Post-Mortem Debunking of Sylvia Browne’s Fraud

The Skeptical Inquirer has a pair of articles looking at the overwhelming evidence that the recently deceased Sylvia Browne was a con artist getting rich by fleecing the credulous. Bryan Farha tells the tale of how he exposed both her lies and her fraud:

Although she made a fortune and was likely laughing all the way to the bank (for example, one of her non-profit 990 forms indicates a single operation brought in $417,051), her reputation was controversial, primarily due to her career-long record of inaccurate predictions and readings—which was mostly revealed by James Randi, Robert Lancaster, Benjamin Radford, Ryan Shaffer, and me (there were a few others as well). Lancaster’s superb website,—as well as Randi’s—represented almost daily efforts to keep the public apprised regarding the truth about Sylvia Browne. She endured justified criticism after repeatedly agreeing to be tested by the James Randi Educational Foundation for her alleged ability—yet never doing so. Sylvia avoided the test because she claimed Randi didn’t have the one million dollar prize, as advertised. Thereafter, I went on CNN’s Larry King Live and showed indisputable visual evidence of the $1,000,000 (an account statement from the independent investment firm, Goldman Sachs)—an embarrassing moment for Sylvia on live, international television. To my knowledge, this was her last guest appearance on the show—previously averaging about three appearances per year.

Because she dodged Randi’s test (in which she even agreed on CNN to the specific protocol), I decided to test her without her knowing it. A few days after Sylvia made several predictions on the Montel Williams Show for the entire upcoming year of 2005, I asked my niece’s fourth grade class, individually, to predict on the same measures. Data analyses indicated that the fourth-graders were, collectively, 25% more accurate than Sylvia was—and these children were literally guessing on many items they knew nothing about (like world affairs, natural disasters, and politics). This was the real Sylvia Browne.

You can look up her annual predictions on her website and see for yourself how inaccurate they were. The only ones she ever “hit” on were either really obvious (“a terrible storm will hit in the Pacific ocean”) or so vague as to be meaningless (“the economy will run into some trouble this year”). Which is why a bunch of fourth graders could be just as accurate, if not more.

Ryan Shaffer points out that her claim to have helped the police solve dozens of crimes with her magic powers as a lie as well.

My 2010 coauthored article, “Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure,” compiled every publicly available prediction Browne made on missing person and death cases, totaling 115 readings, and concluded Sylvia Browne was mostly correct zero times, mostly wrong in twenty-five cases, and had ninety unknown outcomes (Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2010). In the last three years there have been developments in the cases of Amanda Berry, Nicholle Coppler, Jerry Cushey, Alexandra Ducsay, Dustin Ivey, Hunter Horgan, Amanda Lankey, Christopher Mader, Dena McCluskey, Michelle O’Keefe, and Pat Viola that were listed as having unknown outcomes.

This article updates the previous analysis with a new reading, bringing the total to 116 cases, and investigates changes in those eleven cases with previously unknown conclusions by showing Browne mostly wrong in eight, with three remaining in the unknown category. The result? The evidence demonstrates Browne still has never been mostly correct in a single case, thirty-three cases have mostly incorrect predictions, and eighty-three cases have unverified outcomes. The article also looks at the human toll Browne’s predictions have had and other notable predictions that can be finally evaluated.

The woman was a con artist, plain and simple.

"Or at least tried by this administration. :("

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  • Trebuchet

    Let’s not forget that her equally despicable son, Christopher DuFresne, is still running the family scam.

  • colnago80

    The biggest scandal in the Sylvia Browne saga is how assholes like Montel Williams have invited here to appear on their daytime shows. The publicity she got from those appearances was crucial to here financial success.

  • Channeling Sylvia Browne:

    “Dawling, I want you to know that the other side is real, but they don’t have unfiltered Luckies here.”

  • acroyear

    I’d love to know if the chap in the first article went back to the then 5th graders the next year with their predictions to actually show them how much better they were at it than Browne.

    THAT more than anything, is how to instill skepticism in a psychic’s claims – show that not just random chance, but your own pure ignorant guesswork, is better or equal than a self-proclaimed professional. Those kids would never believe another psychic again if they knew what they themselves had done.

  • acroyear

    The second article, btw, was published as the cover story in SI about two months ago, before she’d died (nevermind that it was mostly assembled several months earlier). One wonders if Skeptical Inquirer itself was more psychic than she was… 🙂

  • Well, I guess if nobody else wants her job, I’ll take it.

    I fucking KNEW this was going to happen.