Monday, April 30, 2012

The Eyes of Bedlam

Majority rule is fine in most circumstances, but... in a insane asylum?

Don't follow the crowd – especially when the crowd is full of Tarot enthusiasts. Tarot appeals most strongly to people of questionable judgment, fortune-tellers and their clients, occultists, and others devoted to fantasy. In such a field more than most, one needs to choose the road less traveled. Erasmus commented on the Pythagorean proverb, per publicam viam ne ambules.

Walk not in the public highway. St Jerome's explanation is: Do not follow common errors. For human affairs have never gone so well that the best pleases the majority. Hence some express it like this: 'Refuse the king's highway and take the byroads.' This piece of advice agrees with the teaching of the Gospel, which recommends us to avoid the broad road where most people walk, and take the narrow way, trodden by few but leading to immortality.

Avoid error vulgi. A speculum principis, (circa 1512-1515), for François I, included this illustration of the two paths: the narrow road to glory and the more popular path, to perdition.

Here, of course, Erasmus is thinking of St. Matthew's account of the two ways, [Mt. 7:13-14] and this is likewise the theme of the drawing—the broad road (Via regia) that leads to perdition, and the narrow but steep pathway (Semita) to Heaven. On the left side, the few virtuous people (Boni Viri pauci) who have attempted this latter path are conducted by Rectitudo, who carries the attributes of compasses and ruler to emphasize her straightness, to the gate of Heaven, where they are welcomed by Immortality (Immortalitas), holding a fiery disc inscribed with the IHS monogram, and surrounded by angels. To the other side, the broad way contains a crowd led by Common Error (Error Vulgi), who is not merely blind but has never had eyes; among her followers the elegant man in a feathered hat looking at his own reflection in a mirror stands for Vanity, the half-nude woman eating and drinking for Gluttony, the embracing couple behind her for Lust, and the man with the raised sword for Anger. Error Vulgi leads her followers into the mouth of Hell, in which stands Death, surrounded by devils. The deadly sins lead, through death, to eternal damnation.
Erasmian Wit and Proverbial Wisdom: An Illustrated Moral Compendium for François I
Jean, Michel Massing, 1995.

May 5, 2012 postscript:

Brainstorming without any brains – a transient tempest in Russell's Teapot, full of sound and fury, signifying... less than nothing.

I have often thought and indeed argued that Tarotards are a parody, a joke against reason. But it is not a natural blindness that afflicts Tarot enthusiasts—it is an acquired pathology, a willful rejection of the obvious. (It often appears to be contagious, but the disease must already be present in a chronic form. Association with other carriers then precipitates an acute episode, as illustrated above.) They are fiction writers and, appropriate to that pursuit, they have adopted Stephen King’s approach to fact: “Reality can take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.” Like Lord Nelson, one must turn a blind eye to the truth, or just bury one’s head in the sand, to be truly Tarotarded.

May 21, 2012 postscript:

Just when an apotheosis of stupid seems to have occurred, yet another level is found. The brain-fart du jour combines standard New Age blather, a Neoplatonic je ne sais quoi, with a variant of the perennial canard of a supposed “marriage deck.” The Neoplatonic hand-waving has been conventional since the 1970s, recycled in the 80s, 90s, and in the slime-pits of online Tarot in the 21st century. The idea that one or more of the hand-painted luxury decks might have been a marriage gift also has a long history, and some plausible arguments have been constructed... although not in the present case. There has never be any plausible argument that the design of the trump cycle itself was in any way connected to a wedding and, again, no such argument appears in the present puddle of drool.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 5x14 Theory

Two weeks ago, Ross Caldwell started a thread on the Tarot History forum about Huck's "Chess Tarot" theory. He argued that “simply shouting ‘self-evident nonsense’ is not an intellectually – much less scholarly – sound way to dismiss an argument”. He therefore presented more detailed and substantive arguments against specific claims. I chimed in with some additional arguments, but I also disagreed with his initial point: sometimes shouting that the emperor has no clothes is the best response. The next day I offered a more detailed explanation of why “self-evident nonsense” may be the best response to self-evident nonsense, especially after repeated debunkings, as well as some additional detailed (and illustrated) rejoinders to the nonsense.

The main point of the present post is to provide a few links to earlier discussions. Well, that and to provide an opportunity for further discussion of the Emperor’s fancy new outfit.

Debating and Debunking

So we will begin with a digression into the question of methods and the amazingly high tolerance for bullshit exhibited by people who claim to be interested in Tarot history. The first problem is that debating bullshit elevates bullshit. This is the problem of “punching down” at an opponent. (E.g., Keith Olbermann elevated his own position by feuding with Bill O’Reilly, the most popular cable news personality. O’Reilly attempted to remain “above the fray” by never mentioning Olbermann’s name: don’t punch down.) The second problem is that even debunking bullshit still reiterates bullshit. This is the problem of “familiarity bias”.

Debating bullshit is related to the folly of encouraging Tarot enthusiasts to participate in historical discussions, and the basic difference between debating and debunking. Bullshit artists naturally feel the same affection for debunkers that a cobra feels toward a mongoose or honey badger. The most important victory a charlatan can achieve is respect. Everything else flows from that – once folly and fraud are accepted as legitimate positions then fools and deceivers cannot be challenged.

For example, as every Republican political operative knows, as long as the media is occupied with GOP bullshit, (like whether the President is a U.S. citizen, or whether he is a Muslim, or whether he hates white people, or whether he wants to destroy capitalism, raise taxes on working folks, outlaw guns, establish Death Panels to kill grandma, legislate reparations for slavery, gut the military, denigrate motherhood, etc.), the Republicans win. Debating bullshit means accepting bullshit as a legitimate position, and simultaneously discounting reality. You can’t examine the onslaught of Republican legislation attacking women’s rights, (from equal pay, contraception, abortion, the Violence Against Women Act, etc.), at the same time you are arguing about Ann Romney’s lies. (FWIW, the unemployed wife of a wealthy Wall Street tycoon is not what most people would call a “working woman”.) Bullshit wins, reality loses.

That is why bullshit needs to be debunked rather than debated, and the partisans of bullshit need to be identified as such. If bullshit cannot be marginalized, then it wins. In terms of Tarot, this means that most Tarot enthusiasts, most of the time, should be discouraged from participation in historical discussions. Their goals are not only incompatible with the goals of historical research, but diametrically opposed to it. Switching analogies, they are like people who write fan fiction: their preferred pastime is day-dreaming about some cherished fantasy world, adding new story lines to a hallowed mythos.

HEY! Buffy and Willow are cool, but what if they were PIRATES in sexy Halloween-pirate outfits... but more like comic-book super heroes, ’cause that’s really what they are... and we can call it historical research into vampires and witches, ’cause otherwise it might sound stoopid.

Of course, fanfic does not pretend to be historical research. But that is the nature of online Tarot history discussions of alchemy, Albigensians, ancient Egypt, and all the rest of the traditional silliness. Rather than attempting to answer historical questions based on historical evidence, they want to create endless new, pseudo-historical questions based on imagination. Respectfully addressing their endless fictions not only helps establish and propagate nonsense, but also gives it a patina of respectability. Even disdainfully debunking them probably does more harm than good, reaffirming the importance and centrality of the nonsensical claims.

Because such childish make-believe is by far the dominant theme in both books and online discussions of Tarot history, acknowledgement and repetition by the few reasonable voices simply adds to the weight of familiarity: this stuff is what everybody talks about, so it must be sorta true, maybe. Most of the time, with most people, reason is not dominant in establishing beliefs. Most people seem to be only dimly rational creatures, and repetition, repetition, repetition is a greater factor in spreading belief with the masses than verifiable evidence and sound logic. Debunking often works to strengthen the credibility of the bullshit. There is a growing body of research on this subject.

Any attempt to explicitly discredit false information necessarily involves a repetition of the false information, which may contribute to its later familiarity and acceptance. Although this problem has been known since Allport and Lepkin’s research (1945) into wartime rumors, the idea that false information needs to be confronted is so appealing that it is still at the heart of many information campaigns.
(Skeptics Beware.)

People who are tested immediately after being presented with a Myth/Fact presentation are likely to remember the facts. Short-term memory retains the new information, but it tends not to stick. Familiarity bias results in a higher retention of the well-known myth than the newly introduced fact. One such test involved two flyers, each promoting the facts about the safety and benefits of flu shots.

Participants’ attitude judgments and behavioral intentions showed a parallel pattern. Right after reading the flyer, flyers both improved participants’ attitudes toward flu vaccination and increased their intention to get vaccinated, relative to participants who had not read a flyer. The same positive influence was observed after a 30 minute delay for participants who had only read the facts. In contrast, the “Facts & Myths” flyer backfired after a delay: these participants reported less favorable attitudes toward flue vaccination and lower behavioral intentions than control participants who read no flyer at all.
(Skeptics Beware.)

The following links are different takes on the same basic ideas. Anyone interested in myth-busting should read at least a few such articles.

1. Sceptics Beware: The Dangers of Debunking Myths.
2. Repetition: The Key to Spreading Lies.
3. The Intricacies of Setting People Straight.
4. Myth-Making: Say It Often, People Will Believe.
5. Analyzing Rumors, Gossip, and Urban Legends Through Their Conversational Properties.
6.a. Why You Can't Replace Myths with Good Information.
6.b. How Myths Affect Thinking.
7. Mythbusters: Are the odds stacked against us?
8. The Debunking Handbook.

Old News: Chess and the 5x14 Theory

The 5x14 Theory is a zombie theory. Not a theory about zombies, but a lifeless theory that remains animated by mysterious forces -- the walking dead. Famous zombie theories of Tarot include an ancient Egyptian origin, transmission by Gypsies, the Knights Templar, Albigensians, Kabbalistic content, etc. These theories were never plausible, they never offered any genuine explanation of anything, and they have been debunked in detail long ago. Nonetheless, they won't stay down, (and they will eat your brains). People become attached to them. Repetition is far more persuasive than evidence and logic and, in the last decade, the 5x14 Theory has been the most aggressively promoted nonsense in the world of Tarot. So, despite the downside to discussing bullshit in detail, it still seems worthwhile to collect a few links to earlier discussions. It may be a mistake to debate detail; it may be counter-productive to even debunk or explicitly dismiss bullshit; but it seems necessary.

Well... just one more little digression first. As discussed above, different people come to the study of Tarot history with different motivations. Some seek answers to basic historical questions. Many many more seek a diversion, a social pastime with pretensions to intellectual and spiritual elitism. These people tend to have little use for facts. For those who are interested in history, the first question to ask is whether there is a question to ask.

Is there a legitimate historical question? A fact-based question that necessitates some answer? If not, then we need not speculate. Desire to speculate is not enough to justify speculation – there needs to be some real question, a fact that requires explanation. Second, is there a reasonably sufficient and plausible answer? One consistent with the facts and having adequate explanatory power to make sense of the evidence? If so, then we need not speculate further. In particular, there is no justification for ignoring a good, fact-based answer and substituting elaborate and far-fetched speculation.

Okay... some links to old discussions.

In 2003, Lothar Teikemeier (“autorbis”) put up a page of arguments supporting the 5x14 Theory on GeoCities. GeoCities is gone but the Wayback Machine still has the page. He also posted the material to TarotL at that time: About 70-cards Trionfi decks (Jan 4, 2003). A version is still online at, from 2009, and a shorter version here. Back in 2003 the topic was pretty far outside the TarotL mainstream, and appears to have generated little discussion at the time. In 2004, Robert Mealing started a thread about the 15th-century Italian origin of Tarot. In a tangential response, Huck Meyer (“Tarocchi7”, thought by some to be a sock-puppet alter-ego of Lothar) posted a handful of the 5x14 Theory arguments to that thread on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum, and cross-posted to some newsgroups and TarotL. His presentation was a bit incoherent, so in my first reply I also addressed the more structured (at least by enumeration) arguments presented earlier by Teikemeier. They are all parts of the same mutating theory.

Debating the Italian Origin of Tarot Cards (Sat Mar 13, 2004)

confused about 5x14 (Thu Feb 17, 2005)

As is usually the case, Ross has offered excellent discussions. He provides detailed analyses of almost every point.

The Number 21 and the Tarot Trumps (03 Jan 2008)

"The 5x14 Theory: An Investigation" part II (28 Nov 2009)

Bolognese sequence / Holy Cow "22" (06 Jan 2010)

Chess as a factor in the origin of Tarot (03 Aug 2010)

A final comment about the notion of Tarot being derived from Chess:


An Allegorical Hierarchy—One Series of 22 Unique Personifications
Two Ranks of Mankind—Matching Sets of Social Status w/Duplication

Some will find the Chess/Tarot idea to be self-evident nonsense. Others are morons. No, it does not matter how many times or for how many years you insist that the square peg really does fit in the round hole – it is just wrong. And everybody who looks, knows it.