"The Woo-woo is all the same, everywhere, anytime, everytime.”—James Randi on the history of the pseudosciences .
Here’s a sentence one doesn’t get to write very often: Richard Saunders (1613-1692) was perhaps the foremost historian, astrologer and seer of human moles and their predictive forces who ever lived. He was far from being the solitary member of a one-unit class: the use of moles as predictive and interpretive agents stretches back dozens of
centuries, so the claim of Saunder’s being its most famous practitioner is not empty, mega-pseudo-scientific or not. The mystical commentary on the Torah, the Zohar (a part of the Kabbalah), gets right to the point of the significance of moles (“the stars of the body”), transferring the structure of the cosmos and the constellations to the skin. The seer and soothsayer Melampus from Greek mythology, in one of his necessarily pseudographic works, writes on the importance of moles of the face and their zodiacal relations—an idea that was picked up 2000 years later by the extremely significant mathematician Jerome Cardano. There was a decent amount of argument regarding the location of zodiac symbols on the face, as it turned out.
But the leading exponent of moles is Saunders, who was also one of the leading figures in a wide and very powdery period of European non-scientific sciences. These wonderful images come from the second (!) edition of his cumbersome but accurately-titled work Saunders Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metroscopie, the Symmetrical Proportions and Signal Moles of the Body, Fully and Accurately Explained; With Their Natural Predictive Significations Both to Men and Women (published in London, 1671, by Nathaniel Brook), in which he divines the psyche and the future with peoples’ moles.
The first figure, detailing the mole locations of a man’s face, is a remarkable, weird accomplishment, not only because of the exhaustive treatment that is given to every location of every mole (g_d help us), but also because of the manner of the engraving. If you look closely, you can see that it is Fresnel lens-like—it is an engraving composed of (almost) concentric circles. I cannot recall seeing such a thing before—needless to say the practice of engraving would be laborious, and not much practiced. I’m not even sure what great good it causes, though it does give a little different idea of depth and dimensionality to the image. The effect that it achieves here though is to give a solar-system-like background to the moles—something that is much more spectacularly achieved in the next image.
The map of the moles of this woman’s body looks to me just like a constellation—and a constellation is just what they were for Saunders, who viewed the arrangement of moles on the body like an astronomer searching the night sky for a new comet. But an astronomer would not be trying to force governing connections in the starry realms to occurrences on earth (or heaven, or whatever)—that would be the job of an astrologer, whose job would be enormously simplified since everything it conjures is fictional. Had Robert Hooke been Richard Saunders-like when he made virtually the first microscopic investigations in human history, he would have been correlating the hairs and pores of the flea rather than making his minute and beautiful observations.
Saunders sees mole connections everywhere, even developing sub-classifications to sub-classes: this is seen in the lovely relational map of face moles to moles on other parts of the body. (I like the spare curved lines most.)
all looks perfectly phenomenal, unbelievable even, from out here in 2009. The fact remains though that the vast
majority of newspapers in his country still carry horoscopes, and most Americans
believe in UFOs, and a not-small percentage of those folks say that they’ve
actually been abducted by Outer Space Aliens. (I calculate that from the
“first” UFO sighting near Roswell
And so as bizarre as images like this might look, many (most?) folks in the present really haven’t left these ideas behind—they just get changed a little, upfitted, retro-ripped, and outfitted with flashing lights.
In a very long career of getting people to think in spite of themselves, James Randi (scientific investigator, keeper of the scientific method, head of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and formerly “The Amazing Randi” from years ago) has one particular mythbust-lecture that I find phenomenal, with a very large “oh my good god!” capacity for the students at the end of it--if they would but allow it. Listen: Mr. Randi would explore the possibilities of astrology, asking the group or class who there believed in it, taking a census of belief. He would then make a very strong, convincing case for the application of this hope in astrology (he is a very determined and logical speaker), and then give astrological “readings" to each member of the group. The readings would turn out to be exact and persuasive—a second tally would be taken of believers, with the usual results being that (unless they knew who Mr. Randi was or was already a skeptic or logically un-needy thinker) the class would now consist of an overwhelming percentage of astrology-believers.
Then Mr. Randi lets the high-wind boom swing free: everyone received the same reading. (You can see a short snippet for one of these experience HERE--Mr. Randi has conducted this lecture many times for many different audiences.) The shock of realization is palpable.
On the telephone this morning Mr. Randi graciously explained this lovely lesson—he also explained that even after the key ingredient of the lesson was revealed, and even after he lectured on thought and belief and superstition and logic and so on, that the people who had already believed in astrology would almost in every circumstance still maintain that belief. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, the idea of belief was no match for fact. Truth, fact, explanation, method, logic—none of these could put a chink in the armor of belief, and is no match for self-deception.
“The Woo-woo is always the same, everywhere, all the time. If its not astrology its something else, the basis for all of it is the same” (my paraphrase) says Mr. Randi. After approaching belief systems like UFOs and astrology and mentally bending spoons and mind-reading and on and on, Mr. Randi says that at their base, the stories have a common heritage of need. And they’re unbendable, and certainly unbreakable, for all of those who need the belief. There’s no room for constructive debate and exchange in such belief systems, whether it is astrology or creationism (I just can’t call it by its other, cleaned-up name), as they cannot satisfy the basic tenets of knowledge growth and scientific inquiry which, according to RP Feynman, is the willingness to test your beliefs against falsity and to investigate all possibilities that might make them invalid.* Mole mapping predictions and the fate of a life is no different from any of these other derivations in wishful/hopeful pseudosciences, either—just a different name for the same underlying system of beliefs, though the moles are a little long in the tooth.
Anyway, creationism or astrology or life-after death--they might as well all be mapping moles.
As Feynman said:
The first principle [in science] is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
* Feynman on the scientific method: "It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated " RP Feynman quoted by Ralph Leighton, 1985, p. 341 ).