dice from PompeiiI’ve had a long history of fascination with scientific skepticism and its relationship with spiritual practices, particularly divination. It’s a topic interwoven with my own life story in complex ways. My education and training is in the physical sciences. While in college and graduate school, I was a committed skeptic (a member of CSICOP even). Science is still my profession, and my daily work involves using statistical tests to make inferences about uncertain events. I’m quite familiar with how appealing claims often fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny. I’m also a practicing tarot reader and astrologer, and have come to feel that skeptical critiques of such practices often miss the mark. Today, I’ll share part of my thinking on that subject, focusing on a particular concept, that of anecdotal evidence.

What is anecdotal evidence? The phrase refers to an isolated account of something happening, without any comprehensive or big-picture study being made of it. If my neighbor says she drank grape juice for a week and it cured her glaucoma, that’s an anecdote. For a scientist, anecdotes may stimulate one’s curiosity, but they don’t have much credibility in themselves. For science to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the juice and the cure, a lot of questions need to be answered. We need to look at a large number of people with glaucoma, and give some grape juice and give others none, and count the number of cures in each group. Ideally, we try to eliminate any other differences between the two groups that might make a difference. And, furthermore, we probably want to give the “control group” a placebo (carrot juice, say), and not let on which juice we think might have curative properties. That way the psychology of people’s expectations won’t come into play. We’d want other researchers to be able to reproduce our results with entirely different groups of test subjects, and so on.

For the scientist, an isolated incident means very little. There’s no way to tell whether the observed effect is something we can count on working for everybody, or whether it’s just a coincidence.

Now let’s look at divination. People who use astrology, tarot, I Ching, runes, or other such tools will happily tell you stories about their effectiveness: the astrologer who told me things about myself she could not possibly have known in advance, the tarot reading that was absolutely uncanny in predicting my present situation and its outcome. (Parallels can be made with other spiritual practices, too: the Christian whose prayers are miraculously answered, the Pagan whose magic spell produces immediate and dramatic change, the Buddhist or mystic whose meditation experiences changes her whole perspective on life.) These are classic examples of anecdotal evidence, and the skeptic will tend to dismiss them out of hand. The skeptic is thinking, Yes, but now many times was it wrong – you don’t remember those, or the astrologer/reader just has good interpersonal skills, so they picked up on your situation.

Divination doesn’t hold up under controlled studies. Astrology has received the most attention. Although astrologers often point to a few studies that appear to show some statistically significant effects, scientists evaluating the whole body of scientific studies of astrology find little evidence of any predictive efficacy. When science tries to narrow astrology down to specific predictions (Capricorns tend to be leaders, Aries-Leo couples get along better than Aries-Cancer couples), the predictions just don’t pan out with random samples of large numbers of people.

Such “tests” are not entirely satisfying, though. In real life, astrologers and other diviners do not make such simplistic and literal predictions. They don’t look at the cards or at your birth chart and say “you will become a world leader” or “if you marry Jason, you will live happily ever after”. The reading may identify that you have leadership potential that is complicated by issues of self-confidence and the need for security. The client then goes away and works with those aspects of their situation through self-examination or by taking some initiative to address them. It’s pretty hard to squeeze that sort of process into the mold of a scientific experiment that would let us tally up “astrology right” or “astrology wrong” for each person who received such advice.

But there is also a fundamental question that comes up when the successes of divination are dismissed as anecdotal. In graduate school, we used to joke that the state lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math. You can calculate your probability of winning, and conclude that buying lottery tickets will most likely simply part you from your cash with no winnings to show for your trouble. However, if you are the one who wins a million dollars through the lottery, that calculation becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people lost, you won. It’s a major event in your own life, and it is what it is. You didn’t receive the “average” return on your ticket purchase, you won a million dollars.

The probability calculations are important for the state officials who are setting up the lottery, because they predict the expected revenue for the project when large numbers of people play over the course of many years. But the individual player never gets the “average” return. They either win or they don’t.

In an internet discussion many years ago, someone was advocating a very rationalistic approach to life, even saying that he would choose who to marry by objective criteria, rather than by feelings. While he recognized that there were unpredictable factors in such a decision, he maintained this would give him a higher probability of a successful marriage. I understood his point of view, but it amused me that he would evoke probability in thinking about something like marriage, which is not something most of us are likely to repeat a thousand times so that we end up with the statistically average return of marital bliss.

Many of the most important things in life, it seems, are one-offs. If you listen to people talk about the important things that shaped their lives, they are largely stories of unique, unrepeatable events: the love-at-first-sight, the overseas adventure, the peak experience, the time they lost everything and had to remake themselves, the opportunity to pursue a dream, taken or not. Life is a series of anecdotal experiences.

The successes of divination are indeed anecdotal. But I’d like to suggest now that this need not be viewed as a weakness. Given that the important turnings of life are usually unique, personal, unquantifiable, and open-ended, perhaps there is a role for an anecdotal technology, tools and practices that help us approach the one-of-a-kind experiences that create our own personal story. Rather than predicting the probable outcome for a large random sample of people, a technology of the anecdotal would grapple with those ineffable qualities that make my experience differ from the statistical average.

I think divination does this. When interpreting an astrological chart or reading tarot cards, I feel like I am dancing in a great cloud of symbolic combinations and possibilities. There are thousands of ways to pull meaning out of what the planets or the cards present. I’m creating an opportunity for a special kind of event, where one of those thousands of possibilities lights up and presents itself as important. There is often a sense of recognition when this happens, like a truth just below the surface of the water that has now emerged into the daylight.

In my skeptical youth, when I had heard about astrology and other forms of divination, but had never studied them, it was easy for me to say why these unscientific practices were dangerous: if they made wrong predictions or gave wrong advice, people would do the wrong thing and come to harm. I expect this happens from time to time, when an astrologer or tarot reader gives some very forceful, literal advice (or advice that is taken literally by the client). Mostly, though, I think this concern is unfounded. Divination is usually about uncovering things that we recognize as important when we see them. One follows up on these things because they are intrinsically worth pursuing, not because of a blind faith in astrology or tarot. If a reading doesn’t uncover anything profound, we just make a mental note of it and get back to the business of living life.

In other words, the nature of the process is we get a big return when it hits the mark, and lose very little when it doesn’t. In my experience, it hits the mark quite often.

Divination, I think, is a way of cultivating those special experiences and insights that make the story of our lives unique. It’s not about predicting what will happen on average. We have other, more mundane ways of doing that. The very word divination comes from an earlier conception of cause-and-effect. Today, when something happens that we can’t predict, we call it random, with the implication that if it is random, it must be meaningless. Before the development of probability theory, the things that could not be predicted were seen as messages from the gods (hence, reading them was divination). Their unpredictability made them more meaningful, not less.

As we practice discerning personal significance in the placement of the planets or the symbols of a tarot card, we step outside the neat world of average cause-and-effect and into the larger landscape of the unpredictable, where meaning is personal, not statistical, and where the stories of our lives are largely written.