On Fortune-Telling (or The Mysteries of M. Reynaud)

How can you become a master fortune-teller, and what does science have to say about it?

Many of my friends, and many more members of my generation, seem to be putting renewed faith in fortune-telling. This isn’t really a huge surprise, since fortune-telling has always been huge part of society throughout history. Reading horoscopes, construing meaning from tea leaves, gazing over a crystal ball, scrutinizing vacuous articles about the NBA draft, even interpreting animal entrails—for every human activity that ever existed, someone with a hard-to-place foreign accent has tried to make a living by reading the future off of it. But regardless of whether or not your great great great grandfather knew he was going to die because of how his slaughtered cow’s liver looked like (rather than from the smallpox he’d contract from messing around with cow guts), its appeal is enduring no matter how many rationalist talking heads insist on its vapidity. But instead of joining my finger in the collective self-serving wagging, this entry will be focused on two angles I find people rarely talk about; what are its positive aspects, and how do I make a buck off it?

First things first, there’s absolutely nothing vapid about predicting the future! Our strongest natural impulse as humans is to try and take control over our existence, and attempting to foretell the immediate hereafter was the surest way our ancestor cavepersons could find a nice cave and some ripe fruit without getting eaten. To that purpose, those cavepeople spent ages trying out all those different fortunetelling techniques I mentioned before and more to find bigger caves and get riper fruit. Eventually, after cracking enough turtle bones, they found that some of the predictions they made always came true! Those fortunetellers who were lucky enough to be consistently correct usually become prominent members of the community, and their often very useful predictions became enshrined within their community. As time went by, those people went from calling themselves fortune tellers—or whatever the word for fortune teller is in caveperson language—to diviners, to oracles, to philosophers of nature, to scientists. And sometimes those predictions are so unbeatable that we completely forget they’re even predictions; we just call them laws of nature, as if you could sue the universe for failing to make apples fall the way you predict they will.

As I’ve talked about before, any kind of fortune-telling trick that is consistently correct automatically turns into a scientific law—the moment someone figures out how to consistently guess their luck by finagling cow intestines, you better believe they’re going to set up a hedge fund and begin trading on the stock market. That doesn’t mean inaccurate methods like tarot card readings aren’t real, they’re just not provably consistent, which most scientists consider a synonym for “correct”, which most scientists consider a synonym for “real”. But thinking about accuracy and consistency is the exact wrong thing to look at when talking about reading the future these days; being the person who says “that horoscope stuff is garbage” to your friend when they’re seeking guidance with a tough life circumstance is less likely to make you the victor in some contrived imaginary argument and more likely to make you look like a tone-deaf asshat. People forget that horoscopes aren’t popular because they’re accurate—they’re popular because they’re soothing.

Why are they soothing, you might ask? Most will quickly imply that it’s because these people enjoy deluding themselves into thinking they know what’s coming in their life. What people seem to ignore is that these types of activities, regardless of actual predictive capacity, provide a very valuable opportunity to step back and reflect on one’s life. When Madame Zostra declares “You have an enemy!”, the first thing you do isn’t to immediately install home security; it’s to ask yourself questions like “What enemies have I made over the years? Who would want to hurt me, and why?”. Those sorts of questions, and the process of guiding you into asking them to yourself, are the hallmark of psychotherapy. And whereas seeing a shrink is prohibitively expensive to lots of people these days, you can usually find a horoscope in the paper every morning, or literally anywhere on the Internet. Even better, you get artistic symbols and interesting mystical references along with it! It might not be clinically better than sitting in a drab room with a 40-year old who mostly just stares at you while you babble, but I definitely can’t blame people for feeling like it is.

This gives us an interesting opportunity; what if we could replicate the things that make fortune-telling appealing, while guiding people towards productive self-assessment, without all the inaccurate “You will suffer a terrible fate!” hand-wringing? And most importantly, how do we make money doing it?

Our first step into becoming a fruitful psychic is identifying a technique to use; I personally favor the tarot for its simplicity. In its most abstract form, reading tarot consists of selecting some number of visually attractive symbols randomly from a predetermined set, each of which represents some aspect or concept of human life, and interpreting their collective selection. Simple enough! Now we have to find easy-to-interpret, rapidly deployable symbols that are visually aesthetic and don’t involve signing up for a year-long subscription to stock photos of women eating salad alone while laughing. Where on Earth could we find something like that? 🤔🤷

Emoji it is then; all you have to do now is come up with a decent list of your favorite emojis, large enough so that ever pulling the same combination out is extremely unlikely, and assign some interpretation to it. The looser or broader the interpretation the better! Remember, the idea is to give people the excuse to think about themselves; the more they have the ability to think about what they want to think about, the more help they’ll be able to give themselves. Naturally, I’ve come up with my own totally arbitrary list, which I’ve put up at the end of this entry.

Lastly, give yourself a psychic persona with a nice foreign name that evokes mystery and deeper knowledge. Unfortunately, the only mystery a name like Rodriguez-Gonzalez possesses is the mystery of where the hell all those syllables came from⁠—something European, short, and elegant like Reynaud should do the trick. Give yourself a pointless honorific like Monsieur/Madame or The Great to feign authority, set up a social media account, and “read” away; after that, all you can do is hope you get enough followers so that you can sign a printed tarot card deal and rich people hire you to answer why their lives aren’t better. I can’t predict how your fortune will fare, but I can tell you that Monsieur Reynaud is already in session.

🐉 DragonDesire for control, attachment
🌋VolcanoAbrupt change, release after building up
🌌GalaxySelf as part of a whole, “the big picture”
📯Postal HornAnnouncement, warning, call
🌕MoonIllusion, deception, confusion
🏺 Amphora (Jug)Physical possessions
🎇SparksNew emotion, physical pleasure, sexuality
🎭Drama MasksSelf as social entity, drama
🌠Shooting StarWishes, opportunity, self-actualization
🌄SunriseA change of thinking, rejuvenation
🐋WhaleHardship, longevity
🎠Carousel HorseEntertainment, spiritual emptiness
🐚Spiral ShellSecrets, intuition, rumors
👥ShadowsSociety, surveillance, anxiety, paranoia
👹Oni (Ogre)Aggression, fear
💀SkullDeath, endings
🔮Crystal BallSeeking guidance, the unexplainable
🔱TridentCraftmanship, the application of talents
⚖️ScalesJudgement, justice, evaluation
🌬️BreathNature, health, taking a break
🃏JokerBreaking of norms, exclusion
👁️EyeThe attainment of new information
🕊️DovePeace, reconciliation
🕯️CandleEmotional realization, mental healing
🕸️WebFeeling trapped, planning, a project
🗝️KeyUnderstanding, acquiring new skills
🗡️DaggerViolence, conflict, debate
🎱8-BallRisk, danger, taking a chance
🏛️TempleInstitutions, orthodoxy, group authority
🏝️IslandSimplicity, leaving behind the unnecessary
☀️SunFulfillment, happiness
♟️ PawnEmployment, responsibility
🌪️TornadoDestruction, tearing down boundaries
⛩️Torii (Shrine)Spirituality, mindfulness
🗿Moai (Statue)Mystery, stability, emotional hardness
HourglassPassage of time, deadlines, procrastination
🦄UnicornFantasy, morality, virtuosity
👺Tengu (Goblin)Mischievousness, social disregard
⛓️ChainsBuilding bonds, strength, burdens
🧿Nazar (Talisman)Protection, mindfulness against harm
🧙MageCreativity, solving problems
⚗️AlembicLogic, rationality, analyzing
🧮AbacusWealth, tasks, coordination
🌹RoseBeauty, romance, art
👑CrownIndividual authority, power
🌊WaveThe unconscious becoming conscious
🌩️LightningShock, sudden realization, surprise
🎑Tsukimi (Ceremony)Ritual, self-care
🌱SeedlingGrowth, birth, beginning
SailboatTravel, new things, moving past emotions
🍾 CelebrationPositive self-assessment, enjoyment
🌍WorldYour surroundings, compassion

By Arnaldo Rodriguez-Gonzalez

I'm a Ph.D. student in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell; I love operator theory, fluid dynamics, and anything that takes more than a minute to explain at cocktail parties.

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