In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.
In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the COVID-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.
There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but COVID-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and COVID-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe COVID-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.
She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; COVID-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”
You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble COVID-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.
Browne’s 2004 Prediction
But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).
On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.”
Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences.
It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation.
Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”
It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.
Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding COVID-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)
Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task.
It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of COVID-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of COVID-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.
Browne’s Other Predictions
After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:
• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).
• “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)
• “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).
• “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).
• “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).
• “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).
• “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).
• “Building codes for every home, store, and other public building by 2013 will include a mandate for silent, powerful, well-concealed air purifiers” (p. 174).
• “In around 2014, a law will be passed stating that if anyone accuses another person of a felony and it can be proven that the accuser knew the accusation was false, the accuser can be made to serve the sentence the person he or she falsely accused would have served” (p. 136).
• “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209).
• “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).
• “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).
• “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).
• “New houses by about 2015 will be both solar-powered and pre-fabricated.” (p. 168).
• “By 2017 the stigma of mental illness will be gone” (p. 243).
• “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).
• “Personal robots … able on voice command to cook, clean, serve drinks and meals, make beds, put away laundry and feed pets … will be a fixture in most upscale homes by 2015 … and affordable to the general public by 2019” (p. 172).
• “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).
• “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).
• “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135).
• “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).
• “We do have an asteroid collision in our future, in or around 2021 … It will come down harmlessly in a remote area of the Southwest” (p. 102).
There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction.