Hey, Scientific American: Be less dismissive and more thoughtful.

Another tarot reader shared this blog post from Scientific American with me (it will open in a separate tab if you’d like to read it and then return to this). In it, SA blogger John Horgan comments on astrology and tarot, calling them “pseudosciences,” and hopes that those who practice them may “find the solace they seek.” Here is my response (which I also posted in the Scientific American comments):

For something to be a pseudoscience, it must first claim to be a science or to be based on science. Neither tarot nor astrology does. I find it a little odd that you call them that. It might make more sense to call psychology a pseudoscience (though I’m sure that would ruffle some feathers). Surely you should have to do more than add math to a thing (by using statistical analysis) to make it a science. If adding math made something a science, astrology would certainly qualify–it’s full of geometry.

Perhaps you’ll say that it’s more than adding math that makes something a science, that one also requires things that can be measured or at least observed, systematic measurements or observations recorded over time, hypotheses formed and proved or disproved, etc. And that’s fair enough. Except that people who do tarot and astrology make plenty of observations and record them. There’s a literature.

To be clear, I don’t consider tarot and astrology to be science. But I also don’t think we live in a world in which only those things that are science are worth spending time on. My psychiatrist is Catholic and goes to mass. Would we want to call Catholicism a pseudoscience too and sneer at her (“may she find solace in it”)? I should hope not–even though I’m not Catholic or Christian–I would call such practices, religion, and recognize that they don’t claim to be science. But things that are not science are not nothing. Where is the science in the word “solace,” for example? “Solace” comes from “console,” which is rooted in the idea of being with someone. But why should being with someone make them feel better? Or contrarily, why shouldn’t it?

What you’re not seeing is that this isn’t a matter of what is real and what is not. There are many ways to work with human consciousness (which is a thing the existence of which also hasn’t been scientifically proven). Religion and spirituality give us different tools than science or social science does. That doesn’t mean one is valid and one is merely a silly comfort to be scorned by those of intelligence. That very scorn would benefit from closer study: what are its roots?

I would encourage you to take a step back, recognize that we don’t even know if we are conscious, and that given that the very idea of our consciousness is theoretical and potentially imaginary, we might as well work with it using tools whose existence is equally theoretical and potentially imaginary. To paraphrase a Zen sage, “Skillful means: We use things that are not real to work with things that are not real.”

Be more thoughtful.

In rereading this now, I want to also note: I’m not criticizing tarot or astrology by saying that they may be “theoretical and potentially imaginary.” I’m saying that that’s how they look from the perspective of modern science. They might be imaginary, but the thing is, so might we. (Cue spooky music to play.)

In other words, this is a discussion that calls for the defining of a lot more terms than we have defined here. Are you real? What about your feelings? Why do you have the feelings you do? What do you love or hate? What raises your energy? What are the roots of your contentment or your grief? (Exactly why does it bother you when your loved ones die? Or when your heart is broken? Or when you lose an election? Aren’t you being a little normative and unscientific here? For that matter why does the prospect of your own death bother you? Why are you acting like anything matters? Are you finding these questions unconscionable? But surely you do recognize that they are perfectly REASONABLE questions.) Are any of those things measurable or quantifiable by science? Only if you rank them on a scale of 1 to 10 so scientists can run regressions on them. You think that makes something real? It doesn’t.

Here’s another example: Words are not real. But they matter insofar as they affect the real world. We saw that on Jan. 6, for example. But you have also seen the power of words yourself if you have ever told someone you love them or heard those words in return, if you have ever sung a lullaby, if you have ever given a pep talk.

Your spiritual and religious practices and beliefs are valid in and of themselves and they don’t need science to make them so.

Likewise, discussions held in university departments of religion and philosophy are not stupid, nor are these discussions engaged in by “troubled people seeking solace.” Intellectually, they hold their weight with their colleagues in the physical and social sciences. And that’s why people in the sciences come to people like me (for those who don’t know this, a lot of my time in my day job is spent on science writing and editing) to help them choose their words more carefully–not because they think I’m troubled and in need of solace, but because they find me reasonable and thoughtful.

So I’m going to say it again, as gently as I can: Scientific American, be more thoughtful. We need science, but we don’t need scientists to engage in dismissive gaslighting.


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