Friday, August 09, 2013

Sylvia Browne
And other Vampires

Sylvia Browne and Montel Williams
on The Montel Williams Show

In May of 2013 we had the case of Amanda Berry, who disappeared April 21, 2003, resurface with the discovery that Amanda missing for ten years had been locked in a home and imprisoned for a decade with two other women has sex slaves.

Aside from the relief of family and friends that someone, most of them by now had thought of as dead was in fact alive and has a 6 year old child, there are other less savoury aspects of the case aside from the repulsive and evil sex slavery aspect. That aspect is the paranormal connection.1

It is here that we run into the phenomena known has Sylvia Browne. Sylvia Browne is one of the most famous of American psychics and has founded her own church, writes prolifically and makes oodles and oodles of money.2

On November 17, 2004 Sylvia Browne appeared on The Montel Williams show, also appearing on the show was Louwana Miller, Amanda Berry’s mother. During the show the following exchanges took place.

(Montel) Williams: My next guest needs to know what happened to her missing daughter. Now, this has been crazy, Sylvia. Take a look at this.

[Excerpt from videotape]

Williams: On April 21st, 2003, 16-year-old Amanda Berry left her part-time job never to be seen again.

(Louwana) Miller: It was the day before her 17th birthday. She had just got off of work, and she was walking home. Then she said, `I got a ride. I'll call you right back.'

Williams: Amanda never made it home that night. She was last seen getting into a vehicle with three men. Local law enforcement and FBI were immediately called in. The FBI, who had tapped the family's home phone, discovered that the stranger had called from Amanda's cell.

Miller: I got a phone call four or five days later, and they said, `Amanda's with me. She's fine, and I'll have her home in a few days.' And then a few days never came. It's been a year and a half since I've heard anything from my daughter. I need to speak with Sylvia to see if she can help me find out where my daughter is.

Williams: To this day, Amanda Berry has never been found.

[End of excerpt]

Williams: Please welcome Louwana to the show. Louwana, I mean, did your daughter normally--she called, obviously, and said to you, `I have a ride home.' Was that normal? That--just that? She would get a friend to pick her up and bring her home?

Miller: Yeah, she usually had somebody to take her to work or a friend would, you know, meet her outside or something because she just hated walking in that uniform. She hated it.

(Sylvia) Browne: Did she know of anybody by the name of...(censored by network).

Miller: I don't--I don't know. That don't sound familiar.

Browne: Now, what I don't understand is her jacket was in a dumpster. Because she's wearing a jacket.

Williams: Was she wearing a jacket?

Miller: She had on a black, hooded jacket, yes.

Williams: Would that give a clue to who--I mean, obviously...

Browne: Oh, yeah.

Williams: ...the last witness who saw her said three people?

Browne: Because with the--the "CSI" and everything else we have on now, the forensics--and I'm not trying to knock the police department, because I know they're overloaded, and I work with a lot of them.

Williams: But did she not say, `I have a ride home,' as if it was one person?

Miller: Right, she said, `I have a ride.'

Browne: There was only one person.

Miller: She was talking to my other daughter, and she said, `I have a ride, and I'll call you in a minute,' which we always keep in contact.

Browne: Now, the thing that gets me is this sort of Cuban-looking, short kind of stocky build, heavyset...

Miller: Can you tell me if they'll ever find her? Is she out there?

Browne: She's--see, I hate this when they're in water. I just hate this. She's not alive, honey. And I'll tell you why, here we go again. Your daughter was not the type that would not have called you.

Miller: Right.

Browne: In other words, there's a lot of runaways. You know what I'm saying...

Miller: Right.

Browne: ...that I've had on this show, where I say, `Oh, forget it, they're in Podunk, Idaho, or somewhere.' Your daughter was not the type that wouldn't have checked in with you if she was alive.

Miller: Right. Right.

Browne: But I'm sorry they didn't find the jacket. I'm sorry they didn't find, because that had DNA on it.

Williams: Is there any way that they can--this case will be solved? Or...

Browne: I think it will, especially if they look for this person. I can't believe--can you go back? Are there any people working there now that was working there then?

Miller: I don't think so.

Browne: Well, there's got to be somebody that you could track or the police could track.

Miller: He was a young kid? Or...

Browne: He was maybe 21, something like that, 21, 22.

Miller: Does he have...

Browne: Always wore his pants very low, you know?

Williams: The police have no--nothing, correct?

Miller: Nothing. And if anything they do find out, I--I don't hear nothing of it until it comes out on the news or something and they...

Browne: That's very common because a lot of times, they don't want to give any clues to anyone because we have a lot of copycats, and then they'll call in, you know? I remember when I was working on the Bundy case, they wouldn't let anything out, no.

Miller: So you don't think I'll ever get to see her again?

Browne: Yeah, in heaven, on the other side.

Williams: Let me take a little break. We'll be right back after this.3

The epilogue to this story is not that tearful and happy mother and daughter are reunited after ten years separation. A little over a year later Louwana Miller died of heart failure. And it appears that she had invested a lot of hope in Sylvia Browne and was completely devastated by Sylvia telling her, her daughter was dead, and so she died thinking her daughter was dead.4 It is certainly possible that thinking her daughter dead hastened her own for she was 44 when she died.

So not only was Sylvia Browne wrong in this matter she shattered the hopes of a desperate loving parent. If it seems like it reeks; it does.

Sylvia Browne is quite simply a fraud who has made a living at least partially by feeding on the desperation of people. Her track record is so to speak not very good. Let us take a gander at some figures.

In a piece written in 2010 two researchers checked the record regarding Sylvia Browne’s record as a psychic detective and the results were not impressive. Sylvia Browne has apparently made claims about being 85% correct. Well it appears that she is not correct at all. The researchers looked at all the cases they could find in the news media and the LexisNexis database and Newspaper sources. They found 115 cases of those in 25 cases Browne was simply wrong and in the rest ( 90 cases) the case was unsolved and / or no further details were available.5

In fact the number of failures is astounding in that it is coupled with NO accurate predictions. In fact it is quite remarkable that Sylvia Browne got nothing right. One would think that the operations of chance would make her right a couple of times at least just by sheer luck! By the way Amanda Berry’s disappearance is listed as number five in the category of unsolved / unknown. Well it is now solved and the number of cases that Sylvia got wrong should be changed to 26 and unsolved / unknown to 89. Thus even if we assume that Sylvia Browne is accurate in all the other cases that are unknown and unsolved that still works out to a 77.5% “success rate. Which is less than 85%. Of course given that Sylvia Browne has failed so spectacularly in the cases we can check the outcomes of; it is vastly more likely that Sylvia has failed equally spectacularly in the other 89 cases that are unsolved / unknown. I suspect that she may have scored some lucky “hits” in those cases but that her overall “success” rate is all too likely under 10%. Frankly there must be people who claim no psychic powers who do a lot better.

So yeah it seems that yes indeed Sylvia is a phony whose powers are non-existent.

Of course what also reeks to high heaven is the way the media in search of audiences, so that they could sell advertising for those audiences, boosted and marketed such a phony con. In this case we have among a long list of offenders Montel Williams who sold it seems his soul by having Sylvia on Browne on his show so often that Wednesday was called “Sylvia Browne Wednesdays”. This utterly shameless boostering of a fake medium is utterly repellent. But then the media goes in for sensationalistic crap with arguments that people need to see “both sides” and that “balance” is  called for so that they do not expose frauds and fakes but present “both sides” as if there was an even balance between the claims of psychics and those of their detractors. Well the onus is on those who believe in psychic powers not on those who claim no such a thing exists.

And of course Larry King also had Sylvia Browne on his show where she performed her tricks and Larry King, much like Montel Williams would soft ball questions at her. Unlike Montel Williams Larry King would have sceptics on although almost never with Sylvia Browne. No doubt it would have “upset” the psychic.

To get back to the excerpts from The Montel Williams Show. As you can read above Sylvia Browne claimed that the person who grabbed Amanda was 21 or 22 years old well Sylvia Browne got that wrong it appears that the kidnapper, Ariel Castro, was actually 42 years of age when Amanda disappeared. Further Sylvia Browne claims that she worked on the Ted Bundy case when she did not.6

It appears that Sylvia did get one thing “right” that the abductor was Hispanic, although she said Cuban not Hispanic. Still it is a partial hit. But against her blunders it is a totally insignificant partial hit.

And of course the intellectual skullduggery of Montel and Larry in having Sylvia Browne on his show week after week and thus giving her totally undeserved credibility, is awesome. Larry King should be ashamed but Montel Williams especially should be ashamed of his boosting of this fraud.

The reason of course why both of them had her on was of course in a craven effort to get a larger audience so they would sell more advertising dollars. No doubt all that cash made selling out so much easier.

Since Sylvia Browne has no credibility as a “genuine psychic” just how does she do it?

The answer is a sort of pact with her audience, or marks, combined with a simple to explain but difficult to do well technique. The technique is called “cold reading” and her audience is primed filled with people anxious to believe in her and her abilities. After all frequently her clients / marks are desperate people anxious about a loved one and willing to believe anyone who provides hope or closure. Also frequently these are people who already believe in psychic phenomena and as such are further primed to believe.

The technique of “Cold Reading” is based on a few quirks of the human mind. One is that people are similar enough that you can start with a generalised psychological spiel. Another is that for this technique to work you need continual feedback, by word or gesture from the mark / client. You can then feed back to the client / mark what they tell you directly or indirectly as psychic discoveries. The Psychic can make his / her reading even better by reading up on various groups and statistics etc. For example young women, old men etc., in order to tailor his / her spiel more effectively to the client / mark. And of course there is always getting information about the new client / mark ahead of time.

The fact that we generally have the same problems and conflicts involving love, death and birth etc., helps. And of course the psychic carefully observes the demeanour, dress etc., of the mark / client for clues. Even such things as grammar, syntax etc. provide clues. For all those provide clues. And when you add the general nature of the initial spiel things are set in motion to deceive.

The psychic usually starts by letting loose a flood of possibilities. Those that do not get affirmations are quietly dropped and forgotten. With those affirmations the psychic then makes a tentative reading. If that pans out the psychic gets much more specific, if not the hypothesis is quietly dropped and another one explored. During all this the psychic is receiving a continuous flow of affirmation or denial from the client / mark. In other words the client / mark is telling the psychic about him / herself. The psychic then feeds back the affirmations to the client / mark.

An interesting quirk of human nature / memory is that people tend to, especially believers, to remember the successful hits not the fishing for information, which is characteristic of psychic “cold reading”. In other words the tendency is for the multitude of misses NOT to be remembered. It is also helped by the fact that very generalised descriptions of a person’s psychology sound to most people convincing enough to apply to them personally, when in fact such descriptions regardless of what is in them sound that convincing to most people.7

For a successful “cold reading” the following ingredients are necessary.

1, You must look and act confident.

2, Use the latest statistics, polls etc.

3, Be modest about your abilities. This helps set up the mark / client and further offers a way out if you fail.

4. Claim that you need the cooperation of the mark / client. This helps to ensure that the client / mark’s guard is down.

5. Crap like tarot cards, crystal balls may help but is not essential.

6. Use boilerplate and stock jargon that everyone agrees with.

7. Keep eyes and ears open for clues from the clients dress, etc. It also makes you look honest.

8. Throw out a lot of possibilities; “fish” for information and then feed it back to the client / mark like it’s a psychic revelation.

9. Allow the client / mark to talk as much as they want. That way they will give you more information to feed back to them as revelation.

10. Be dramatic; let your inner drama queen come out.

11. Talk in a knowing manner insinuate you know more than you are letting on.

12. Flatter the client / mark. It makes you look sincere.

13. Try to tell the client what they want to hear. Since telling people what they want to hear will get them to think of you as genuine.8

Of course these rules are not hard and fast and Sylvia does not do all of them. For example no. 13 is one she frequently violates, but then she is so secure in her position of being a “true” psychic that she can crush people’s hopes and they still believe her.

Sylvia Browne was and remains someone who preys upon the weak, vulnerable, desperate and gullible. So frankly comparing her to vampires is insulting to vampires.

1. See Cell phone camera records Cleveland rescue of kidnapping victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, New York Daily News Here.

2. Sylvia Browne, Wikipedia Here.

3. Stop Sylvia Browne Here.

4. IBID.

5. Shaffer, Robert, Jadwiszczok, Agatha, Psychic Detective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure, Skeptical Inquirer, v. 34, no. 2, March / April 2010, Here.

6. IBID.

7. Hyman, Ray, Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers You Know All About Them, in Frazier, Kendrick, Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1981, pp. 79-96, at 81-83.

8. IBID, pp. 87-89.

Pierre Cloutier

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