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Numerology is the study of the occult meanings of numbers and their influence on human life. Since there are no occult meanings to numbers and since numbers by themselves can have no significant influence on anyone's life, numerology is nothing but superstition masquerading as science or art.

Some alleged psychics, like Uri Geller, claim that numerology helps them understand events such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

According to an advertisement in Parade magazine (Feb.25, 1996), the definitive text on numerology was written by Matthew Goodwin, an MIT graduate who once worked in the personnel department of an architectural firm. He learned "this science of numbers" (as he calls it) from a clerk at the office. The ad is a pseudo-article, a print "infomercial," allegedly authored by J.J. Leonard, and is nothing more than an invitation to send him $9 for a numerological reading worth "$80 or more." In his advertisement, he explains how numerology works.

It all starts with your name and birth date. They are the data base from which a numerologist is able to describe you, sight unseen. Number values are assigned to the letters in your name. By adding these--with the numbers in your birth date--in a multitude of combinations, a numerologist establishes your key numbers. He then interprets the meaning of these key numbers, which results in a complete description of your personal characteristics.

According to Mr. Goodwin, through numerology you can "see all the diverse parts of your personality and how they uniquely come together to make the person you are." This will enable you to "make the most of your strengths in a way that wasn't possible before."

Just what do you think the numerical odds are either (a) that a set of numbers associated with the letters of your name and your birth date will reveal who you are and what you should do with your life, or (b) that someone in personnel has figured out how to read those numbers? I'd say the odds are about zero. Nevertheless, numerology shouldn't be brushed off without a thorough examination of its underlying theory. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any. We are just supposed to take Mr. Goodwin's word for it that numerology works, even though we have no idea how it works. That is, numerologists can produce a "reading" for you, just as astrologers, biorhythmists and Myers-Briggs can. And you will be amazed at how "accurate" the reading is! You may not even be aware at how selective your thinking has become as you are dazzled by the accuracy of your reading.

When you get your reading, you may find yourself ignoring the parts that don't fit you at all, and focusing on those parts that do seem to fit. They may actually fit you or they may fit your image of how you would like to be. No matter; if they fit, you may fall for it. You may even be tempted to go one step further and call your own personal psychic on one of the "friends" psychic hotlines. (I think the $9 numerology reading might be cheaper, though.) The testimonials for numerology and the telephone psychics are quite similar. Marriages are saved, jobs are landed, personal problems are resolved and love is found.

Some of the attractiveness of numerology and psychics comes from the desire to find somebody who will tell you that you are full of hidden strengths and powers, and who will reinforce your deepest needs and emotions. Yet, one must be desperate if one doesn't mind that the encouragement comes from a total stranger with no knowledge of who you are. Of course, some people are simply waiting for somebody else to tell them what to do with their lives. On the other hand, at times, each of us is vulnerable. We feel unloved, misunderstood, confused, or rudderless. The testimonials sound good or a friend is a satisfied customer, so we give it a try. 

But the real attractiveness of numerology, over say palm or crystal reading or other non-numerical personality analysis and prophecy, is that numbers give the quackery an aura of both scientific and mystical authoritativeness, especially if complex statistical analysis is involved. The ad mentioned above for Mr. Goodwin's $9 numerological reading, cites Pythagoras as the father of numerology. Certainly, the Pythagoreans were a cult with esoteric notions about the universe and numbers, including the notion of the harmony of the spheres. No doubt they found something mystical about the relations of sides of triangles, which we have come to know as the Pythagorean theorem. But there is no evidence that Pythagoras thought he could analyze his disciples' personalities by assigning numbers to the letters of their names and their birth dates. For one thing, he would have realized the unreasonableness of such a notion. Different languages have different alphabets; different cultures use different calendars. It is unreasonable enough to think the universe is arranged according to numerical transcriptions of names, but to think that there are several equivalent transcriptions to accommodate cultural differences stretches the limits of credibility almost to infinity. Even if the universe were so unreasonably designed, how would we ever know which "reading" of a person's numbers is the "correct" one? Does the concept of "correct reading" even have meaning in this so-called discipline?

It is one thing to recognize that many things in the universe can be explained by reduction to mathematical formulae. The formulae can be tested and demonstrated to be accurate or not. It is quite another to claim that somehow the name you are given at birth was preordained to coincide with the date of your birth and to be coordinated with certain numbers so that certain special people (the numerologists!) could calculate from this data who you are, what you will be, what you need and feel, and what you should do. It is a long, long way from Plato's admonition to those entering his Academy that they should know geometry, or from Galileo's assertion that Nature is written in the language of mathematics, to the notion that numbers related to my name are a key to who I am pre-destined to be. It is a misrepresentation of history to cite mathematical mystics or scientists who have been enamored of mathematics, as fellow travelers. In any case, even if Pythagoras, Plato, Kepler, Galileo, and Einstein were all numerologists it would not make the theory of numerology one iota more plausible.

See also astrology, Bible Code, biorhythms, confirmation bias, enneagram, Forer effect, Uri Geller, kabbala, law of truly large numbers, occult statistics, selective thinking, and subjective validation.

further reading

reader comments

books and article

Dudley, Underwood. "Numerology: Comes the Revolution," Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 1998.

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Vintage Books, 1990).


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