HomePsychic Powers

by Bryan Farha

July, 2003
Most assuredly you've heard the phrase "innocent until proven guilty." I'm pretty much a believer in that saying. Our legal system is built around it-and justifiably so. But what if an alleged psychic makes three promises on international television to test her extraordinary claims, yet makes no effort to do so? Should the phrase for that person become "guilty until proven innocent?"

In any event, I'm referring to one of most popular "spiritual mediums" in the country-if not the world. Sylvia Browne-herein after referred to simply as "Sylvia." She's currently being popularized primarily by hosts of two television shows--Larry King and Montel Williams. Larry has at least had skeptics as guests on his show. Montel will have absolutely no part of skeptical perspectives or checking out her monumental claims-and I do mean monumental. She "diagnoses" health problems, purports to communicate with the dead, and she even claims to have proven there is an afterlife. But the current stir relates to her promise to be tested for psychic ability.

The chronology:

March 6, 2001

Cable News Network (CNN) television show Larry King Live dedicated its program to a discussion surrounding Time magazine senior editor Leon Jaroff's critical article of medium John Edward-host of "Crossing Over." Two other psychics were on that program-James Van Praagh and Sylvia. A few skeptics were also guests. During this program, Sylvia agrees to take the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge-offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). If she passes the preliminary and formal tests, the one million dollars becomes hers to keep. Here's some of the dialog from that show: 1

BROWNE: I have never been offered this challenge.
KING: You would take it?
BROWNE: I would take the challenge. I have tried to run around the table - [he] ran away from me [referring to James Randi].
KING: She will meet with Randi and take the challenge.
BROWNE: He ran way from me.
Promise #1. That dialog started the whole thing. And we'll soon find out who's running from whom. Sylvia has agreed to take the challenge. No problem, right? Many people have taken the challenge. So we'll see how Sylvia does. All she has to do now is contact Randi and they're off. Here's where the dodge ball begins.

April, 2001-Sylvia has not contacted Randi.
May, 2001-Sylvia has not contacted Randi.
June, 2001- Sylvia has not contacted Randi.
July, 2001- Sylvia has not contacted Randi.
August, 2001-Sylvia has not contacted Randi.

September 3, 2001

This is another Larry King Live show-with Sylvia and Randi squaring off. This time, it even included the two of them agreeing on the specific test, conditions, and protocol. Transcript excerpts follow, including a reiteration of the general agreement for Sylvia to take the test: 2

KING: Are you willing to take his test?
BROWNE: Yeah, whatever test it is.
Promise #2-no matter what kind of test it is. This is total agreement. After Randi suggested the specific type of psychic ability he would test, Sylvia agreed.
KING: You would be willing to do that, right?
BROWNE: Oh, yeah. Yes I would be willing to do that. But I just want him to know that that is not [the] only thing I do.
After Randi proposed the specific conditions and procedure, Sylvia agreed.
KING [to Randi]: All right -- Sylvia has agreed to your conditions.
BROWNE: Yes.
The dodge ball appears to be over, right? She agreed to everything this time, and even spoke directly to Randi. Surely the evasion is over with. Now Sylvia only needs to contact Randi in order to actually arrange for the test proper. But wait…

October, 2001--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
November, 2001--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
December, 2001--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
January, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
February, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
March, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
April, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
May, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
June, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
July, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
August, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
September, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
October, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
November, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
December, 2002--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
January, 2003--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
February, 2003--Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
March, 2003-Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.
April, 2003-Sylvia has still not contacted Randi.

Who's running from whom?

May 16, 2003

Larry King Live yet again-this time with Sylvia as the only guest. As usual, the nature of the show is Larry's interviewing plus phone calls from viewers. About 40 minutes into the show, without a trace of a skeptical phone call, I managed to get past the screeners to ask Sylvia a few questions. I'm not proud of how I slipped through, but I don't think there was any other way. She had been fielding many questions regarding loved ones who had "crossed over." So when the screener inquired as to what I would ask Sylvia, I said "I want to ask her about my dead cousin." Again, I'm not proud of this, but I don't think I would have made it past the screener otherwise. I was put through. It was a golden opportunity to publicly question Sylvia about her evasion of the test-a position I don't believe she has ever been in.

Here's the full transcript of my phone call: 3

KING: Oklahoma City, hello.
CALLER: Yes, Sylvia, 620 days [ago] on Larry's show, you agreed to take James Randi's $1 million paranormal challenge, and on a later show you even agreed to the specific terms of the test.
BROWNE: Yes, but let me tell you something. I also found out that he won't put it into escrow. He won't put the money into escrow.
CALLER: You agreed to the terms of the test.
BROWNE: No, not until he puts the money into escrow. I mean, why would I do it when the money can't be validated?
CALLER: Have you contacted James?
BROWNE: I don't want to contact him. I already know about this Russian person who the lawyer contacted and said he won't put it into escrow.
CALLER: OK, so you agreed 620 days ago to take his test.
BROWNE: I'm not going to do that -- I'm not going to do that if he doesn't have the money.
CALLER: If I can arrange for James to come up with the money, would you take the test?
KING: You said you would.
BROWNE: Yes, yes, I will. But if he won't come up with the other girl, why would he come up with me?
KING: If you come up with it, sir, she'll do it.
CALLER: And will you arrange for it, Larry?
KING: Sure.
CALLER: You got it.
KING: Be happy to do it.
Promise #3-this time from Sylvia and Larry King. Larry will arrange for the testing, and Sylvia will take the test--if the money can be validated.

OK, this should be a piece of cake. And, by the way, Randi corrected my figures. It had been 808 days-rather than 620-since Sylvia agreed to be tested. It had been 620 days since she agreed to the specific protocol. For an update on how many elapsed days since protocol agreement, look for "Sylvia's Clock-Update" at www.randi.org.

May 18, 2003

Randi emails me a scanned copy of the "Statement of Investment Account" ) for the James Randi Educational Foundation-from Goldman, Sachs & Company-prize account money for the sum of $1,054, 656.70. This is unquestionable verification that the money is there. That's all I need for the next step.

May 19, 2003

I send a follow-up letter to the producers of Larry King Live and copy it to Randi and Sylvia. My letter includes a copy of Randi's money verification and expresses thanks to the producers in advance for arranging Sylvia's testing (as per Larry's promise). I request the producers keep me informed of the steps and timeline they'll take for the testing. I did not send the letter certified.

Also on this day, Randi sends the following certified mail (#7003 0500 0002 3034 8133) to Sylvia, with a certified copy to Larry King:

Ms. Browne:
Though proof of the JREF prize money is easily available on request, you have not made any such request. Your May 16th appearance on the Larry King Live TV show, seemed to indicate that you were ignorant of the facts, and since we are an educational foundation, we therefore enclose a notarized copy of the account status showing the balance in a special "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account" in excess of one million dollars. Also enclosed is a formal statement from the agency holding these assets, verifying that the funds are in place. I'm sure that you are aware of the grave legal consequences that would result against the JREF, if either of these documents were to be found false or altered.

As you are also aware, we have legally committed ourselves to awarding this prize money to anyone who successfully passes both the preliminary and then the formal test, as agreed to between the applicant and the JREF. This is described on our web page, which also clearly states all the conditions for assuring that the prize money will be awarded if the conditions are met. Since you have already heard and accepted the terms and protocol of the test, and your understanding and agreement have been broadcast across the world via CNN, it only remains for you to give us a date upon which we can conduct the test.

One caveat: several of the persons who responded more than a year ago to our request for suitable subjects - one of which would be chosen at random - have since died. It would be necessary for us to re-issue the request, of course, and that would mean that a suitable date would have to be set sometime in July, but no sooner. Now that this issue of the prize money has been resolved, and there can no longer be any impediment to your involvement, we anticipate hearing from you with a renewed acceptance of our challenge. Of course, if you are afraid of taking the test, or you are aware that you cannot pass a simple double-blind test of your claims, you may wish to further obfuscate the matter by producing more excuses and problems. That's entirely up to you. Since Larry King has agreed to "arrange" that you be assured of the existence and availability of the prize money, a copy of this letter is being sent to him for his information. 4

We see that Randi has requested the testing be conducted in July, 2003. I normally wouldn't write a critical article such as this until Sylvia's continued non-participation could be verified or until such testing is completed-especially considering that Sylvia told me on Larry King Live that she would take the test with money validation. But a funny thing happened to change my thinking.

May 22, 2003, 12:12 pm

Randi's letter is refused by Sylvia. Here's the United States Postal Service shipment history on the letter: 5

Track & Confirm

Shipment History

You entered 7003 0500 0002 3034 8133

Your item was refused by the addressee at 12:12 pm on May 22, 2003 in CAMPBELL, CA 95008 and is being returned to the sender. Status is updated every evening. Please check again later.

Here is what happened earlier:
   DELIVERED, May 22, 2003, 12:08 pm, CAMPBELL, CA 95008
   ACCEPTANCE, May 19, 2003, 11:23 am, FORT LAUDERDALE, FL 33316

Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia. Pretty slick. She asked for money validation, and proceeded to stifle the most appropriate messenger. Now she can still claim that money validation hasn't been proven since she technically doesn't know what was in that envelope. Clever, but still playing dodge ball. Now I'm convinced that she never intended to take the challenge.

May 23, 2003

Randi reacts and responds to my May 16, dialog with Sylvia on Larry King Live via his weekly commentary on the JREF website. He is not likely aware that his letter has been refused at this point. Here, in part, is what he said:

On Friday, May 16th, the unsinkable Sylvia Browne appeared with Larry King - yet again! - and something odd happened. The careful process of screening of phone calls from listeners apparently broke down, and Dr. Bryan Farha from Oklahoma City actually got through with a question that Sylvia and Larry have been avoiding for the past 89 weeks. We had to wonder what Sylvia would come up with, after first claiming that she didn't know how to contact me (a psychic can't use the phone book or Google?) and then veered off by saying she didn't want to deal with a "godless" person like me. She swerved and skidded into another tailspin when she handled this one. 6

May 26, 2003

I emailed Sylvia a copy of Randi's certified letter that she refused, prefaced with this statement:

[It is imperative that any office personnel receiving this mail see to it that Sylvia reads this herself]

Sylvia, I know that on May 22, 2003 you refused Randi's certified letter (according to the U.S. Postal Service). Below is an excerpt from his most recent weekly JREF commentary.

Bryan Farha, Oklahoma City (5-26-03)

May 27, 2003

I left a telephone voice message for the Larry King Live producers and asked them to contact me to discuss the plan.

July, 2003

No return contact from the Larry King Live producers or Sylvia Browne's office to myself or James Randi.

The Escrow/Money Validation Excuse

Many prudent people wouldn't even consider a substantial business transaction without money placed into escrow-and justifiably so. There are endless examples of this as good business practice. So why shouldn't we be sympathetic to Sylvia's demand that the prize money be placed in escrow? Several reasons.

Application Statement

Randi's formal application clearly states, "JREF will not entertain any demand that the prize money be deposited in escrow, displayed in cash, or otherwise produced in advance of the test being performed." I think Sylvia knew this.

Nothing to Lose

Sylvia has nothing to lose. The JREF has over a million dollars to lose. Given this deal, what person--who had nothing to hide--would demand the money be placed in escrow?

Worldwide Witnesses

The Larry King Live show is broadcast on international television by CNN. I think she has plenty of witnesses--in case she were to consider litigation--in the event that Sylvia proved her alleged psychic ability and JREF refused to pay.

Muzzling Skepticism

Should Sylvia pass the preliminary and formal psychic tests, it would be a monumental blow to the skeptical movement. I should think this would be more than adequate reason to take the test without the extra motivation of money-so escrow shouldn't be an issue.

Sylvia's Previous Statements

On the March 6, 2001 broadcast of Larry King Live, Sylvia said:

I don't care about the million dollars. 7
If you think that remark was just instinctive or accidental, Sylvia made these comments on the Larry King Live broadcast of September 3, 2001:
Well, I don't even want his million dollars. I don't want his million dollars. I mean, the reason I came on is because he kept you know, my web site, yeah, yeah, and said I would never come on and face him. But I don't care about his million dollars. I mean, I don't need his million. That's not it. 8
Sylvia, if that's not it, then take the test and to hell with escrow.

Conclusion

Dodge ball deluxe. Sylvia has made 3 public promises on live, international television to take the JREF One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. It is apparent to me that Sylvia never intended to take the challenge. I believe she got caught accepting a challenge that she thought would go away. I also think she began playing dodge ball so that she could further take advantage of being promoted by Larry King and Montel Williams before she got called to the table. Montel and Larry are lining her pocket book for someone who likely doesn't have a lick of psychic ability. The fact that she avoids keeping her promise, and yet continues her meteoric popularity probably says more about us than it does Sylvia. Something should be made clear - the purpose of this chronology is not to communicate my disbelief in the possibility of psychic phenomena. It's about Sylvia being held accountable for promises regarding her extraordinary claims, and it's about media integrity and Larry King Live backing up their promise to arrange for the testing. For Sylvia, maybe we should use the old baseball rule, "three strikes and you're out." This chronology should also explain why it might be appropriate in Sylvia's case to be considered "guilty until proven innocent."

References

1. Cable News Network transcript .
Exchange beginning with Browne's first remark after the third commercial break.

2. Cable News Network transcript .
Excerpt begins with King's third remark.

3. Cable News Network transcript .
Exchange beginning with keyword search "Oklahoma City."

4. James Randi Educational Foundation weekly commentary
"Swift" on-line newsletter, posted May 23, 2003.

5. United States Postal Service. .
Enter 7003 0500 0002 3034 8133 into Track & Confirm" function.

6. James Randi Educational Foundation weekly commentary
"Swift" on-line newsletter, posted May 23, 2003 (third commentary).

7. Cable News Network transcript .
Second comment prior to the fourth commercial break.

8. Cable News Network transcript .
Brown's first statement.

Editor's Note: As of November, 2006, Sylvia Browne still hasn't contacted James Randi. Stay tuned for updates.

Bryan Farha is a professor of education at Oklahoma City University where he teaches a course titled, "Psychology & Skepticism".
He also teaches in the departments of psychology, criminal justice, and sociology.
Bryan is also a member of CSICOP's astrology subcommittee.
Link to Bryan Farha