Sylvia Browne, author and alleged psychic, will be in Saskatoon on April 6th at TCU Place for one of her “famous” readings. This her second trip to our fair city, and this time she is not coming here unchallenged. Sylvia claims to speak to our dead loved ones. This has powerful emotional implications – even more so if this claim is not true. How does Sylvia do it? And when Sylvia makes a claim that we can check up on, how well does she do?
Tricks of the Trade: Cold Reading
Whether it is John Edward, James Van Praagh, or even Sylvia Browne, a TV psychic normally begins by asking questions. “I see an older woman, she tells me her name is Mary … definitely starts with an “M”” In a large TV audience, one person will invariably answer “Yes I know her” . So how did the psychic do it? For all those reading this: do you know an older woman whose name begins with an “M”? I do, and I bet good majority of you do as well. Here is another exchange between Van Praagh and a client:
“Did your husband linger on in the hospital, or did he pass quickly?”
“Oh, he died almost immediately!”
“Yes, because he’s saying to me, `I didn’t suffer. I was spared any pain.'”
So this woman’s husband said he didn’t suffer. Where did the psychic get this information? The spirit world or the woman herself? The above exchange makes it simple. The woman told the psychic that her husband passed quickly; remember the psychic had to ask, he did not know. TV psychics, for people who otherworldly knowledge, ask a lot of questions.
Asking vague questions and feeding back the information given is the hallmark of cold reading. Cold reading is what mentalists use to convince people they can read minds and talk to the dead. Here is Van Praagh trying out some cold reading techniques. Notice the vague questions that could apply to anyone and him feeding back the information he gleamed from the studio audience.
The type of reading you are seeing here is known as a ‘shot-gunning’. The cold reader, by asking lots of questions, is bound to get a response or a “hit” due to the large numbers of people present. The rest is up to human psychology, or what is aptly named the “Barnum” effect. Showman P.T. Barnum was an astute observer of human nature, and he noticed that people very much wanted to believe in the magic. When given a vague statement, the listener will often find a way to fit the reading to their life. I tried the Barnum effect myself, by drawing a random tarot card before an important career meeting. I found myself with a card that “open[ed] you to the warrior spirit, helping you to find your direction in life”. Who wouldn’t want to fit that statement into their immediate situation? The Barnum effect is alive and well, even in skeptics.
Cold reading also takes advantage of another aspect of human psychology – the tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses. In the video above, do you remember what Van Praagh got right? I remember him getting the woman’s religion correct. But how many misses were there, remembering that he asked a lot of questions. The sitters (people receiving the “psychic” reading) are likely going to forget those misses as well, and if the whole performance was not captured on video it is likely no one would have remembered how badly Van Praagh did.
To work at all, cold reading requires feedback from the audience. If the sitter is does not cooperate, the cold reading falls flat. Now we have a method to distinguish a psychic from a cold reading. A true psychic should be able to do the reading without feedback.
Sylvia Browne, once seen daily on the Montel Williams show, performs her psychic reading using methods identical to the ones described above. If she wanted to, Sylvia has the option of removing all doubt in her abilities by submitting to a scientific inquiry. World famous magician James Randi has offered to arrange the necessary details. Even though Sylvia has publicly promised to take the test, she has yet to follow through on that promise. Without a proper scientific test, we are left with the observation that her performance is identical to those of magicians.
Since Sylvia has made numerous television appearances, we now have an extensive record of her various predictions. Some involve missing persons, or murder cases that were later solved. Let us see how Sylvia does. The following data was compiled by Robert Lancaster, the web master of the Stop Sylvia web site. Of Sylvia’s many readings, Robert could find a grand total of zero cases where Sylvia’s information was of use. That is zero, nil, zilch, none, and Sylvia is supposed to be a psychic!
Here is the sad case of Opal Jennings, a six year old girl, abducted from her grandmother’s front yard in March of 1999. I can not even imagine the pain and frustration of Opal’s family. This is what Sylvia had to say:
“She’s… not… dead. But what bothers me – now I’ve never heard of this before, but for some reason, she was taken and put into some kind of a slavery thing and taken into Japan. The place is Kukouro. Or Kukoura. I don’t know anything about it, but…”
This broadcast aired the end of April 1999; the family finally got news when Robert Lee Frank was arrested and later convicted of Opal’s abduction. The whole affair was brought to a sad conclusion when Opal’s remains were found 13 miles from where she was abducted. When Sylvia was tapping into her psychic guides, Opal was neither alive nor anywhere near Japan.
In October of 2002, Sean Hornbeck, an 11 year old boy, went missing from his home in Richwood, Missouri. In February of 2003, Sean’s parents, after exhausting all other methods, went on the Montel Williams show to meet Sylvia. Sylvia sees Sean within a 20 mile radius of his Missouri home.
Pam Akers (mother): Is there any landmarks around?
Browne: Yeah. Strange enough, there are two jagged boulders, which look really misplaced. Because everything is trees, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got these stupid boulders sitting there.
Williams:: And he could be found near there?
Browne: He’s near the boulders.
Pam Akers: Is he still with us?
Browne: [shaking her head] No.
Sylvia informed the parents of Sean that he was dead and they might find his body in a forest 20 miles south-west of their home. Sean’s parents Craig and Pam Akers diverted the search to follow this lead; their efforts were fruitless. Finally, in January 2007, while following up on another missing persons case, police searched the home of Michael Develin and found the missing boy and Sean Hornbeck, very much alive. The “information” Sylvia provided was worse then useless; she got every significant detail of the case wrong. More than that, she wasted police resources and time. She also devastated Sean’s parents; Craig Akers describes her reading as “one of the hardest things we ever had to hear.” How much did Sylvia want for her misinformation? $700 dollars appears to be the going price to add to a parent’s grief.
Sylvia did nothing to help either of these cases – in fact, she added to the anguish of the family. The family of Opal Jennings was tormented by the thought of their child sold into slavery. The parents of Sean Hornbeck spent months combing the forest for their son’s body when he was actually alive. I mention this to forestall the typical objection raised by defenders of psychics and mediums. We are told that psychics such as Sylvia bring comfort to the bereaved. The two examples above suggest otherwise. Having lost family members myself, I can attest that I will derive no comfort having a psychic pollute my memories of the departed with their fumbling cold reading. To further this point, I will present this final bit of evidence.
Woman: I lost my boyfriend tragically, um… a few years ago. (choking back tears) They never found him, and I’ve had such a hard time since. Every day.
(Sylvia) Browne: The reason why you didn’t find him is ’cause he’s in water. And, find him in water…
Browne: (to Montel) it’s like the girl that’s missing in Aruba. (to woman) You can’t find somebody…
Woman: (interrupting) Well, it was… September eleventh. There was no… He was a fireman, but… there was no…
Browne: Well no, you see, I keep seeing him in water.
(The woman shakes her head, visibly upset. There is a pause.)
Browne: Is there any way he could have drowned in water, someway?
Woman: (shakes her head) They never found a piece of him. Nothing.
(Montel) Williams: (to Sylvia) From 9/11.
Browne: ‘Cause he’s… he says he couldn’t breathe and he was filled with water.
The woman later contacted Robert Lancaster with this testimony; “I am appalled and embarrassed that the Montel Show would even dare to air such BS… let alone constantly have it repeated on air.” Sylvia Browne brought her no comfort. I have reproduced the transcript here in case there is any remaining doubt as to the cruelty of pretending to talk to the dead.