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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sylvia Browne - Psychic Fraud.

The Toyota Way

Early life

Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker was the oldest of two daughters born to Bill Shoemaker and Celeste Shoemaker in Kansas City, Missouri on October 19, 1936. Bill Shoemaker had many jobs including a mailman, jewelry salesman and a vice president for a major freight line. Browne’s maternal grandmother, Ada Coil, also a self-proclaimed psychic medium, was a devout Lutheran. Bill Shoemaker was Jewish and Celeste Shoemaker was an Episcopalian. In order to establish stability, the family decided to convert to Catholicism and they were all baptised together when Browne was a young girl. Browne says that her visions started appearing when she was three-years-old and that her grandmother Ada Coil helped her understand why she had them. Browne also had a great-uncle who was a self proclaimed psychic medium.

Browne taught English in a Catholic School for seventeen years before working as a psychic full-time.

Claims of psychic ability

In a 2001 interview with Larry King, Browne stated that she is Jewish. Her stated beliefs include the notion of spirit guides: discarnate spirits who have previously lived mortal lives and now watch over currently living mortals. Communication from these guides might manifest, for example, as the "little voice in the head" telling a person to go another way home from work to avoid danger, or waking up a person in the middle of the night with news that someone has died. Browne professes the ability to speak with her spirit guide, "Francine," and has given details of fifty-four of her own former lives as divined by her.

She also claims to know what it is like in Heaven. In her book Life On The Other Side, she says the temperature is a constant 78 degrees Fahrenheit, that there are no insects (unless one wants there to be), that pets go to Heaven, and that one can build one's house wherever one wants it to be unless it obscures the view of a river or some trees, in which case one needs permission. She asserts that the other side exists approximately three feet above ground level and at a "higher vibrational level" and so is difficult for humans to perceive. However, she claims to have been born, like other psychics, able to perceive a wider range of "vibrational frequencies".

Browne declares that she can see angels and that they look similar to depictions in paintings, but have different traits depending on their "phylum". Her grand-daughter who is purportedly psychic claims to have witnessed the angels that Browne states come around humans. She also once claimed on Montel to be able to tell people the time and method of their death, and will reveal it if a person wants to know; she claims most people simply do not want to know.

History as a psychic

Browne began performing psychic readings since 1973 and has attracted a large following. She has performed thousands of one-on-one readings and with a wide variety of groups and individuals. Her son, Chris also claims to be a psychic and Browne's grandmother made similar claims. Browne claims to have provided information to police departments and the FBI, however police officers and family members say that in all 35 cases she worked on she played no useful role. She also claimed she has advised former U.S. presidents; but little evidence exists to support these claims.

Browne has made many predictions of varying accuracy, including that Bill Clinton was falsely accused in the Lewinsky scandal (proved incorrect), that Bill Bradley would win the 2000 U.S. presidential election with the Reform Party coming in second, the "hiding in caves" of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the death of bin Laden (later reported by the CIA as incorrect), a verdict of "not guilty" in the Robert Blake case (later established to be correct), and the appearance of alien life on Earth by the year 2010. Browne failed to predict the September 11, 2001 attacks but after the fact claimed she had disturbing dreams involving a lot of fire in the week preceding the attack.

Browne has been quoted as saying, "God only shows me what He needs to show me. Sometimes bad things have to happen in order for positive change to occur; or in order for the ultimate plan to be achieved."

Most of her past predictions no longer appear on her website, but can be found on Internet archives such as the Wayback Machine. Browne's predictions for the year 2000, however, are still viewable directly on her site.

She acquired the surname Brown during the third of her four marriages, and enhanced it with a final e for her stage name.

Television and radio

Browne is a frequent guest on US television and radio programs. She has appeared numerous times on Larry King Live as well as the Montel Williams Show and Coast to Coast AM. During these appearances she usually discusses her abilities with the host and then performs readings of audience members or callers.

On some occasions other guests at her appearances have included skeptics, with James Randi being one of the more frequent. These shows often feature verbal sparring between the two, with both trying to convince the audience that the other is wrong.

In March, 2004, their feud escalated on the popular St. Louis radio program, The Paul Harris Show, when Randi came out and called Browne a liar, referring to her claims about Randi's Million Dollar Challenge and other statements she had made about Randi.

During the infamous live interview with Larry King and James Randi, in which Randi offered Browne $1m if she would perform her abilities in a controlled environment, Browne changed the subject and told Randi that she was worried about his heart and that he needed to have it checked out.

Randi told Browne that he was not in the best shape and that he had lots of things wrong with his body and that this was public knowledge, but Browne insisted that he needed to have it checked out as soon as possible. Larry asked Randi to return after he was checked out to either confirm or deny the heart condition. Randi never followed-up. On February 8th, 2006 (5 years after Browne's first warning to Randi) Randi underwent bypass surgery on his heart.

Browne appeared as a guest of the May 24, 2006 episode of Montel. When an audience member asked if she would ever find her husband's body, Sylvia Browne replied that his body was in water. The woman responded that her husband died in the 9/11 attacks. Sylvia Browne explained that the "water" he was in must have been from the firemen trying to put out the fire.

Books and business

Browne has written a number of books that include both serious and humorous stories detailing her adventures. She is the head of the Sylvia Browne Corporation, and the founder of a church in Campbell, California known as the Society of Novus Spiritus. According to its website, (see external links), the church employs forty ministers, and refers to itself as "Gnostic Christian". It states that it follows the same traditions and teachings which Jesus himself followed, yet does not exclude Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism.

Society of Novus Spiritus

The Society of Novus Spiritus is a Gnostic Christian religion that was founded by Sylvia Browne. The Society of Novus Spiritus teaches the Biblical works of Jesus Christ while also incorporating the Gnostic Gospels (ex: Gospel of Mary Magdalene). It also teaches that while the Bible is a "marvelous book" and should be used as a teaching tool, it is not the "unaltered word of God".

One of the main philosophies of Novus Spiritus is that all spiritual questions can be answered. Novus teaches that the conventional Christian philosophy of, "have faith and trust in God" and "walk by faith and not by sight" is unacceptable, instead Novus encourages Christians to listen to the teachings of Jesus when he said, "Knock and the door will open. Seek and the answers will be provided."


It is a standard assertion of skeptics that famous psychics like Browne, John Edward and James Van Praagh use cold reading and hot reading techniques to fish for information.

Book Controversy

Sylvia Browne contradicted one of her stories regarding totem animals, which appeared in two of her books. In "Visits From the Afterlife", the story involved an ex-husband and herself. "In Life On The Other Side", the same exact story, this time, involved a client unrelated to her.

Sago Mine controversy

Many critics say an incident involving Browne on January 3, 2006 on the U.S. radio program Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, is evidence of her deception and fraud. The incident, which was broadcast live, involved Browne making her predictions for 2006. Browne and Noory were discussing the nature of her psychic premonitions, when Noory brought up the 2006 Sago Mine disaster. At the time it was believed, due to erroneous news reports, that 12 of the 13 trapped miners had been found alive. A transcript of the conversation follows:

Noory: Of course, this is after the fact, with the 12 or 13 coal miners they found successfully.

Browne: I know.

Noory: Had you been on the program today, and had they not been found, would you have felt as if, because they had heard no sounds, that this was a very gloomy moment, and they might have all died?

Browne: No, I knew they were going to be found. Uh, you know, I hate people who say something after the fact. It's just like I knew when the Pope was dead and I said it on, thank God I was on Montel's show, and I said, according to the time, it was 9-something and whatever Rome time was, and I said he's gone, and he was.

In that exchange, Browne clearly states that she "knew" the miners would be found alive, a statement presented as an example of her psychic abilities.

A short while later in the program the news broke that the original reports were incorrect, and only one of the 13 miners was alive. Browne was still with a clearly shocked Noory and the following conversation ensued:

Noory: We're going to follow that story this hour when we're with you, Sylvia, taking phone calls and then...

Browne: Right.

Noory: For those of you who are with our affiliate stations, I will be live in that last hour of Coast to Coast...

Browne: Yeah, I don't think there's, I don't think there's, I don't really think there's anybody alive. If there is, I think maybe only one, I just don't believe that there's... I haven't heard anything because I've been with you, but I just don't think they are alive.

Noory: That's frustrating.

Browne: It's terrible, isn't it?

Noory: O.K, let's go the phones.

Later in the program, Noory once again brought the issue up with Browne, in what many see as an attempt by Noory to allow Browne to correct her previous contradiction. Instead, they claim, Browne came out looking worse.

Noory: Sylvia, with the accuracy rate that you have, and it is very high, of the few that you get wrong, do they sometimes become right, maybe later on?

Browne: Yeah, but see I never... I didn't believe that they were alive

Noory: What's that? The miners?

Browne: Uhuh.

Noory: Oh, okay.

Browne: No, I think that they're... and see I've been on the show with you, so I don't know but I don't think that there's any that are gonna make it.

Noory: Well, that's not a good situation.

Browne: No.

Noory: Thirteen were in there, they said one had died, 12 were alive.

Browne: Well, there's 12 gone

Noory: I think the misunderstanding for you was that I was telling you, after the fact, that they were alive. Had that story not broken while we were on the air... what do you think would have happened ? And that's where I think we threw a curve ball at you.

Browne: Yeah, no, I just believed that they were gone.

Noory: Well, I think unfortunately you may be right.

This has been highlighted by many as a clear example of Browne's lack of psychic abilities, citing her sudden reversal of opinion when informed of the development. James Randi wrote on his website "For anyone not familiar with the methods of these charlatans, this would appear to be a calamitous failure, a blow-out, a total screw-up - but not to anyone familiar with the callous likes of Sylvia Browne."

Many skeptics have also criticized Noory for failing to be more direct with Browne about this change of view. Browne has been quoted many times as saying that she is not 100% accurate.

Browne vs. Randi

James Randi has been a frequent critic of Browne. On September 3, 2001 Browne stated on Larry King Live that she would accept the James Randi Educational Foundation's (JREF) $1,000,000 challenge to demonstrate supernatural abilities in a controlled scientific test. However, as of 2006, Browne has failed to contact the Foundation or respond to Randi's enquiries.

Over subsequent years Browne has since offered several reasons for her failure to take part in the challenge:

  • She does not need nor want the money.
  • The money is tainted.
  • Neither Randi or the JREF has $1,000,000.
  • The tests are rigged so no claimant can possibly win.

In support of her final claim, Browne often quotes Randi as saying that he'll never have to pay the money because "I always have an out". Randi, in turn, responds that this quote is taken out of context and his actual words were "I always have an out - I'm right", referring to his belief that no one can win the challenge because no one possesses any kind of paranormal ability.

Randi also often mocks the logical inconsistency of her statements that she is not interested in the money, yet at the same time requires proof of its existence. He also goes on to point out that money is held by an independent investment firm, Goldman Sachs, and proof of its existence can be obtained by requesting a copy of the most recent account statement from the JREF, by telephone, fax, letter, or e-mail. Though a few persons have requested and received copies of the documentation, no request has ever come from Browne.

Browne retorts that the JREF refuses to put the money into escrow with the implication that this is because it doesn't exist. Randi originally defended the decision, highlighting the fact that the challenge rules clearly state the money will not be placed in escrow. However, as of November 2003, Randi decided to make an exception for Browne, and declared that the money will be placed in escrow, proposing either Larry King or Montel Williams, both supporters of Browne, as suitable escrow agents. Though formal letters were mailed to both King and t Williams notifying them of their nomination as possible escrow agents, neither person ever answered. And Browne never accepted nor acknowledged Randi's exception concerning the escrow matter.

After making this announcement, Randi stated on his website "We have now met each and every objection made by Sylvia Browne, except that she does not like me." (emphasis his).

A chronology of the feud between the two is available from Skeptic Report.

Browne responses to Randi

Browne's website posted a message sometime after August 1, 2005 which appeared to be directed at Randi. It claimed that Browne has never seen confirmation of the existence of the million dollars, (which Randi said he sent by certified mail), suggesting it may be due to Randi sending the package to a previous business address. However, Randi's weekly newsletter dated May 30, 2003 claimed the documents were mailed over two years before the date Browne said she relocated. Randi said he has a certified mail receipt from the U.S. Postal Service to confirm the package was refused by the intended recipient at 12:08 p.m. on May 22, 2003.

Browne also said she feels no need to prove herself by accepting the million dollar challenge and implored Randi to donate the money to a worthy cause or charity, as she claims she would do. To quote: "Let me clarify: I have no interest in your $1 million or any intention of pursuing it. (See above position on jumping through hoops.)"

Criminal conviction

In 1992, Browne and her estranged husband were indicted on several charges of investment fraud and grand theft. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California, found that Browne and her husband sold securities in a gold-mining venture under false pretences. In at least one instance, they told a couple their US $20,000 investment was to be used for immediate operating costs. Instead, the money was transferred to an account for their Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research.

Browne's ex-husband has been quoted as saying that Sylvia was unaware of the investment fraud and should not be held accountable for his actions.

Sylvia has attempted to explain her inability to foresee her own conviction by claiming that her psychic abilities do not work on herself and calling her critics 'ignorant'.

Source - Wikipedia

My Life With Sylvia Browne