This blog post continues the skeptical investigation of the unscientific and wildly inaccurate claims that the alleged psychic Sylvia Browne makes on her Facebook page. Previous installments include her denial of the germ theory of disease, her public failure regarding the prediction that Amanda Berry was dead and an analysis of some of the tactics Browne and her true believers use in their promotion and support.
This time, Browne blindly charges into the field of psychiatry and makes the following ignorant claims about the origin of specific phobias (and another case of germ theory denialism as an added bonus):
The number of scientific errors and unsubstantiated claims in these three sentences is gigantic.
The existence of supernatural entities
Throughout her facebook post, Sylvia Browne asserts the existence of a number of supernatural entities such as a creator deity, a holy spirit, a soul. She also makes implicit claims that reincarnation occurs, that deities respond to human prayer and that prayer is an effective treatment of many illnesses and specific phobias.
She provides no evidence whatsoever for any of these and there is therefore no reason to take any of those claims seriously.
Continued germ theory denialism
Brown repeats her germ theory denialism that was refuted in a previous post. Before, she asserted that most illnesses starts in the mind of the individual, but now she apparently thinks that illnesses are the result of cellular memories or subconscious memories from a past life. These two positions are deeply contradictory: do illnesses start in the mind of individuals in this life, or the result of cellular memories from a past life?
Rejection of the mainstream scientific view on specific phobias
Mainstream psychology indicate that factors that influence specific phobias and other anxiety conditions include evolutionary preparedness, genetic risk factors, highly reactive autonomic nervous system, conditioning (both classical and operant), learning by observation and so on (Passer et. al. 2009).
Instead of accepting the science behind phobias, Browne asserts that phobias are the result of subconscious or cellular memories from a past life. However, she provides no evidence that past lives exists in the first place. Not only that, she does not explain how memories can carry over from past lives (memories are tied to the structure and function of the brain, so when brains decompose so do stored memories). Finally, she does not explain or provide any evidence for the existence of “cellular memories”. Unless she means the fact that the B and T cells of adaptive immune system can form memory cells that live on even after the infection is cleared, it is unclear what exactly, if anything, “cellular memories” are suppose to be.
Browne’s explanation for the origin of phobias is also circular: she merely asserts that phobias come from the memories that your past life had. However, this tacitly assumes that this individual also had the specific phobia. In other words, Browne is implicitly assuming that which she is trying to explain.
Comments from true believers
As ridiculous as her distorted assertions are, let us look at what some of her true believers say in the comment section. I continue to be amazed that posts of hers with this kind of ignorant content gets thousands of likes and hundreds of comments and shares. Yet again, I have blacked out the name and the profile picture because I want this to be about the content of the comments and not the individuals).
As with her claims that illnesses start in the mind, her quack claims about the causes of specific phobias can do a lot of damage to psychologically vulnerable people. Here is one such example:
This person, who says that he or she has had anxiety for his or her entire life, express a certainty that it has to be from a past life. Believing this instead of acquiring an evidence-based view of the risk factors and causes for the anxiety condition of this individual will make it more difficult for this individual to receive effective treatment. After all, if you believe that it is due to a past life, why should you accept the benefits of medication and psychotherapy?
Here is a rationalization provided by another true believer:
It only works if you believe? That is more or less a direct admission that it is just a placebo effect. A treatment that actually works will work whether or not you believe in it.
Here might be another case of a believer being exploited:
This individual probably paid money for a session and told the person performing the “past life regression” that he or she was afraid of snakes so the performer presumably used that to weave a story that the vulnerable person bought into. It is also interesting to note that this “treatment” did not work towards overcoming the specific phobia of snakes.
At one point, a fundamentalist Christian came along and started complaining about the mixing of Christianity and new age beliefs. Hilarity ensues:
So Sylvia Browne practices witchcraft? Isn’t it more likely that she just use well-understood psychological techniques to manipulate her believers? As far as I am aware, the Bible does not discuss reincarnation in relation to the Holy Spirit, so the encouragement to read the Bible is a bit ironic.
In conclusion, this is yet another example of Sylvia Browne spewing her anti-scientific beliefs that has a great potential to hurt vulnerable people emotionally, physically and financially.
Passer, M., Smith, R., Holt, N., Bremner, A., Sutherland, E., & Vliek, M. (2009). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.