Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I’m neither a supporter nor a detractor of Sylvia Browne. I had been hearing of her practically all of my adult life as her office many years ago was not far from where I used to live. She was known as an expensive psychic even back then. (And still is). I never got a reading from her and no one I know did either. I haven’t read her books and what little I have seen isn’t the stuff that I’m in to. Whether she is a real psychic or not is unimportant to me; her contributions to society are solely as a personality and have no effect on the parapsychology debate. The controversy surrounding Sylvia, however, is interesting.
Sylvia Browne has probably received almost as much bad press as John Edwards, who got his own vastly insulting South Park episode where he was labeled “Douchebag of the Universe” or something. It doesn’t get much worse than that. But Sylvia Browne has her own detractors, many of which are quite vocal. One person, Robert S. Lancaster, has devoted a website specifically to bashing her, collecting as much evidence as possible to “prove” that she’s a fraud.
People have collected her failed predictions and failed readings with almost religious devotion, much of which can be found on Youtube. JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation has a clock to determine how long it’s been since she accepted his challenge. Are her detractors right? Is she really a fraud? Let’s look at how science would approach this problem and in the meantime, I’ll show that much of what passes for legitimate skepticism regarding her abilities is, in fact, Red Neck Science.
I define Red Neck Science here as gathering insufficient evidence and using it to establishing poor assumptions with faulty logic. It’s along the lines of : “My sister used to eat carrots and then she got cancer so I’m not going to eat carrots.” This logic problem can be undoubtedly be found among the supporters of Sylvia, but it is her detractors I’m focusing on.
Many people think that they have enough evidence to evaluate her, but in fact, they don’t. The problem here is that we can only shed light on her talents (or theoretical lack thereof) with statistics. If she is indeed a psychic person, she will beat chance expectations over time, but not every time. Like pretty much all other psychic people she is not good enough to be right so often that there can be no doubt whatsoever.
What happens is that as evidence accumulates of her success and failures this allows people with a bias in either direction to see what they want to see. Detractors emphasize her failures, her supporters her successes. The truth does not lie somewhere in between, it lies in statistics and careful interpretation. We cannot know whether she is any good without knowing a number of things:
1. How do we measure a success? (hit) or a failure? (miss). This is a very difficult question because an overly narrow interpretation of success in a psychic reading will almost always yield an undeserved failure and an overly broad interpretation will yield an undeserved success. While this might seem very straightforward at first glance, (hey! either she got it right or she didn’t), it turns out that in real life it’s not quite so simple. There are a wide range of answers that can be considered hits or misses depending on who is doing the interpretation. Suppose for example, that a psychic told me that she saw me as a child with two older brothers and one younger. I have only one older brother and one younger, but I also have an uncle who is only two years older than me, and he used to hang out with us. In other words, he was a close relative that was very much like a brother. Is this a hit or a miss? Gary Schwartz has been dealing with this problem in his studies of mediumship. A fair analysis can be done, but it is not a slam dunk situation.
2. Can the same positive results be achieved through cold reading? Skeptics always point to cold reading as the reason for any success that psychics have and Sylvia Browne has certainly been accused of cold reading. While I personally consider this to be a poor explanation it has to be accounted for. A generalized success rate for cold reading has never been determined. No one does cold reading for a living. Magicians use hot reading where they find out information about the person ahead of time. This is not economically feasible for psychic readers. Red Neck science however, holds that since this is the most plausible explanation, this must be the right one. In fact, we have no idea.
There are a multitude of other details to account for in a true scientific test that I won’t get into here. The point is that her abilities cannot be measured by simply counting up her failures or successes. At a minimum, you need to have both available and even then evaluation can be difficult. The methodology for how you interpret a hit or a miss is an open door for researcher bias which means that any experiment into her abilities would have to take the researcher’s own biases into account.
In Red Neck science, she has to prove herself by taking a “scientific test” even though the skeptics has no idea what that entails. There is no standardized test to measure a person’s psychic ability. None. Nada. There have been many tests for the existence of psychic ability, those studies number in the thousands, but none has ever been created for universally testing for a single person’s psychic ability. Psychological tests typically have huge databases on which to draw in order to make sure that the evaluations are as accurate as possible. They’ve been refined over a number of years. A test for Sylvia Browne’s psychic ability would have none of that. Put simply: Such a test would be the equivalent of a prototype, (with all the flaws) and there would be no one to compare her to.
Let me give a few examples of the important questions that need to be answered for fair testing: How long should the test be? What should be tested? How should this be tested? Most importantly, what will we accept as success? This last question is harder than it may appear. We want the test to be hard enough so that someone without psychic ability cannot possibly pass it, but easy enough so that people who are actually psychic can do this. (If you set up a test and no one can pass it, this does not mean that psychic ability does not exist. It can also mean that the test is too hard. You have to test a lot of people before you can know what that point is. Right now, this data does not exist.
Randi’s million dollar challenge? That is rather involved, but basically it is meaningless int this context. I’ve dealt with it in this article. Suffice to say that given what I know about Randi’s challenge, she would be insane to take him up on his offer. You have to know something about the science to understand how this all works, but based on the experiences of previous challengers her chances of succeeding are literally beyond a million to one.
Realistically, no sane person in her position would allow themselves to be tested anyway. Sylvia Browne has spent most of her adult life building her business through writing books, television appearances, psychic readings and other methods. To be tested is to risk her livelihood, her reputation and source of income on a gamble that probably wouldn’t satisfy her detractors even if she succeeded. What is to stop the skeptics from quibbling endlessly over whether her test meant anything? Historical reception of positive results in parapsychological studies suggests that disbelief will remain regardless of the outcome. In other words, if she wins, the fight continues and if she loses she’s probably ruined. I think she can be forgiven for not getting herself into a situation where she is screwed no matter what happens.
There is really only one way at this point to evaluate her and that is to look at the existing evidence. Here is my take on this based on what I know: Psychic reading is a very competitive field with thousands of psychics entering and leaving the field in any given year. There is almost no barrier to entry and it is difficult for anyone to distinguish themselves. Because of this, word of mouth advertising is critical to long term success. The fact that Sylvia Browne somehow rose above the noise to become one of the most prominent psychics in the world suggests that there is something beyond marketing at work here. It is very likely that she possesses a great deal of talent. Rising to the top without a lot of talent would be just about impossible.
I want to point out one other thing along these lines: She is homely. She was never a physically beautiful woman and what makes this important is that it is difficult to market homely people no matter how talented they are and nearly impossible to market untalented people unless they are really physically attractive.
I can also draw upon my personal experience with psychic people and also what I have researched. Based on my personal understanding, which is considerable, the religion she created and subscribes to could not be more in line with the values and beliefs of other psychic people if she tried. (I do not belong to her church and there’s no secret psychic school that teaches this stuff, these are just values and beliefs that psychic people gravitate towards. I covered this in the article Smorgasbord Religion: The Psychic Person’s Way.) It is unlikely that a person without psychic ability would have conceived of this. As an example, another made up religion, the Jedi Religion, which was created by non psychic geeks, is much different.
There are other indications of psychic ability which would rely on knowing her personally. Psychic people appear to have quite a few characteristics in common. (I’ve dealt with this in the article Characteristics of Psychic People and I’m currently surveying psychic people to learn more information. See details here.) If she possesses these characteristics, then she is very likely psychic. I don’t know her, so I can’t comment on this.
Common sense points to the likelihood that Sylvia Browne is for real. Whether any individual reading will be accurate and helpful I cannot say because psychic ability is a hit and miss affair; no psychic has ever been known to have 100% accuracy. (Gary Schwartz, in his studies on mediumship, had psychic clock in at around 85%). I cannot say whether her readings are worth the money because that is a value judgment. People have to decide these things for themselves.
The most important point to come away with here is that in judging her talents, it’s important to look at the issues closely, use some common sense in assessing her talents and to avoid relying on Red Neck Science to make any judgment.