Is Tarot Reading Bullshit?

I came across this video clip on the interwebs. It seems to be from one of those rational skeptic shows, one called “The Bulls**t Detective” (Series 1, Episode 4), meant to debunk “pseudoscience and . . . new age nonsense.” By the accent of the show’s host, Alasdair Jeffery, I’m assuming it hails from the UK. Not so sure of the language of the subtitles. If you’re a tarot reader, I strongly recommend that you watch this and, I hope, read my assessment of it below.

Three tarot readers are showcased: Paul Hughes-Barlow, professional tarot reader for over 20 years; Laura Boyle, professional psychic and tarot reader; and Andy Cook, a professional tarot reader with 7 years of tarot reading experience. The three practitioners (per my view) are named in the order of tarot mastery. That assumption of mine comes mainly from my high respect for Hughes-Barlow and his work and, at the end of the video, how Cook kind of loses his cool as the TV show host Jeffery quite deliberately goads him on.

Clip from Video: Boyle's 7 Card V-Shaped Spread
Clip from Video: Boyle’s 7 Card V-Shaped Spread

Laura Boyle

The first reading to be featured is from Laura Boyle. You can learn more about her work at lauraboyle.com. It looks like she’s using the 1971 Rider Waite deck by U.S. Games. She has Jeffery cut the cards once and then uses a 7 card V-shaped spread. It doesn’t look like she’s reading with reversals. That or all seven cards in Jeffery’s spread came out upright. To help you follow along, here are the cards drawn (RWS-based):

V-spread-cards

Boyle starts by touching on the same issue I would have touched upon had I seen that long train of Cups– the emotional plane, which in more practical terms often translates into romantic relationships. So she’s asking him about a woman who might be in his life that’s having a substantial emotional effect on him as of late. To explore that issue, she starts naming off character traits, which is what I often do when I see court cards. I’m assuming she’s looking at the Page of Swords when she’s talking about a girl who has “red hair, blonde hair, someone with blue, green, maybe even sort of gray eyes.”

And before we can hear Boyle clarify her point, on cue, she’s cut off and we don’t get the rest of her explanation. Jeffery by voiceover now tells us that “the most common trick that tarot readers use is fishing.”

“This man over here has either very, very light hair, or very, very dark.” We hear the clip of Boyle saying that as if that’s to prove the host’s previous point on fishing.

Now, you tarot readers can see from the spread what Boyle is doing, right? She’s comparing and contrasting the King of Wands and Knight of Cups and trying to explore the significance of the two cards. And again, that’s all we hear. The show cuts her off and we hear Jeffery’s voiceover again mocking that one statement, which I can bet you is now taken out of context.

Cook-lotsacards
Andy Cook’s reading spread

Andy Cook

We don’t get to hear how Boyle interprets the rest of the spread before we move on to the next victim tarot professional. Now we go to Andy Cook, who you can read more about at andycook.com. He approaches tarot as transpersonal counseling, which the TV show host does not mention to you. This point about Cook’s background as a tarot reader is highly relevant, as we are about to see.

Cook uses a fan approach to spread out the cards and has Jeffery select cards from the fan. At first, it looks like only a few cards are selected, but then later we cut to the above screen shot and we see a whole ton of cards all over the place, and it looks like Cook is reading with reversals. I’m not familiar with this approach, which doesn’t mean much– every tarot practitioner has his or her own approach to reading. Like Boyle, Cook uses the RWS tradition. From the card back, it looks like one of the more recent editions of the Rider-Waite-Smith.

Just as Boyle touched upon, we hear Cook start by asking about a woman, a past romantic relationship that is still having an emotional impact on the querent. Cook follows his assertion with, “Does that make any sense to you?” I do that a lot, too, by the way. And I don’t see it as fishing. But the host disagrees with me. Right after Cook asks that question, the camera focuses in on Jeffery’s skeptical facial expression. Then the voiceover: “Annnnd… he goes fishing, too.”

To assuage the awkward silence that has now come over the room thanks to Jeffery being a jerk to Cook, Cook continues to ask questions to get the host to explore his feelings and thoughts.

The host calls that fishing. I call that counseling. Remember: Cook’s approach to tarot is as a form of counseling. That’s why his style is to ask a lot of questions! It’s to get you to start thinking and reflecting on your life. Then through the tarot, Cook will help you establish the significance and meaning of those events or people and help you understand any points of tension that require resolution. He’s not fishing. He’s counseling. And he happens to be doing that with a deck of tarot cards.

The host then addresses another point at the audience: What [heterosexual] man his age wouldn’t have a “woman from his past that still has an emotional impact”?

Cook immediately tries to clarify. “No, it’s not just that, but this is about someone who is sort of undermining your current emotional development.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

The host has his arms crossed in front of him, he’s making faces at Cook, rubbing his face with his hands as if in pointed exasperation, and generally making passive aggressive jabs at Cook during the reading session.

Look. Unless you’ve been doing some serious grounding meditation and have an energetic protective mechanism around you thicker than the Great Wall of China, that kind of hostility coming from the other side is going to have an adverse effect on your ability to tap into that intuitive spiritual plane you need to be at for readings.

Paul Hughes-Barlow reading for
Paul Hughes-Barlow reading for Jeffery

Paul Hughes-Barlow

Finally, the host tries to crack Paul Hughes-Barlow. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check out his site at paulhughesbarlow.com. He is the author of The Tarot and the Magus (Aeon Books, 2004) and, with Catherine Chapman, Beyond the Celtic Cross (Aeon Books, 2009). He’s renowned for his work with the Opening of the Key. I’ve read both of his books and love both. Highly recommend.

Hughes-Barlow is the only one of the three readers to not use the RWS. He’s using the Thoth. Like Boyle, he has the seeker cut the cards once. We don’t hear much from the content of the reading, interestingly enough. We only hear the end thesis.

“Basically, you need to do less thinking and more doing,” says Hughes-Barlow. The host repeats the statement as a question back to Hughes-Barlow, who nods in the affirmative. Then we go to voiceover as Jeffery refers to Hughes-Barlow’s statement as a “vague self-help cliche.”

As you watch the clip, observe how Hughes-Barlow has his arms folded protectively over his front and the way he is sitting is quite grounded and solid (I don’t know how else to describe it) while the host is leaning in, brows furrowed. The trained eye here can see who commands the power in this dynamic. It’s Hughes-Barlow, not the host.

Tarot practitioners: are you paying attention? Study this video and study how these three card readers approach a reading with a complete asswipe. Learn something here.

Putting It All Together

As the episode progresses, Jeffery focuses mainly on Boyle and Cook, and much less on Hughes-Barlow. Why is that? Because Jeffery isn’t getting anything “entertaining” out of Hughes-Barlow. I hate to call it like this, but Boyle and Cook sort of fall into the host’s trap a bit during the reading sessions, whereas Hughes-Barlow does not. Since Boyle and Cook were easier prey, the show focuses on them to make Jeffery’s point that tarot reading is bullshit. Meanwhile Hughes-Barlow seems to have his shit together, so he’s much less interesting from an entertainment perspective.

Toward the end, we see clips of Jeffery asking all three of them the same question. Basically, he wants to know whether anyone can buy a deck of tarot cards, learn the card meanings, pull them out onto the table, and read cards for someone else. And, the host notes, those readings are going to resonate with at least some of the people that this person reads for? And this person can then become a professional tarot reader and charge for the readings?

Boyle and Hughes-Barlow answer yes to the host. We hear from Boyle: “Well, you’re essentially paying for the reader’s time.”

There’s a silent beat, intentional, to get you the audience watching this to agree with the unspoken conclusion that Boyle’s statement is incredulously stupid.

Well it’s not stupid, though Boyle should have added more to her statement.

You’re not just paying for the reader’s time, you’re also paying for her experience and her ability to see the synchronistic patterns in the cards and point out to you what those synchronistic patterns mean for you. You’re not just paying for a reader’s time and experience, you’re also paying for her ability to facilitate connections between what might otherwise seem like disparate events or people in your life and to help you see the bigger picture created by those events and people and what that bigger picture has to say about your life path. That’s what you’re paying for, Mr. TV show host. You’re paying for someone’s ability to bridge the consciousness with not only your personal unconscious, but into the collective unconscious, and–competently–interpret information from that collective unconscious that is most relevant to you at this time because that tarot practitioner has achieved a level of mastery at translating the signs and symbols of tarot.

You can pick up Rosetta Stone and learn enough basic Mandarin to navigate your way around China like a tourist, reading enough signs to not get lost. That doesn’t mean you’re now ready to serve as an English-Chinese court translator during a trial. That’s what distinguishes the tarot professional from someone who has a deck of cards, a book of card meanings, and can do a reading for you with a three card spread.

Lastly, the host cuts to Cook and the voiceover says something about how Cook was asserting his own psychic powers (or something like that). I can’t comment further because I did not see enough of the exchange, which is exactly what the TV show wants. The host’s statements about Cook were conclusory, and we the audience didn’t really get to see for ourselves what Cook had to say, in his own words. Jeffery does end by telling us that Cook’s reading was 200 pounds, which is about $300 U.S. dollars. He tells you that to get you to agree with him that tarot is bullshit.

* * *

You have to start your discovery of tarot with skepticism. You have to. However, like in any experiment or study, if you’re going in with a preconceived conclusion, then your experiment or study is tainted. Another huge problem here stems from the definition of fortune-telling. Jeffery is expecting these readers to tell him the exact number of children he has, what his female friend looks like, and what will happen–with particularity–tomorrow, and the day after, and next year, and in three years. That’s not how I approach tarot. Tarot isn’t about the physical world. Tarot is about the metaphysical counterpart to the physical world. It’s about understanding that metaphysical counterpart so you can make better sense of your physical world.

Tarot professionals can learn from this video, though, so I recommend watching it, and then watching it again, the second time, observing like a student how each one of these tarot practitioners respond to a would-be seeker/client like Jeffery. Compare that to how you would have probably responded to someone like Jeffery and how, if you ever do encounter someone like him in a future professional reading, how you will handle the situation.

20 thoughts on “Is Tarot Reading Bullshit?

  1. I will see the videos later as now I do not have wifi. But what I do not understand is why those tarot readers agree to read for a bulls**t tv show. We know all how this shows work and how will they manipulate the videos and interviews to get the most gutter show or to show what they like most to get more audience. It’s clear the will try to demonstrate that tarot readings are bulls*** instead of trying to give an objective point of view

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    1. A couple of things– one, I don’t think the producers of the TV show would have fully conveyed what the angle of the show will be to these tarot readers. A lot of times, producers won’t tell you exactly what they plan on doing, and just give you a very vague, general theme, like “oh, we’re going to showcase 3 different tarot readers for a television show that seeks to explore the rationalism of tarot” or something like that. Of course, I’m speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the tarot readers didn’t fully know what they were getting themselves into.

      Second, as Jacquieds says below, we’re blind ourselves. We’re so into this art that we are kind of convinced on a silly level that you and everybody else in the world will also be into it “if given the chance to see it in action.” I mean, I definitely am guilty of that thinking.

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      1. As a tarot card reader and belonging to a few groups who discuss readings, I often witness readers who are unbelievably dogmatic about their interpretations. I think this is a problem. We can be good students of tarot and possess a certain about of confidence but I have a problem with readers who deal in absolutes and will defend those interpretations to the point of disregarding what the querant is trying to convey. Having said that….this show was a total set up in my opinion.

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  2. When we care deeply about something that is wonderful, we hope others could share the joy too, maybe that is why these tarot readers hoped to do……
    I was the same when I started teaching yoga over a decade ago, I talked about it, I dreamt about it, I ate with it, i wanted to jump and say, hey world, check this out! coz I wanted everyone to have access to this beautiful gift……and colleagues Christians have told me how anti God, yoga was, that bad things would happen to me etc etc, but that didn’t deter me…..

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    1. Sigh. I have no comment about the “yoga is anti-God” assertions. Waging war against another who is less powerful than you (aka bullying) is not anti-God and neither is the pastor of a megachurch living in a 3.5 million dollar sprawling mansion with inlaid gold and marble while half his parishioners are scraping by BUT… yoga is anti-God.

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  3. Bravo on this post, Benebell… If you could see me, you would see my standing ovation to you for this piece of work. I want to digest this more fully but a few thoughts because I just HAD to comment. When one begins working with Tarot, we often have encounters with skeptics who use a mish mash of subjective, prejudicial, biased and completely unscientific ‘scientific enquiry’, skeptics who largely have a bone to pick and have somehow quantified to themselves that their bias is actually healthy rational observation.

    In fact, I find said skeptics who use the tool of scientific method in such a sloppy and haphazard manner should turn in whatever degree or diploma they have learned because it is obvious they have forgotten the basic tenets of said method: objective analysis…emphasis on objective. Oh, and also:

    All tests of a scientific nature need a control group. (Not done here). The researcher should not also be a test subject (not done here). Scientific analysis also requires a set of proposed theories. The only theory that this skeptic seemed to be hammering on was that, “Tarot readers should be able to mind read or be clairvoyant.” in order to pass his unpassable test. Very few Tarot readers make that assertion or claim, yet John Q Public has it mind that that IS the litmus test, where do they get THAT, jeez, I wonder… So if he made the statement, “I am setting out to prove that Tarot readers are not mindreaders.”

    Bravo, well done, however there is no control group, however as the observer you should have granted yourself the role of test participant (again, junk science methodology). So, actually you have proven nothing and a subject group of 3 readers is hardly what anyone would consider a large enough number to create ANY kind of reliable data.

    But since the hypothesis from the outset was unclear, they have done nothing than to bully three readers.

    So we have bad science, with a bad assertion debunking a Tarot session by readers who most likely never made claims to the assertion in the first place. Why would a show do that?

    Oh yes…clickbait. Because there is no easier hanging fruit than the poor maligned Tarot and their readers.

    The program which relies heavily on audience to pay for its advertising makes radical claims against the motives of a tarot reader…Pot meet kettle, or rather pot point an accusing finger at a butter dish and label it a kettle. Always follow the money, this is easy money, for the show…while the readers each took a great risk to put themselves on the show when the show itself is obviously biased against them. As you said, Benebell, the editing of each session made sure of that.

    And why did I just spend so much time debunking the debunker? Because shows like his, and people who believe shows like his, are the reason why I am constantly having to defend myself. From the new client who shows up unwilling to share or say any word to me (thereby making it a difficult session), to the people at other venues who set out to prove me wrong, to the constant reeducation efforts I have to undertake in order to be seen as credible in the slightest sense. This junk science has had a HUGE impact on the nature and challenge of my work. Yes, I DO fish,(though I do not fish, I ask questions and I get clarification) because my sessions are conversations, not a variety show, because I am NOT a mind reader, and make no claims to be one. Because Tarot often needs context because it is a symbolic language and there is absolutly nothing wrong with that.

    How does this impact readers? Well, people often will not let us open up bank accounts, rent from them, purchase venue space from them or advertise with them. I have never experienced professional discrimination until I beame a reader. Great readers use stage names due to fear of reprisal in their own day jobs and families. There is a lot at stake, and why? Because shows like above find it more porfitable to stole the fires of junk-science Skepticism than to actually lay down old prejudice and open up to the truth that Tarot might actually be credible, helpful, and valuable to those who seek its story.

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    1. I LOVE everything you’ve said to pieces, Jenna!! And I admire your strength.

      Of course tarot needs context and it perplexes me when people, even people who aren’t experienced with tarot, don’t understand that. You don’t have to understand tarot to understand that concept. Unless, of course, you believe I am a mind reader, as you pointed out. The hypothesis for that show is apparently, “All tarot readers are mind readers.” For me, I really see the work I do with tarot as being an interpreter. I am an interpreter and even language interpreters need context. Words on a page can be translated differently at different times, literally or figuratively, based on the context. That’s an obvious point to people, but for some reason, tarot interpretation being contextual is not obvious? Sigh.

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  4. In my experience, much of these troubles come from the assertion by various individuals who practice the psychic trades that they are in possession of the power to determine discrete future events – a power I must point out that even the greatest minds of history did not claim to possess.I feel that If Tarot practitioners would remain in the “now” and perceive readings as depicting the atmosphere of consciousness energy surrounding the matter of inquiry they would get a lot more respect from the scientifically trained mind.

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    1. Richard, I agree. So many in the profession allow their ego to run ahead of their actual talents and abilities. A reading is mostly a snapshot of the present energy. And that’s where its value lies.

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  5. Benebell, this makes so many important points. Thanks for posting it! I say that my job as a Tarot reader is to be a messenger. Period. Fortunately, the message almost always has a compassionate and uplifting side.
    If I encounter a client like this Mr. Jeffery, I simply hand him back his money and stop the reading. And sometimes the first cards drawn reveal that the client is all b***s***.

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  6. Great post Benebell!

    I can definitely see a querent being disappointed, thinking it’s all “bullsh!t”, if they have those old school expectations of fortune telling. I really feel like that isn’t what the modern school of tarot is about! Like you’re saying, it’s more about counseling and guidance. That show wouldn’t go to a counselor, get advice, and then be angry about “that’s just cliché advice anyone could give me!”. Well, isn’t life a little bit about clichés?! Most of us will have a broken heart at one point, will have emotional attachment to a person not good for us, will dream of having a stable family, etc etc… So no wonder readings (and counseling sessions!) sometimes are “cliché”.

    Unfortunately there are a lot frauds out there. People who do cold readings and have no interest in helping, but rather just want to tell the querent what he or she wants to hear. Those frauds ruin the business for the true professionals. 😦 In Sweden I recently saw a morning show where the female host got a tarot reading from a psychic. He first told her that she definitely would not have any more children. And she said “Well that’s very sad! I was really hoping for one more…”. And all of sudden hearing that he changes his mind going “Oh hold on, no you will have more children! Quite soon!” and I honestly felt so ashamed of him making a fool out of himself like that, obviously just wanting to tell her what she wanted to here… Not okay in my opinion.

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    1. Wow! Not okay! (Re: the tarot guy in Sweden!)

      I understand that many tarot folks are against some form of standardized certification or licensure of tarot, but I’m still such a big proponent of it (so long as it’s thoughtfully executed). Then the public can make a distinction between frauds and professionals, and furthermore, there’s a way to sanction those who are holding themselves out as professionals but engaging in fraudulent or at the very least unethical practices. This is more of a benefit to tarot people than they’d like to admit– here’s why– when someone does act like that guy you mentioned, there is this institution that can take action AND– by taking action– immediately distinguish him from the professional practice of tarot, and the public image of the professional tarotist remains intact.

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      1. Wow, I really like your idea of a certification. Oddly enough, I think I would be more likely to go the professional route if there was one available… maybe you could start one! “Benebell Wen’s Certified Tarot Readers”…or something 😉

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    1. Hi Mikie!

      Sorry to hear about your negative experiences. I hope you won’t dismiss an entire group based on a few bad applies. Best of luck going forward!

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  7. I’m so thankful for this post Benebell. I came across this video today, and it made me so annoyed! (The moon is in opposition to my Mars… I should avoid provocative things like this!)
    You said all the things I thought in your post; this kind of affirmation is so calming and comforting.
    This guy is freaking lucky to get a reading from Paul Hughes-Barlow — I bet they didn’t show more of that reading because his reading was resonant and helpful.
    Like you say, this is a good video to watch, because, as a professional reader, we may come across “seekers” (I put it in brackets, because you’re not really seeking anything when you already have your mind made up what you’re going to find) like this.
    Also, it’s valuable to watch, because when we watch a tv program about something we know nothing about, there’s a good chance that the producers and host are twisting things around to make up perceive what they want us to perceive — the more we’re aware of that, the better.

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  8. When I meet a skeptic sitter who is there to prove Tarot wrong, I refuse to do the reading. When asked why, I simply respond that Tarot, to me, it’s like a religion: no faith, no miracle. Besides, me believing in it is enough. No need to go around proving it to others 😉

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