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Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society

"Le doute n'est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde."

—Voltaire

Famous Mediums

SAPS takes a look at those who commune with the dead...

One of the most famous psychics of today is Sylvia Browne, a woman who appears regularly on the Montel Williams show and has written several books about her psychic experiences. According to her web site, her first premonition came at the age of three. Since then, Sylvia has made innumerable predictions, some true, some false. Rather than believe what you read in other places, Sylvia's web site suggests you contact her office for the truth regarding the accuracy of Sylvia's statements. SAPS has decided to rely instead on video evidence. Before that, however, it should be added that Sylvia has created her own church, The Society of Novus Spiritus. The church, according to their web site, encourages personal truth over actual fact. The church also claims the ability to speak with your own personal "Spirit Guide", a sort of liason to the Other Side through hypnosis. This hypnosis service is provided at a non-refundable (unless the "minister" changes the appointment themselves) $350. The session lasts half an hour. Also available are classes on Psychic Development ($100). The tenets of Novus include: "Let no one convince you that you are less than a God. Do not let fear imprison your spiritual growth." and "We believe in a Mother God, Who is the co-creator to our all-loving Father God."

Many of the religious beliefs of Novus appeal to our own desires to be special, and takes away the nastier sides of religion, like the Devil and hell. The site says that if their beliefs strike a chord in you, they must be true. However, a religion where we are all good inside and there is never any punishment will probably appeal to us all.

The accuracy of Sylvia's statements has been questioned more than once yet she still has fans everywhere and charges $700 for an in-person reading and $200 for a phone reading. On Montel, she often tells audience members about missing loved ones and whether or not they are truly dead, and where they might be found.

Watch this wonderful moment with Sylvia from the Montel Williams show:

Sylvia makes a clear mistake at the beginning of the reading - she assumes that this is a normal missing persons case. If it was, then the idea of his body being in water would be a distinct possibility. Since he instead was a fireman in the September 11th tragedy, Sylvia was foiled. Strange circumstance is clearly not her forte.

Again, it is important to note that if a psychic is unsure about something, then they shouldn't speak. Sylvia answered the woman with seemingly perfect conviction. Now that she has been proven wrong, Sylvia can backpedal in any way she wishes but in truth she was just wrong. If a psychic can be wrong when they truly believe they are right, then it is probably safer to put any perceived accuracy of their statements down to lucky guesses, or vague statements.

On the note of vague statements, we come to medium John Edward who is famous for his TV shows "Crossing Over" and "Cross Country". On these shows, Edward contacts spirits from the other side to the delight of the usually grieving audience. In other words, John Edward makes money off people's grief. While some may argue that he brings closure to the families involved, it is important that we ask ourselves "At what price?". Luckily, this is a very easy question to answer. John Edward's tour schedule for "Cross Country" can be found on his official web site. Tickets for the next seventeen tour dates are entirely sold out. Next year's tickets, however, are $175 per person for a "gallery-like" taping - one where Edward interacts with the audience. It should be noted that despite the high price range, Edward makes no promise to contact your particular deceased loved one. He is available for private readings. One can only guess the cost of those, however, since his official site says he is completely booked and is not taking any private reading requests at this time.

John has, like Sylvia Browne, appeared on other shows. One in particular is "Larry King Live", and during one segment he took calls from viewers. Here is the transcript of one of those calls:

EDWARD: OK, Linda, the first thing I want talk about is, I know you're looking for your mom but I'm getting an older male who's also there on the other side. I feel like this is somebody who would be above you, which means it's like a father figure, or an uncle, and he passes from either lung cancer or emphysema, tuberculosis; it's all problems in the chest area. OK, that's the first thing. And I feel like there's a J or a G-sounding name attached to this.

CALLER: That's my mother.

EDWARD: She's got a very dominant personality.

CALLER: That's my mother. Her first name starts with G and she had emphysema.

EDWARD: Hold on. Does the month of August have a meaning for her, or the 8th of a month?

CALLER: Not that I know of.

EDWARD: OK, I want you to write this down, because she's telling me to say "eight" then. I have to tell you that this is coming through so strong there's a male, it's got a very dominant energy, but this is how I'm interpreting it, and she's telling me to talk about "eight." "Eight" to me would indicate that the month of August has a meaning, or that the eighth of a month has a meaning. She's telling me that there's a father-figure that's there, so I don't know if your father's passed but there's a father-type figure...

CALLER: No, my father -- I just spoke to him on my son's phone and he wanted me to ask...

EDWARD: Wait a second.

KING: He's nodding, yeah, your mother was tough.

EDWARD: There's a father figure...

KING: I can see your father, yeah.

EDWARD: ... who's with her, from what she's showing me.

CALLER: Her father?

EDWARD: It's not her father. It's connected to you. So I don't know if there's a father-in-law for you who's passed, but there's a father-figure who's there. It's a male figure who's there.

KING: But the important thing is, how is she doing?

EDWARD: Your mom is fine and I think it's important that you know that she was around -- somebody missed seeing her from what she's showing me, and she's telling me to let you know that.

Analyzing this transcript, it is clear how John Edward works - first he says that he is getting a male who has passed over, but as soon as the caller associates the letter given with her mother, Edward shifts gears and says that, in fact, it is her mother he is speaking with.

Edward also adds that the person suffered from an illness with the lungs. When there is no immediate response to that, he adds that it is "problems in the chest area". The leading cause of death in the United States is cardiovascular disease - diseases that involve the heart and/or blood vessels. Number three on the cause of death table for the United States is Lower Respiratory Disturbance. So by picking diseases related to the chest area, Edward has covered the vast majority of Americans who have died. Since he was mildly specific (at least in the beginning - keep in mind that he backpedalled) we can also add that emphysema affects 2 million Americans per year - that's 17 out of one thousand. Edward also mentioned lung cancer which, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, has the highest mortality rate. In fact, aside from melanoma, lung cancer is the most common cancer in adult males. This makes sense, especially since Edward was originally talking about a male. It was only after the insistence of the caller that he decided the spirit was, in fact, her mother. Edward then has a series of misses - he insists that there is a father figure attempting to make contact from the other side despite the protestations of the caller that no one fits that description. The caller is talked over and ignored in order to make this a perceived "hit".

Edward also has a habit of mentioning numbers in connection with deceased people. He usually says this number can stand for a day of a month or the month itself, like him mentioning "8" as either August or the eighth of a month. He has a one in twelve probability of guessing the correct month of the deceased person's birthday. Then you can add in all the other days that might be significant to the person - the month their children were born, the month of their anniversary, the month of their death, and many more. It is easy to make an association in this way. And, if all else fails, there is the alternative - that it really represents the eighth of the month. Despite all these probabilities, the caller still insists that eight has no meaning.

Part of what makes Edward believable is his insistence of information despite the protestations of the caller. If they tell him he is wrong, and he insists upon it, it must be because he sees it so clearly. Unfortunately, this is sort of backwards thinking, which can be demonstrated by the times that he does backpedal or change information, like changing the father figure to the caller's mother because of the emphysema connection.

The very unfortunate side of people who take advantage of the grieving is that so many people will speak out and say how their experience with a medium gave them closure. While this may be true, it is worthless if the experience was fraudulent. It is incredibly wrong to take advantage of people who have lost someone and offer them opportunities like these - ones that are based upon lies.

If you or anyone you know has had an experience with Sylvia Browne or John Edward, please write to us. We would love to hear about your experience.

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