Nov 11 2019

Astrology – A Peak Behind the Curtain

It is always interesting, and incredibly useful, to have insight from someone on the inside of a pseudoscience. Occasionally, someone who’s logical ability and intellectual honesty are reasonably intact gets sucked into a world of pseudoscience. If they are able to emerge out the other end still able to engage meaningfully with reality, they may have an incredible tale to tell. For example, Britte Hermes is a former naturopath who is now a real scientist and is able to report what really goes on in the world of fake medicine. Another example is Mark Edward, a former “psychic” who wrote his own tell-all. In such situations I have always found that things are much worse than even the fevered imaginings of a jaded skeptic.

The Guardian provides another useful example – the confessions of a former astrologer. Please read the full article. It provides concise insight into the psychology and business of new-age nonsense. The author, Felicity Carter, started dabbling in Tarot readings as entertainment, and as the story often goes, was convinced by the amazing accuracy of some of her readings. While she increasingly took her readings and her psychic power seriously, she always kept one foot in the “real” world and was apparently intellectually honest enough to ask important questions (at least in her current telling). Here are some of the key insights she provides.

The first is the way the new-age mind works. She states, “Astrology is one big word association game.” This is typical pre-scientific superstitious thinking. It probably derives from the fact that the human brain largely functions through association. We’re really good at it. We casually use analogies, and our literature is replete with metaphor. The problem comes from confusing metaphor for reality. This is often referred to as sympathetic magic, which is the conceptual underpinning of many pseudosciences, like homeopathy. In this world-view metaphors are not just abstract connections made in the human brain, they actually exist out there in the physical world. The happenstance arrangement of some stars as viewed from Earth slightly resembles a lion in the human imagination, so this virtual pattern actually imbues the qualities that humans perceive lions possess. It is an extreme metaphysical view of reality, with the universe being imbued with cosmic magic. If it makes you feel better you can say it’s quantum something. What matters is our gut intuition that metaphors are real.

All this makes it very easy to give a reading, regardless of the specific tools used – Tarot, astrological charts, tea leaves, numerology, or nothing at all. All you have to do is riff on free associations.

Carter also emphasizes another key insight into how psychic readings work – the target is really doing all the heavy lifting. They are making the associations, and providing the meaning. As she recounts, a friend told her of a really accurate reading they had, which was taped. So they listened to the tape:

“The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend’s imagination had done all the work.”

Further, after doing readings for even a little while they became increasingly easy. This is because people are predictable. We like to think we are all individual snowflakes, but we share much more in common than we like to think. The great comedian George Carlin once noted that much of his comedy is pointing out things that are universal (or sometimes half universal if they are gender-specific) but that most people don’t realize are universal. We all assume we are the only ones who think or feel a certain way, or who play little games with ourselves, or whatever. So he seems really insightful and funny by pointing them out.

Psychics (by which I always mean alleged or self-described psychics) exploit this phenomenon to convince their marks that they have some special insight. As Carter points out:

“The range of problems faced by people who can afford $50 for fortune telling turned out to be limited: troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change. I heard these stories so often I could often guess what the problem was the moment someone walked in.”

Many professionals benefit from this kind of experience – doctors, lawyers, cops, salespeople. You build up an experience of the kinds of problems people face, the kinds of behaviors they engage in. For example, if you have some notable feature about yourself (physical, or perhaps your job or hobby) you may have noticed that everyone tells you the same witty joke and they laugh at themselves as if they are the first ones to do so. Meanwhile you groan because you have heard it a million times. People can be boringly, sometimes frustratingly, predictable.

Finally Carter notes that she intuitively made observations about people, like how happy they sounded when they referred to something. This provides another layer of insight into how they feel and what they want to hear. Combine all this with the fact that most people just want someone safe they can vent all their problems to, and you have the ingredients for an entire industry of exploitation.

What Carter is describing, without naming it, is a cold reading. You begin with statements that are likely to be true about most people, but when hearing them applied to yourself sound very specific. You inform these guesses with basic probability and observation. But you don’t really have to try very hard, because the person receiving the reading will do all the work. They may do most of the talking, and all you have to do is listen and then give them back some of what they say. They will make all the associations and provide all the meaning, and their memory will later distort the reading into a magical experience.

Carter, it seems, was doing an “honest” cold reading, but a psychic may do a more deliberate one, such as would be done by a mentalist performing on stage. This can involve a number of deceptive techniques, such as specifically choosing guesses that are predetermined because of their statistical probability. They are less specific than they seem, but are impressive when they hit. You begin with vague and ambiguous statements, then respond to the feedback to make more and more precise statements, while pretending that is what you meant all along. Some may include hot reading techniques, which the internet has made very easy.

She ends by tying in her insights from astrology to concerns about big data. She predicts that astrology or other reading apps will become increasingly popular, and they will “work” just like any social media app can work – by mining data and refining predictions based on feedback. These algorithms already exist. Google and Facebook already know everything about us, because people are predictable, and we leave our digital traces everywhere.

There is now the well-known story of Target using such an algorithm to figure out when their customers were pregnant, all based on seemingly incongruous buying habits. Women in their second trimester buy lots of unscented lotion. The Akinator will guess the person you are thinking of in suprisingly few guesses. Imagine using similar techniques to do a virtual cold-reading, using the power of big data combined with the inherent predictability of people.

Of course using this technology to convince the unwary that astrology is real is not the worst case scenario, as bad as it is. Imagine this power in the hands of a totalitarian government. Actually we don’t have to imagine, we have China.

No responses yet