The best psychic reader in the world?

Mini-Science logo Guest columnist Joe Schwarcz is the Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society.  His talk “Science and the Paranormal”  opens the 2010 series of Mini-Science, “Pseudoscience: From Quirks to Quacks.”  Mini-Science starts April 7, so register for the series now!

She’s rich.  She’s famous.  And she’s heartless.  Who, but an unfeeling person, would tell the parents of a missing child, without any evidence, that their son is dead?  Sylvia Browne, that’s who.  “The best psychic reader in the world,” as she bills herself.  Well, maybe not quite the best.

Shawn Hornbeck, the boy Sylvia declared dead on national TV, turned up very much alive, the victim of a kidnapping.  The kidnapper was not Hispanic, and did not have dreadlocks as the psychic had suggested.  And then there was something else the psychic did not foresee.  The devastating effect her words had on the parents.  Or maybe she didn’t care.  After all, such dramatic remarks are great for ratings.

Browne often holds court on The Larry King Show and the Montel Williams Show, where she predicts futures, talks to the dead and dispenses advice on matters ranging from love to health.  This talented seer can just look at someone and tell that they have a difficulty with their prostate, or that they should check their bilirubin, a “liver enzyme,” as she calls it.  Of course bilirubin is not a liver enzyme, it is a breakdown product of hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that transports oxygen.  But I suppose someone with a degree in English literature, which is what Sylvia has, should not be expected to know that.  Maybe, though, Sylvia is not to blame.  Much of her prattle, as she claims, actually originates from “Francine,” her “spirit guide.”  And maybe spirits aren’t really up on their biochemistry.

I must admit that I get really irritated by self-proclaimed “authentic psychics” who prey upon the gullible.  Maybe that’s because I don’t believe the dead talk to us, that our futures can be predicted, that spoons can be bent by the power of the mind, or that health problems can be diagnosed by “remote viewing.”  Judging by the contents of her book, “Phenomenon,” Browne believes all this, and more.  Self-levitation, psychokinesis and spirits are all real.  So is reincarnation.  Sylvia knows.  You see, as a “certified master hypnotist, she has helped many people overcome burdens imposed by past lives.  Such as the young boy who was inexplicably panic-stricken every time his mother prepared to take a shower.  Sylvia, through hypnosis, discovered that in a past life he had seen his mother die in the Auschwitz gas chambers which were disguised to look like showers.

Can Browne really believe all this?  Maybe.  If she’s self-delusional.  But there’s another possibility.  Perhaps it’s all a clever money-making scheme.  People apparently wait for weeks to shell out seven hundred and fifty dollars for a thirty minute psychic reading with this icon of acumen on the telephone.  If that sounds a little steep, Christopher, Sylvia’s son, is a bargain at five hundred dollars a session.  It seems he has inherited his mother’s talents, including the one of fleecing the public.  Chris is the only other psychic Sylvia trusts, and the only one, other than herself, she ever recommends.  A nice little family run business.

Of course whether or not I believe in Browne’s abilities has nothing to do with whether she has them or not.  That can only be determined by evidence.  And that evidence is pretty weak (if we’re being generous).  For example, back in 1992, Sylvia was unable to foresee that she and her husband would be indicted for investment fraud.  I imagine this was not one of the criminal cases she claims to have collaborated on with the police.  As far as other cases go, there is no evidence that she has ever played a useful role.  She has, however, provided plenty of false leads.

Holly Krewson, a missing 23-year old, would be found working as an exotic dancer in Hollywood, Sylvia stated on The Montel Williams Show.  Actually, as was later discovered, Holly had already been dead for six years when the prediction was made.  Six year old Opal Jo Jennings was abducted from her grandparents’ home in 1999.  She was alive, Sylvia declared, but had been forced into prostitution and taken to Japan.  Sylvia even knew where.  A town that sounds like “Kukouro.”  Geography, like biochemistry, apparently is not her forte.  There is no such town.  But there was no point in searching for Opal in Japan, she had been murdered by her abductor near the Jennings’ home within a short time of her abduction.

Browne’s predictions on other issues also leave a lot to be desired.  Michael Jackson never went to jail as she had prophesized, but Martha Stewart, who she said would not, did.  Elizabeth Taylor, I suspect is not a big fan, since Sylvia has repeatedly predicted her death.  One of these days she will be right and will of course claim success.  Needless to say, neither Sylvia, nor any other psychic, predicted 9/11, the most impactive event in recent history.  Browne did, however, later say that she had terrible dreams the first week in September, but could not figure out why.  But as she says, she cannot be expected to be perfect.  But how about being a little less imperfect?

Sylvia Browne has been repeatedly challenged by James Randi to prove her psychic abilities under controlled conditions.  A million dollars is hers if can do so.  Three times Sylvia has agreed on network television to be tested, but Randi is still waiting.  She claims he doesn’t really have the money.  Well, if she were such a great psychic, she would know that the money is there, locked in an escrow account.  Of course Sylvia isn’t really interested in being tested, it is far easier to just go on blathering about the future unopposed.  Aliens will begin to show themselves in 2010 (the same ones who helped build the pyramids), the lost city of Atlantis will reappear in 2023, and by 2100 people will be able to simply walk out of their bodies upon death.  Now that could be useful, because Sylvia sees nothing beyond this date which, she says, could mean that “the end will come like a thief in the night.”  Hmmm…talking about thieves….

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