Earlier this month, on May 6th, 2013, three young women were rescued from captivity after 9 to 11 years as kidnap victims. Amanda Berry, Georgina "Gina" DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were living in a house owned by Ariel Castro, one of three men charged with abducting the girls and holding them as sex slaves. Also released was a 6-year old girl, Berry's daughter, whom DNA results have shown to be Castro's biological child.
What makes this story particularly interesting and frustrating for those of us in the Skeptical Community?...
During an appearance on the Montel Williams Show, self-described psychic Sylvia Browne told Berry's mother, Louwana, that her daughter was dead.
In that "reading," Browne said that she saw the girl in water, explicitly stated that "she's not alive, honey," and further claimed that the grieving mother would only see her daughter again "in heaven, on the other side." Last week's revelation that the young woman was alive, being held in a Cleveland neighborhood home, proved to be Browne's undoing.
Aside from her many failed predictions, this is not the first time Sylvia Browne's statements about abducted children have later turned out to be wrong. In a 2004 appearance on the same program, Browne told the parents of a young Sean Hornbeck that he had been abducted by a tall, thin, dark-skinned, possibly Hispanic man with dreadlocks who drove a blue sedan, that he was dead, and that his body would be found near trees and two oddly placed jagged rocks. Hornbeck was abducted at the age of 11 years, and his grief-stricken parents had not heard from him in over a year, and were desperate for answers. About the only important details that Browne got right were those that had already been reported by an eyewitness, or that were statistically probable based on the situation. His abductor was actually a pudgy White man who was holding Hornbeck captive in an apartment building nearby; notably, he drove a white Nissan pickup truck, and had no dreadlocks. Most importantly, Hornbeck was very much alive, although he would not be rescued for a full four years after his disappearance. A full transcript of that "reading" can be found HERE.
Media coverage of the Amanda Berry story has been fierce and unrelenting, and has provided an almost irresistible opportunity to bring up the Sylvia Browne "reading," not only by those in the Skeptical Community, but also by mainstream media. Daily reports and updates almost invariably include statements about Sylvia Browne's failed prediction, often with video clips from the show. The pressure has apparently finally gotten to the Browne camp, resulting in an official statement on her web site about the Amanda Berry case, as well as a decision to shut down both her Twitter and Facebook accounts. Browne's other failures have also been spotlighted, bringing to attention the seemingly random claims she makes in such cases. A list of some of her more notable inaccuracies can be found on her Wikipedia page.
Of course, one need not possess psychic powers to predict that James "The Amazing" Randi would also chime in to discuss the case. A Sylvia Browne critic for the past few decades, Randi's call for Sylvia Browne to be stopped from doing further emotional and psychological damage is quite understandable. It's been over 5 years since Browne agreed (on live television) to take the JREF's $1 Million Challenge, with a multitude of excuses offered for her silence since that verbal contract was made. I join Randi in encouraging you to help spread the word about Browne and her failures, and to include a word or two about cold reading to educate those for whom the subject is relatively foreign.
Sylvia Browne may be one of the big fish, but she's certainly not the only self-described "psychic" in the woo-woo sea. James van Praag, Uri Geller, John Edward, and countless others are lined up to take her place as the media's go-to medium. It's up to all of us in the Skeptical Community to continue educating the public, pressuring news outlets, and updating Wikipedia to get the word out. We may not be able to put them all out of business, but we might be able to mitigate the damage they cause.