Robert Lancaster has an article that dissembles Sylvia Browne’s 1989 appearance on a TV show called “Exploring Psychic Powers Live!”.
This is an appearance in which she failed miserably and afterwards claimed that she was set-up because, in her words “…they were all German, and they couldn’t understand one word I said. And that was a setup, as you well know.”
Robert has posted a link to the video of this appearance and it’s pretty clear that the audience were not German. According to James Randi who was there at the time, there was one German who was also fluent in English.
The terms of the test being conducted on the show meant that Sylvia couldn’t solicit information from the audience, they could respond simply with yes or no. Of course, this condition makes it very difficult for a cold-reader to do much but it shouldn’t be a problem for a genuine psychic.
I’m going to look at the transcript from the site and examine what happened. The transcript is taken from Robert’s article and includes his annotations.
Sylvia introduces herself by saying “What I’m going to do tonight is I’m going to go through this audience, and I’m going to do readings. And the only thing that I want you to do is to validate or invalidate anything that I say. Because a lot of times things can be in the future.”
Although she reinforces the rules of the test, she immediately gives herself a get-out clause. Some of what she says may appear untrue since she could be describing a future event. Based on this disclaimer, it is almost impossible for Sylvia to fail unless we follow the lives of all the participants until death.
Here’s the first reading.
[Brown chooses a woman at the far end of the front row.]
Brown: This lady over here. You’ve never met me before, have you? [the woman shakes her head “no.”] There is a young male in your life that has very, very puppy dog eyes.
[At this point, the camera mistakenly shows a long close-up of the wrong woman.]
Brown: You know what I mean? The eyes droop down at the corners… He is going to come back into your life and then leave your life and come back into your life. This looks like a direct connection to you. He’s kinda slender, he’s athletic-looking, he has sort of large bones. Ummm, and this is going to cause you a great deal of problems. Do you understand what this is about? Do you understand what I’m saying?
Woman #1: Uh-huh. Yes I do.
Brown: And what part?
Woman #1: Umm… The… person coming back and forth and cause problems.
Brown: Who is that to you?
Woman #1: [pause, shakes her head] I think it’s somebody I know, I’ve met recently.
Brown: That keeps coming back and forth. [the woman nods her head “yes.”]
Note the vague nature of this boy. I think that most people would recognise the young male being described by Sylvia. The participant comments that it’s someone she met recently so it’s most likely not even a relative. Sylvia created a vague character and it’s not surprising that the woman searched her memory to find a match. By the way, the participant seems to be a native English speaker – you can watch the video yourself to confirm that.
The next attempt wasn’t quite as successful. On to the second participant.
Brown: All right, there’s somebody here too, this lady right next to you. [turns to audience behind her] I’ll get over to you in just a minute. [turns back to second woman] Uhhh, the name Bill keeps coming through so strong from you. Do you know anyone at this point by the name of Bill?
Woman #2: No, I don’t.
Brown: There’s a heavy-set, full-faced man with jowls, very, very blue eyes that really has something to do with real estate or property that’s going to help you. This is aside from the Bill, because this William is also another person.
[The woman shakes her head “no.”]
Brown: And this has to do with a two-layered property. In other words, an upstairs and a downstairs.
Woman #2: No, I…
Brown: Not at this point.
Woman #2: [shakes her head “no”] Not at this point.
Brown: Okay. ‘Cause this person is going to be very significant to you by the name of William. All right? [the woman nods her head “yes.] Because a lot of times these things can be in the future.
Strike one, the woman does not know anyone called Bill. Strike two, the woman doesn’t know this other man by the name of William. Sylvia mentions a two-story property but the woman knows nothing about this. That’s surprising since a lot of people would answer yes and then volunteer information that would allow the cold-reader to make more accurate predictions. That wasn’t allowed in this case so Sylvia remains in the dark. This participant sounds very much like a native English speaker.
Sylvia finishes by invoking her deus ex machina, claiming that William could be a man in her future.
Sylvia then moves on to the German.
Brown: [turns to a man behind her] Let’s go, let’s go to you. There is a two-year, two and a half-year period in which it looks like you are going to be – I don’t want to say without a job, but there’s a flat period in which you’re not doing what you want to do. [the man is smiling] And that’s going to cause you a lot of dissension. And it’s a two-and-a-half-year period, then you’re going to get into a lot of marketing and sales work. And this marketing and sales work has to do with three other men that you’re going to be training.
Man #1: I understand you not so good, I am a German.
Brown: I don’t care whether you’re German, you still work or not work, don’t you? [the man laughs] I mean, we do that in France, or in Germany, or wherever, don’t we?
Man #1: I’m [unintelligible] speak English, and I understand your words.
Brown: Okay. Two years of no working that you like.
Man #1: Yes.
Brown: Okay. [To rest of audience] That’s my German. [laughter] Okay. [back to man] Then you’re going to be traveling and doing some telemarketing work. Marketing and sales.
Man #1: Yes.
Brown: Yes. Is that yes for me, or yes for you?
Man #1: Yes for me. [laughs]
Presumably, this conversation is the basis of Sylvia’s claim that the show was rigged and all the audience were German. Clearly that isn’t the case so far. Even if we assume that Sylvia’s spirit guide Francine doesn’t understand German, where is Sylvia getting her initial reading from? She confidently provides information but only complains after the show that there was a communication issue. Sylvia herself said “I don’t care if your German”. Note again the vague nature of the reading and the fact that it’s a future event.
Brown: Okay, let’s see, who else? [Walks up aisle. To young woman] Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. [the woman laughs] She’s sitting here saying “Please don’t let her call on me.” All right. Who is Kathy?
Woman #3: I don’t know.
Brown: This girl by the name of Kathy has dark, curly hair, and she is a friend that looks like she’s going to be in school with you. She has very, very beautiful blue eyes, and she does a lot of paperwork with you – which looks like school, ’cause everybody young is in school usually. This person is… by the name of Kathy. Also looks like you are going to get into some sort of therapy work.
Woman #3: [shakes her head “no.”] I don’t know, that doesn’t sound familiar.
Brown: Do you know what you’re going to do?
Woman #3: Yes.
Brown: Okay, but it doesn’t have anything to do with therapy. [the woman shakes her head “no.”] But it looks like you’re going to be dealing with people that have to do with therapy. In other words, advising people, helping people, talking to people. Okay? [the woman raises her eyebrows in a doubtful expression.] All right.
This attempt was a total wash-out, despite the woman being a native English speaker. Strike one, Kathy doesn’t exist and the woman is not getting in to some sort of therapy work. Sylvia, trying to gather information asks the strange question Do you know what you’re going to do? You really cannot come up with a more open question than this. To a question like this, the only response is 42.
Sylvia finishes by stating that this is a future event and then provides a remarkably vague definition of therapy. Based on Sylvia’s definition of therapy, a job in Internet tech support would fit the bill, as would counselling suicidal teens. Quite a broad range. On to the next customer.
Brown: Let’s see, who else? [walks to a young man] Umm, it looks like you’re going to get into show business.
Man #2: Uh, no.
Brown: No, well you don’t know that yet, you’re not psychic. [laughter] But it looks like you’re going to do something in show business that’s going to be really wonderful for you.
Just plain wrong, unless the man rather unexpectedly breaks in to show-business. This man sounds like a native English speaker.
With that, Sylvia closes by reminding us that she isn’t God. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could watch the movie, read the transcript and still credit Sylvia as having psychic powers.