Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sylvia Browne's Not So Psychic Predictions

In light of the recent posts on Skepticblog regarding Sylvia Browne, I felt it was necessary to add my two cents. (Imagine that).  I decided to take several of Sylvia’s end-of-year predictions from the past several years, and compare them with what has actually happened. This isn’t new.  Smugbaldy did this for several years. He divided his results into 4 separate groups, Hits, Misses, False Alarm, and Correct Rejection and created a complex system of scoring.  There are a few flaws in his methodology  and weaknesses in his classification system, however, that led me to do it my way.
1) Baldy had no mechanism that allowed for a comprehensive analysis. He evaluated each year separately, and came up with a new figure, rather than average her averages to find out what her typical rate of accuracy was. 2) His system of classification was unnecessarily complicated. A ‘Correct Rejection’ is still an incorrect prediction, and there appears to be no practical reason to separate them. The same goes for a False Alarm. There appeared to be no standardized criteria to separate a ‘false alarm’ from a miss, and both are simply incorrect. 3) He uses unproven assumptions in his calculations. In some instances he marks a correct prediction as incorrect because it was possible that Sylvia had ‘foreknowledge’. However it is equally possible that she did not have foreknowledge.  If you are claiming to be objectively evaluating data, then you are obligated to do it objectively, regardless of your personal opinions.
It turns out that there is no reason to ‘pad the data’, because Sylvia is pretty damn wrong on her own. To reach my results, I divided her predictions into several categories: Correct, Incorrect, Cannot Be Verified, and Obvious. I’d like to note that ‘obvious predictions’ are the smallest percentages and they had to be really really obvious for me to place them in this category. Some examples of these are when Sylvia predicted tornadoes would hit Kansas and Texas, two states in tornado alley.  Do you think tornadoes would be likely or unlikely in a place known as Tornado Alley. I don’t think Francine (Sylvia’s spirit guide who tells her the future) is necessary for that one. Another example of an ‘obvious’ prediction is when Sylvia predicted that Jamie Lynn Spears would have her baby.  The fact that Jamie was pregnant was already common knowledge, and having a baby obviously follows being pregnant. One could argue that there are events like miscarriages, but events like that are far from likely, and they typically don’t strike wealthy females who can afford the best doctors. Other predictions can’t be verified. For exmple, Sylvia predicted that Owen Wilson would have another “dip” into depression after his highly publicized suicide attempt.
What kind of prediction is that?
What constitutes a dip? A dip in who’s opinion? Sylvia’s? Owen’s? The lack of specificity makes it impossible to evaluate whether or not the prediction was accurate.
(In my opinion, I have “dips” into depression occasionally. I think everyone does)
I managed to thoroughly evaluate predictions for the years 2007-2008 (58 predictions total). Here are her statistics:
In 2007, 24 out of 39 predictions were incorrect (61.538%). 6 out of 39 were correct (15.385%). 8 out of 39 couldn’t be verified (20.513%). 1 out of 39 were obvious predictions (2. 564%). ß that was the Tornado Alley prediction.
In 2008, 9 out of 19 were incorrect (43.368%). 5 out of 19 predictions were correct (26.315%). 4 out of 19 could not be verified (21.052%). 1 out of 19 was obvious (5.263%).
That means Sylvia was wrong in her year-ahead predictions about 52.453% of the time. (You’d be better off flipping a coin.) She was only right about 20.85% of the time. Her predictions were too vague to evaluate about 20.783% of the time and simply obvious the remaining 3.914% of the time.
Does that count as being psychic. Supporters will point ot the fact that my own experiment yielded a success rate of only about 11%, and Sylvia’s success rate was almost double that. That’s true, by my respondents had to guess one word out of a random sequence of 20. Some of the predictions that I counted as correct for Sylvia included such banal fair as “a democrat’ will be the next president. She had a 50/50 shot of getting it right. Some other 50/50 questions she got wrong- for example she predicted that Tom Kat’s baby would be a boy, but Suri was a girl.
But I digress… as I began to evaluated Sylvia’s predictions for 2009, I began to notice a pattern. She predicted the same events over and over again. She’s been predicting that this will be the year that Brad and Angelina break up every year since 2007. Coincidentally, she also predicted Jennifer Aniston would marry, 3 times in a row, that Lindsay Lohan would straighten her life out make a comeback in 2008 (and that’s obviously wrong unless Sylvia Browne has VERY different definition of comeback than you and I).
She has predicted that the war will end for 3 consecutive years, and each time she’s been wrong Her latest not-so-psychic prediction says the war will end this year... pass that one on to the top brass).
Now it stands to reason, if you make the same predictions year after year, you’re bound to be right one year. I can predict with a 100% certainty that the war in Iraq will end one day, the part that would make that somehow psychic would be if I could tell you the day it would end… or the month… or ever the correct year. C’mon! Francine needs to get her story straight…
The weirder thing is Sylvia’s own interpretation of her accuracy.  She claims to have predicted Obama would be the next president, but in 2006 she claimed that Kerry and McCain would be the presidential candidates and Kerry would win. Do you frequently confuse Kerry and Obama, because from where I’m standing there’s a huge difference.  Is her spirit guide blind? In 2007, she predicted we wouldn’t have a black president for another 8 years. Obama was elected in 2008, and 2008 + 8 = 2016. Francine is not only blind, but also shitty at math.
BY DEFINITION, A PSYCHIC CAN NEVER BE WRONG. A psychic has to know the future, that’s what makes them psychic in the first place. Theoretically that means all of their predictions would be accurate. If any are wrong, then the psychic obviously didn’t know what was going to happen and was only guessing- hence they aren’t psychic.
Even if we want to play make believe and we pretend that Francine is real and she tells Sylvia the future, how does that change the fact that Francine is typically wrong? If your spirit is only guessing does that make you special?
I see no compelling evidence to support the idea that Sylvia is psychic. One thing bothers me though… there’s no control group. In order to be a solid case study, I would have to prove that Sylvia is accurate with about the same frequency as a non-psychic person. Since I have no statistics from a control group, my case study is flawed.
I don’t intend to all that oversight to continue…. I’m making some predictions of my own, and I’m going to conduct another mini-experiment to valid my conclusions.

Sources Used to List and Validate Predictions (Go Ahead, Check My Stats... Unlike Sylvia's, Mine Are Right)


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