Posted by Harriet Hall
Is the world getting crazier? It seems so, but maybe I’m just more aware of the silliness. Here are just a few of the outlandish things I’ve run across recently.
Divination by Asparagus
TheMirror and several other news sources reported in January 2019 that a woman in Bath, England, named Jemima Packington can predict the future using asparagus. She is the world’s only “asparamancer.” She tosses spears of asparagus into the air and interprets how they land and claims to have made dozens of accurate predictions. She predicted two royal babies this year when the spears fell in the shape of a crown and two smaller spears pointed towards the crown. She explains, “My great aunt read tea leaves and I inherited her gift.” One wonders how the tea-leaf-reading genes managed to mutate into asparagus-reading genes.
In a follow-up article, the Mirror describes other wacky ways of divining your fortune, such as observing your cat (ailuromancy), examining old shoes, observing egg whites in boiling water (oomancy), navel gazing, opening a book to a random page, looking at the sediment in a glass of wine (oinomancy), studying the size of bubbles in urine (uromancy), and more. One of my favorites is rumpology, practiced by Sylvester Stallone’s astrologer mother, who reads buttocks by sight, touch, or bottom prints.
Divination has a long and venerable history. The Urim and the Thummim, mentioned in the Bible, were used in divination. In ancient China, yarrow stalks were used to generate numbers for the I Ching, and turtle plastrons were heated so the resulting cracks could be examined and interpreted. In ancient Rome, the haruspex examined entrails. If you want to know more, a Wikipedia article catalogs hundreds of methods of divinationin an alphabetical listing. There are forty-one entries under the letter A alone. It is quite entertaining to read through the list. Spiders? Frogs? Thunder? Dominos? Rainwater? Rose petals? Speaking to the dead? Human ingenuity is endless. With so many methods to choose from, how could you decide which one to use? Don’t bother looking for controlled studies comparing the accuracy of different methods; there aren’t any. But they might be fun to do.
Of course, these methods are all just superstition. You might wonder how so many people came to believe in them. It’s not hard to understand. In the first place, the diviners use common sense; they have an idea which answers are desired and which are plausible. When something a diviner foretells comes to pass, it has a powerful impact. People remember the hits and forget the misses. Or they find excuses for why the prediction failed. A few successes are enough to outweigh many failures; they motivate people to keep coming back. And often the predictions are vague enough that the customers can identify something in their life that seems to fit. Two royal babies this year? Which country? What constitutes royal? How far down in the line of succession? If you look diligently enough, you’ll manage to find a couple of “royal” births this year. Or maybe she meant two babies born to families with the surname Royal. If you really want to believe, you’ll find a way to activate confirmation bias.
More Silliness
You can get a snake venom facialin Beverly Hills in lieu of Botox. And of course, there’s vampire facials, which I wrote about recently. I’ve also written about drinking bat bloodcow therapy,peatbras and tampons, vaginal quackery,train tracktherapy, turpentinetreatments, and the doctor who treats AIDS with goat milk.
There’s no end to the silliness, and nothing that people can’t be persuaded to try. But there’s a silver lining: all this silliness is highly entertaining. Just remember to laugh at the ideas, not at the people. Have empathy for the individuals who were doing the best they could but were the victims of misinformation and lacked education in critical thinking.
Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.
Photo By Marco Verch