When I was a teenager, I went to a psychic medium. I don’t remember her name. She was hosting some sort of workshop at this New Age hippy crystal shop and I decided to attend. I don’t recall what the workshop itself was about; probably unlocking your inner potential or discovering your past lives or something. The whole thing was free, though, and after it was over, the psychic gave a few people free readings. I was one of those who received a reading. I’m glad it was free; in fact, considering what the reading did for my development as a skeptic, I’d say it was a bargain.
She looked me over for a while, mostly focusing on my eyes and face. Then she started in with the probing, open-ended questions. I wasn’t familiar yet with the term “cold reading” but I knew better than to provide her with any hooks. She was the psychic. She was supposed to figure me out with supernatural powers.
She asked if there was somebody in my life who I’d lost, somebody whose name started with “D.” My dad’s still alive, so that was out. Neither of my grandfathers have a D in their names (unless you count the last letter of my maternal grandfather’s middle name, which seams rather circuitous). The only “D” I have is my half-brother, David, who is still very much alive and thus has more effective means of reaching out to me (like a phone call). So it probably wasn’t him, either.
When that failed to elicit any sort of response, she moved on to my future. “You’re good with computers,” she said. “I see that the thing you do with the computer, you need to keep doing it. You shouldn’t stop.”
Holy shit, you might say! She predicted that I would become an aspiring writer! That’s amazing!
Except, you know, not really. For one thing, she was very clear that the “thing I was doing with computers” was a current thing and that I needed to keep doing it. She didn’t say “in a few years, you will start writing on a computer.” At the time, the only thing I was working on was my fledgling HTML skills and designing horrible Angelfire websites. Needless to say, that was a phase that didn’t last and we’re all better off as a result.
So the HTML thing was a bust and she missed out on the fact that I wanted to be a novelist. I’d say she was 0 for 2.
And, honestly? How fucking hard is it to predict that a socially awkward white teenage male “does things on the computers?” Hell, you could tell just be looking at me that I was a nerd. It was a safe bet and an easy guess. And that’s all it was: guessing. Even worse was that I could feel the urge to help her along by supplying clues. I wanted it to work and I wanted to know the secret knowledge she had. If I’d been more forthcoming with clues, I’m sure she would have had lots to tell me about me.
When I learned about cold reading a few years later and compared it to my own experience, that was the nail in the coffin for so-called “psychics.”
Normally, that would be the end of that. I didn’t get conned, so why should I care?
Sylvia fucking Browne is why I care.
Like everybody else, I’ve been following the Cleveland abduction story with a sort of morbid fascination. There’s something chilling about this story that gets to me even as I imagine the extraordinary survival of these three women. The level of horror is only surpassed by the resilience of the women involved and the heroism of those who came to their aid. It’s a powerful story.
And then there’s Sylvia.
Sylvia fucking Browne, who predicted in 2008 that survivor Amanda Berry was “in heaven and on the other side” and that her last words were “goodbye, mom, I love you.”
Yeah, except not. The icing on this particular horror cake comes from the fact that Berry’s mother would die a year later and thus not live to see her daughter’s survival. So that’s awesome.
Here’s what Sylvia fucking Browne has to say in her defense:
For more than 50 years as a spiritual psychic and guide, when called upon to either help authorities with missing person cases or to help families with questions about their loved ones, I have been more right than wrong. If ever there was a time to be grateful and relieved for being mistaken, this is that time. Only God is right all the time. My heart goes out to Amanda Berry, her family, the other victims and their families. I wish you a peaceful recovery.
There are two ways to read this. First, psychic powers aren’t 100%. Sometimes they get things wrong. Sometimes, I don’t know, the spirits aren’t cooperative or whatever. Only God is right all the time, she says. But that brings up a relevant question: if that’s the case, why the fuck should we listen to spirits then? The allure of psychic prediction is that you’re getting supernatural knowledge that you can rely on. If it’s more faulty than a weather forecast, what’s the point?
If it “might be right, might be wrong,” that’s an even worse argument for psychic predictions, because you can’t test them. If you can’t know that the information is good, it’s worthless. You can’t trust it if there’s a margin of error the way you could with more mundane information, where you could test the information and hopefully reduce the margin.
The other possibility (and let’s face it, this is what’s actually going on) is that Sylvia fucking Browne is just guessing. She’s just making shit up. Her predictions are just guesses. Her track record seems to suggest that this is the case.
It doesn’t matter which way you go with this: believe in psychic powers or don’t believe, her predictions are equally worthless.
The worst part is that she fucking manipulates grieving people when they’re at their most vulnerable. It’s not even that she’s giving them false hope; she wrongly predicted that Berry was dead. She took what hope might have been there and fucking crushed it.
In any crisis, it’s always important to keep your morale up. People have lived or died because of their hope or lack thereof. If Sylvia fucking Browne was offering false hope, that would well and truly suck, but you could say, hey, she’s giving them something to cling to. But this? Making a guess about a girl’s death? This is how you make your fucking millions of dollars?
I hate her. I hate what she does to people like the Berrys and all the other families who she has harmed with her lies.
Here’s the worst part: there is no vindication forthcoming. Due to the confirmation bias of human cognition, our brains are extraordinarily good at filtering out information that disproves our particular hypotheses. If you start out with the belief that “Sylvia Browne is a real psychic and has real psychic powers,” it doesn’t matter how many times she gets it wrong. If you want to believe, you’re going to believe, evidence be damned.
The confirmation bias is why it’s so difficult to remove beliefs even after they’ve been discredited. The brain wants to cling to the belief and weighs it as more important than the evidence disproving the belief. We just don’t hold on to the relevant facts, not when the personal cost of being wrong (whether emotional, social, or economic) is so much worse than the payout, which is just the satisfaction of being right.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how many times Sylvia fucking Browne gets it wrong. She can get it wrong every single time. She’ll still be there, telling lies, making guesses, pretending she has special powers and hurting people who need real answers, not charlatanism. It is possible to overcome the confirmation bias but it’s not easy and you have to really want it.
One of Sylvia Browne’s most vehement critics, James Randi, is a personal hero of mine. He is a personal hero because he took the skills of deception and illusion that he mastered as a stage magician and used those skills to improve people’s lives by exposing frauds like Sylvia fucking Browne. You might say I’m trying to follow in his footsteps, in my own small way, by using my talent for spinning bullshit to call another bullshitter out.
As a writer, telling stories and making shit up is my stock and trade. I tell stories all the time. I tell stories to amuse people. Sometimes, I’ve even tried to trick people. I can keep a straight face while spinning a line of bullshit and I’m roguishly proud of that fact. But at least I’m honest enough to label all my stories as fiction. I don’t put my shit in the non-fiction section of the library and tell people it’s the real deal and that I can talk to angels. I don’t tell grieving families that their little girl is dead just because of a fucking whim.
I just tell stories to entertain people.
Why does Sylvia tell stories? Does she tell stories to make the world a better place?
Or does she do it to sell another book, charge another $20 dollars a minute for a phone call, or to keep herself relevant in a digital age that’s making her lies easier and easier and easier for all to see?