A Curious Skeptic in the Land of Woo-Woo
I pride myself on being a logical, evidence-based professional. None of that woo-woo Wiccan, pagan, shamanism stuff for me. So it’s reasonable to wonder what I’m doing with not one but three decks of tarot cards, seven decks of oracle cards, a bag of Rune stones, a handful of crystals, and a copy of the I Ching.
There are several definitions for woo-woo, only one of which is not derogatory. That is Your Dictionary’s delightful “(childish) the sound of a fire truck, ambulance, or police truck’s siren.”
One man’s woo-woo, of course, is another’s deeply held belief system.Julia Moskin
Otherwise, woo-woo is a term usually used by skeptics to refer to ideas or practices that are pseudoscientific, supernatural, mystical, or new-agey.
Woo-woo is not just a noun, but also an adjective. When applied to people, woo-woo is a synonym for crazy, irrational, nonsensical.
Skeptics don’t fare a whole lot better. On the positive side, a skeptic is simply someone who isn’t easily swayed to a point of view, who wants some evidence.
But from the negative perspective, there’s Deepak Chopra quoting author Lyall Watson with “skeptics are self-appointed vigilantes for the suppression of curiosity.” When applied to people, think distrustful, cynical, guarded.
Defining Cognitive Bias
A cognitive bias is “the common tendency to acquire and process information by filtering it through one’s own likes, dislikes, and experiences.” Polite skeptics accuse woo-woos of cognitive biases rather than tell them they are nuts.
A very bright guy named Buster Benson spent four weeks of his paternity leave organizing Wikipedia’s page of 175 cognitive biases into four large categories based on the problems they help our brains address.
When it comes to woo-woo, the problem for our brains is one of too much information. In order to survive and manage the firehose of information coming at us 24/7, our brains have to pick out the most useful bits. This need leads to a whole shopping list of cognitive biases that apply to both those who wholeheartedly embrace woo-woo and the skeptics who vehemently dismiss it:
- Bias blind spot: We see bias at work in other people’s judgment, but not in our own.
- Confirmation bias: We search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs.
- Congruence bias: We’re more likely to try to prove our existing hypothesis than to disprove it.
- Illusory truth effect: We believe information is correct if we are repeatedly exposed to it.
- Naive realism: We believe what we see in the world is objective reality, and other people who have different perceptions are uninformed.
- Ostrich effect: We avoid information that may cause psychological discomfort.
- Semmelweis reflex: We reflexively reject new evidence if it contradicts existing norms.
- Subjective validation: We consider information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to us.
If you’re interested in learning more, this site offers flashcards and matching games for all of the biases in Benson’s four categories.
I Was a Skeptic, Full Stop
Several decades ago, a friend urged me to spend some of my hard-earned money on a reading by a psychic. I was, at that time, the worst version of a skeptic–cynical, rigid, distrustful. I was 100% convinced that all psychics were charlatans. My friend said this one was different, but the real reason I went was that we were going out for lunch after our appointments.
I made things as difficult for Lucy, the psychic, as I possibly could. I kept my facial expression neutral, my clothing indistinct, and my answers monosyllabic. Lucy knew my first name and that I was a teacher. That was it. Name, rank, and serial number.
Calling it lunacy makes it easier to explain away the things we don’t understand.Megan Chance
My only prior experience of a psychic was watching Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. Remember those flowing robes, purple tablecloths, a crystal ball, and stumbling ‘predictions’ that occasionally, to Whoopi’s surprise, landed on the name of the deceased loved one the duped customer wished to contact?
Lucy was dressed in beige cotton pants and a soft blue blouse. We sat in a room of her house that had two chairs, a small table, and not a bit of purple fabric in sight. She asked for permission to turn on a tape recorder so that I would have a record of her reading to take home and review. That impressed me. The tape was a form of evidence, a sign that she was either confident in her reading or that she’d spout meaningless generic platitudes I couldn’t possibly dispute.
I Became a Curious Skeptic
The reading began with Lucy saying nice things that made me feel good… and even more suspicious. For example, she told me that I am really smart. “Nice touch, Lucy,” I thought. “Good move to stroke the ego of an obvious skeptic.”
She got specific and told me that I would be buying a house clad in wood with floor to ceiling windows. The house would be facing south, overlooking a body of water that she thought was either a pond or a river. It would be surrounded by nature, with lots of white birch trees right near the house.
It was an appealing image but I couldn’t know that Lucy’s prediction was accurate until I bought my house, that exact house, a few years later.
I Tipped from Curious Skeptic to Something Else
The tipping point came when Lucy asked if she could share a message from someone who had passed on. I kept my face neutral, but mentally my eyes were rolling so hard they were spinning.
Then Lucy wondered who this person with the unusual name was to me. Did I know someone named Rati?
It took me a minute. I’d only met Rati once in my life, on a trip to Scotland when I was eleven years old. Rati was my paternal grandmother’s sister. Her given name was Rita but for some obscure reason having to do with her being a twin, she was known as Rati.
Let’s pause here for a definite woo-woo moment. There is absolutely no way that name was a lucky guess. And Lucy didn’t research her way to success or pick up any tells from me. I hadn’t thought of the woman in decades, and Lucy wasn’t Whoopi. She wasn’t casting about trying out a few dozen names hoping for a reaction.
Rati didn’t have anything earth-shattering to share with me. I was a member of a university research group at the time of the reading, as well as a full-time teacher, and I was eating too much fast food. Rati told me to stop, a message I found a bit disappointing. Really? If you’re going to communicate with me after death, stop eating fast food is the best you’ve got?
I Can’t Define the ‘Something Else’
After that experience, I consulted with Lucy several more times. She made many useful and inspiring predictions, supportive things I needed to hear at the time whether they came true or not. Most of them did.
Sometimes Lucy would get sidetracked by whatever money-making scheme she was into at the time. Full-time clairvoyants, as she calls herself, don’t make a lot of money. I remember a couple of readings where she was getting ‘messages’ that I needed to be buying a particular nutritional powder that she just happened to be selling. During those readings my skepticism would return full-strength.
But I never forgot Rati. That single moment helped me believe that there’s more going on in this world than what I can see, hear and touch. I’m still hugely skeptical (feel free to substitute words like scornful and disparaging) of many forms of woo-woo. I am curiously skeptical of psychics/mediums/clairvoyants/professional intuitives. I believe there are some good ones, like Lucy, but they may be hard to find. And I am open to some woo-woo like Oracle and Tarot cards. I’m also really open to energy work, but that’s a topic for another post.
Oracle Cards Were My First Form of Woo-Woo
I actually don’t think of oracle cards, sometimes called angel cards, as particularly woo-woo. I picked up my first deck from the checkout counter of a regular bookstore. It was the Daily Guidance deck by Doreen Virtue. I bought it because I liked the art, and I thought it could be fun to pull a card every morning to see what ‘advice’ I’d be given for the day.
It’s pretty tame stuff, especially if you ignore the angel references which I do, except on bad days, when I figure I can use all the help I can get. Here’s an example of a card I find helpful since I am, as several have noted, just a teensy bit driven.
“The angels see that you need to play, so they sent you this card. You’ve been working and worrying a lot lately, and your soul cries out for fun. Feelings of fatigue, irritability, or depression are additional signs that you’re overdue for some playtime. You don’t need to wait until you have a free moment, because you can inject fun into your day today. Simple pleasures, moments of silliness, laughing with a friend, or watching a funny movie are examples of ways to have fun that don’t require a lot of time or money.”
Over the years, I’ve bought other decks, all of them by Doreen Virtue who is the big name in oracle cards.
Angel Answers, Angel Dreams, and Butterfly Life Changes were all a waste of money for me. I’m hard-core skeptic on those ones.
Daily Guidance continues to be interesting, and not woo-woo. The Life Purpose deck, on the other hand, sends shivers along my spine.
There are 44 cards in the Life Purpose deck. Here are three of the 44:
I have shuffled and drawn from the Life Purpose cards maybe twenty times over the last five years. Every single time, without fail, I have pulled either the writing or the author card. And if I do a reading where I pull three cards to show past, present and future, then along with author or writing I get ‘books’. Every single time.
We find comfort among those who agree with us –growth among those who don’t.Frank Clark
I’m not a very superstitious person, but I use the Life Purpose cards sparingly. I love drawing those particular cards and will be so disappointed when/if that ever changes. There’s no point pushing my luck or second-guessing the Universe on this one!
Tarot Cards Can Be Way More Woo-Woo if You Want
I never had the slightest interest in tarot until I read a completely unrelated book by Angeles Arrien. Arrien was a cultural anthropologist, a teacher, leader and visionary. She died in 2014 of pneumonia.
When I read my first Arrien book, I knew that I had to read all of them. As her publisher explains, her work “bridges the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion, while focusing on universal beliefs shared by humanity.”
So the second book I purchased was her extensive guide to the symbology in one of the classic tarot decks called the Thoth Tarot. Arrien’s scholarship removed a lot of the woo-woo from tarot for me.
I bought a couple more decks–the Llewellyn tarot because of the stunning artwork of Welsh mythology. I am passionate about Welsh mythology. No idea why.
And, recently, the Voyager tarot where each card is a gorgeous collage. Here’s the same card from the three different decks.
Even the most cursory of online searches will confirm that there’s a ton of woo-woo connected to tarot if you want to read the cards to divine your future. Someday soon, I’ll be visiting a professional tarot card reader and I’ll let you know how it goes.
However, there’s another use for Tarot and that’s one that “emphasizes personal insight and creativity.” That’s the approach taken by scholar, teacher, and author, Mary Greer.
I’m keen to make a study of tarot, to see how it can help me in developing self-knowledge. It’s early days but I’m finding tarot quite fascinating. I’ll provide an update in a month or two.
The Other Stuff
At the top of the post I mentioned a few other trappings associated with woo-woo. Allow me to come clean:
I have a handful of crystals because I love the colours of them. I know what they are supposed to be used for when I buy them, but I always forget. They sit in a bowl in my studio and look pretty.
The bag of Rune stones was a Christmas gift I’d asked for because they looked so nice in that shop where I got the crystals. I’ve had them for years but only tried them a handful of times. The jury is still out.
Finally, the I Ching is a book of Chinese wisdom that a massage therapist told me about. It’s quite interesting to use. Basically, you toss three coins six times to come up with a specific hexagram. You look up the hexagram in the book and read the information. The I Ching is supposed to give you the answer to any question. I wouldn’t know; I use it like Daily Guidance oracle cards, with just a single question – “So, what do you want me to know today?” The I Ching gives measured and wise answers. Here’s an excerpt from one hexagram:
“There is a situation at hand that cannot be corrected by force or external effort. The Creative will provide the solution to one who waits with a correct attitude. This is a time for patience and careful attention to inner truth.
Do not give in to doubt and agitation now. You are not meant to wait in a state of desperate longing but in one of patient inner strength. Without certainty in the power of truth, success is impossible. Attempts to force a change, rather than allowing it to mature naturally, will only cause misfortune.”
Changes are Afoot
I’ve travelled quite a distance from the high school student whose favourite activity was to debate adults, desperate to be as unemotional, as purely logical as Spock on the Star Trek shows I loved to watch.
And yet, I don’t feel that far away from the adult who wrote books with titles like The Evidence-Based School. I’ve simply enlarged my definition of evidence, while maintaining enough healthy skepticism to avoid being duped by every very-much-for-profit woo-woo activity that is out there.
Tarot is a big step for me. I’ve always associated it with gypsy fortune tellers at carnivals, with dark rooms and scary portents of death. Now I’m seeing that it is the hero’s journey in playing card form, and a whole new world is opening up.
I think I’m still a curious skeptic, but more curious than skeptical. How about you? Your thoughts and comments are, as always, both welcomed and appreciated.