Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sylvia Browne is a Ghoul

On November 17, 2004, an episode of the Montel Williams Show aired, featuring self-proclaimed "psychic" Sylvia Browne and Louwana Miller, who came on the show desperate for information on her daughter, who had been missing since April 21, 2003, a day before her 17th birthday. With no good leads from police or FBI and having spent considerable effort putting up fliers and talking to people, Miller finally contacted the Montel Show after seeing Browne on an episode.

According to transcripts of the episode (e.g., at, posted in 2007), Sylvia Browne told the worried mother the worst possible news: "She's not alive, honey." She described the supposed abductor as "Cuban-looking, short kind of stocky build, heavyset" and put his age at around 21 or 22. Browne also asserted that it was only one person, despite witnesses saying they saw Berry get into a car with three men. In an interview with WKYC's Bill Safos, Browne is quoted as saying:
“I think he really had a crush on her,” she said. “And I think she rebuffed him. I think she thought he was harmless enough to maybe drive her home.”
A year and a half later, in early 2006, Louwana Miller died of heart failure. She died with the belief that her daughter was dead.

Fast forward to this week. On Monday, May 6, 2013, Amanda Berry, the girl who disappeared ten years ago and whose mother was told by Sylvia Browne on national television that she was dead, escaped her captors, along with two other women, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight, who had also gone missing years ago. The suspects in the alleged kidnappings are three brothers, aged 50-54.

Sylvia Browne was completely wrong (though I'm sure she'll try to explain it away with something like, "I meant her soul was dead, she'd given up"). This is not surprising, since she has a long list of failures. Browne preys upon the emotions of her victims, feeding them nonsense and charging them $850 to do it. Twelve years ago, on September 3, 2001, Browne appeared on the Larry King Live show and accepted the James Randi Educational Foundation's $1 million challenge, but has not followed through on that acceptance:

Sylvia Browne's callous indifference to the emotional suffering of her victims is inexcusable. This story is being covered in greater detail by various news outlets, and many are pointing out Browne's errors. We'll know more about exactly what happened after Berry and the other women have had time with their families and have a chance to talk with police.

There is a broader issue in all of this. People like Sylvia Browne put on convincing performances. They use techniques to make it seem like they can tell the future or divine evidence from some unseen source, calling them spirits, angels or what have you. Cold reading and hot reading are techniques used by purported psychics to sound like they can communicate with the dead or that they can see images of people or events not present. A basic understanding of how these works can help people avoid the emotional turmoil caused by ghouls like Browne.

In cold reading, the alleged psychic throws out a lot of guesses, soliciting confirmation and additional information from the person they are reading. Take a look at the transcript of Browne's reading of Louwana Miller. Notice the points where she just repeats what is told to her. By repeating and confirming what their mark says, they make it appear as if the information came from somewhere other than their mark. Hits are built upon and misses are either quickly dropped and forgotten or the person is told to "hold onto" it and think about it.

For hot reading, the alleged psychic already has detailed information about their victim. They have done their research or used accomplices to gather information before the reading begins. This allows them to tell the person they're reading very specific information that bolsters the image of being psychic. It instills further confidence that what they say is correct, making any added cold reading that much more likely to be believed.

To date, no psychics have been able to show, under controlled conditions, that they can actually do what they say they can do. Some are sincere in their belief that they are psychic, often engaging in convincing themselves as much as their marks that they have the powers they claim, latching onto hits and rationalizing away misses. Others, like Browne or John Edward, are more likely conscious frauds, knowing that they are simply conning people into believing them.

If you ever go to see a psychic, be very aware of the information you give out. Try to keep your answers to just acknowledging that you are listening or that you understand what they said. Do not confirm or deny their guesses. And take a good look at what they say. Is it vague and applicable to a lot of people? Take some time to learn more about the tactics they use. I'll leave you with this, from the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe:

[Edited to Add: Sylvia has finally spoken out to make excuses for her failure. On her Facebook page, she writes:
As I stated earlier, I am so relieved that Amanda Berry and the other women have been found and are safe with their families. Of course I do feel very bad telling Amanda's mother on the show that I believed her daughter was not alive, and I'm so so glad that I was wrong. I had a vision of her being held underwater, but I had interpreted it to have a different meaning. She was not being held under water but was being held down.

I want to make this clear for all of the people who are upset about my prediction on the show that day. Most people writing or posting about this story have not watched the show. For those of you who want to know what I did say to her mother, following are my exact words from the transcript.

Amanda's mother asked me asked me if I was ever wrong and this is what I said to her.

“Only God is right all the time but of course I’m wrong,” Browne responded. “But after 50 years of doing this work, I’d better be more right than wrong. I always say I hope I’m wrong. When it comes to this, I hope I’m wrong.”
Post hoc explanations like this are easy, and, as seen by many of the comments following her post, are eaten up by her fans. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt, that she merely misinterpreted a vision of being in water really being about Berry being held down. That still leaves the fact that Browne said she was dead. There is still the matter of her saying that the person was around 21 or 22 and wore his pants baggy and low. Wrong and wrong. This also doesn't clear away all of those other documented cases where she was also wrong.

She says that she'd better be more right than wrong. In fact, she's claimed a success rate of around 85%-90%. Now, it's difficult to calculate her true success rate, because much of her readings are undocumented. Likewise, even among documented missing persons cases, we can't make any conclusions as to whether she was right or wrong, because the cases are still unsolved. However, among those cases for which we have her documented predictions and the cases are closed, she has not gotten one correct.

Browne may rationalize as much as she likes, but she still has an abysmal success rate where we can independently evaluate her performance.


  1. in a hole and still digging...

  2. I believe that the human brain is a wonderful computer. Given enough data, it can make some pretty accurate predictions. Just think of a baseball outfielder catching a ball. A ton of computations go into that. Tons! In that sense, if given enough information, the brain can predict the likeliest outcome, but certainly not the future... And certainly not the untestable things.

    You would think she could use her powers for good and not for herself. There are thousands, if not millions, of missing and exploited children that could be better helped by her spreading flyers and supporting organizations looking out for those kids than her ridiculous "predictions" and "readings."

  3. She makes high-probability guesses. By the time of the reading, Amanda had been missing for over a year: most likely probability? She's dead. So that's what Sylvia went with. The description of the person? Well, there had been a sketch of the suspect shortly after Amanda was abducted, hence Sylvia's description of "Cuban-looking", though she was way off on the age.

    But, yes, handing out fliers would be a better use than offering inaccurate guesses...I mean, "predictions".


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