Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them (Ray Hyman, 1977)

NOTE: Cold reading is a set of techniques used by elders, mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to determine or express details about another person, often to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does. Without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.

The more a Geronda confesses people, the more developed this practice becomes. The longer a Geronda confesses an individual, the more easier they become to read [not to mention some father confessors keep files of notes on individuals which they briefly scan before they visit the monastery]. Monastics also develop this technique over time, though it will never become as perfected as an elder’s because they do not hear the intimate details of an individual’s private life and secret sins through the sacrament of confession.

The following article is taken from Paranormal Borderlands of Science:


Over twenty years ago I taught a course at Harvard University called “Applications of Social Psychology.”  The sort of applications that I covered were the various ways in which people were manipulated. I invited various manipulators to demonstrate their techniques– pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men, and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems. The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client’s tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there. Students readily accepted this explanation when it was pointed out to them. But I did not feel that they fully realized just how pervasive and powerful this human tendency to make sense out of nonsense really is.

Consequently, in 1955 I wrote a paper entitled “The Psychological Reading: An Infallible Technique For Winning Admiration and Popularity.” Over the years I have distributed copies of this paper to my students. The paper begins as follows:

So you want to be admired! You want people to seek your company, to talk about you, to praise your talents. This manuscript tells you how to satisfy that want.  Herein you will find a sure-fire gimmick for the achievement of fame and popularity.  Just follow the advice that I give you, and, even if you are the most incompetent social bungler, you cannot fail to become the life of the party. What is the secret that underlies this infallible system! The secret, my friend, is a simple and obvious one.  It has been tried and proven by practitioners since the beginnings of mankind. Here is the gist of the secret: To be popular with your fellow man, tell him what he wants to hear. He wants to hear about himself. So tell him about himself. But [do not tell him] what you know to be true about him.

Oh, no! Never tell him the truth. Rather, tell him what he would like to hear about himself.  And there you have it. Simple and obvious, yet so powerful.  This manuscript details the way in which you can exploit this golden rule by assuming the role of a character reader.

I will include essentially the same recipe for character reading in this paper that I give to my students. In addition I will bring the material up to date, describe some relevant research, and indicate some theoretical reasons why the technique “works.” My purpose is not to enable you to enhance your personal magnetism, nor is it to increase the number of character readers. I give you these rules for reading character because I want you to experience how the method works. I want you to see what a powerful technique the psychological reading is, how convincing it is to the psychologist and layman alike.


When you see how easy it is to convince a person that you can read his character on sight, you will better appreciate why fortune tellers and psychologists are frequently lulled into placing credence in techniques which have not been validated by acceptable scientific methods. The recent controversy in The Humanist magazine and The Zetetic over the scientific status of astrology probably is irrelevant to the reasons that individuals believe in astrology. Almost without exception. the defenders of astrology with whom I have contact do not refer to the evidence relating to the underlying theory. They are convinced of astrology’s value because it “works.” By this they mean that it supplies them with feedback that “feels right”–that convinces them that the horoscope provides a basis for understanding themselves and ordering their lives. It has personal meaning for them.

Some philosophers distinguish between “persuasion” and “conviction.” The distinction is subtle. But for our purposes we can think of subjective experiences that persuade us that something is so and of logical and scientific procedures that convince, or ought to convince, us that something is or is not so. Quite frequently a scientist commits time and resources toward generating scientific evidence for a proposition because he has already been persuaded, on nonscientific grounds, that the proposition is true. Such intuitive persuasion plays an important motivational role in science as well as in the arts. Pathological science and false beliefs come about when such intuitive persuasion overrides or colors the evidence from objective procedures for establishing conviction.

The field of personality assessment has always been plagued by this confusion between persuasion and conviction. In contrast to intelligence and aptitude tests the scientific validation of personality tests, even under ideal conditions, rarely results in unequivocal or satisfactory results. In fact some of the most widely used personality inventories have repeatedly failed to pass validity checks. One of the reasons for this messy state of affairs is the lack of reliable and objective criteria against which to check the results of an assessment.

But the lack of adequate validation has not prevented the use of, and reliance on, such instruments. Assessment psychologists have always placed more reliance on their instruments than is warranted by the scientific evidence. Both psychologist and client are invariably persuaded by the results that the assessment “works.”

Geronda Paisios, Geronda Ephraim & Bishop Panteleimon of Verroias.

This state of affairs, of course, is even more true when we consider divination systems beyond those of the academic and professional psychologist. Every system be it based on the position of the stars, the pattern of lines in the hand, the shape of the face or skull, the fall of the cards or the dice, the accidents of nature, or the intuitions of a “psychic”–claims its quota of satisfied customers. The client invariably feels satisfied with the results. He is convinced that the reader and the system have penetrated to the core of his “true” self. Such satisfaction on the part of the client also feeds back upon the reader. Even if the reader began his career with little belief in his method, the inevitable reinforcement of persuaded clients increases his confidence in himself and his system. In this way a “vicious circle” is established. The reader and his clients become more and more persuaded that they have hold of a direct pipeline to the “truth.”

The state of affairs in which the evaluation of an assessment instrument depends upon the satisfaction of the client is known as “personal validation.” Personal validation is, for all practical purposes, the major reason for the persistence of divinatory and assessment procedures. If the client is not persuaded, then the system will not survive. Personal validation, of course, is the basis for the acceptance of more than just assessment instruments. The widespread acceptance of myths about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, ghosts, the validity of meditation and consciousness-raising schemes, and a host of other beliefs are based on persuasion through personal validation rather than scientific conviction.


“People have always confused us with them, but we have no connection,” Geronda Dositheos

“Cold reading” is a procedure by which a “reader” is able to persuade a client, whom he has never before met, that he knows all about the client’s personality and problems. At one extreme this can be accomplished by delivering a stock spiel, or “psychological reading,” that consists of highly general statements that can fit any individual. A reader who relies on psychological readings will usually have memorized a set of stock spiels. He then can select a reading to deliver which is relatively more appropriate in the general category that the client fits- a young unmarried girl, a senior citizen, and so on. Such an attempt to fit the reading to the client makes the psychological reading a closer approximation to the true cold reading.

The cold reading, at its best, provides the client with a character assessment that is uniquely tailored to fit him or her. The reader begins with the same assumptions that guide the psychological reader who relies on the stock spiel. These assumptions are (1) that we all are basically more alike than different; (2) that our problems are generated by the same major transitions of birth, puberty, work, marriage, children, old age, and death; (3) that, with the exception of curiosity seekers and troublemakers, people come to a character reader because they need someone to listen to their conflicts involving love, money, and health.

The cold reader goes beyond these common denominators by gathering as much additional information about the client as possible. Sometimes such information is obtained in advance of the reading.  If the reading is through appointment, the reader can use directories and other sources to gather information. When the client enters the consulting room, an assistant can examine the coat left behind (and often the purse as well) for papers, notes, labels, and other such cues about socioeconomic status, and so on. Most cold readers, however do not need such advance information. Geronda Joseph (formerly Ioannis Voutsas, now Abbot and father-Confessor at St. Nektarios Monastery, Roscoe, NY).

The cold reader basically relies on a good memory and acute observation. The client is carefully studied. The clothing- for example, style, neatness, cost, age- provides a host of cues for helping the reader make shrewd guesses about socioeconomic level, conservatism or extroversion, and other characteristics. The client’s physical features–weight, posture, looks, eyes, and hands provide further cues. The hands are especially revealing to the good reader. The manner of speech, use of grammar, gestures, and eye contact are also good sources. To the good reader the huge amount of information coming from an initial sizing-up of the client greatly narrows the possible categories into which he classifies clients. His knowledge of actual and statistical data about various subcultures in the population already provides him the basis for making an uncanny and strikingly accurate assessment of the client.

But the skilled reader can go much further in particularizing his reading.  He wants to zero in as quickly as possible on the precise problem that is bothering the client. On the basis of his initial assessment he makes some tentative hypotheses. He tests these out by beginning his assessment in general terms, touching upon general categories of problems and watching the reaction of the client.  If he is on the wrong track the client’s reactions, eye movements, pupillary dilation, other bodily mannerisms—will warn him. When he is on the right track other reactions will tell him so. By watching the client’s reactions as he tests out different hypotheses during his spiel, the good reader quickly hits upon what is bothering the customer and begins to adjust the reading to the situation. By this time, the client has usually been persuaded that the reader, by some uncanny means, has gained insights into the client’s innermost thoughts. His guard is now down. Often he opens up and actually tells the reader, who is also a good listener, the details of his situation. The reader, after a suitable interval, will usually feedback the information that the client has given him in such a way that the client will be further amazed at how much the reader “knows” about him. Invariably the client leaves the reader without realizing that everything he has been told is simply what he himself has unwittingly revealed to the reader.


Geronda Joseph Mammis, Abbot of Holy Trinity monastery, Michigan.

The preceding paragraphs indicate that the cold reader is a highly skilled and talented individual. And this is true. But what is amazing about this area of human assessment is how successfully even an unskilled and incompetent reader can persuade a client that he has fathomed the client’s true nature.  It is probably a tribute to the creativeness of the human mind that a client can, under the right circumstances, make sense out of almost any reading and manage to fit it to his own unique situation. All that is necessary is that the reader make out a plausible case for why the reading ought to fit. The client will do the rest.

You can achieve a surprisingly high degree of success as a character reader even if you merely use a stock spiel which you give to every client. Sundberg (1955), for example, found that if you deliver the following character sketch to a college male, he will usually accept it as a reasonably accurate description of himself:

“You are a person who is very normal in his attitudes, behavior and relationships with people. You get along well without effort. People naturally like you, and you are not overly critical of them or yourself. You are neither overly conventional nor overly individualistic. Your prevailing mood is one of optimism and constructive effort, and you are not troubled by periods of depression, psychosomatic illness or nervous symptoms.”

Sundberg found that the college female will respond with even more pleasure to the following sketch:

“You appear to be a cheerful, well-balanced person. You may have some alternation of happy and unhappy moods, but they are not extreme now. You have few or no problems with your health. You are sociable and mix well with others. You are adaptable to social situations. You tend to be adventurous. Your interests are wide. You are fairly self-confident and usually think clearly.”

Sundberg conducted his study over 20 years ago. But the sketches still work well today. Either will tend to work well with both sexes. More recently, several laboratory studies have had excellent success with the following stock spiel (Snyder and Shenkel 1975)

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and resented. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do nor accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof.  You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.  Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.

Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.  You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

IL Papa Pavlos (2013) Synthronon

Interestingly enough, the statements in this stock spiel were first used in 1943 by Bertram Forer (1948) in a classroom demonstration of personal validation. He obtained most of them from a newsstand astrology book. Forer’s students, who thought the sketch was uniquely intended for them as a result of a personality test, gave the sketch an average rating of 4.26 on a scale of O (poor) to 5 (perfect). As many as 16 our of his 39 students (41 percent) rated it as a perfect fit to their personality. Only five gave it a rating below 4 (the worst being a rating of 2, meaning “average”). Almost 30 years later students give the same sketch an almost identical rating as a unique description of themselves.



Geronda Ephraim and Geronda Nektarios

The acceptability of the stock spiel depends upon the method and circumstances of its delivery. As we shall later see, laboratory studies have isolated many of the factors that contribute to persuading clients that the sketch is a unique description of themselves. A great deal of the success of the spiel depends upon “setting the stage.”  The reader tries to persuade the client that the sketch is tailored especially for him or her. The reader also creates the impression that it is based on a reliable and proven assessment procedure. The way the sketch is delivered and dramatized also helps. And many of the rules that I give for the cold reading also apply to the delivery of the stock spiel.

The stock spiel, when properly delivered, can be quite effective. In fact, with the right combination of circumstances the stock spiel is often accepted as a perfect and unique description by the client. But, in general, one can achieve even greater success as a character analyst if one uses the more flexible technique of the cold reader. In this method one plays a sort of detective role in which one takes on the role of a Sherlock Holmes. (See the “Case of the Cardboard Box” for an excellent example of cold reading.)  One observes the jewelry, prices the clothing, evaluates the speech mannerisms, and studies the reactions of the subject. Then whatever information these observations provide is pieced together into a character reading which is aimed more specifically at the particular client.

A good illustration of the cold reader in action occurs in a story told by the well-known magician John Mulholland. The incident took place in the 1930s. A young lady in her late twenties or early thirties visited a character reader. She was wearing expensive jewelry, a wedding band, and a black dress of cheap material. The observant reader noted that she was wearing shoes which were currently being advertised for people with foot trouble. (Pause at this point and imagine that you are the reader; see what you would make of these clues.)

By means of just these observations the reader proceeded to amaze his client with his insights. He assumed that this client came to see him, as did most of his female customers, because of a love or financial problem. The black dress and the wedding band led him to reason that her husband had died recently. The expensive jewelry suggested that she had been financially comfortable during marriage, but the cheap dress indicated that her husband’s death had left her penniless. The therapeutic shoes signified that she was now standing on her feet more than she was used to, implying that she was working to support herself since her husband’s death.

The reader’s shrewdness led him to the following conclusion, which turned out to be correct: The lady had met a man who had proposed to her. She wanted to marry the man to end her economic hardship. But she felt guilty about marrying so soon after her husband’s death. The reader told her what she had come to hear–  that it was all right to marry without further delay.


 NOTE: The remainder of the 15 page article can be read here:

Filotheou Monastery Fruit Harvest

Subjective Validation (Austin Cline)

Seeing Patterns & Connections That Aren’t Really There

Subjective Validation is also sometimes called the “personal validation effect” because it refers to a process by which people accept some claim or phenomenon as valid based solely upon a few personal experiences and/or subjective perception. In practice, this error is cited when a person perceives two independent events as having some sort of deeper, hidden relationship because of that person’s prior beliefs, expectations or hypotheses about the world.

According to the premises from which this person interprets the world, such a relationship must necessarily exist, and so the person will find a way to explain the data in terms of the assumed relationship. This subjective validation is often accompanied by Confirmation Bias whereby the person weighs the supporting data much more heavily than information which might cast doubt upon their beliefs.

This subjective validation is generally at the heart of people’s reports of the experience of paranormal phenomena. For example, when it comes to readings by astrologers or psychics, a person will quickly focus on and remember the “hits” or accurate statements, but forget and ignore the misses, or inaccurate statements. In this manner, the person has subjectively validated their preconception that there exists some sort of astrological or psychic connection between things in the universe.

Subjective validation is also sometimes used to describe how people can become overconfident about their prejudices and pet ideas. Essentially, we talk ourselves into believing that we are right even when the evidence at hand should convince us that we are wrong — or at least that the case for our position isn’t very sound. It could be said that we “know” better, but our desires are so powerful that they override our better sense.

This, in turn, can lead us into all sorts of problems when it comes time to actually defend our position in the face of challenges and questions posed by others who are not emotionally or psychologically wedded to the idea that our claims must be true. We might become economical with the truth, we might avoid certain questions, and we might even engage in general rationalization of our position.

Another common name for subjective validation is The Forer Effect, named after psychologist B.R. Forer. He discovered in experiments with his undergraduate students in 1948 that a person can be quite willing to accept some general or vague description of their personality as being unique to them, even though the exact same description would apply equally well (or equally badly) to everyone.

In his experiment, Forer gave a personality test to his students and then, without bothering to even read them, gave back a general personality analysis — the exact same one to each student, taken from a newspaper astrology column. He asked his students to rate his analysis and received an overwhelmingly positive response — his students were convinced that he could “read” their personalities. The same or similar experiments have been performed repeatedly through the decades in a variety of contexts, and the results continue to be the same.

Why does the Forer Effect operate? Various explanations have been offered, from human gullibility to ignorance to plain wishful thinking. It does, however, seem to provide a basis for understanding people’s acceptance of things like astrology, graphology, divination and other pseudosciences.

The best way to deal with someone whose claims rely upon subjective validation is to point out that what they really need is independent validation and confirmation. Independent evidence from some source that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome would be particularly useful. An experiment which could disconfirm the belief would also be very good. If such things cannot be provided, then it is reasonable to point out that the belief isn’t very rational.

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Confirmation Bias (Austin Cline)

Selective Use of Evidence to Support Our Beliefs

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Confirmation bias occurs when we selectively notice or focus upon evidence which tends to support the things we already believe or want to be true while ignoring that evidence which would serve to disconfirm those beliefs or ideas. This bias plays a stronger role when it comes to those beliefs which are based upon prejudice, faith, or tradition rather than on empirical evidence.

For example, if we already believe or want to believe that someone can speak to our deceased relatives, then we will notice when they say things which are accurate or pleasant but forget how often that person says things which are simply incorrect. Another good example would be how people notice when they get a phone call from a person they were just thinking about but don’t remember how often they didn’t get such a call when thinking about a person.

The confirmation bias is simply a natural aspect of our personal biases, its appearance is not a sign that a person is dumb. As Michael Shermer stated in the September 2002 issue of Scientific American:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

Our biases are some of the non-smart reasons we have for arriving at beliefs; the confirmation bias is perhaps worse than most because it actively keeps us from arriving at the truth and allows us to wallow in comforting falsehood and nonsense. This bias also tends to work closely with other biases and prejudices the more emotionally involved we are with a belief the more likely it is that we will manage to ignore whatever facts or arguments might tend to undermine it.

Why does this sort bias exist? Well, it’s certainly true that people don’t like to be wrong and that anything which shows them to be wrong will be harder to accept. Also, emotional beliefs which are involved with our self-image are much more likely to be defended selectively. For example, the belief that we are superior to someone else because of racial differences can be difficult to abandon because that entails not only admitting that the others are not inferior, but also that we are not superior.

However, the reasons for confirmation bias aren’t all negative. It also seems likely that data which supports our beliefs is simply easier to deal with on a cognitive level we can see and understand how it fits into the world as we understand it, while contradictory information that just doesn’t fit can be set aside for later.

It is precisely because of the strength, pervasiveness, and perniciousness of this kind of bias that science incorporates the principle of independent confirmation and testing of one’s ideas and experiments. It is the hallmark of science that a claim should be supported independent of personal bias, but it is a hallmark of pseudoscience that only true believers will discover the evidence which supports their claims. That is why Konrad Lorenz wrote in his famous book On Aggression:

  • It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.

Of course, just because scientists are supposed to construct experiments designed specifically to disprove their theories, that doesn’t mean that they always do. Even here the confirmation bias operates to keep researchers focused on that which tends to support rather than that which might serve to refute. This is why there is such a vital role in science for what often seems like antagonistic competition between scientists: even if we can’t assume that one person will work hard to refute her own theories, we can generally assume that her rivals will.

Understanding that this is a part of our psychological makeup is a necessary step if we are to have any chance at correcting it, just as the acknowledgment that we all have prejudices is necessary in order to overcome those prejudices. When we realize that we have an unconscious inclination to weigh evidence selectively, we will have a better chance at recognizing and utilizing the material we might have overlooked  or that others have overlooked in their attempts to convince us of something.


Astrology Debunked (Georges Charpak, 2004)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the book Debunked!: ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, pp. 1-10:


Truth is Drawn from a Well

“The proof that astrology works, and that it works well, is that my horoscope has accurately predicted things that actually happened to me.” How many times have we heard such remarks? How many personal experiences of this type get presented as evidence of the validity of astrology?

Well, let’s be clear on the subject: Yes, horoscopes work—they work well, in fact. But the validity of the horoscope does not imply the validity of astrology. Many people are convinced of the validity of astrology because their horoscope “works.” These people believe that the occurrence of predicted events, which they have witnessed, justifies the validity that they ascribe to the “Science of Signs.” They are especially convinced that their horoscope gives them a solid foundation for an understanding of themselves and provides guidance for how to act and on their destiny.

For such people, their horoscopes are meaningful, but in truth, the horoscopes take on meaning from the believers, not for believers. It is difficult to get this point across, since it runs contrary to personal experience—“You can’t say it’s not true, because it’s happened to me.” The individual who reads his horoscope is convinced that he is dealing with his horoscope, that that horoscope is destined for him, and that it was created specifically for him by a supernatural force. There’s no recognition that the satisfaction of the client is a source of feedback, adding to the credibility that the fortune-teller can claim for himself and his “science” and consequently for his motives and his effect on the client.


A Convincing Demonstration

Twenty years ago, during a class on paranormal phenomena and the occult, one of us asked the students to write the following information on a piece of paper: their first and last names; the date, time, and place of their birth, and the theme of their latest dream. All of this was handwritten. The request implied that some kind of star-based calculation would be made using the birth data or that a handwriting analysis would be made based on the written material, in either case possibly augmented by interpretation of the most recent dream.

A week later, each student received an individualized description of his or her personality followed by the question, “How good is this description of your personality?” The concordance of the description with the student’s real personality (or self-perception of it, anyway) was rated as excellent, good, fair, poor, bad, or none. Overall, 69% of the students judged the description of their personality to be excellent, good, or fairly good.

The result is especially convincing because I had been introduced to the students as a “scientific demystifier”—a pretty lousy introduction, by the way—and not as an astrologer or other supernatural leader, which would have certainly enhanced the believability of the personality descriptions and thus the percentage of “successful matches.” It’s also a particularly good demonstration when you consider that, when we asked one of the students to read aloud the personality description that we had prepared for him, the others all thought it was theirs. They couldn’t have been more similar—in fact, the much-touted “individualized” descriptions were prepared before the students’ data were collected, and they were exactly identical for all the students! This was a simple but enlightening demonstration of one of the many “effects” that occur so often when it comes to “paranormal” phenomena. If you ever want to try this illuminating experience, use the model personality description below; simply adding a name to complete the “personalization.”

  • You need others to like and admire you, yet you are apt to be critical of yourself.
  • Although you have certain character flaws, you are generally able to make up for them.
  • You possess substantial untapped potential that you haven’t exploited for your own benefit.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  • You are outwardly disciplined and you display self-control but inside you tend to worry and be insecure.
  • Sometimes you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.
  • You prefer a bit of change and variety and are annoyed when you encounter restrictions or limitations.
  • Sometimes you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, cautious, and reserved.
  • You are proud of being an independent thinker and don’t accept the statements of others without satisfactory proof.
  • You find it unwise to reveal too much about yourself to others.

Similar descriptions were used and tested for the first time by the psychologist Bertram Forer, who based his wording on an astrology book. The effectiveness of such wording in a real-life setting demonstrates clearly the power of what some have called the “well effect.”

Forer effect

The Well Effect

The well effect can be summed up as follows: The vaguer a statement is, the more numerous are the people who will recognize themselves in it—and the more completely the description will be seen to “fit” them. The descriptive statements may be profound, all right, but they are only deep in the sense that a well is deep—deeply hollowed out, that is, empty. In fact, experience has shown that vague, general statements are more convincing than specific descriptions made by professional psychologists because of what sociologists might call the Barnum effect. Barnum’s circus shows were constructed so that there was something for everyone so that everyone would find their way there, which created the shows’ success. Moreover, studies have shown that, when it comes to analysis of serious personal problems, “yes” and “no” answers picked in advance completely at random are perceived as very encouraging answers to specific questions by the people posing them! (You can read more about this phenomenon in Ray Hyman’s “Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All about Them,” in Paranormal Borderlands of Science [Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981]).


The well effect explains, in large measure, the success of horoscopes. “In some ways, you are one of the stronger people”: this is a statement that is empty and void of meaning, yet it will be accepted as fundamentally true in a horoscope, as each reader interprets it in the context that gives it meaning for him. the reader will think, “My knowledge of foreign languages is strong,” “I have a great ability when it comes to fixing things,” “My muscles are strong,” or any of so many other possibilities. And this is without even taking into account that the elementary principles that can improve the receptivity of the readers. For example, don’t tell people what you know (or think you know) to be true about them, just tell them what you wish were true about them.

Of course, astrologers count on the fact that the public quickly forgets the predictions. The supermarket tabloids print dramatic predictions at the end of every year, often involving such events as a presidential assassination or the second coming of Christ in the following year or two, and people have been reading similar predictions for decades. In France, a prediction concerning a former prime minister is little remembered: “Despite a generally positive picture for the year [1993], the first fifteen days of January and of September as well may pose serious problems for Pierre Beregovoy.” For this prediction we are indebted to a famous astrologer, Elizabeth Teissier, writing in Your Horoscope for 1993. For those unacquainted with subsequent events, Pierre Beregovoy killed himself on May 1, 1993, by a gunshot wound to the head. In the United States, thousands died in the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. The horoscopes of any number of the victims contain predictions supposedly useful for guiding behavior that day—“a good day for a fresh start in your love life”—and the next day! Individual deaths on that day were not predicted, let alone a mass disaster; if astrology can’t unambiguously predict an event of that magnitude in your life—and still makes further predictions for the next day—what good is it?  Yet no one remembers that predictions of good days and bad days for the rest of the year were cast for these victims.

Clearly, astrologers make full use of the well effect. A prediction from Elizabeth Teissier again: “Populations in the world will suffer violence in the following month, given that Venus and Pluto…” But they also use other tricks to lend credence to their pronouncements, always centered on the big three—Love, Money, and Health. And intellectual honesty does not have to be the foremost characteristic in the star charts that predict the traits of the astrologers themselves. Skill and craftiness are often plainly evident. For example, Darah was one of the four sons of a great Moghul emperor, and he was obsessed by astrology. A soothsayer predicted that he would stake his own life on his prediction that Darah would be crowned the heir to the emperor. When someone expressed astonishment at the temerity of the prediction, the astrologer said, “One of two things will happen: either Darah will ascend the throne and my fortune is assured, or he will lose his bid and be assassinated, and then I will have nothing further to fear from him.” Beyond the well effect, astrologers don’t hesitate to have two irons in the fire or, more subtly, one iron with two different sides.

Let’s not leave out that astrologers also count on the fact that “to err is human” but constant fallibility is not. Neither perpetual fallibility nor perpetual infallibility is characteristic of anybody. People readily accept one side of this and disregard a claim of infallibility because errors inevitably appear. But people are a lot less aware that a few instances of “getting it right” are inevitable. The contrary—always being wrong—would be extraordinary. Even an astrologer will sometimes make predictions that turn out to be true. So, predict merrily along—some of your statements will always pan out.

Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.
Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.

Astrology in a Vacuum

Astrologers actually know very little about what goes on in the skies. In Your Horoscope in 1993, Elizabeth Teissier asked, “How does such a horoscope [for a group readership] work, and how can it be justified? How can it be conceivable that a Capricorn born January 9, 1960, should be under the same planetary influences as another born January 9, 1924, for example? Here is the answer to such questions: In its apparent travels around Earth, the Sun ends up in the same place in the sky on the same date each year” (italics added). This is totally false! On two identical dates in different years, the Sun is not in the same spot in the sky at all.

On a given date in different years, our planet is not at the same point in its orbit around the Sun. As we will explain more fully later, the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes causes a shift in position. To put it in numbers, as an approximation, we can say that there is a difference of about 22,000 miles between Earth’s location on any specific date in two successive years, which is a distance of about three times the diameter of our planet. Thus, contrary to the astrologer’s statements about the same planetary influences on January 9th of 1960 and 1924, the earth would not occupy the same place in its orbit around the Sun, at all. Between those two dates there would be a shift of about 780,000 miles!

For the most part, astrological soothsayers work with what is called the “tropical zodiac.” This is based on the sun and has nothing to do with the stars, which are the basis for the “sidereal zodiac.” When astrologers put together an astral analysis, they generally use the twelve signs of the tropical zodiac, defined as the twelve equal rectangles into which the celestial sphere is divided. The starting point for this division is called “gamma,” which is the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator, corresponding to the spring equinox.

At one time, a bit before the birth of Christ, calculations based on the tropical zodiac would have been about the same as those based on the stars and constellations that originally determined the characteristics of the various signs of the sidereal zodiac. This is no longer the case because the precession of the equinoxes has mixed things up by displacing the gamma point with respect to the starry background of the celestial sphere. This displacement has dragged along the astrological signs, which nowadays don’t correspond at all to their original stars. Today’s “tropically based” astrologers just blindly apply rectangular sign-zones, empty boxes that have nothing to do with anything and are devoid of any consistency or correspondence with the stars. If you want to know your real zodiac birth sign, rather than one fobbed off on you by the usual (tropical) astrologers, investigate Astronomic Zodiac. This resource is found on the Internet site Your true sign is simply the location of the Sun in the celestial sphere, as seen from Earth at the instant of your birth. This can be calculated rigorously from an astronomical point of view. But most astrologers, relying on the vacant rectangles of the tropical zodiac, really don’t practice astrology at all, but rather something we’ve got to call the study of emptiness—voidology, or astrology in a vacuum.

The 3 Magi
The 3 Magi

The Navel Gazers

Horoscopes are popular today because ours is a narcissistic civilization. Science makes only global or collective forecasts, while lots of people are interested only in their own personal destiny. For most people, it’s not hard to choose between the distant scientists who speak of generalities and the accessible astrologer who speaks exclusively to the individual about himself. The aura of exclusivity and uniqueness is certainly enhanced by the astrologer’s request for the complete details of the client’s birth. Exact spot, date, hour, and minute—all pertain to a single person, all pertain to me—so it must be that there’s a good correspondence between the results of the astrologer’s study and my own personality.

Our observations and perceptions depend in part upon what we are thinking at the moment we observe something. Our deepest desires and motivations, modified by our past experiences, are reinforced, whether consciously or not, by selection bias. Selection bias is a well-documented psychological principle. It means that we choose our magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television shows—all of our information sources—in such a way that our opinions are, for the most part, reinforced rather than challenged. And if, despite all that, we receive challenging information, we can always use subjective validation. Subjective validation is a psychological principle that allows us to absorb incorrectly any information that is contrary to our preferences and to interpret it in a different light. Subjective validation causes two events to be perceived as linked, when they are not, simply because a desire, a hypothesis, or a belief requires such a linkage. In the case of astrology, events are perceived as linked simply because the horoscope says the linkage exists. This perception of linkage, in turn, induces superstitious behavior founded upon the belief that one’s own actions determine the course of events, even when  this is not so in reality.

If the influence of the planets over our destiny is completely nil, however, it doesn’t follow that the horoscope is without effect. And the well effect, in particular, allows us to see why the horoscope holds such a sway over so many people.

The Precession of the Equinoxes

The precession of the equinoxes was discovered by Hipparchus of Nicea in the second century B.C.E. Earth is not perfectly spherical but flattened a bit at the poles and bulging a bit at the equator. Gravitational effects of the Sun and the Moon on the equatorial bulge cause the axis of the Earth’s rotation to shift. That is, the axis—the line between the poles—moves around. It pivots, a bit like a spinning top, very slowly, taking about 25, 790 years to go around completely. The picture is actually a bit more complicated, though. An additional phenomenon, called “nutation,” creates a little wave around the main circular motion of the axis, with a period of about 18.6 years.

In about 12,000 years, Earth’s axis will point to a new “North Star,” Vega, and today’s “North Star,” Polaris, will no longer mark the northerly direction.

The plane of the celestial equator—that is, the plane that includes Earth’s equator—obviously follows this pivoting of Earth’s axis. Therefore, its intersection with the ecliptic, which is the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, must also move. But the location of that intersection determines the gamma point, the spring equinox. (Remember that the spring and autumnal equinoxes correspond to the two positions of Earth when the line from the Sun to Earth is perpendicular to the axis of Earth’s rotation. That’s why, at the equinoxes, day and night are of equal length all over the world.)

The problem is that the spring equinox serves as the reference point for the tropical zodiac. In other words, the gamma point moves slowly but surely through the celestial sphere and pulls along with it the signs of the tropical astrologers, who consequently are not working from the original constellations at all and who continue to be farther and farther away from them.

Here’s just one example among many: Those born when the Sun (as seen from the Earth) is in the constellation Leo are said to be “courageous, proud, and dominating.” But if that were true in Hipparchus’ day, two thousand years ago, it’s really difficult to understand what that sign has to do with us today. People born at the end of July are “Leos” according to the astrologers, but today’s Sun is not then in Leo at all but in Cancer.

The well effect is not limited to astrology. One can easily find many applications of this principle in every aspect of life

An Iridologist Visits St. Anthony’s Monastery (1998)

NOTE: The following article is taken from

In early 1998, a Greek iridologist from Montreal visited St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, Arizona. The Abbot invited him to examine the monks. So every monk went to see him. The older, more experienced fathers didn’t take the iridologist seriously as they recognized his practice for the quackery that it is. However, some of the younger novices who went, believing they were doing blind obedience by being open to the doctor, answered his questions truthfully. The doctor recorded these conversations and he now had in his possession numerous monks admitting to having done illicit chemicals and substances. Afterwards, when various monks had talked and laughed amongst themselves about the ridiculousness of this experience, one of the main questions asked to the various monks was if they had ever done cocaine before. Also, the main diagnosis and piece of advice was the monks were deficient in various things and needed to take Chlorophyll. The older fathers had a laugh about that and started enumerating all the Desert Fathers who essentially lived off bread and water: “St Anthony didn’t have chlorophyll in his diet,” etc. A few cases of chlorophyll were ordered for the fathers and sat in the storage closet, unused, for months.

The iridologist's diagnosis was that all the fathers needed to add chlorophyll to their diet.
The iridologist’s diagnosis was that all the fathers needed to add chlorophyll to their diet.

Needless to say, Geronda Ephraim was very upset when he learned that a quack doctor (iridologist) saw all the fathers without his knowledge and had tape recordings of their private medical and personal life information. A few years later, it was rumored amongst the Fathers that this man had lost his business and his wife left him. The consensus was that this was God’s punishment upon the man for saddening Geronda Ephraim.

For those not familiar with this pseudoscience:

Iridology is the study of the iris to diagnose disease. It is not part of the curriculum of any medical school and its practitioners are not usually medical doctors.It is not regulated or licensed by any governmental agency in either Canada or the United States.

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Iridology goes way beyond the claim that the eyes often provide signs of disease. Iridologists maintain that each organ has a counterpart in the eye and that you can determine the state of the organ’s health by looking at a particular section of the eye. The markings and patterns in the iris are compared to an iris chart, which maps zones of the iris and links them to parts of the body. No scientific investigation led to these charts; instead, they are the work of intuition.

For more information, see Confessions of a Former Iridologist:


In the early years of St. Anthony’s Monastery natural “alternative” medicines and remedies were utilized. There were some lay people who interpreted this use of natural remedies as a validation of homeopathy. There was a little bit of confusion when people were told that homeopathy, acupuncture and other “natural therapies” were demonic and not accepted by the Church. A common justification response was, “But I thought Geronda Paisios used homeopathy and recognized natural, alternative medicine.” There is a difference between natural products and homeopathic products which many people did not realize. There is a difference between nature and what natural products manipulated by occultists.

Numerous contemporary Elders have been speaking out against alternative therapies for decades.


From November 4-6, 2013, the 25th Pan-Orthodox Conference of the Delegates of Orthodox Churches and Dioceses on matters pertaining to heresies and para-religion was convened in Volos, Greece. Here are the conclusions of this symposium:

The problem of disease; heretical and occultist approaches”, following an extensive discussion on the presentations, has unanimously adopted the following Conclusions:

  1. The Conference considered the issue of disease and its therapeutic treatment, as perceived by the Orthodox Church on the one hand and by contemporary heretical, occultist and eastern religious groups on the other. In order to understand the radical differences between these two approaches to the issue, it is essential to have the necessary knowledge of anthropology, which is presupposed in each case. Orthodox anthropology, which the Orthodox outlook on the issue of disease and its therapy is based on, accepts that man is God’s creation, comprised of two harmoniously united, albeit different, elements, the body and the soul. Man is not soul alone or body alone; he is “both together”.
  2. In accordance with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, disease is related to man’s status as a created being and is an aftermath of the fall, i.e., of man’s voluntary alienation from God, Who is the source of life and incorruption. Man’s fall disrupted the harmonious coexistence of body and soul and this disruption had devastating consequences upon both.
  3. The taking on of human nature by God the Logos paved the way for the nullification of death and the salvation of man in his entirety. The incarnation of the Logos and His victory against death transformed suffering and disease into a “place” and “mode” of our salvation. Henceforth, both suffering and disease constitute means of redemption, if man makes the free choice to employ them in Christ.
  4. In various heretical, occultist and eastern religious groups we encounter different notions concerning disease and its origins, namely:
  5. a) In the heretical groups within the broader spectrum of Protestantism, disease is understood either as the work of a punitive God, i.e. punishment incurred because of a person’s sins, or strictly as the devil’s work.
  6. b) in the occultist groups of the “New Age” movement and in groups originating in Eastern religions, disease is understood as a “blockage” of the normal flow of energy (“Prana”, “Chi”, “Cosmic energy”, etc.) in the human body.
  7. The so-called “alternative therapies” are an application, in the field of healthcare, of conceptions of God, man and the world, which are characteristic of Eastern religions and of the “New Age of Aquarius”; therefore they should more properly be designated as “New Age Medicine”. According to these groups, everything is energy, everything is One (Theosophy’s claim that “All is One”) and everything is God. Based on this concept, they teach that by discovering his “divine Self” and by activating the mystic powers supposedly hidden inside him, man can heal himself. Self-healing is identified as the “release of blocked energy”.
  8. A number of “alternative therapies” under various names suggest different ways for “releasing the blockages” of that energy. Homeopathy, for example, advocates the use of potentized homeopathic medicines; Acupuncture proposes the placement of needles at proper points that, according to its practitioners, correspond to “energy channels” in the human body, while other “therapies”, like Reiki, recommend the “removal of blockages” “through the laying of hands performed by a highly spiritual person… who is actually a channel of universal energies…”. In some of these “therapies” we even observe the practice of blending Christian terms with occultist interpretations, as part of an attempt to provide a theoretical validation of the way in which the method supposedly works. Most groups employ scientific-sounding terminology, with the intent to impress and mislead the unsuspecting public. Others, like Homeopathy practitioners, claim that their “medicines” can even treat passions of the soul, like selfishness, envy, wrath, anger, etc., thus usurping the role and work of the Orthodox Church as “spiritual infirmary”.
  9. The so-called alternative therapies not only have occultist implications, but their very foundations are non-Christian and in fact lie in the realm of the occult. Most of them represent more than mere proposals for the therapeutic treatment of the body; they also promise the transition, through what they call “quantum leap”, etc., to the “New Age”, and the creation of a new type of man. The Conference has reached the conclusion that these “therapies” (Angel Therapy, Ayurveda, Bach Flower Remedies, Aura Soma, Aromatherapy, Acupuncture, Bioenergy Therapies, Esoteric Healing, Craniosacral Therapy, Crystal Therapy, Homeopathy, Reiki, Reflexology, Shiatsu, pseudo-scientific psychotherapies, et al.) are founded on a worldview “serving as their background” which is contrary to and incompatible with the Orthodox faith.
  10. Their widespread dissemination is developing into a major social issue of a medical and pharmaceutical nature with moral, social and spiritual repercussions, which occasionally endangers human lives. It also causes serious spiritual and pastoral problems. Since the State guarantees – notably through the Constitution – the legal right to health, which is put at risk by the aforementioned “therapies”, it ought to take practical steps, as well, in order to safeguard this right. These “therapies” threaten to distort the Orthodox mindset. They are potential “bridges” that could bring unsuspecting Orthodox Christians in contact with Eastern religions and Occultism.
  11. The so-called “alternative therapies” or, according to the Medical Association of Athens “Unorthodox Treatment Methods”, in which a metaphysical energy is predominant, rely on obsolete and fictitious data. They lack rigorous scientific methodology. Furthermore, they are based on unverified principles, which normally belong to the realm of fantasy. Since they do not take advantage of modern scientific advancements and methods, they have been designated, by official Greek and international medical bodies and associations, as pseudo-sciences. According to such medical bodies, any noticeable therapeutic effect –if and when it occurs– is usually observed in auto-immune, psychosomatic and neuro-vegetative disorders. It is caused by the simulated medicine (placebo) mechanism, which is activated through the power of suggestion. Classical Medicine, by contrast, is an applied science, which is constantly advancing research and making progress, thus offering substantial care to millions of ailing people.
  • The Conference also reviewed “therapies” performed within groups of the broader Protestant spectrum (Neo-Pentecostals, “Charismatics”, Christian Science, etc.), as well as within Roman Catholicism to the extent that it has adopted such “charismatic” Protestant practices. Alleged therapies in such circles include a fair amount of on-demand “healings” (instances of fraud), a type of show that not only fails to provide actual healing, but is also heavily criticized by other Protestant communities.
  1. Pseudo-therapies, whether of the Pentecostal or the “New Age” type, are considered to be either cases of clandestine fraud or phenomena caused by psychological suggestion, or bad imitations of miraculous healings in the Bible, without ruling out the possibility of demonic involvement. As such, they constitute signs of the Antichrist. What fundamentally distinguishes them from the miraculous healings effected by Saints is that they are performed for the ulterior purpose of misleading people away from Jesus Christ, the only true Physician of our souls and bodies.
  • As God’s creation, man can only be complete and find true healing by being fully united with Jesus Christ within the Orthodox Church, as stated by the Church Fathers.

The Conference unanimously approves the Conclusions stated above and authorizes its Chairman to sign them.


There are many orthodox articles and books exposing the frauds of many alternative medicines. For English readers, Michael Whelton’s False Gods: Counterfeit Spirituality in an Age of Anxiety is a good start:

Psychological Problems in Thinking (Michael Shermer, 1997)

NOTE: The following is taken from the book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, pp. 58-61. It is the last section of the 3rd Chapter entitled, How Thinking Goes Wrong: 25 Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things:

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer
  1. Effort Inadequacies and the Need for Certainty, Control, and Simplicity

Most of us, most of the time, want certainty, want to control our environment, and want nice, neat, simple explanations. All this may have some evolutionary basis, but in a multifarious society with complex problems, these characteristics can radically oversimplify reality and interfere with critical thinking and problem solving. For example, I believe that paranormal beliefs and pseudoscientific claims flourish in market economies in part because of the uncertainty of the marketplace. According to James Randi, after communism collapsed in Russia there was a significant increase in such beliefs. Not only are the people now freer to try to swin-die each other with scams and rackets but many truly believe they have discovered something concrete and significant about the nature of the world. Capitalism is a lot less stable a social structure than communism. Such uncertainties lead the mind to look for explanations for the vagaries and contingencies of the market (and life in general), and the mind often takes a turn toward the supernatural and paranormal.


Scientific and critical thinking does not come naturally. It takes training, experience, and effort, as Alfred Mander explained in his Logic for the Millions: “Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically—without learning how, or without practicing. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge players, or pianists” (1947, p. vii). We must always work to suppress our need to be absolutely certain and in total control and our tendency to seek the simple and effortless solution to a problem. Now and then the solutions may be simple, but usually they are not.
  1. Problem-Solving Inadequacies

All critical and scientific thinking is, in a fashion, problem solving. There are numerous psychological disruptions that cause inadequacies in problem solving. Psychologist Barry Singer has demonstrated that when people are given the task of selecting the right answer to a problem after being told whether particular guesses are right or wrong, they:

  1. Immediately form a hypothesis and look only for examples to confirm it.
  2. Do not seek evidence to disprove the hypothesis.
  3. Are very slow to change the hypothesis even when it is obviously wrong.
  4. If the information is too complex, adopt overly-simple hypotheses orstrategies for solutions.
  5. If there is no solution, if the problem is a trick and “right” and “wrong” isgiven at random, form hypotheses about coincidental relationships they observed. Causality is always found. (Singer and Abell 1981, p. 18)

If this is the case with humans in general, then we all must make the effort to overcome these inadequacies in solving the problems of science and of life.


  1. Ideological Immunity, or the Planck Problem

In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p. 54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to [ look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p. 97).

Planck Problem

Psychologist David Perkins conducted an interesting correlational study in which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives. That is, the higher the IQ, the greater the potential for ideological immunity. Ideological immunity is built into the scientific enterprise, where it functions as a filter against potentially overwhelming novelty. As historian of science I. B. Cohen explained, “New and revolutionary systems of science tend to be resisted rather than welcomed with open arms, because every successful scientist has a vested intellectual, social, and even financial interest in maintaining the status quo. If every revolutionary new idea were welcomed with open arms, utter chaos would be the result” (1985, p. 35).

the potential for ideological immunity

In the end, history rewards those who are “right” (at least provisionally). Change does occur. In astronomy, the Ptolemaic geocentric universe was slowly displaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system. In geology, George Cuvier’s catastrophism was gradually wedged out by the more soundly supported uniformitarianism of James Hutton and Charles Lyell. In biology, Darwin’s evolution theory superseded creationist belief in the immutability of species. In Earth history, Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift took nearly a half century to overcome the received dogma of fixed and stable continents. Ideological immunity can be overcome in science and in daily life, but it takes time and corroboration.


Spinoza’s Dictum

Skeptics have the very human tendency to relish debunking what we already believe to be nonsense. It is fun to recognize other people’s fallacious reasoning, but that’s not the whole point. As skeptics and critical thinkers, we must move beyond our emotional responses because by understanding how others have gone wrong and how science is subject to social control and cultural influences, we can improve our understanding of how the world works. It is for this reason that it is so important for us to understand the history of both science and pseudoscience. If we see the larger picture of how these movements evolve and figure out how their thinking went wrong, we won’t make the same mistakes. The seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said it best: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

 Spinoza's Dictum

Logical Problems in Thinking (Michael Shermer, 1997)

NOTE: The following is taken from the book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, pp. 55-58. It is the third section of the 3rd Chapter entitled, How Thinking Goes Wrong: 25 Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things:

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer
  1. Emotive Words and False Analogies

Emotive words are used to provoke emotion and sometimes to obscure rationality. They can be positive emotive words—motherhood, America, integrity, honesty. Or they can be negative—rape, cancer, evil, communist. Likewise, metaphors and analogies can cloud thinking with emotion or steer us onto a side path. A pundit talks about inflation as “the cancer of society” or industry “raping the environment.” In his 1992 Democratic nomination speech, Al Gore constructed an elaborate analogy between the story of his sick son and America as a sick country. Just as his son, hovering on the brink of death, was nursed back to health by his father and family, America, hovering on the brink of death after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, was to be nurtured back to health under the new administration. Like anecdotes, analogies and metaphors do not constitute proof. They are merely tools of rhetoric.

False Analogy• Relying only on comparisons to prove a point, rather than arguing deductively and inductively
False Analogy• Relying only on comparisons to prove a point, rather than arguing deductively and inductively
  1. Ad Ignorantiam

This is an appeal to ignorance or lack of knowledge and is related to the burden of proof and unexplained is not inexplicable fallacies, where someone argues that if you cannot disprove a claim it must be true. For example, if you cannot prove that there isn’t any psychic power, then there must be. The absurdity of this argument comes into focus if one argues that if you cannot prove that Santa Claus does not exist, then he must exist. You can argue the opposite in a similar manner. If you cannot prove Santa Claus exists, then he must not exist. In science, belief should come from positive evidence in support of a claim, not lack of evidence for or against a claim.

Ad Ignorantiam
Ad Ignorantiam
  1. Ad Hominem and Tu Quoque

Literally “to the man” and “you also,” these fallacies redirect the focus from thinking about the idea to thinking about the person holding the idea. The goal of an ad hominem attack is to discredit the claimant in hopes that it will discredit the claim. Calling someone an atheist, a communist, a child abuser, or a neo-Nazi does not in any way disprove that person’s statement. It might be helpful to know whether someone is of a particular religion or holds a particular ideology, in case this has in some way biased the research, but refuting claims must be done directly, not indirectly. If Holocaust deniers, for example, are neo-Nazis or anti-Semites, this would certainly guide their choice of which historical events to emphasize or ignore. But if they are making the claim, for example, that Hitler did not have a master plan for the extermination of European Jewry, the response “Oh, he is saying that because he is a neo-Nazi” does not refute the argument. Whether Hitler had a master plan or not is a question that can be settled historically. Similarly for tu quoque. If someone accuses you of cheating on your taxes, the answer “Well, so do you” is no proof one way or the other.

Ad Hominem: Person A presents an argument. Person B attacks person A's character. Therefore person A's argument is invalid.
Ad Hominem: Person A presents an argument. Person B attacks person A’s character. Therefore person A’s argument is invalid.


  1. Hasty Generalization

In logic, the hasty generalization is a form of improper induction. In life, it is called prejudice. In either case, conclusions are drawn before the facts warrant it. Perhaps because our brains evolved to be constantly on the lookout for connections between events and causes, this fallacy is one of the most common of all. A couple of bad teachers mean a bad school. A few bad cars mean that brand of auto- mobile is unreliable. A handful of members of a group are used to judge the entire group. In science, we must carefully gather as much information as possible before announcing our conclusions.

Hasty Generalization

  1. Overreliance on Authorities

We tend to rely heavily on authorities in our culture, especially if the authority is considered to be highly intelligent. The IQ score has acquired nearly mystical proportions in the last half century, but I have noticed that belief in the paranormal is not uncommon among Mensa members (the high-IQ club for those in the top 2 percent of the population); some even argue that their “Psi-Q” is also superior. Magician James Randi is fond of lampooning authorities with Ph.D.s—once they are granted the degree, he says, they find it almost impossible to say two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong.” Authorities, by virtue of their expertise in a field, may have a better chance of being right in that field, but correctness is certainly not guaranteed, and their expertise does not necessarily qualify them to draw conclusions in other areas.

In other words, who is making the claim makes a difference. If it is a Nobel laureate, we take note because he or she has been right in a big way before. If it is a discredited scam artist, we give a loud guffaw because he or she has been wrong in a big way before. While expertise is useful for separating the wheat from the chaff, it is dangerous in that we might either (1) accept a wrong idea just because it was supported by someone we respect (false positive) or (2) reject a right idea just because it was supported by someone we disrespect (false negative). How do you avoid such errors? Examine the evidence.

Overreliance on Authorities

  1. Either-Or

Also known as the fallacy of negation or the false dilemma, this is the tendency to dichotomize the world so that if you discredit one position, the observer is forced to accept the other. This is a favorite tactic of creationists, who claim that life either was divinely created or evolved. Then they spend the majority of their time discrediting the theory of evolution so that they can argue that since evolution is wrong, creationism must be right. But it is not enough to point out weaknesses in a theory. If your theory is indeed superior, it must explain both the “normal” data explained by the old theory and the “anomalous” data not explained by the old theory. A new theory needs evidence in favor of it, not just against the opposition.

fallacy of negation or the false dilemma
fallacy of negation or the false dilemma
  1. Circular Reasoning

Also known as the fallacy of redundancy, begging the question, or tautology, this occurs when the conclusion or claim is merely a restatement of one of the premises. Christian apologetics is filled with tautologies: Is there a God? Yes. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do you know the Bible is correct? Because it was inspired by God. In other words, God is because God is. Science also has its share of redundancies: What is gravity? The tendency for objects to be attracted to one another. Why are objects attracted to one another? Gravity. In other words, gravity is because gravity is. (In fact, some of Newton’s contemporaries rejected his theory of gravity as being an unscientific throwback to medieval occult thinking.) Obviously, a tautological operational definition can still be useful. Yet, difficult as it is, we must try to construct operational definitions that can be tested, falsified, and refuted.

Circular Reasoning

  1. Reductio ad Absurdum and the Slippery Slope

Reductio ad absurdum is the refutation of an argument by carrying the argument to its logical end and so reducing it to an absurd conclusion. Surely, if an argument’s consequences are absurd, it must be false. This is not necessarily so, though sometimes pushing an argument to its limits is a useful exercise in critical thinking; often this is a way to discover whether a claim has validity, especially if an experiment testing the actual reduction can be run. Similarly, the slippery slope fallacy involves constructing a scenario in which one thing leads ultimately to an end so extreme that the first step should never be taken. For example: Eating Ben & Jerrys ice cream will cause you to put on weight. Putting on weight will make you overweight. Soon you will weigh 350 ounds and die of heart disease. Eating Ben & Jerrys ice cream leads to death. Don’t even try it. Certainly eating a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream may contribute to obesity, which could possibly, in very rare cases, cause death. But the consequence does not necessarily follow from the premise.

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