Tuesday, May 7, 2013

That's Called a "Miss"

The story all over the media today is the rescue of three Cleveland women who had been held in captivity for many years. Amanda Berry, the second woman kidnapped, had been held for more than a decade. Back in 2004, on The Montel Williams Show, Berry's mother was told by celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne that her daughter was dead. With Berry's successful rescue, it's now clear that Browne's alleged abilities were at the very least seriously off that day. This article, originally published in 2004 before the young woman's fate was known, covers the broadcast.

Desperate for any clue as to Amanda Berry’s whereabouts, and tired of unanswered questions from authorities, Miller turned to a psychic on Montel Williams’ nationally syndicated television show. The psychic said what the FBI, police and Miller hadn’t. “She’s not alive, honey,” Sylvia Browne told her matter-of-factly. “Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.”

With those blunt words, Browne persuaded Miller to accept a grim probability that has become more likely with each passing day. Miller went back to the West Side home where she had been keeping Amanda’s things in careful order and cleaned up. She gave away her daughter’s computer and took down her pictures. “I’m not even buying my baby a Christmas present this year,” she said. Miller said she returned devastated from the show, taped this month in New York.

Is it overly cynical of me to suspect that Browne has no powers at all and was just playing the odds? Perhaps, but even though I believe that there are genuine psychics in the world, this is pretty transparent. At the time the show was taped Berry had been missing for nineteen months. If you look at actual criminal abduction cases, the odds that a missing person will reappear after being gone so long is probably something like one percent or less. Guessing they're dead is pretty much the definition of playing it safe.

The fact is that as many skeptics note, you can be right a lot of time just by understanding the odds of various events. Alternately, perhaps like most magicians Browne's powers only work some of the time and when they don't she has to cheat. Still, given the emotions involved the latter strikes me as pretty unethical. If Browne was getting nothing, she should have just said that she was getting nothing - and resisted the temptation to play the odds with Berry's grieving mother.

I understand that celebrity psychics engaging in media appearances are under a lot of pressure to get something, but faking it - ever - just adds to the widespread perception that these people are frauds and therefore so is absolutely anything psychic or paranormal. I realize that stating she was having a bad day on national television would have hurt Browne's public image and undermined her with clients who pay good money for her insights, but what about now? It strikes me as pretty dumb to pay for psychic visions that are simple guesses you could make yourself at least some of the time.

Given these events it would be interesting to see a breakdown of Browne's predictions and how accurate they really are. I have no idea where to find all the information for this, as her career has been quite long, but I would be looking in particular for (A) cases in which she predicted something unlikely that came to pass and (B) cases in which she predicted something likely that did not. In fact, this schema could provide a metric by which psychics could be evaluated that teases out normal guesswork. Theoretically, a psychic who has a high A/B ratio should be more likely to have genuine powers than someone whose ratio is low.

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V.V.F. said...

There's a great blog about just this sort of subject, called "Swallowing the Camel"; the author has a collection of Sylvia Browne's false results here. He's also collected false and positive predictions for 2009 and 2012. Obviously it's not a list of every prognostication she's ever made, but...yeesh.

Scott Stenwick said...

Wow, thanks for passing that along. I'll give that a look. Apparently I'm not the only one who has some doubts about Browne's accuracy.

Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

A few years ago, I read her book about Secret Societies. In it, she mentioned a secret society that her spirit guide told her about, one that she can find absolutely no evidence or information on...as I pointed out in my book review, just maybe it doesn't actually exist. Personally, I think that my cats are more psychic.

Scott Stenwick said...

@Morgan, That's good information. Was this society the Illuminati, by any chance, or a related body? You know, because all non-existent secret societies are the Illuminati!

Do you still have a link to that review, by any chance? It sounds like something I would like to check out.

JB the HP said...

Sylvia Browne also wrote an astrology book AND KNEW NOTHING ABOUT ASTROLOGY! She is a fraud from the word go, and since I am a professional tarot reader myself and astrologer, she irritates me no end.
Thanks for letting me rant :-)

Scott Stenwick said...

@JB: Why am I not surprised...

When Aleister Crowley wrote in De Thaumaturgia that people were more predisposed to accept fake miracles rather than real ones, he clearly was talking about folks like Browne. She apparently has quite the racket going.