From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: divination
29 Feb 2000
Regarding your 'Skeptic's Dictionary' entries on divination and cold reading, I notice a certain lack of the usual reader comments telling you that you don't know what you're talking about. Please allow me to get in the first 'personal experience' shot on this occasion: You are absolutely right on the basics of fortune-telling. Allow me explain why I say this with such a degree of confidence. A few years ago I had me fortune told with uncanny accuracy and was deeply impressed. Only afterwards did I think back and realize that everything I had been told was either 'fishing' with a fair degree of inspired guesswork, or consisted of things I had already told the fortune teller, which he then recycled back to me. Intrigued, and eager to find out whether my skeptical interpretation was correct, I bought a pack of Tarot cards and learnt a bare minimum of the jargon. I had just moved to a foreign country to work, which gave me a huge advantage in being 'exotic and mysterious' and also meaning that nobody knew about my skepticism: I could safely claim to have learnt cartomancy from my [fictitious] gypsy grandmother [or some such nonsense] without anyone calling me out. Within a short time, I had developed a reputation as a brilliant fortune teller and had people coming round to my house offering me money for readings (which I did not take). Two points stand out from all this: firstly, the secret of accurate fortune telling is a trick, more 'sleight of thought' than 'sleight of hand' but using a similar distraction technique; and secondly, it relies almost wholly upon the querent's wishful thinking and lack of accurate self-perception. Nothing that I have seen since my fortune-telling days has convinced me otherwise. If anyone does write to you saying 'Yes, but I really can tell fortunes', refer them to this answer from me: 'So can I, and there's nothing mystical about it at all, however much you may delude yourself'.
31 Mar 1997
I like your entry on divination. I was especially intrigued by aeluromancy (dropping wheatcakes in water and interpreting the result) which I guess is not to be confused with dropping cats in water and interpreting the result (which I would think would also be "aeluromancy" or maybe "ailuromancy" or "eluromancy"). Speaking of which, for a suitable fee, I could tell you with amazing accuracy what the results of dropping a cat in water would be. Does that mean I'm psychic?
Personally, I think oinomancy would be a lot more fun.
reply: Actually, I think dropping cats in water is a type of hydromancy, though it depends on what kind of water is used. I think the practice of throwing women into rivers to divine whether they were witches or not (if she sinks and drowns, then she's not a witch) falls into this same category.
As far as being psychic goes, I feel safe in saying that you are probably as psychic as the next person.