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How Fourth-Grade Students Made Better Predictions than Sylvia Browne

Bryan Farha Modified: December 1, 2013 at 10:25 am •  Published: December 1, 2013
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On December 29, 2004, when my niece Briana Harroz was a 4th grader at the Heritage Hall elementary school in Oklahoma City, Sylvia Browne made her annual predictions for the year 2005. Sensing an opportunity to test her accuracy, I asked Briana’s teacher, Mrs. Roxanne Warner, to allow me to ask her students to make predictions on the same items. She graciously permitted me to use both of her 4th-grade classes—a total of 31 students.

Some of Sylvia’s predictions were so vague that lots of possible events might enable her to claim that a prediction was correct. (For example, her prediction that President Bush would “step up to the plate” could be interpreted in many ways.) To avoid this possibility, I chose eleven predictions that would have a clear, measurable outcome. Then, to prevent students from being influenced by Sylvia’s opinions, I rephrased the predictions as questions that would not indicate what she had predicted. (For example, I changed “The United States will go to war with North Korea,” to “Will the United States go to war with North Korea?”) I met with the students on January 12, 2005, before any of the predicted outcomes were settled. When 2005 ended, I tabulated the results:

Sylvia’s Predictions Rephrased as Questions
Sylvia’s
Answers
Correct
Answer
s
Will the United States pull their troops out of Iraq this year?
Yes
No
Will the United States go to war with Korea this year?
Yes
No
Will there be any terrorist attacks in the United States this year?
No
No
Will there be an alcohol scandal about the President of the United States this year?
Yes
No
Will the relationship of Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake last this year?
No
Yes
Will Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn break up this year?
Yes
No
Will doctors develop a vaccine for certain cancers (uterine, lung, colon, etc.) this year?
Yes
No
Will actor Robert Blake be found guilty this year?
No
No
Will Donald Trump marry the “foreign girl” he is engaged to this year?
Yes
Yes
Will the government allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana this year?
Yes
No
Will Michael Jackson go to jail this year?
Yes
No

Sylvia had predicted only 3 of the 11 outcomes (27%) correctly. That’s about half of what would be expected by pure guessing. One student made 8 correct predictions, five got 7 correct, nine got 6 correct, six got 5 correct, seven got 4 correct, two got 3 correct, and one got 2 correct. In other words, 28 out of 31 did better than Sylvia, two did the same, and only one did worse.

[originally published at Quackwatch]