Posted by: Chris | February 18, 2012

How Tarot Cards Started My Skepticism

It was a deck of Tarot cards that started my road to real skepticism when I was in high school. Though when I was in third grade I remember thinking Groundhog Day was kind of silly as I walked to school during a very warm February day in Fort Ord, California. But what really cinched it for me was this deck of cards.

When I was in school I often ordered books from a company that took orders from classrooms. In almost every one of the nine school districts I attended we could order book this way, which was very helpful when we were living overseas. A student could also order posters, games and some toys. So when I was in ninth grade I ordered a deck of Tarot cards which came with an instruction booklet.

As much as I read that booklet, I could not make heads or tails of how to read the cards. There was no set rule or clarity, it was just too confusing. This was very unlike my geometry class where the rules made sense. It was also very different from my basic introduction to science, and even made less sense than my English class where we were being introduced to nebulous concepts like symbolism, and satire. All of my ninth grade classes had one thing in common: rules that made sense. Tarot cards just did not make sense.

So in frustration I gave up in the Tarot cards. I was never going to be able tell my friends what was in their future. The cards were just pieces of printed paper with graphics and words that in no way have any bearing on the events of anyone’s life.

Another turning point was when my dad moved to Arizona and I saw the constellation of Scorpio. In the dark black sky of the desert in the middle of nowhere it was spectacular. I actually saw the absolutely awesomeness of a depiction of a scorpion in stars that was the basis of the Zodiac sign for late October and early November! The only problem was that it was in July.

It turns out that the premier constellations are not in their proper place due to precession. Basically, our planet’s rotation has changed since those “astrology rules” were created several centuries ago. So while real science learned that the natural forces of the universe made stars move, astrology is still stuck in the past.

But I just had to roll my eyes when my stepmother kept telling me to not plant on certain days because her gardening with the Zodiac book said they were bad (no other reason). She did not seem to understand that I had a full time job, and the best time for me was on the weekend when it was not raining.

By the time I first became pregnant I was subscribing to Skeptical Inquirer, and had read books by Feinman and James Randi. I had also had many conversations at work on how one could profit from inventing their own religion.

Why is becoming a skeptic significant? It turned out to be great preventative medicine to the absolute nonsense I received as advice. It helps to defend against the silliness most new parents get, plus the even more dreck as a parent of a child with medical issues. And most importantly, it made me a more intelligent consumer. There are many things that are marketed to parents, especially parents of children with special needs. Skepticism gives us the tools to evaluate them intelligently.

Plus it makes us realize when we are wrong, and especially when we are very very wrong, that those of us with an open mind should admit it and move on. Until I did research on some of the Zodiac signs I had always assumed they were only visible in the Northern Hemisphere. They were developed by folks living in Southern Europe, so I thought they would not affect me since I was born in the tropics. But, no, Scorpio is visible from the South Pole to 40o N, and the sign for those of born us in early October, Libra, is visible from the South Pole to 65o N in June. Thanks Wikipedia!

While I feel a little stupid, I am glad that I now know better. This is the attitude I learned as a skeptic years ago, so I have always been able to admit when I was wrong to my own children. Something I have done many times.

In my experience admitting my mistakes makes my kids trust me more. And if they questioned me, I am more than willing to provide the evidence. Though they do get a kick when they prove me wrong, and that is okay.

But my misconception did help a bit. When I was in college a common pick-up line was “What’s your sign?”… to which I would reply I had none since I was born too far south. But I was wrong and I admit it, but only on the latitude bit, not on the actual location of the constellation. My mistake did make certain guys leave me alone, and it offended one guy enough that he stopped following me to my dorm. So it worked out in the end.

And now I know why my anecdote made astronomers laugh, it turns out they were laughing at me not with me. Le sigh.



  1. Frequently strangers in conversation with my son, 6, will comment on him being a gemini after learning his birthday is on June 9. I just checked on stellarium (amazingly awesome free real time star software) and sure enough, the sun is clearly in Taurus on his birthday. We’ll have lots of fun correcting people now.
    There’s a good Bill Nye clip about this, lemme just go find it….
    There it is:

  2. Tarot cards are a funny one. It tends to annoy a lot of folk to have pointed out to them that their history and origins are quite well known now. Far from being the product of occult philosophy, they were created for playing card games. The extra picture cards are just a suit of fixed trump cards, while the subjects are Christian in nature. Indeed, for over three and a half centuries there is no record of the cards being used for anything other than games.

    I’m happy to add that the games are still played throughout much of continental Europe today and are among the best card games that I’ve ever played – though we get some funny looks from folk when we play tarot at the local pubs 🙂

    • Thank you for that additional information.

  3. I also play tarot as a game, and have researched the history of tarot. It was never meant to be a ‘fortune telling’ tool, that is a huge misunderstanding! It is actually more like an ‘ink blot’ test used in psychology, where different people see different things in the cards, and therefore create the story based on their own interpretation. It is very interesting! Also, just a heads up on wikipedia (because you mentioned it!), as someone who is ‘skeptical’ you should know that anyone can post anything they want on any topic on ‘wikipedia’. I once had a grade 7 student write an entire entry on the childhood of Albert Einstein, where he noted that Einstein repeatedly visited Disneyland with his parents, and the information was never checked or taken down for the duration of the school year. So I would be very careful when using Wikipedia as a reliable source!

    • I am careful with Wikipedia. It is dreadful for lots of subjects, but farely good for general astronomy. The key is actually checking the references.

      Also, one has to be very careful with Einstein biographies, and I mean the actual books. When I have time I will write about that, especially about the myth that he was a late talker and bad student.

      Unfortunately my life is a bit topsy turvy with issues extending from events I wrote about here. It is giving me new ideas, I just do not have time (like finding the antivax magazine “Autism File” being sold in the hospital gift shop, it was removed).

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