-graders were, collectively, 25% more accurate than Sylvia was—and these children were literally guessing on many items they knew nothing about (like world affairs, natural disasters, and politics). This was the real Sylvia Browne.

In 1992, Sylvia and her ex-husband Kenzil Dalzell Brown were indicted on several charges of investment fraud and grand larceny. Following her felony conviction and divorce, she added the letter “e” to the end of her last name to understandably present a new persona to the public in light of her record of disgrace. This was the real Sylvia Browne.

Even though her staunch believers remained supportive, criticism of Sylvia continued when many of her highest profile predictions were not only proven wrong, but some were perceived as downright heartless. On the Montel Williams show in 2003, she told grieving parents that their missing 11-year old son, Shawn Hornbeck, was dead—even though he was found alive and well in 2007. In 2004—also on Montel—she wrongly told the mother of Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry “She’s not alive, honey.” Amanda’s mother died two years later, so she never was able to find out her daughter was really alive. Could Sylvia’s prediction have accelerated the death of Amanda’s mother? Regarding the West Virginia coal miner tragedy in 2006, on live radio she predicted they survived—when only minutes later they were confirmed dead. This was the real Sylvia Browne.

Less benign, in 2005 she incorrectly told me on CNN that Osama bin Laden was dead. She also predicted aliens would visit Earth in 2010 and “teach us how to use anti-gravity devices…” Further, via articles in Skeptical Inquirer, Ryan Shaffer points out in “Psychic Defective” (2010) as well as “Psychic Defective Revisited” (2013) that Sylvia wasn’t accurate on a single prediction regarding criminal cases. She demonstrated little or no remorse for exploiting the bereaved. This was the real Sylvia Browne.

These and other failures resulted in the ultimate decline of the empire. Eventually, Sylvia put her San Jose office up for sale. This—including three office moves in as many years—is an indicator of how her star had been fading as a result of her psychic inaccuracies and public disappointment. Robert Lancaster received an email in November from an apparent Browne family friend indicating that Sylvia’s son was even selling some of her assets in light of her health problems. Further, station KMOV (St. Louis) reported in 2010 that Linda Rossi, longtime business manager for Sylvia, revealed the Browne corporations’ annual 3 million dollar revenue had dwindled below 50%.

The first of her four husbands was Gary Dufresne, who shed light on how Sylvia’s career began. He tells of a story in which the two of them were hosting a party where she began experimenting with Tarot card readings to some of the invitees. In the kitchen, Dufresne asked Sylvia how she could tell people such unsubstantiated things. He reportedly told her, “You know it's not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe that." To avoid using vulgarity, he paraphrased Sylvia’s response: "Screw 'em. Anybody who believes this stuff oughtta [sic] be taken." This was the real Sylvia Browne.

All this is justification for a fee of $860 per 20 minute telephone reading from Sylvia, right? I’d like to be able to say that the job of psychic critics will now become easier, but this game is a bit like baseball—when one batter is out, another one steps up to the plate. Perhaps her son—alleged psychic Chris Dufresne? Granddaughter Angelia? Stay tuned.

Rest in peace, Sylvia.

Bryan Farha

Bryan Farha is editor of Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis. His new edited book, Pseudoscience and Deception: The Smoke and Mirrors of Paranormal Claims (University Press of America) will be released in spring, 2014.