A Perfect Storm (of stupidity)

My home town, Durban, will be hosting an “International Astrology and Psychic Festival” this weekend (I’ll be going). The festival opens today (10 September) at a local casino and runs until Sunday. The festival will host mystics, psychics, astrologers, numerologists, clairvoyants, mediums and healers (who I will refer to as “the psychics” from now on) as well as offering ‘associated products’ like crystals, gemstones, candles, wind chimes, books, and ‘dream catchers’. Last years festival apparently entertained 6000 guests and this year the organisers expect three times as many people. There will be special guest astrologers from India and special sessions which must be booked in advance and that cost extra.

This has led to an increase in coverage, on our most popular local radio station, East Coast Radio, of programming of a paranormal sort. Yesterday morning, while driving to work, I heard a numerologist doing her thing and this morning I overheard a man talking about the “fact” that babies are born psychic but lose that ability as they grow up because they are forced into the “traditional” frame of mind (a scrap of evidence would be nice).

I have now officially heard people going “ooh… that’s so interesting” one too many times on the radio and I’d like to talk a little bit about numerology and “psychic” performers in general.

Numerology is a clever kind of number manipulation in which the numerologist (whom I will call the “fokken alien” from now on) converts a gullible person’s birth date and name into a number and uses the result of that manipulation to make predictions for the sitter. The result of the fokken alien’s basic arithmetic is used to impress sitters with vague generalisations about their personality, health and future. Numerology has an obvious association with astrology, a personal bugbear, and widely recognised pseudoscience which has long ago shed it’s pre-historic agricultural value and burst forth as a fully fledged mystical delusion.

The following table summarises the number / letter transformation used in (at least some forms of) numerology and is followed by the transformation for my own birth date.[i]

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

V

W

X

Y

Z

My “destiny” number is derived by adding together the numbers of my birthday (supposedly powerful because one cannot legally change one’s date of birth);

28 October 1982

2+8+1+0+1+9+8+2=31

3+1=4

Deriving one’s “personality”, “expression” and “heart” numbers from one’s name is only slightly more time consuming, matching each letter to its corresponding number and adding up the numbers.

The particular “reading” I heard on the radio yesterday was for a young girl called Abby who was born on the 9th of September 2000. That made yesterday her 9th birthday on 9.09.2009. What self-serving fokken alien wouldn’t seize on the opportunity to make that seem mystical?

I must say, it can’t be easy for a fokken alien to do a cold reading on live radio. There is very little feedback from the sitter and if you screw up badly it is in a very public and embarrassing manner. You’d have to be a very skilful and quick thinking fokken alien indeed to sound convincing in a radio interview. Unless, of course, you got an opportunity to talk to the mark a little bit before the broadcast portion of the reading, something which would give you some information to work with and the radio audience would be none the wiser.

Ok, back to the reading at hand. As I mentioned the mark was a young girl who was celebrating her 9th birthday (her mommy had phoned the radio on her behalf). The fokken alien had a long list of impressive sounding insights into Abby’s personality and what her future would hold. I cannot emphasise enough how SURE the fokken alien seemed to be of her predictions. To her these were not merely guesses, they were facts. Let me provide a representative sample (not necessarily in order, and there were many more than I have included);

  • Abby would achieve great things in her life.
  • She is achieving very high marks at school
  • The is a possibility that Abby would get a PhD
  • She can be a little naughty and mischievous
  • She is “all happiness, dance and laughter”
  • Abby likes to be outdoors, she has a lot of energy and doesn’t like to be cooped up
  • Abby might have a hip problem when she is much older and might have to have a hip replacement
  • She can be a little disobedient
  • She will achieve fame under her surname
  • The fokken alien asked if Abby was a ballerina
  • Abby likes to be the centre of attention and is the “Prima ballerina”

This list may seem very impressive at first. But think about it for a little while and you will see that it is a lot of very high probability guesses considering that the subject was a little girl. Furthermore, it took the fokken alien a few guesses before she started to elicit positive responses. All of the statements regarding Abby being a diligent student who achieved good marks at school were met by vague responses of “ok…” or “hmm”. Clearly mommy was not agreeing with the fokken alien. The suggestion that Abby might get a PhD did elicit a startled “Wow! That’s interesting!”

Being the smart fokken alien that she was, the numerologist picked up on the fact that her guesses were not quite hitting the mark (basically, she couldn’t have hit the side of a barn with an automatic machine gun at this point) and changed her tack. The broad statements about Abby being a happy gregarious child who likes being outdoors immediately elicited enthusiastic agreement from mommy and this only encouraged the fokken alien.

The fact is though, in a city like Durban which enjoys a tropical climate with beautiful beaches and warm Indian Ocean waves, as well as many well maintained public parks and a winter where we can sit around at night in shorts and t-shirts, a young child is almost certainly going to want to be outdoors.

The guess about Abby being a ballerina (which she is) might also seem astonishingly accurate, but the fokken alien got lucky, her earlier comment about Abby liking to dance hit a chord with mommy, but how many 9 year old girls don’t want to be ballet dancers? High probability hits. Abby might have a hip replacement when she’s older! That’s like saying Abby might have children when she’s older.

What struck me most is how willingly everyone on the radio show accepted what they were being told. Perhaps I give people too much credit. I didn’t hear any of the radio hosts even try to question the truth behind what the fokken alien was saying. They all happily accepted the rubbish while I was sitting in my car howling with indignation.

“Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect. It is shameful to surrender it too soon, or to the first comer”

– Santayana

I’ve heard it all too often; “People want to believe”. But why did these people unquestioningly accept the mumbo jumbo? As Michael Shermer explains in his book Why People Believe Weird Things the answer to this question is surprisingly simple; confirmation bias. Shermer elaborates:

“Psychics, fortune tellers, palm readers and astrologers, for example, all depend on the power of the conformation bias by telling their clients (some would call them “marks”) what to expect in the future. By offering them one-sided events (instead of two-sided events in which more than one outcome is possible), the occurrence of the event is noticed while the non-occurrence of the event is not.”[ii]

Confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek or interpret evidence favourable to already existing beliefs, and to ignore or reinterpret evidence unfavourable to already existing beliefs”[iii]

Combine a skilled cold reader with the natural human tendency to “forget the hits and remember the misses” and you have the incredibly lucrative psychic industry. The numbers just give the numerologist a cover, a fancy seeming ritual to lend her more credibility, after all numbers are scientific, aren’t they? The problem is that they don’t provide any real insight into your personality and they certainly do not hold the key to your future. Psychics of any sort are relying on quick wit and well understood errors in human thinking to con gullible people out of their hard earned money. If you do not believe me, get hold of M. Lamar Keene’s excellent memoir “The Psychic Mafia”. Keen spent 13 years of his life working as a psychic and medium and his book blows the lid right off the spiritual industry. If, after reading it, you still believe that there is ANY truth behind the claims of the psychics or that they are not well aware that they are conning you, I have a quote for you;

Winston Churchill once said “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened”.

Deception with numbers is not limited to numerologists and economists, some people have fun using numbers to spread a little woo. Let me reproduce[iv] a rather fun piece of number manipulation;

MAGIC ELEVEN!!!!

  • The date of the 9/11 attack: 9+1+1 = 11
  • September 11th is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4 = 11
  • After September 11th there are 111 days left until the end of the year
  • 119 is the area code to Iraq/Iran
  • 1+1+9=11
  • Twin Towers – Standing side by side, look like the number 11
  • The first plane to hit the towers was Flight 11
  • New York State was the 11th state to join the union
  • New York City – 11 Letters
  • Afghanistan – 11 Letters
  • The Pentagon – 11 Letters
  • Ramzi Yousef – 11 Letters (convicted of orchestrating the attack on the WTC in 1993)
  • Flight 11 – 92 on board – 9+2 = 11
  • Flight 77 – 65 on board – 6+5 = 11

Oh my god! How worried should I be? I’m going into hiding NOW. See you in a few weeks. Wait a sec… just realised “YOU CAN’T HIDE” also has 11 letters! What am I gonna do? Help Me!!! The terrorists are after me! I can’t believe it!

Oh Crap, there must be some place on the planet Earth I could hide! But No… “PLANET EARTH” has 11 letters too!

Maybe Nostradamus can help me. But dare I trust him? There are 11 letters in “NOSTRADAMUS”.

I know, the Red Cross can help. No they can’t… 11 letters in “THE RED CROSS”… can’t trust them.

I would rely on self defence, but “SELF DEFENCE” has 11 letters in it, too!

Can someone help me? Anyone? If so, send me e-mail. No don’t… “SEND ME EMAIL” has 11 letters…

Will this never end? I’m going insane! “GOING INSANE???” 11 letters!!

Nooooooooo!!!! I guess I’ll die alone, even though “I’LL DIE ALONE” has 11 letters…

OH MY GOD! I just realised that America is doomed! Our Independence Day is July 4th… 7+4=11!

P.S. “IT’S BULLSHIT” has 11 letters too

This may seem like an amazing set of numbers, how could all of those people, places and dates all be related to the number 11 without some kind of mysterious force being behind it? Quite simply, really, someone with an eye for detail and a little time on their hands could put together the above “amazing” set of 11’s by using the following tricks;

  1. Making the pool of numbers appear limited. It appears as though only these people/places/words/dates were looked at and strangely equalled 11, but the author of this e-mail could have looked at many more than he presented here, simply choosing the most suitable to the theme.
  2. Number Transformation. The author manipulates the numbers a little to make them work better. The year of the 9/11 attacks is left out completely. Adding 2001 would give you: 9+1+1+2+1 = 14 – not such a good match.
  3. Selective Use of Options. Ramzi Yousef’s name is included, but no other facet of the 1993 bombings. The author cleverly selects only the data which fit.
  4. Luck. A little bit of luck is necessary for such a long list of factors which “add up” to 11 (14 in total! Not counting the words).

Despite what high school maths might have taught you, numbers can be fun. But arithmetic based woo is not a good basis for planning your life on. Psychic nonsense doesn’t become science just because a few numbers are thrown in to the mix. If you feel yourself being taken in by a psychic try and take a step back and look objectively at the claims he / she is making. They are probably using information they have gathered from you without you realising it, and they are certainly conning you.

“I believe in life not death. I believe in light not darkness. I believe in the strength that comes from standing on one’s own two feet rather than hobbling on the crutches of a deluded faith in a fraudulent medium.”

– M. Lamar Keene


[i] “Read your future” Jane Struthers, St Martin’s Press, 2001, pg221-222

[ii] “Why people believe weird things” Dr Michael Shermer, Souvenir Press, 2002, pg301.

[iii] “Why people believe weird things” Dr Michael Shermer, Souvenir Press, 2002, pg299

[iv] “Number Manipulation” Bryan Farha, Skeptic Magazine, Vol.9 No.2 2002

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6 responses to “A Perfect Storm (of stupidity)

  1. That was fantastically written. Really glad I came across your site, my obsession about the seemingly mind-boggling crap that gullible people believe is fed some more

  2. Great post (not used to seeing references – kudos!), and thanks for the laugh – fokken aliens are always worth poking fun at 🙂 I’ve seen the posters all over the place, but don’t listen to ECR so (happily) missed the airborne woo-woo. I would love to attend out of curiosity…

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