Mary Greer & Cold Reading, part I

Introducton—Once upon a time on alt.tarot

Let's see, where to begin? So many interesting possible entry points on this one.

We could start back in 1947, the year Mary Greer was born (Aleister Crowley tastefully left the Greer-beset Earth a few weeks later), and also the year a movie got made that few people saw back then, but which has been resurrected of late to be recognized as one of the darkest and best of the genre called film noir. That movie, Nightmare Alley, is important to our story in a number of ways, not the least of which is its focus on Tarot card readings, and cold readings. We'll say more about this in a later posting.

Let's pick a midpoint to begin, back in the year 1996, when for a few months Mary Greer had been trying out that new-fangled internet thingy—actually Usenet, which wasn't the internet—but that's OK, it was online and Mary was talking on the newsgroup alt.tarot, which she thought was the internet.

It was never a smooth ride for Mary on alt.tarot. There were no moderators for her to cry to if somebody should rudely ask her about all the silly and stupid things she had written in her awful books about Tarot. There was not even a faithful constituency to affirm her as a Tarot luminary. And most annoyingly, there was this poster, who Mary had labeled the "net flamer" in a newsletter she had sent out warning people about the dangers of internet Tarot. That poster had been particularly rude to Mary, disputing her in the most insolent way when she had first posted to alt.tarot back in 1995.

What was his problem anyway? What had she ever done to him? Of course it might have been what she had done to Tarot that was the problem.

Mary persevered however, and in fact if you wanted to be online talking about Tarot in a world-wide forum, alt.tarot was the place to be in 1996. So she didn't initially have many options. One day, back in May 1996, Mary was answering a question about Tarot reading techniques, and she was addressing part of the question that asked about what made Tarot readings "accurate".

Mary answered:
"I think if we had an absolute answer to that one we'd be an greatly [sic] honored science. Personally I'm interested in what makes them more meaningful. If you just want accuracy then watch body language. You can read as much or more from the querent as you can from the cards."
There are a couple of key points about this:

1. Mary's ongoing problem with the great honor that science, as opposed to Tarot, receives in the world is suggested. She has a common science-envy one sees in newage types (and the deranged base of the Republican Party), which manifests in all kinds of odd ways, for example plotting to humiliate any scientist dumb enough to play her empathy games (see here regarding the sad tale of Robert V. O'Neill).

2. Mary plainly confesses she is a cold reader.

Regarding point two, just in case anybody might have missed this back in 1996, the net flamer, who also went by the name "jk", happily assisted Mary, clarifying what a reading of "body language" constituted:
"This is called 'cold reading'. This is the method preferred by con artists all over. Mary K. Greer has just advocated using a basic tool of the 'grift' as a means of obtaining 'accurate' card readings."
Mary had nothing to say in response to this, but one Mary-defender, Lola Lucas, objected that:
"[Cold reading is] also used by psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and hey, even bar tenders, hair dressers, bankers and cops. Observing body language is part of successful communication and not just the province of scam artists."
Of course, a lot of those people are scam artists too.

The problem with Lucas' argument of course is that the "successful communication" those other cold readers were attempting didn't involve their claiming to read Tarot cards. Lucas also asserted that possibly 80% of the communication going on was body language, which was even more damning of the notion that an alleged Tarot reader was reading cards, instead of people.

Or as it was put to Lola Lucas back in 1996, regarding the 80% claim:
"If that's true then NO ONE should be claiming they are reading tarot cards when they are obviously reading something else entirely. That's precisely why skeptics discount claims of tarot card readers and you and Mary have just given them all the extra ammo they needed because you are publicly supporting people spending 80% of their energy reading crap like body language. What's the other 20%—rifling through their wallets? If that's what you are doing, you are no tarot card readers, you are frauds."
Let us just say, in 1996, Mary Greer did not wish to argue that point, nor defend against that allegation, nor in any way acknowledge, more explicitly than she already had, that she was a cold reader. Soon Mary escaped alt.tarot to the safer forum of the Tarot-L mailing list, where moderators would generally protect her from unpleasant run-ins with the truth.

Even though, in 1996 on alt.tarot, Greer had been given an explicit heads-up about the dubious nature of what she was advocating, and that it was in fact cold reading, a couple of years later on Tarot-L, she would claim she didn't understand the pejorative (in other words, skeptical majority) definition of the phrase "cold reading":
"Oops—maybe I'm using the wrong word. I'm glad you asked about that. I've always assumed that a cold reading was one where you had no information from the client. They sit down and don't even given you a question. In the most extreme case they don't even give you any feedback. You are reading cold—just from the cards."
So, Greer claims here that she had her own personal definition for the phrase, perhaps one she taught to others, and that the "negative" or scam-oriented meaning was new to her. At the least, it seems pretty deficient on Mary's part, given that even in 1998 she was supposed to be some kind of Tarot authority, that she didn't even know that "cold reading" referred to techniques used by con artists to fake psychic readings, or card readings. Certainly, hundreds of books about this topic, and which used this phrase, had been published by 1998.

Of course, looking at the bibliographies in Mary's books, one sees pretty much no source that would intentionally serve to educate a reader about the swindling side of Tarot, no matter that the swindling side is one of the most important aspects (at least in terms of dedication by Tarot perpetrators—or practitioners). All one sees in Mary's books are the upbeat, affirming, promotional sources of the Tarot industry and the cartofeminist Tarot agenda. And that agenda was certainly not concerned with allowing some silly facts about fraud and dishonesty to get in the way of its "revolutionary" story.

The point is that over ten years ago Mary Greer was confronted with the real, quite problematic (for an honest Tarot reader), definition of "cold reading".

The Tarot (dys)Connection

Flashforward (from 1998) to a few weeks ago, when the Tarot Connection podcast released its fateful program #93 (of course!), entitled Cold Readings with Mary Greer.

As Leisa ReFalo, Tarot Connection's host, explained: "Mary [Greer] was one of the first people who agreed to be a guest on my podcast, and for some unknown reason it’s taken the longest to kind of get an idea and a topic together."

Tarot Connection has been podcasting since July, 2006, so it took Mary and Leisa 2 1/2 years to "kind of get an idea and a topic".

And what was the topic that took them 30 months to decide upon and prepare? Well, the title tells you that, huh? Yep, cold readings! And not cold readings explained in all its ugliness, or as a warning to Tarot readers that they should beware the pitfalls of their employing such techniques and moving into scamland. Oh no, Mary Greer had after all affirmed cold reading as a good thing over a decade ago. Nope, the terrible news she had decided to announce on her Tarot Connection debut was that she was shocked to learn that there were whole bunches of people out there using Tarot cards and cold reading techniques to take advantage of people!

Of course, maybe Mary was simply playing Leisa for a complete rube, because her allusion to Casablanca's Captain Renault could not have been merely Freudian, do you think?

Here is Captain Renault (upon discovering that Rick's Cafe Americaine is allowing gambling—which of course Renault knows is going on since he regularly gambles there): "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

And here is Mary Greer, who was laughing when she said this, expressing a similar tribulation of the soul in discovering the nefarious Tarotic cold readers: "And I was shocked! I was absolutely shocked! So I just had to find out, I mean here’s an area of Tarot, after 40 years of devoting my lifetime to Tarot work that I had no real knowledge of."

Now was Mary laughing as she said this because she knew she was feigning shock? I would have more respect for her if she was able to display such a jolly cynicism. But I'm pretty sure it was just her subconscious choosing the appropriate turn of phrase for what she knew to be true—that it would be rather shocking, or pathetic, if she'd managed to go 40 years pretending to be knowledgeable about Tarot and its cultures, and yet she only recently discovered that a big cold-reading culture in Tarot is devoted to using the cards for fraud.

On the other hand, the good news that Mary and Leisa seemed only too delighted to announce was that, if you took the fraud part out, you could really go to Tarot town, or at least to the Tarot-reader bank, using these cold reading techniques the frauds have so generously developed and published. Won't using the cold reading techniques make you a fraud? Oh no, Mary says, it's not the cold reading that makes you dishonest, it's your "motive" in using cold reading. If you want to make people feel better, and you want to give them a "successful" reading, then obviously anything you can employ to do this is just fine.

Or so Mary says.

Of course lots of scam artists claim to make people feel better too—in fact no doubt some of them do that too—for a while.

The Evils of Science and Skeptics

Now, we should add that it isn't just the Tarot grifters who have supplied this data for all you aspiring con artists out there. Nope, as Mary notes in her two new blog entries on this same topic, the nasty old skeptical people, you know like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer, are also big on supplying everybody with cold reading tips, in part of course because they like to use these revelations to point out the scamful techniques employed by alleged psychics and Tarot readers.

It is important to note that Mary fully admits to a considerable bigotry regarding the skeptic community, which of course is largely the scientific community too:
"I see professional skeptics as fundamentalist proselytizers for a religion of science that operates within a mechanistic world view. Many of these professional skeptics have been described as pseudoskeptics by Marcello Truzzi, in that they take the negative rather than an agnostic position—denial rather than doubt. Besides the paranormal, this group of skeptics also target criminal profiling, many forms of psychological therapies and personality tests, alternative health practices, cults, cold fusion and, until recently, global warming and the greenhouse effect, among many, many others."
In other words, skeptics are equal-opportunity doubters. Not just picking on Mary's faith, but petty much everybody's. So what's wrong with that?

Mary complains:
"As guardians of a scientifically-defined “truth,” they believe that to trust subjective experience threatens the fundamentals of science and must be eliminated. It’s essentially a fear-based stance."
Of course after almost a decade of George Bush and his faith-based maniacs running the world to the edge of several abysses, I would not wonder that the skeptics might have some genuine fear of the tactics and the disastrous impact of the advocates of "subjective experience". In the end of things, genuine doubters are hardly a match in threatening the well-being of the world compared to the genuine (or worse yet, the fraudulent) faith-based affirmers.

Now, I will wrap up part I of this report by pointing out that Mary's ultimate object is to convince her readers and listeners in any way she can that the worst thing they can possibly do is to think about these issues in any way. Of course what she wants them to do instead is to feel!

As we shall see in part II, her attacks on science, on skepticism, on reason, are intended to dovetail the skeptics into the same ethical joint as the cold-reading mentalists. Both of them she says have hateful attitudes towards the victims of cold reading. The skeptics think the victims are basically stupid. And hey, so do the mentalists.

What Mary wants people to be instead is something she calls "empathetic", and for them to realize, as she claims, that "cold and warm reading techniques are normal modes of human communication—the ways in which we come to know, interact and empathize with others—that can add value to the tarot reading experience."

In other words, Mary argues that to deny Tarot readers their rights to cold read is inhuman, and so long as they cold read "nicely" it's OK.

Yep, that's actually what she's arguing.

We'll talk more about Mary Greer's version of empathy, and her love for cold reading techniques, in part II, in which I will provide a more detailed critique as well of the Tarot Connection podcast. Separately I hope as well to get a review of Nightmare Alley done pretty soon. But you should definitely see it if you get the chance.