PBS touts tarot

August 25, 2022 • 10:45 am

The nextavenue site is actually an arm of the Public Broadcasting Service, 15% (or more) of which is funded by the taxpayers via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s targeted to older adults. As its site says:

Next Avenue is a nonprofit, digital journalism publication produced by Twin Cities PBS (TPT). As public media’s first and only national publication for older adults, we are dedicated to covering the issues that matter most as we age.

And this logo is at the bottom of today’s article, which is about something that doesn’t matter more when we age:

This part-government sponsorship means that taxpayers like me are funding what nextavenue puts out. And what it has put out is a piece promoting the virtues of tarot cards (National Public Radio has done the same thing.) The free article is below; click the screenshot to read.

Of course PBS can’t just say that tarot cards flat-out can predict the future, for its listeners and readers are more sophisticated than that. Still, the article says that prediction is part of what tarot can do—but there’s so much more!

As it turns out, tarot is not just for prediction but to stimulate your mind and explore possibilities you haven’t realized. In other words, as all these articles about tarot in the liberal press maintain, it can be a device for getting you to think about your life and ponder future behaviors. It’s psychology, Jake! I wonder why more psychologists haven’t hit on tarot cards as a professional aid!

I’ll be brief and just quote some of the article’s waffling. This part is straight-out prediction:

People can read tarot cards for themselves or work with an experienced tarot reader. Beginning by focusing on a question is a good idea, even something simple like “What will this week be like?” Then draw a single card and see what it might tell you.

Remember, you have to pay tarot card readers, sometimes a lot, and often they want you to come back. If these people are not trained in therapy, and tell you what they’re doing, then they’re clearly taking money under false pretenses. But that’s the American way! Here’s one reader:

Nancy Antenucci is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based tarot reader in her sixties, founder of the Twin Cities Tarot Collective and the author of two books, “Psychic Tarot” and “Tarot Rituals.” She sees tarot cards as being a language of imagery.

Sonia Choquette said that we should call intuition ‘pattern recognition,'” Antenucci says. “I totally agree with that. When you’re seeing the cards, all those pictures together, it opens up different patterns. What you’re doing is recognizing the patterns of something.”

While decks usually come with guidebooks to help users understand the potential meanings of each card, Antenucci encourages people to go with their instincts when they pull specific cards. “Every picture is going to strike every person differently, so there’s a lot that can happen across a whole spectrum of personalities,” she says.

That could be called “confirmation bias.” You read things the way you want them to be. But I digress. . . .

Imagine a deck focused on weather conditions across the four seasons. One person might pull a snowstorm card and be delighted — they love winter and snowstorms. But someone who hates winter is going to have a decidedly different visceral reaction. Neither is wrong; each reflects the person drawing the card.

“The biggest misconception is that tarot is only used for prediction,” Antenucci says. “It’s also used for brainstorming, or storytelling, or writing or prompts.”

Here we see the usual excuse: it can be used for prediction, but the cards can also prompt you to tell stories or call up other ideas.  But if is to do that, shouldn’t we stop using the traditional decks used for prediction and make new decks with drawings and words inspired by modern psychology? What about Rorshach cards?

Here are Sonia Chouette’s fees, by the way. As far as I know, no therapist charges $1200 an hour.

Further on in the piece, an artist weighs in saying that the cards “can help people see things differently,” and that her drawing students get suggestions inspired by the teacher’s own part-time vocation as a tarot reader.

I won’t go on further. In short, what we see is a taxpayer-funded venue touting the supernatural, but partly hiding it under a bushel labeled “psychology.”

When I read stuff like this, I do wonder whether people attracted by tarot, crystals, and other things have a deep need for the supernatural, one that in other people is satisfied by religion. I often hear people with “belief in belief” argue that religion isn’t vanishing in America, but is simply being diverted into religion-like endeavors, like reading tarot cards. Or being woke.  While some of that may be true, I still think that the data show America becoming increasingly secular over time, so that one fine day, when my atoms have become clay, the U.S. will have the religiosity of Scandinavia—hardly any at all.

But grifters gotta grift, so we’ll always have tarot, psychics, and other scammers.

h/t: Ginger K.

Shades of Nostradamus: the NYT touts precognition

May 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The tweet below from Steve PInker, which is spot on, brought this NYT book review to my attention. Once again, the paper dilates on the supernatural without any warning to the reader that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Yet the book review implies that there might be something to it.

Here’s the tweet:

The NYT piece reviews this book (note the title). The account may be true, but the “death foretold”? Fuggedabout it.  (Click to go to Amazon link):

The author of this big of clickbait is W. M. Akers, whose bona fides, as given by the NYT, are “W.M. Akers is the author of “Westside,” “Deadball: Baseball With Dice” and the newsletter “Strange Times.” His most recent novel is “Westside Lights.”

The review (click to read):

Knight’s book tells the story of a British psychiatrist named John Baker, who was drawn to the supernatural and especially to precognition. He thought that if he could suss out credible instances of people foreseeing disasters, he might be able to prevent those disasters (think of a non-crime version of precogs in “Minority Report”). Here’s one instance of precognition that got Baker’s juices flowing:

n Oct. 21, 1966, Lorna Middleton woke up choking. The sensation passed, leaving behind melancholy and a sense of impending doom. After a lifetime of experiencing premonitions of misery and death, Middleton, a North London piano teacher, recognized the signs. Something hideous was on the way.

A few hours later, workers on a heap of coal waste in South Wales watched with horror as the 111-foot tower of “spoil” collapsed and cascaded down the mountain toward the village of Aberfan — thousands of tons of slurry and rock bearing down on the primary school. It was just past 10 in the morning and the classrooms were full of students doing spelling exercises, singing songs, learning math. When a 30-foot wave of refuse slammed into the building, they were buried alive. One hundred and forty-four people died that day. One hundred and sixteen were children, most between 7 and 10 years old. It was the sort of horror that makes people demand meaning — the sort for which meaning is rarely found.

Now that’s not a very precise example of precognition, is it? In fact, thousands of people probably had bad dreams that night, and where is the coal spoil in Middleton’s nonspecific dream? This seems like nothing more than pure coincidence. And how could precognition work, anyway? This doesn’t appear to be a subject of much interest to Knight—or Akers.

But in fact coincidence is what Baker was trawling for, looking for cases in which real “precogs” could be used in a practical way. If only the exact nature of the disaster could be predicted! Baker got to work, teaming up with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraine headaches were supposed to predict disasters (but of what sort?) and Lorna Middleton, who had the bad dream that was followed by the coal-spoil avalanche::

Barker used his connections at The Evening Standard to solicit premonitions of the disaster. He found 22 he believed credible, including Middleton’s — he believed any vision accompanied by physical symptoms to be particularly strong. On the back of this research, The Standard recruited Barker to create a standing “Premonitions Bureau” that could catalog predictions and check to see how many came true. The Standard brass saw it as an offbeat way to sell papers. Barker considered it his chance to save the world.

“He wanted an instrument that was sensitive enough to capture intimations that were otherwise impossible to detect,” writes Knight. “He envisaged the fully fledged Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearinghouse to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes.’ Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a databank for the nation’s dreams and visions — ‘mass premonitions,’ Barker later called them — and issue alerts based on the visions it received.”

So were any disasters averted? Nope, of course not. What we got is what we expected: there were dozens of premonitions, and  some of them roughly matched something that happened, but most (more than 97%) did not. And even when they didn’t, they stretched the premonitions so they’d be sort-of true:

In the first week of 1967, Barker and the Standard staff began sorting predictions into categories like “Royalty,” “Racing,” Fire” and “Non-specified disasters.” (The science correspondent Peter Fairley often drew on the racing file for betting tips.) Once categorized, they would wait to see what happened, and attempt to connect the tragedies on the news page with the prophecies in their files.

Along with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraines seemed to anticipate disaster, Middleton became Barker’s best source. He greeted her successful predictions with glee. When the death of the astronaut Vladimir Komarov bore out her warning of peril in space, Barker wrote to say, “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after months of her warning that his life was in danger, Barker called it her best work yet.

But what about Middleton’s unsuccessful predictions—her “worst work”? The review says nothing, except that they fudged the unsuccessful guesses to make them seem more accurate:

If they sometimes had to stretch to make the news fit what Middleton and her fellows dreamed up — letting tornadoes in the Midwest satisfy a prediction of catastrophic weather in California, for instance — Barker saw no problem. He was overjoyed with the success of his star psychics and hoped to scour the country to find more like them. He believed second sight was as common as left-handedness. It didn’t matter that the premonitions were rarely specific enough to be useful, warning simply of a train to derail somewhere, an airliner to crash at some point. Barker believed he was onto something cosmic.

Rarely specific enough to be useful? Why don’t they give us one instance in which a predication was useful, and evidence that the predictions that proved accurate were more common than could be accounted for by coincidence (e.g., was there one person whose precognitions were almost invariably accurate?) If this worked, that person would have won a million bucks from James Randi (nobody ever did). Even according to the author’s count, only 3% of the predictions “came true” (mostly from MIddleton and Hetcher). And that, I’m sure, is stretching it.

The text here gives one no assurance that anything other than coincidence was involved. To make a scientific and definitive statement about the efficacy of precognition, you’d need a rigorous and accurate set of tests, tests incorporating fraud-detectors like James Randi. There are no such tests that have proved successful. The NYT does not mention this.

But wait! There was one “successful” prediction: Middleton and Hencher predicted that Barker would soon die (they give no date) and a year and a half after the “predictions bureau” was founded, Barker had a cerebral hemorrhage and croaked. Is that uncanny, or just coincidence?

The review concludes that the precog experiment was indeed “worth a shot”:

Barker’s psychics’ predictions had proved accurate, but they did not help him avoid his fate. He had hoped to use the Bureau to change the future. It had not even come close. By Knight’s count, only 3 percent of the Bureau’s predictions came true — nearly all of the successes from Middleton and Hencher. It found no useful data and prevented no tragedies. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot.

“We confer meaning as a way to control our existence,” writes Knight. “It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening.”

Three percent is better than nothing. Even false meaning is preferable to fear.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but that conclusion is bullshit.  If “false meaning is preferable to fear”, then we should all become religious. And, anyway, what kind of fear does 3% of coincidental matches dispel? What is the frightening abyss into which we must gaze if none of the predictions were even remotely true? The last two paragraphs are pure New Yorker-style prose: they sound good, but they say nothing.

Some of the evidence for precognition that people found convincing came from Daryl Bem. This evidence has not held up (see also here).  Doesn’t the NYT or its authors owe us that information, or the fact that there is no conceivable way that the laws of physics could even allow precognition?  No, because the paper is are wedded to cosseting our “spiritual” side.


Thoughts and prayers: what are they worth?

September 18, 2019 • 9:15 am

Everyone knows about the “thoughts and prayers” sent out after tragedies as a quotidian feature of the daily news. And all of us nonbelivers disparage not only the use of prayers (shown in a Templeton-funded study to not have any effect on healing after surgery), but also the uselessness of thoughts—unless conveyed directly to the afflicted person instead of dissipated in the ether.

But an anthropologist and an economist wanted to know more: what is the value of thoughts and prayers (t&p)? That is, how much would somebody in trouble actually pay to receive a thought, a prayer, or both? And would it matter if that afflicted person was religious or just a nonbeliever? Or whether the person offering t&p was religious? So the study below was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (click on screenshot below; pdf here; reference at bottom).

I suppose that, to an economist, the psychic value of getting thoughts or prayers (t&p) from strangers can be measured in dollars, and I’ll leave that for others to discuss. At any rate, the results are more or less what you think: Christians value t&p, nonbelievers don’t.

What Thunström and Noy did was to recruit 436 residents of North Carolina, the state hit hardest last year by Hurricane Florence. Those who were not affected by the hurricane (about 70% of the sample) had experienced another “hardship”. They were then given a standard sum of money (not specified) for participating in a Qualtrics survey, and an additional $5 to be used in the t&p experiment. Among the 436 participants, some were self-identified as Christian, while another group, either denying or unsure of God’s existence, were deemed “atheist/agnostic”. (The numbers in each group weren’t specified.)

The experiment also included people offering thoughts and prayers: people who were recruited to actually give them to those who were afflicted. These people included Christians, the nonreligious, and one priest who was “recruited from the first author’s local community.” Each offerer received a note detailing the travails of an afflicted person, and instructing them to offer either a thought or a prayer (it’s not clear whether the names of the afflicted were included in the note, but of course God would know).

To value the thoughts and prayers, the afflicted were offered two alternatives, among which a computer decided: an intercessory gesture that they’d pay for, or the absence of a gesture that they’d pay for. Payments could be positive (you’d have to actually give money), or negative (you’d pay to not have the gesture). The amount you’d pay varied, says the paper, between $0 and $5—the amount given for participating in the study, and subjects stated this “willingness to pay (WTP) before the computer made the choice.

The experiment isn’t described very well, and there’s no supplementary information, but I’ve taken some other details from second-hand reports of the studies, with the reporters apparently having talked to the authors. At any rate, here are the results, indicated in how much money people would give up for t&p, including both Christians (dark bars) and atheists/agnostics (light bars). Since atheists/agnostics wouldn’t be praying, the only alternative people were offered to receive that group were “thoughts”.

(from paper) The value of thoughts and prayers from different senders (95% confidence intervals displayed; n = 436).

Christians would always give up an amount of money significantly greater than zero for both thoughts and prayers, except when the thinker was a nonreligious stranger, to whom they’d pay $1.52 not to receive thoughts (dark bar below zero). Since the authors are social scientists, they use a significance level of 0.1 (“hard scientists” use at most 0.05, and the latter is significantly different from zero using the more lax criterion but not the one that scientist would use).

Christians would of course offer the most money ($7.17) for prayers from a priest, less money ($4.36) for prayers from a Christian stranger, and still less ($3.27) for thoughts from a Christian stranger, though this doesn’t appear to be significantly different from the price for prayers from the Christian stranger (the statistical comparison isn’t given).

In contrast, atheists/agnostics don’t give a rat’s patootie about t&p. In fact, they’d pay money to have priests or Christians not offer them thoughts and prayers, as you can see from the three light bars to the left, which are all below zero. What surprised me is that the nonbelievers would pay more to avoid prayers from a Christian stranger than from a priest ($3.54 versus $1.66 respectively), while they’d pay an intermediate amount ($2.02) to avoid getting thoughts from a religious stranger (these are all significantly different from zero). Finally, as you’d expect, nonbelievers don’t give a fig for thoughts from other nonbelievers, as we’re not superstitious. These nonbelievers would pay 33¢ to get thoughts from nonbelieving strangers.

There’s another part of the experiment in which participants were asked to give their level of agreement or disagreement to the statement, “I may sometimes be more helped by others’ prayer for me than their material help.” This “expected benefits index” (EBI) explains a great deal of the variation in the amount of money people were willing to pay for prayers and thoughts (or not pay for prayers and thoughts).

What does this all mean? To me, nothing more than the obvious: religious people value thoughts and prayers more than do nonreligious people. Moreover, religious people do not value thoughts from nonbelievers, and nonbelievers give negative value to thoughts or prayers from Christians, and no value to thoughts from fellow nonbelievers. That’s not surprising.

What is a bit surprising is that Christians would sacrifice money to get thoughts and prayers, and would pay just about as much for thoughts from other Christians than for prayers from other Christians. (Prayers from priests, however, were most valuable, showing that the Christians really do believe that priests have a power to help them more than do everyday Christians). I was also surprised that nonbelievers would pay money to avoid thoughts and prayers from Christians. Since we think these are ineffectual, why pay to avoid them?

In general, I saw the study as weak, and afflicted by a failure to fully describe the methods as well as the use of an inflated level of statistical significance (0.1).  All that it really confirms is that Christians think that thoughts and prayers really work; i.e., that they believe in the supernatural. But we knew that already. I am in fact surprised that this study was published in PNAS, which is regarded as a pretty good scientific journal.


ThunströmL. and S. Noy 2019. The value of thoughts and prayers