Guess What I'll Write Next

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Whenever I begin to feel that I’ve been too hard on so-called psychics, my feelings of guilt are quickly assuaged by still another example of psychic nonsense. This time it involved American Airlines Flight 1304, scheduled to take 128 passengers from Fort Myers, Florida, to Dallas earlier this year.

Shortly before passengers were to board, police with bomb-sniffing dogs arrived and began searching the plane from nose to tail. By the time their efforts were concluded, some of the crew members had exceeded their maximum time on duty. No immediate replacements were available, so the flight was cancelled, leaving passengers scrambling to find other planes.

Why all the fuss? An unnamed psychic, “sensing” that a bomb was on the plane, had telephoned her hunch to the local office of the federal Transportation Security Administration, which foolishly ordered the search.

But the Feds aren’t alone in their folly. The U.S. is awash in psychics these days, and the public is eating it up. From fortune tellers in shabby storefronts to polished “mediums” appearing on ratings-hungry national TV shows, they successfully hoodwink people who I’ll refrain from calling gullible only out of respect for gulls. And what about the psychics? A handful may actually believe that they have supernatural powers but most, I fear, are outright fabricators and con artists.

Perhaps the best known of these psychics is Sylvia Browne who, like a bad penny, just keeps turning up. She has made more than 70 appearances on the Montel Williams show, surfaces frequently on Larry King Live, has an active web site, a newsletter and a thriving business under the aegis of the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research.

She has written several books, gives health “readings” by phone for $700 per pop ($750 in person), and claims, among other powers, to envision the location of missing persons. She communes with God, acts as a medium to bring messages from our departed loved ones, says that her psychic abilities run in her family and that psychic ability must have a genetic component. Can you believe it?

Sylvia says that she has seen winged angels with her own eyes. Larry King and Montel Williams are her angels. Her fame, such as it is, can be largely attributed to their ratings-driven generosity in inviting her, again and again, to perform before nationwide audiences.

Bryan Farha, a professor at Oklahoma City University, teaches a course called “Psychology & Skepticism” and has investigated and exposed many of Sylvia’s deceptions. He gives an example: during one of her appearances on Larry King’s show, a caller lamented that “I never had a chance to say goodbye to my husband and am wondering if he knows how much I loved him.”

Replied Sylvia, “Not only did he know that, but…it looks like there was something about a clot.” (When a death is sudden, psychics usually guess that it was caused by a heart attack and often proclaim to sense something amiss in the victim’s chest. Sylvia, more inventive than most, “saw” a clot, which can cause a heart attack.) “Yes,” said the caller, “he had a severe brain hemorrhage…” The caller seemed impressed, Sylvia looked smug, and King apparently accepted Sylvia’s “hit.” Problem is that a clot blocks the flow of blood in a vessel and is the opposite of a hemorrhage, which is an excessive flow of blood from a ruptured vessel.

On another Larry King show, when Sylvia was challenged by a guest, skeptic Paul Kurtz, she demonstrated her psychic powers by sensing that he had a prostate problem. Kurtz, in his 70s, seemed amused, pointedly remarking that there were few men his age that didn’t have prostate problems.

As a guest on that same show, I asked Sylvia if she would prove her psychic ability by taking the Million Dollar Challenge offered by James Randi, the noted magician and skeptic who heads the James Randi Educational Foundation. That challenge, as she was aware, involves a double blind, scientifically-valid test of her psychic ability, terms of which would be agreed upon by both her and Randi,. If she were to pass the test, she would win a million dollars. Sure, said Sylvia, any time.

That was three years ago. Despite repeated requests by Professor Farha and James Randi, Sylvia Browne has consistently reneged on her promise, stating variously that Randi couldn’t be trusted, that she wasn’t interested in a million dollars and that, anyway, there was no such prize money available. And when Randi sent her a certified letter containing a notarized copy of the Million Dollar Prize account at Goldman Sachs & Co., she refused to accept the mail. A copy of that letter was also sent to Larry King, who has not responded.

The reason for Sylvia’s silence is obvious. Should she take the challenge and flunk, as she knows only too well she would, her TV career would be over and her lucrative psychic empire would collapse, perhaps forcing her to begin making an honest living. Farha notes that more than three years have passed since Sylvia’s promise to be tested. “I don’t believes she ever intended to take the test,” he says. “Do you think any talk show hosts will care?” Not likely.