Pseudoscience: Mystics vs. Statistics

Once in a while, as I mine public information sources like Wikipedia, I bump into the term “pseudoscience” used to describe the esoteric arts, and especially astrology. Even in supposedly unbiased academic circles, the implication of this epithet is that what we do is invalid or “fake” and only intended to defraud the unwary and gullible. I don’t know about you, but in public practice that’s the furthest thing from my mind, especially since paying clients are few and far between; I don’t actively beat the bushes for them and I’m usually sought out for readings, not the other way around. I do acknowledge that, to the extent we try to present our insights as infallible, we court the accusation of “phony” with more than a little culpability.

Part (or perhaps most) of the problem is that so much of what we do produces only anecdotal evidence. Although astrology did try to go down the road of empirical data-gathering and analysis with the work of the Gauquelins, I haven’t seen or heard anything recent concerning their efforts or those of their successors. With astrology the “science” part is credible if one can read an ephemeris and use simple logarithms (or, these days, wrangle a computerized horoscope-generating program); the “pseudo” part, in the estimation of scientists, is how it’s interpreted. A far as I know, no similar effort to create a legitimate database of tarot-reading results has ever been attempted, and it is probably unachievable at a worldwide level. Consequently, we have no claim to scientific legitimacy. Of course, there are those who say it’s the last thing they want, tarot is a storyteller’s art, not a “hard” science. Still, the outcome of prognostication is factual (it either happened as predicted or it didn’t) regardless of how we arrive at it, but we are often decoupled from our clients as soon as they walk out the door. So we are left in the dark regarding follow-up, despite claims by some readers of 95% accuracy. I call such hyped-up assertions the “feel-good factor;” the client left happy so obviously it was an accurate reading. It’s not a contention I would take to the bank.

I’ve come to the understanding that, unless we have access to meaningful feedback from our clients, much of what we consider irrefutable testimony in the cards amounts to nothing more than my favorite “pseudo-scientific” acronym: “SWAG.” When I worked in the nuclear power industry, the field engineers used to say (tongue-in-cheek) that “scientific wild-ass guess” was the technology they employed when designing system and equipment changes to the power plant. Comforting, huh? I feel much the same way with the evidence in the cards. I’m prepared to defend my reasoning as to why the cards propel me toward certain conclusions, but I would be the last one to stake my life on the assumption that those will unfold exactly as forecast. Statisticians use a term called “margin of error,” and with tarot predictions it can be a mile wide. There is just no demonstrated (never mind documented) repeatability to most of our observations that would give us confidence in offering them without reservation. This is why I tend to couch my pronouncements in qualifiers: “yes, but . . . ;” “no, unless . . . ;” “maybe, if . . . .” This puts the client on notice that they have work to do if they want a favorable prophesy to “come true” or to avoid such a result if it’s a less fortunate one.

Personally, I’m on the fence about this subject. My reading approach is more clinical than mystical. I admit that it is rooted firmly in cognitive analysis and not primarily in free-style intuition, but probably half of the former is “SWAG-worthy” and and an even greater fraction of the latter is more knowledge-and-experience-driven than truly visionary. In fact, at least for me, insights that don’t have one foot planted in the traditional wisdom are too fanciful to be trusted. I can’t tell the difference between channeling them unsullied from the Collective Unconscious and pulling them out of my butt . . . I mean “subjective subconscious . . .” after they have been partially “stewed in my own juices.” I have a healthy respect for those who can do that artfully and not get tangled up in their own rhetoric, but totally unstructured readers often get too far out on the skinny end of the branch before they realize that they don’t have a safety net. After that, their mouths keep making noises but they usually stop imparting much sense. It reminds me of this amusing Seb Pearce New Age Bullshit Generator: “Just click and the truth will manifest.”

When used in the service of humanity, tarot reading is a “helping” discipline; if the client gains guidance, inspiration and comfort from it, we have done our job. These benefits are subjective and are difficult to quantify. I would say, though, that “feeling good” is the least substantive of the three. I would much rather strive for having them feel “empowered” to do something in line with the advice in the cards. But that is still only a parting wish, we will most likely never know whether they actually do it unless they become that rarest of beasts, the steady customer. Readers who are truly conscientious and don’t just “shoot from the hip” go to great lengths to avoid coming across as “fake” in their readings; authenticity is of paramount importance to the extent we can find it in the cards, and if it proves elusive we should either start over or tell the client to come back another day. There is no point in continuing under doubtful premises, which in the worst cases will only elevate the “pseudo” over the “science.”

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Parsifal the Scribe

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at