the skeptic, the witch, and the tarot: in search of narrativium

I turn the cards. The Moon – writing, dreams, foreshadowing. The Five of Swords – depression, defeat. The Knave of Pentacles – obstinacy, but financial smarts. I’m connecting the images, trying to pull out the thread linking them. My friend is watching me, trying not to let emotions play across her face. She’s not doing well. I turn another card. The Three of Wands – sucess through hard work. Story time.

Here are some facts: tarot is cold-reading in the vein of psychics. It’s beautiful symbolism, but it’s all an act.

Some other, less obvious facts: I read tarot. I learned from a friend several years ago. I adore tarot art, and the meanings behind the cards. I love surprising people with it.

I’m an endlessly thwarted writer of fiction, and a fairly scrappy writer of non-fiction, but there’s something in the idea of bringing together links, symbols, and art to produce a narrative that I find irresistable. Add in the cold-reading and you keep yourself on the hop, but that’s not the point. The point is the story.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, Narrativium is a natural element in the vein of earth and fire. It ensures that the world works as a story. It lies where choice turns into inevitability; lies counter to free will even as those inside the narrative imagine themselves to be acting freely. Narrativium enters both deep magic and prosaic human interactions.

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

Isn’t that a marvellous concept? Free-flowing story. Story in the air, in the ground, in ourselves. Story functioning alone, with no purpose other than its own completion. Impassable, like evolution and the earth’s rotation.

Philip Pullman uses a similar concept in his His Dark Materials trilogy, with an elementary particle called Dust that appears when lifeforms become sentient, and inspires knowledge and consciousness. Dust we have, and unto Dust we return the lifegiving force of thought. Sentient beings inspired by the universe, and needed by that same universe. It’s a beautiful idea which taps into the intense desire our species has to feel a connection to our physical and mental places.

We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…

We do. We can see streaks of victory and loss in the results of a coin toss; we cheer for the gazelle or the leopard in an Attenborough documentary. Even the Higgs Boson stories from last year were written as if the universe somehow worked to produce us. We don’t like to believe we’re a blip on the record, and to stop ourselves falling into the Total Perspective Vortex of the infinite, we tell each other stories about a big man who lives in, and yet not in, the sky, or twins raised by wolves who founded a city, or cycles of reincarnation that mean our own story will go on after this life ends.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who co-write the Science of Discworld books, refer to humans as Pan narrans – the story-telling ape. Far from the ‘wise man’ label of Homo sapiens, it is not our intelligence that marks us as different from the other branches of our evolutionary tree. It’s our imagination.

And so back to the tarot. Tarot deals with the big questions – life, love, people. There are different layouts used for various purposes, ranging from a simple one-/two-card draw on an immediate dilemma, to a full spread of past-present-future including influences and inner thoughts. You learn the meanings, you deal the cards, you watch your questioner very carefully, and you start to talk. Talking around the topic is the easiest thing to do – so you get, say, a Knave card, and you mention something about a young man. Get a Swords card next to him, and you ask if they’ve had a problem or a bad experience with a young man. Speak in generalities, and then when you see something register on your questioner’s behaviour, grab that thread and run with it.

The story is open-ended. Oh, we have banal things in common (find me someone who hasn’t had trouble with or about a young man), but we each have our incredibly disparate paths to walk. Story guides us. We live in a pattern of stories, led and gently pushed into place by the part of our brains that’s absorbed the patterns of narrative in the media we’ve consumed. The brain wants stories, wants order. The brain would dearly love to encounter some narrativium instead of just feeling like it should be there. We build ourselves castles of happily-ever-after, or models of justice in which good guys are vindicated and bad guys are punished. In a world so unpredictable, we crave certainty.

We are so curious, too. We want to know what lies ahead for us, and what’s currently going on in the minds of our peers. We consume the lives of others, real or fictional, in a voracious desire for insight. Then we play the game with ourselves: will I ever know what’s going to happen to me? Small wonder that so many people end up consulting fake fortune-tellers for a window into the future.

In another Discworld book, the old witch Granny Weatherwax disapproves of displays of magic and occult paraphernalia as being ‘myffic’. The myffic, in Granny’s estimation, includes any airy-fairy claims to, and ways of practicing, magic. Granny knows that magic exists – she is a witch, after all – but she understands that most of what people think of as magic is really ‘headology’. The trappings of magic don’t matter as much as belief.

The human brain is an amazing machine. Our need for belief and creativity (and either and both) is a deeply-rooted part of our consciousness. We’re drawn to expressions of those traits, and when we reach a point where knowledge is impossible – like predicting the future – we turn to each other to provide answers. Tarot cards are a visual language with symbolic meaning, but they’re not where the power lies. The power is in the human connection between reader and listener.

It always is.

Some interesting links about storytelling and the brain out of this article on Lifehacker.

Quotes are from The Science of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. I recommend His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman as well. Granny Weatherwax appears as herself. SHE ATEN’T DEAD.

Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.

misogyny: not so rational

Before you read this, you probably should have read Rebecca Watson’s article in Slate yesterday. I’m going to give you a brief run-down, but her article is really worth the full read.

The gist: the skeptic community is not a particularly welcoming, pleasant, or even safe place to be if you’re a woman.

Skeptics are people, like myself and presumably a lot of you reading this, who believe in challenging irrational beliefs and scams: anything from psychics to homeopathy to organised religion, depending on your limits and your own areas of interest. If you think communing with the dead is a load of rubbish or that energy healing is useless and time-/money-wasting, you’re probably at least a bit of a skeptic. Welcome on board.

As a well-known skeptic writer/speaker who’s been involved in a few high-profile conflicts, Rebecca Watson is something of a lightning rod for misogyny. This is a shame, as she’s also a smart, outspoken woman with a lot to share.

But she is a woman, and therefore she bears the toll inflicted on most women who go around Having Opinions In Public.

You get sexualised. You get told not to worry your pretty little head about things. You get spoken over. You get treated as an ‘other’ – as not quite part of the club, even when you have the same right to be there as any man. And not all of this happens to every woman, and not all of it happens all the time, but enough of it happens to enough women to be a problem across any particular sector of society you care to mention.

That is something I know, and it’s something I’ve experienced, and yet I feel more disappointed to see it happening among skeptics than in most places. As Rebecca says in Slate,

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me [hate] messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

Generally, the demographics of the skeptic community skew young, liberal, and well-educated (this is my observation, but I’d be interested to see if there’s data on that). It makes some sense, anyway. Those factors usually – not always, but usually – mean that an individual is societally progressive: for my purposes here I’m going to read that as ‘in favour of granting equal rights to historical minorities’.

I don’t know if this assumption comes from my background here in Ireland, where most of the barriers to women’s rights down through the years were put in place by the Catholic Church and its influence on the legal and legislative powers-that-were. Young, educated, liberals are the most likely to have turned away from Catholicism and the folder of conservative societal views attendant thereon.

(I should add here, by the way, that when I talk about religion in Ireland, I mean organised religion and doctrine, not faith itself. I have no problem with people believing in God. I have a very big problem with people thinking I, and my body, need to believe in him too.)

To me, skepticism and feminism are two sides of the same coin. I believe in women’s rights, and I express that within the context of my country by arguing against religious influence; I don’t belong to organised religion, which leaves me free to fight for women’s rights. Two sides, one coin, no bull.

I don’t understand, then, how skeptics can understand ‘I am bereaved, I feel scammed by the person who told me they could speak to my dead auntie, and I wish they’d stop that,’ but not ‘I am a woman, I feel threatened by this set of behaviours from men, and I wish you’d stop it.’

I am [X]. I dislike [Y]. I wish it would stop. Why does it make more sense to skepticism, as a whole, in the former case than in the latter?

So that’s why it bothers me on a number of levels to see the abuse that gets directed at a writer like Rebecca. Such blatant misogynist vitriol is nauseating, and would be anywhere.

Seeing it from people who claim that they’re intelligent, rationalists, general cutters-through of society’s bullshit, is even worse.