The New York Times, yesterday, published an obituary of “psychic” Sylvia Browne that is strikingly accurate without giving her more credit than she’s due.
What makes it worth reading aren’t the descriptions of the major details of her life, but how the reporter suggests that her claim to fame was suspect all along.
This is how William Yardley puts it:
Sylvia Browne, a self-proclaimed psychic…
Right from the start, an important disclaimer, considering that there was no proof she had any supernatural powers.
Her misses were included in the piece along with her few lucky hits:
She often took credit for accurately predicting that the government intern Chandra Levy would be found dead in Rock Creek Park in Washington — though law enforcement officials had been searching that area since shortly after she was reported missing in May 2001.
More than once, with the television cameras rolling, Ms. Browne told the parents of a missing child that their son or daughter was dead — sometimes she would say precisely where — only for the child to be found alive later…
And the piece doesn’t gloss over her primary source of cash:
… much of her income came from customers who paid $700 to ask her questions over the telephone for 30 minutes.
The obituary doesn’t flat-out say she was a con-artist but we’re able to infer as much with little work on our part.
And the final paragraphs just set us up for a laugh at her expense:
… In 2012, she made a brief video that she said was intended to put at ease people who were concerned that the world would end on Dec. 12.
“Although I do believe that the world will sustain itself, I don’t believe we’re going to be here after about 95 years,” she said. “People get very concerned about that, but it’s not going to be some type of horrible monster coming out of the sea and eating you or tearing your flesh off and throwing people down into a pit of hell. A loving God would not do that to anybody. You have to think logically.”
Of all the things Browne was known for, thinking logically wasn’t one of them.
Is the article disrespectful? I’m inclined to say no. It’s honest. Browne was notable as much for the criticism she drew as she was for her books and talk show appearances.
The question we should be asking is why all articles written about people who make supernatural claims don’t include these sorts of disclaimers, that their claims have no basis in evidence. All too often, we see the media talk about psychics and near-death-experiencers and pastors as if they have some kind of special beyond-this-world power. The truth is far less interesting, yet you rarely see objective analyses of their beliefs in the mainstream media.