April 27th, 2016 was a uniquely pleasant day in San Francisco. Apart from the typical San Francisco outings of lounging in Dolores park, sailing through bay, and standing in long lines, over 5,000 individuals gathered in Fort Mason to attend the 5th Annual West Coast Psychic Fair. Over 300 spiritual forecasters were on sight to convey their prescient insights on love, career, and what else the future held for any paying customer.
The large interest in astrology, fortune telling, and psychics (known as the metaphysical) are not confined to the Bay Area. In the past ten years, the number of registered psychics, astrologers, and palm readers have grown by 25%, employs over 85,000 people, and is now considered a $2 billion industry. 1 out of 4 Americans claim to have some source of a metaphysical soothsayer in their rolodex.
In a IBISWorld Research report conveyed last year, nearly 18% of Americans claimed they trust their spiritual adviser more than any stockbroker. You may recall the famous Miss Cleo — a the famous 1990’s TV psychic who was later found to be a phony. Despite this revelation, interest in spiritually forecasting grew 5% the next year she was indicted for fraud.
The volume and fervor of skeptics is even more prolific. In the same study, 55% say they would never go to psychic even it was free, another 35% of respondents would never associate with someone who are deep believers in any sort of the metaphysical, and 40% believe that those who seek to engage with clairvoyant advisers as “ill-informed and crazy.”
Skeptics argue metaphysical forecasting is unscientific, unproven, and those professionals in this field are held unaccountable for their advice.
These denouncements might be true. But what is startling, is for some reason, other forecasting professions are not held to the same standard. Further, metaphysical doubters simply misunderstood the whole purpose of spiritual advice.
This brings up two questions: Why do other professionals in the forecasting business, who’s ‘predictions’ can have far greater impacts on society, receive a free pass on these same metrics? Why does spiritual forecasting receive such scorn despite many not understanding its real value?
Both questions deserve examining.
In his wonderfully thoughtful books “Antifragile” and “Black Swan” former investment risk analyst Nassem Talib expresses his general concerns with forecasting. The current NYU professor outlines industries (healthcare, environmental science, city planning) creating forecasting risk assessments on faulty assumptions. Specifically, Dr. Talib highlights one instance where engineering shops along with government agencies (at all levels) underestimated US population growth trends and urbanization rates by an alarmingly 31% over the past four decades.
This prediction blunder has had severe implications. The Army Core of Engineers (ACOE) recently gave the United States infrastructure a grade of a D+. To fix our infrastructure issues, a whopping $4.65 Trillion dollars is required.
The main culprit for this gap in funding? The ACOE blames city planners who failed to adopt a realistic growth outlook for larger cities.
Unfortunately, the trend of unsubstantiated predicting has spread past urban development and creeped into our political discourse with similar lackluster results.
In his book,“Signal and Noise” statistician Nate Silver points out that the biggest purveyor of baseless predictions are political pundits. In his study, Mr. Silver found over 78% of political predictions made were proven to be incorrect. (Note, this work was before the 2016 election where so many including, Mr. Silver, delivered incorrect Presidential outcomes that were claimed to be backed by hard statistical science.)
Yet, none of these pollsters lost their job or were told to quit making unscientific predictions. In fact, turn on CNN and MSNBC today and you’ll see political commentators continue to make baseless forecasts on when the current President will be removed.
Further, the common criticism of metaphysical forecasting of unaccountable is dangerously hypocritical as we for some reason don’t hold financial planners responsible for the advice they give their clients.
You would think that those who provide us wealth advice can be held accountable for their predictions?
They, in fact, are not. In contrast, by law, financial advisors are not held liable for any portfolio performance results. Think about how crazy a concept that is. There are currently $26 trillion dollars in savings (pensions, 401k, Roth IRAs) and if every penny of that was squandered not a single individual would be held accountable for depleting the savings of teachers, firefighters, and other middle class professionals.
But ultimately what gets lost in this conversation about the metaphysical is why the individual choose this path for answers.
We all know our abilities to predict the future is limited. Like constructing population growth models, making political predictions, and hiring financial advisors’ metaphysical believers seeks out clairvoyant advice because it provides them some mental comfort about what lies ahead; a means to quell our fears and a method to temper our anxiety about the future.
I’ve struggled to find the balance between statistical, and spiritual advice. For the past decade, I’ve constructed financial scenarios in a sincere effort to protect the nest eggs of hard working Americans. In the same timeframe, I’ve sought counsel from a psychic.
In the summer of 2008, I received the news my father passed away. To find some mental peace, I met with therapists, joined online self help groups, and even purchased a few items from Gweneth Paltrow’s product line.
But, for me, none of these avenues of healing helped me.
One morning on my way to a therapy appointment, I heard a radio ad from a psychic. I cancelled my appointment and headed the psychics way. Since then, I have sought counsel from my dear psychic friend. I can’t verify the information I receive is accurate, but I can for certain I’ve found some mental solace that was evading me for so many years.
These two worlds of ‘scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’ forecasting can and should co-exist. If we completely expunge the idea of a greater unknown I fear we lose our ability to think broadly and question common, but dangerous, social norms like making growth prediction 50 years ahead, claiming to have sound election outcome assessments, and not scrutinizing those who control our hard earned savings.
All these scenarios, which we now know, has much graver consequences than incorrectly believing you’ll find your forever love in 6–8 months.