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Numerology Doesn’t Know the Score

Various ways of assigning numbers to events, people, and actions is an ancient parlor game, but let’s not take it beyond that.

We entered the new year with all sorts of expectations and excitement, but I’m sure none compared to the chills from realizing 2012 will see the last major numerical date event — using the Gregorian calendar — for almost another century: December 12, 2012 — better represented as 12/12/12.

I know, just a few months ago, we achieved 11/11/11. But not until 2101 will we be able to write 01/01/01, just as we did on that numerically glorious day of January 1, 2001. Disappointing I know, but should we celebrate or cower? Is this the end of the world, as the Mayans sort-of predicted? No, wait ... that apocalyptic date is 12/21/12.

Oooh, look at the similarity in dates: 21 is 12 backwards. Spooky.

Can there really be meaning in these figures and coincidences? The new year is as good a time as any to make the resolution that you will direct your critical thinking skills and skepticism to help humankind and save us all from manipulating numbers to serve preconceived ideas. Let’s take a critical look at numerology and the many ways people create patterns where none exist.

Consider the events of 9/11. Such tragedies bring out conspiracy theorists in droves, even 10 years later.

Among the various myths and conspiracies, the coincidence of numbers intrigues even the more skeptical among us. The number 11 plays a significant part in the World Trade Center disaster: it’s the number of letters in New York City, Afghanistan, and George W. Bush. Add up the digits 9-1-1. Flight 11 was the first to hit the towers with 92 passengers and crew (9 + 2, of course). The WTC building was shaped like the number 11 and New York State was the 11th member of the United States. September 11 is the 254th day of the year — add up those digits! (So is it any sillier to note we’ve reached 2012, 11 years since 2001! Coincidence or not?)

Let us skeptics ask the 9/11 numerologists why they didn’t count the letters in George Bush or Osama Bin Laden, or add the number of feet the towers were (1,362 and 1,368)?

SKEPTIC'S CAFEPeter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Belief about mystical connections between numbers and physical objects is the cornerstone of numerology. Symbolic and mystical associations with numerals have a long history traceable to Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Hebrew, and Chinese cultures. Perhaps it was Pythagoras, of triangle fame, who most contributed to our seeing numbers as symbols, even if he didn’t invent what contemporary numerology has become.

Simply put, every letter of the alphabet is assigned a numerical value (such as a, j, s = 1, or h, q, z = 8). Sort of like playing Scrabble, you just have to learn the points for each letter. First you add up the numbers continuously until a single digit is achieved. With my first name, Peter = 7+5+2+5+9 = 28. Then, you add up those digits, 2+8=10. One more addition, and I get the single digit of one. This is when you use our base-10 system of counting and the Pythagorean table. Another figure is derived when you check the eight-number Chaldean table, and in this case Peter = 24, and then 6.

So am I a one or a six? Tough call, but in either instance I’d look up some interpretation of the number, which essentially reads like a horoscope. And like horoscopes, we selectively interpret the results that suit our already-held beliefs or desired traits. It’s the Forer effect once again, where people tend to agree with positive statements about themselves even if it’s otherwise objectively incorrect or applicable to just about anyone.

Maybe I should be adding up the numbers in my birth date instead. Or my last name. Or my telephone number. You get the point. We also selectively decide which numbers to choose and how to manipulate them.

While some of this may seem like a parlor game, many people do take numbers seriously. Some are already predicting an apocalyptic 2012 filled with earthquakes because of the numbers and order of the digits. Triskaidekaphobia is evident in many hotels where there is no 13th floor. In some Southeast Asian cultures, the number four gets that treatment while eight signifies good luck and prosperity. Wedding dates and other important events are scheduled in Chinese society based on numerical beliefs. Throughout our lives, we brag about or downplay our SAT scores, cholesterol numbers, and our car’s MPG. Numbers take on meaning and power, and can impact our sense of self and how we act.

The Burmese kyat.

The Burmese kyat.

Selectively interpreting numerology readings can sometimes lead to disastrous results. Take General Ne Win of Burma. Relying on astrologers and numerologists for policy advice, in September 1987 the military head of state introduced 45 and 90 kyat currency notes to replace the 50 and 100 kyat notes in wide circulation. Not only did the new digits on the bills add up to 9, but 45 and 90 are products of the number 9. Alas, the change in currency may have led to economic turmoil and the collapse of middle-class savings and purchasing power, and the United Nations named Burma the world’s least developed country that December.

So, remember that this new year of 2012, which adds up to 5, represents balance, health, and love. Unless, that is, you read another chart, employ your critical thinking skills, and find it means something else entirely. In any case, have a great new year. High fives to all!

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