NPR promotes tarot

February 6, 2022 • 9:45 am

It seems that many venues of the “mainstream liberal media”, like National Public Radio (NPR) and the New York Times, are devoting more space to woo: dowsing, tarot, talking to the dead, astrology, and so on. Now the MSLM has become a bit savvier about this nonsense. It often claims, as in the NPR “Life Kit” article below, that these things don’t really work through magical methods, but they help you get in tune with your feelings and become psychologically more astute. (Any person with more than a few neurons would ask an astrologer or tarot reader, “How come you’re not rich from forecasting the economy or stock market? And people are getting smarter about that.)

Still NPR, in the article below, walks a fine line between psychology and magic. And if you need psychological support or help in making a decision, there are always friends (preferably women, who are less prescriptive and tend to listen more than do men), or, if you want to pay, there are therapists, who don’t profess any magical abilities.

NPR is funded in part by the government, so it’s our money that funds about 11% of this nonsense. Click on the screenshot below:


First come the caveats (“it doesn’t predict the future”) and then the promise (“it helps you make decisions”). But seriously, is looking at cards that have specific meanings going to be a better way to make a decision than to talk to good people? After all, the cards are just a matter of chance, and there could be considerable confirmation bias involved in having them “help you” to decide what you want, which may not be the best decision.

The caveats (all emphases below are mine):

I didn’t always listen to the readings, but the rituals provided me a space to ruminate on and figure out my own answers to the question that’s being asked of the cards. Years later, along with many others, I’ve returned to the practice as a way of staying grounded during this time of indecision and overwhelm.

As tarot reader and writer Michelle Tea puts it, some people mistakenly come to tarot for a prediction of the future, when it’s really about self-reflection. “If you’re a person that wants to integrate more spirituality into your life or to look at life a bit more philosophically, it’s a great tool to even just pick a daily card.”

Modern tarot, which derives from mid-15th century European playing cards, has rules and structure that often feel inaccessible to newcomers: even if you’ve gotten a reading before, you may be intimidated by the cards, or wondering whether you’re witchy or cool enough to practice tarot yourself.

But what is the “spirituality” you want? Is this a sneaky way of talking about the numinous, or a kind of woo? What you want to integrate into your life is rationality, not spirituality.

And if you get a reading from someone else, well, the chances that you are using them to forecast your life is much higher, as these people are practiced grifters and cold readers, though some may employ a form of therapy. (They are not, of course, trained in therapy.)You can see an actual reading below by the subject of this NPR article (and interview), reader Michelle Tea, who’s touted for “her prescient readings” (see below).

Then things get a bit more numinous as you learn to pick more cards from the pack of 78:

Tea says this is yet another common misconception about tarot. “Tarot is incredibly welcoming for a novice. If I could learn it, really anybody can,” she says. “It’s just about becoming comfortable with the imagery, learning them by heart and understanding how the cards talk to each other so that when you pull a series of cards, you understand how they flow into a type of story.”

The story, of course, is really one you tell yourself; the pretense is that there’s some pattern, a pattern violating the laws of physics, that will guide your life and answer your questions.

And then it gets more numinous yet, with a helpful chart on how to use the cards:

A standard tarot deck has 78 cards divided into two groups, 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards. The major arcana showcase big life events, while the minor arcana look at the strokes and speak to our daily lives, though much of this, of course, varies on the reader.

The major arcana are composed of the archetype cards like the sun, the magician and the lovers. They’re often numbered as zero (the fool) to 22 (the world). “When major cards come up in readings, they usually talk about a moment that is really significant,” Tea explains, “like a peak moment in our lives or a significant learning opportunity, a lesson that’s going to be very impactful for us.”

The minor arcana are divided into four elements, similar to traditional playing cards — running from one to 10, followed by face cards. Elements are represented by symbols, which Tea breaks down here. . . .

So the cards begin to assume meanings to guide you.  The helpful chart (click to enlarge):

credit: Clare Marie Schneider/NPR

And the tarot can help you!

And now we get to the real woo:

Ask specific questions:

To receive more insightful readings, try to avoid asking big picture questions that cover the span of a year or speak to your general mood.

“If you’re overwhelmed and you want the tarot to reassure you, that’s really not the tarot’s job,” says Tea. “The tarot isn’t here to tell you everything’s going to be okay, but if you’re having a challenging moment, the tarot can help you deal with it.”

You can still, of course, lean on the cards. Rather than asking a muddy question like “Is everything going to be okay?” you can reframe it to “What actions could I take?”

Tarot can also respond to yes or no questions like “Should I leave my job?” Or even day-to-day questions like “How should I talk about splitting chores with my roommates?” If you disagree with the cards, that’s okay, too. As Tea says, “The tarot is a tool for you to be proactive in your own life, and to move into your own destiny with confidence.”

In other words, why use cards at all if it’s fine to disagree with them?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and comrades, what we have here is your taxpayer money going to tout a bunch of bogus card therapy.

You can find a 15-minute conversation between tarot reader Michelle Tea and and NPR Host Janet Lee here. It’s even worse. It turns out that Lee, who co-wrote the article above, isn’t exactly skeptical of tarot, for she says this:

“Today, I keep up with the spiritual practice by giving tarot readings. I spent years practicing on my own before reading for other people, but when I first started, I felt like I wasn’t witchy or spooky enough to learn tarot at all. What convinced me otherwise was a book by writer and tarot reader Michelle Tea.”

And Tea says this:

TEA: And you can also pick cards about just sort of, you know, what should you do with your career, what should you do with your art practice, you know, where should you live? Should you ask that person on a date? Like, tarot also responds wonderfully to all of our sort of petty (laughter) – the petty concerns that feel very important to us as human beings.

“Tarot responds. . . “.  In other words, these ancient cards tell us what to do with our lives.

The first line of the blurb for Tea’s Amazon book on tarot is this:

Long before Michelle Tea was winning awards for her poignant memoirs, she was a scrappy misfit on the streets of San Francisco, supporting herself by giving eerily prescient tarot readings.

Prescient means this: “Having or showing knowledge of events before they take place.”

Ah. . . there we have it.  Note that in the reading below, there are clearly predictions about the future. As usual, the readings are so ambiguous that they can be construed any way they want. That’s where the cold reading comes in.

It’s clear that the folks who pay or buy cards to engage in this kind of mishigass do want answers, and thus may use a human reader first before they try to deal personally with the cards. But the important questions for us are these:

  1.  Has there been a scientific test of tarot to see if it’s better than no tarot (or fake cards) in helping people with their lives, or better than a therapist or talking to a friend?
  2. Why is NPR touting this nonsense? If it wants to help people in difficulties, shouldn’t its Life Kit present proper solutions instead of woo?
  3. Where are the scientific caveats about the usefulness of traditional packs of 78 cards in helping you or predicting the future, whether or not you take specific actions? Why did they not interview any tarot skeptics. The coverage is thus grossly unbalanced.
  4. And why are places like the NYT or NPR so into this kind of nonsense? Is it a replacement for religion.

Let’s get a reading with Tea, shown in the video below.

If you don’t think she’s using this to prognosticate, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. (I am a monkey’s distant descendant, though.) One thing is for sure: we don’t need no stinking tarot cards in our Life Kit.

h/t: Ginger K.

43 thoughts on “NPR promotes tarot

  1. Gosh, I remember the good old days of skepticism forty-five years ago when I first got involved. Worrying that the cumulative effect of accepting an assortment of wooly-headed ideas like this might lead to a general populace that became more and more detached from reason and started making really stupid decisions. It was always so reassuring to be told that abandoning reality was just harmless fun.

  2. I haven’t listened to NPR in probably 6 months. Saturday morning I decided to see what was being discussed. The first words I heard were ”… systemic racism…”. Nothing has changed. Certainly race issues are an important topic worthy of NPR. But all they seem to discuss are race, trans, Latino, and undocumented issues.

    1. I agree. Assign some range of numbers to each decision, e.g. 1-3 = Go For It, 4-6 = Hold Back. Roll the die. Observe that the answer is wrong – not really what you felt best. Do the other thing!

      1. I’ve seen D&D type games that use 100 sided dice! Then you could get down to some serious decision-making nuance. 😉

        1. I actually have one on the kitchen counter. It’s a fun joke prop. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife about an ingredient…Hey, Patti, what does the 8-ball say about adding some feta to this? It’s a fun inside joke thing.

  3. Ah, takes me back to the ‘70s and throwing the I Ching. It furthers one to cross the great water was my personal favorite, and all that Jungian synchronicity.

  4. Using a broad brush, Wooist place a great deal of stock on “ancient” knowledge as if it inherently is more wise, insightful, etc than “modern” knowledge.

    So, generally, did ancient knowledge have these wonderful properties when it was not ancient, that is, contemporaneous with the ancients? And, specifically, Wikipedia documents that Tarot card reading originated around 1750, hardly ancient.

    Finally, why do I have an urge to Amazon myself a deck of Tarot cards, bandana and large, gold (clip on) earring?

    1. The idea that cards could be used as randomizing devices for fortune-telling began clumsily in the 17th cen, then kicked into higher gear in the 18th, with regular cards and less so with tarot games. There ensued various camps who invented meanings for the cards, but in 1910 the particular version used mostly today was invented by Arthur Waite (redesigning and changing the order of some of the trumps). Most all current tarots are knock-offs of that Waite deck (as the rival forms faded from popularity by the 1980s).

      Which means telling fortunes with decks of that format and content is less ancient than making a long distance telephone call or flying in an airplane.

  5. We can surely look forward to a new program on NPR (or perhaps in Scientific American) which delves into the burning issue raised in the following blog.

    “Last week, tarot blogger Kelly-Anne Maddox raised the topic in one of her Cardslinger videos of racial diversity in tarot. Specifically, the lack of visible people of colour in tarot cards/decks. With an introductory note about being white herself and aiming to open/amplify rather than ‘lead’ this important discussion, Kelly brings up issues including white-only decks, tokenism, and the exotification of people of colour when they are depicted in tarot decks.” (From )

    1. I thought it was a parody! (I couldn’t watch the entire clip, I try to avoid stuff so stupid it slows the turn of the earth).

  6. I enjoy playing cards and tarot cards as graphic art. The history of cards and the different styles across cultures is fascinating. I am just starting an etching that is based on a playing card layout. Using them for “readings” is nonsense. Agreed that treating woo as a serious way to contemplate important (or unimportant) life decisions doesn’t belong in a reliable news source. In addition to JACs advice to find a good friend or therapist to talk to, another activity many have used is to take a walk. It is especially great if you have a park nearby.

  7. I am atheist and I like the tarot. I used to have a business and I lost it. I would start with I don’t believe in these cards and I am not psychic. Alot of aggressive people from all walks of life, religious and non religious, other card readers. I tell them right away I don’t believe and they weren’t listening, which is no surprise. I repeat I don’t believe, and some, with this rageful look on their faces, walk away.

    The worst job in the world and I am glad I don’t do it anymore. I did not charge alot of money. If they stayed and pay, we have some fun, that’s all, but alot of people are scared and they still get the idea I am telling them what to do or the future, no matter what assurances I give. Or we stay forever until I tell them what they want to hear. Worse than factory work or retail or restaurant. My last customer made me stay for 5 hours. No thank you.

    I love telling stories and I have Story Cubes, I will roll the dice and pick a card and mix them up. Fun. Goes nowhere. There you have it. I am not looking for answers at all. I know it is random. A creative outlet. Alot of useless knowledge, I love it.

  8. The continuing existence of belief in such woo is beyond me; but NPR and the NYT pushing them won’t help eradicate it.

    BBC Radio 4 currently has a six-episode drama/documentary series about the successful US psychic Lamar Keene whose conscience got the better of him. Having exposed himself as a fraud, he wrote a book, The Psychic Mafia, in which he coined the term “true believer syndrome” and claimed that there was an underground network that kept and shared files about the gullible fools that they were ripping off.

    I’m never sure how these things work outside the UK, but you may be able to listen via this link:

  9. I’m as far away as one could be from woo, however I have a Tarot card set, and see a purpose in tools for creativity or perhaps introspection, like reader Rheena above describes (I also have Story Cubes).

    I am also scientifically interested in creativity, and the role of what Arthur Koestler described as bisociation, the “the simultaneous mental association of an idea or object with two fields ordinarily not regarded as related” (Merriam-Webster)

    In particular, I speculate that the activity of fortune telling, divination and suchlike are a type of bisociation using some random external stimulus, which is used to stirr up internal states, emotions, ideas and so on. The difference to old beliefs (or woo) is that our minds, and dreams are no longer seen as somehow connected to spirit realms or the supernatural, though the process is still mysterious — we frankly haven’t a clue why we are reminded of something. The object is the card, and it represents on one side a predefined meaning or perhaps association from the image it shows, and on the other side, it could be used to think of what it might mean in your life. I have no need for such games, but perhaps it’s useful to some people.

    However, some caution is advised. You can have dumb, “wrong” or unimportant associations, like you can have dreams that are just random nonsense as your brain perhaps activates some neuron patterns for some sort of maintenance (we don’t know why we dream). They shouldn’t be regarded as too meaningful. There is a danger that feeble-minded people who don’t have a proper mental hygiene, or skills in creative thinking might get possessed by harmful thoughts, that came up. This has infamously happened in cases like the “satantic panic” or some child abuse cases and suggestion. It’s not enirely good harmless fun.

    1. For many it’s also expensive and addictive fun. People spend 2.2 BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR on “psychic servies” in the US. A lot of these people are addicted to the stuff. It’s not just that there’s no scientific basis in it for foretelling things, it’s that it bilks vulnerable people of money. With all the justifications you raise for it, can you admit that, at least?

      1. When my elderly aunt lost her husband, she wanted to spend all sorts of money on a “medium” to help her get in “touch” with my uncle. This con woman wanted thousands of dollars my aunt could not afford. Thankfully, her daughter stopped it before it went too far. I consider all these “psychics” to be the worst kinds of parasite and con men, preying on the vulnerable, just as you said.

        1. If you like movies that creep and crawl, I would recommend the latest from Guillermo del Toro: Nightmare Alley It is all about the con and the mark and the price of taking it too far.

      2. I agree entirely on the woo and prediction part. As I wrote, it’s also potentially harmful when people get hooked on an idée fixe that (more or less) came up randomly. I also wouldn’t pay other people for such games, when you could do bisociation techniques yourself, and for free by looking into cloud patterns, random search of images, or an old time classic, open a book at a random place, and use a paragraph to stimulate association. You don’t even need a Tarot deck for it.

      1. Jung charted recurring motifs, also from dreams, like a cartographer of what is called the “unconcious”. I am dubious about the concept.

        However, there are clearly recurring or shared motifs that come up in different cultures, which might have a common source, or they might have features that make them appealing to retain and share them (or conversely, human minds might have structures to which certain ideas stick). Jung’s collection is valuable as that, without the “theory” above it. He was onto something (coming from Kant and Schopenhauer) with his view that minds aren’t blank slates, but come equipped with mental structures. This view, psychological nativism, got some support with Chomsky’s universal grammar.

        I think that minds aren’t literally born with the kind of motifs Jung collected, but I assume humans have similar psychological profiles and experience that similar motifs can plausibly arise, and it’s useful to document that. This collection is useful in storytelling, or screenwriting and suchlike, but taken as more than that is pseudoscience at this point.

  10. As the much-missed Randi noted:

    For use as a divinatory device, the Tarot deck is dealt out in various patterns and interpreted by a gifted “reader.” The fact that the deck is not dealt out into the same pattern fifteen minutes later is rationalized by the occultists by claiming that in that short span of time, a person’s fortune can change, too. That would seem to call for rather frequent readings if the system is to be of any use whatsoever.

  11. Not only is NPR’s reporting disturbingly credulous, it contains a basic mathematical error — if the major arcana were labeled 0 through 22, then there would be a total of 23 arcana. A quick Google search confirms that the final arcana, “the world”, should be labeled 21.

  12. “Tarot can’t predict the future but it can help you make that big decision.”

    So can flipping a coin, with identical accuracy and at a much lower cost. This “it does not really work but it can help you” is the fall back position of all superstition peddlers once they get exposed for what they are.

  13. A note on the decks in her collection (I have a collection of playing cards, including most of the occult ones, so can recognize a lot of them on sight):

    The main one she uses is of course the popular Rider Deck (the 1910 Waite deck with illustrated suit cards, to make riffing off them easier as you don’t have to memorize what an eight of swords is supposed to mean). Brief looks show she has a standard Marseilles format French gaming tarot (c, 1750 on those), and judging by the back cover art, the artsy Book of Thoth designed by occultist Aleister Crowley in 1944. Those three alone will have trump (Waite is the one who called them “Major Arcana”) orders and images that differ in details and numbering.

  14. Regarding NPR, several days ago there was a “Morning Edition” segment on Justice Breyer’s announcing his impending retirement. Among several adjectives used to describe him, “quirky” was used, as if delivered from Mount Olympus. No examples of his alleged quirkiness were given. (I suspect the term referred to what I gather is Breyer’s apparent interest in philosophy.) It must be so if some omniscient NPR popinjay thinks so. No doubt there are writers who write such stuff for NPR presenters/personalities. But some of the latter surely write at least a bit of their own material. Surely the latter have a bit of a say in what they are going to say on air.

    And ME’s Rachel Martin was in Ukraine all last week, her logorrheic pump fully primed with breathlessness, cloying unctuousness, hyperbole and hysteria, with jerkily-edited one-sentence quotes from inteviewees and accentuating background music. ( Several times I had to switch stations or turn it off.) One can’t simply have talk; it has to be something of a melodramatic multi-media presentation. There is an “edgy,” compelling “story” to tell, after all. What will be next – lasers, smoke and dancers? Would that one of the remaining Old Guard, Scott Simon, were there instead. Some sufficient and appropriate gravitas would obtain. Wherefore art thou, Bob Edwards, Carl Kassel, Noah Adams?)

    1. “…edgy…lasers, smoke and dancers?” – Wow! So NPR is doing the Super Bowl half-time this year? Will I have to snack on Schwetty Balls instead of corn chips?

  15. In high school I bought a (mini, I had little money) pack of tarot cards out of curiosity. I soon learned I could manipulate my classmates with my “readings”. Not my proudest moment but I did no actual harm.

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