Sylvia Browne: Psychic or Con Artist?

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Shortly before her death, the Web site that bears Sylvia Browne's name described her this way:

Sylvia Browne is a world renowned spiritual teacher, psychic, author, lecturer and researcher in the field of parapsychology. Sylvia is well known for her dynamic, genuine, down-to-earth style and personality. She lectures, teaches, and counsels people from all over the world including Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Sylvia manifested her psychic ability at the age of three, in her home town of Kansas City, MO. For many years she shared her gift with friends and family, and became very well known for helping people to see their future. Moving to California in 1964, she continued assisting people privately. Sylvia then wanted to make a professional, legally sanctioned, organization to further her research into the paranormal. This goal was realized in 1974 when Sylvia incorporated The Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research, a nonprofit organization (now known as Sylvia Browne Corporation). Since then, Sylvia has helped thousands of people gain control of their lives, live more happily, understand the meaning of life, and to find God in their own unique way [1].

In1986, Sylvia founded the Church of the Novus Spiritus by Sylvia Browne, which, in about 1990, was renamed the Society of Novus Spiritus.

Sylvia was a prolific author. Amazon Books lists about 50 of her books plus several CDs. The titles include: Contacting Your Spiritual Guide; Life on the other Side: A Psychic's Tour of the Afterlife; Past Lives, Future Healing; Sylvia Browne's Book of Dreams; Sylvia Browne's Book of Angels; Visits from the Afterlife: The Truth about Hauntings, Spirits, and Reunions with Loved Ones; Sylvia Browne's Lessons for Life; and Afterlives of the Rich and Famous.

In addition to royalties from books, Sylvia derived income from lecture tours, hotel performances, private telephone and face-to-face "readings," and "spiritual salons" in which she answered several questions. In 2008, Robert Lancaster, who tracked Browne's activities closely for many years, estimated that her gross income from readings alone was at least $3 million per year [2].

Throughout her career as a "psychic," Sylvia claimed to diagnose health problems, communicate with the dead, sense what happened to missing persons, and even to have proven there is an afterlife. TV talk-show host Montel Williams, who hosted Sylvia weekly for many years, was entirely supportive and never expressed skepticism of her work. CNN's Larry King, who hosted her several times, occasionally included skeptics as guests, but neither he nor Montel ever showed the slightest interest in checking the accuracy of her claims or investigating whether Sylvia's health advice harmed people by causing them to delay appropriate medical care or undergo needless tests to look for nonexistent problems that Sylvia "saw."

In May 2003, Larry King asked Sylvia whether she knew when she was going to die. She replied "Yes, when I am 88." [3} However, she died on November 20, 2013, at the age of 77. The cause of death has not been publicly revealed, but in March 2011, the Society of Novus Spiritus announced in a fundraising appeal that Browne had suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized in Hawaii [4].

Background History

Browne, whose original name was Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 1936. She claimed that she started seeing visions at the age of five, and that her grandmother, who claimed to be a psychic medium, had helped her understand what they meant. In 2003, her Web site stated:

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." [5]

Browne claimed to have graduated from college and obtained a masters degree in English literature. However, there is good reason to believe she has neither [6].

Browne married five times. Her first marriage, from 1959 to 1972, was to Gary Dufresne. The couple had two sons, one of whom (Christopher Dufresne) she says is a psychic. Her second marriage, to Joe Tschirhart in 1952, was annulled soon afterward. Her third marriage was to Kensil Dallzell Brown, after which she began using his last name and later changed it to Browne. From 1994 through 2002, she was married to Larry Beck. In 2009, she married Michael Ulery, a jewelry store owner.

In 1992, Sylvia and Kensil Brown were accused of illegally selling securities that had not been registered with the State of California. Both were also charged with misrepresentations and grand theft, and Kensil was additionally charged with fraud. The complaint stated that (a) the Browns obtained a $20,000 investment in their gold-mining venture by misrepresenting the financial status of the company, (b) instead of using the money for operating expenses, the Browns used much of it to pay for personal and corporate indebtedness, (c) a few weeks later the Browns declared bankruptcy without telling the investor, and (d) the Browns falsely told the investor that his money would be recovered when the mining equipment was sold. In 1993, the Browns pleaded "no contest" to a felony violation of "sale of securities without permit." After they made restitution, both were ordered to serve one year on probation. Sylvia was additionally ordered to perform 200 hours of community service, while Kensil was sentenced to about 100 days in the county jail [7].

In 2007, in an interview recorded by Robert Lancaster, Sylvia's first husband Gary Dufresne said this about Browne's alleged psychic abilities during the period when they were dating:

Tarot cards were popular at that time, and when we would have parties . . . . I was with the staff of the fire department at that time. . . . She would do these readings for people who wanted to hear it. . . . One night after one of these parties when she was particularly putting out all the garbage that she does—just like her readings now, right off the top of her head this stuff comes—no thought, no thought of anything else. Umm, I said to her as we were washing dishes and she was wiping or whatever, I said "Sylvia, how can you tell people this kind of stuff? You know it's not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe that." And she said—and I won't put it exactly the word that she said but she said—but "Screw 'em. Anybody who believes this stuff oughtta be taken." And that pretty much sums up Sylvia's philosophy about the psychic stuff. And it's carried over, you know, into her, quote, uh . . . fraudulent career [8].

Repeated Refusals to be Tested.

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 [9].

Sylvia 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 [10]. But she failed to contact Randi to initiate the process.

In September 2001, on Larry King Live, Randi specified the type of psychic ability he would test and she again agreed to be tested. 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, Bryan Farha, Ed.D. managed to get past the screeners by telling them he wanted to ask about his "dead cousin." Farha did this because as far as he knew, no skeptic had ever been able to get through while Sylvia was on the air. In response to his questions, Sylvia once again agreed to be tested if the money's availability could be validated, and Larry King agreed to help arrange for the testing [11}. A verification letter from Goldman Sachs & Company was sent to both of them, but neither responded to it or other requests to set up the test [12].

Failed Predictions

Although Sylvia refused to be tested, there were other ways to examine her work. On December 29, 2004, Sylvia made her annual predictions for the year 2005. Sensing an opportunity to test her accuracy, Professor Farha made arrangements to compare Sylvia's accuracy with that of 31 fourth grade students at a local school. Some of Sylvia's predictions were so vague that lots of possible events might enable her to claim that a prediction was correct. (For example, her prediction that President Bush would "step up to the plate" could be interpreted in many ways.) To avoid this possibility, he chose he eleven predictions that would have a clear, measurable outcome. Then, to prevent students from being influenced by Sylvia's opinions, he rephrased the predictions as questions that would not indicate what she had predicted. (For example, he changed "The United States will go to war with North Korea," to "Will the United States go to war with North Korea?") When 2005 ended, he tabulated the results. Sylvia had predicted only 3 of the 11 outcomes (27%) correctly. That's about half of what would be expected by pure guessing. One student made 8 correct predictions, five got 7 correct, nine got 6 correct, six got 5 correct, seven got 4 correct, two got 3 correct, and one got 2 correct. In other words, 28 out of 31 did better than Sylvia, two did the same, and only one did worse! [13]

In 2010, Skeptical Inquirer published a comprehensive analysis of Sylvia's predictions about missing persons. Using Internet and other database searches, the authors located 115 cases. In 90 of these, the outcome could not be determined because the cases had not been solved. In 25, however, where the outcome was known, she was wrong every time. The authors concluded:

These 115 cases prove devastating to Browne's claims of helping police and families. It is hard to understand how someone with such a dismal record continually tops bestseller lists and maintains a following. In a 2000 interview, Browne explained it best: "I've always said to so many people you're only as good as your last reading. If you're not good, if you're not accurate, if you don't find missing people and you don't work with doctors and do health diagnosis with them then you're, you know, you're not good." Indeed, we agree on that point. Judging from Browne's lack of accuracy, it seems safe to conclude that, in her own words, she is "not good." If she could really help police, then one would expect a statistically significant number of cases to be solved using Browne's "predictions." The only question that remains is why people continually support and seek her advice [14].

In 2011, after U.S. troops killed terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, Professor Farka noted that in 2004, and again in 2005, Sylvia had stated that Osama Bin Laden was dead [15}. In 2013, one of the Skeptical Inquirer authors noted that Sylvia had been wrong or mostly wrong about eight more cases on their "outcome unknown" list. Her most spectacular of these was that of Amanda Berry who, along with two other women, was freed from captivity in May 2013. (In 2004, Sylvia had told Amanda's mother that Amanda was dead.) [16]

The bad advice Sylvia gave to families of missing persons could not only add to the trauma being suffered but could lead their families to insist on law enforcement following up on fictional "leads," which would wasting hours and manpower that could have been used to follow up on real leads.

The Bottom Line

Throughout her career as a "psychic," Sylvia Browne took money—under false pretenses—from people who were emotionally vulnerable. By inventing messages from or about lost loved ones, she could tarnish the true memories of these people. Sylvia's medical diagnoses could lead people who trusted her to pursue incorrect diagnoses, waste money ruling them out, and/or ignore the advice of their own medical professionals.

For Additional Information

References

  1. Sylvia Browne's biography. Sylvia Browne's Web site. Archived Dec 4, 2013.
  2. Lancaster RS. Just how much money does Sylvia Browne make? Stop Sylvia Browne Web site, March 3, 2008.
  3. Transcript. CNN Larry King Live, May 16, 2003.
  4. Special urgent announcement. Society of Novus Spiritus, March 24, 2011.
  5. Home page. Sylvia.org. Archived Dec 4, 2003.
  6. Lancaster R. A Sylvia Browne transcript. Stop Sylvia Browne Web site, accessed Dec 12, 2014.
  7. Barrett S. Sylvia Browne's criminal conviction. Casewatch, December 12, 2013.
  8. Interview with Gary Dufresne, Feb 10, 2007.
  9. One million dollar paranormal challenge. James Randi Educational Foundation Web site, accessed, December 13, 2013.
  10. Are psychics for real? CNN Larry King Live, March 6, 2001.
  11. Interview with Sylvia Browne. CNN Larry King Live, May 16, 2003.
  12. Farha B. Sylvia Browne: A faded psychic star. Smoke & Mirrors Blog, Dec 10, 2013.
  13. Farha B. How fourth-grade students made better predictions than Sylvia Browne. Quackwatch, Nov 30, 2013.
  14. Shaffer R, Jadwiszczok. Psychic defective. Sylvia Brown's history of failure. Skeptical Inquirer 34(2):38-42, 2010.
  15. Farha B. In 2004, Sylvia Browne wrong predicted Osama Bin Laden dead. Smoke & Mirrors Blog, May 6, 2011.
  16. Shafer R. The psychic defective revisited: Years later, Sylvia Browne's accuracy remains dismal. Skeptical Inquirer 37(5), 2013.

This article was posted on December 14, 2013.