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The pseudoscience of numerology: treating predictions as facts

Watchdogs, watch yourselves! Why South African media should be wary when communicating pseudoscientific predictions to their audiences.

If you follow South African news, you may be familiar with the name “Sandy Smith”. 

Smith is a numerologist who has been unquestioningly quoted in print and online dozens of times, by newspapers such as the Citizen, radio stations including Radio 702, KFM, 5FM, Jacaranda FM and MetroFM and the television programmes Newzroom Afrika's Weekend Report, the Week Ahead on SABC News, and the Expresso Show.

South African media outlets have asked Smith to predict everything from election results to investment opportunities. But what is the methodology behind those predictions? Is it sound?

We take a closer look at numerology and why the media should be careful about presenting numerological predictions as reliable. 

Pseudoscience vs science 

Numerology claims that particular numbers, such as a person’s date of birth, can be used to predict their personality and the events of their life. It is considered a pseudoscience, like astrology, which means that it does not have a reliable predictive ability.

Pseudoscience refers to a discipline or approach that claims to have a scientific basis. But unlike science, pseudoscience does not “conform to accepted scientific standards such as peer review, replicability, reliability, validity, and evidential support,” Dr Marina Joubert, a researcher and lecturer in science communication at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check. 

This means that it's difficult for belief systems like numerology  to produce results which can be tested and confirmed to be true.

This isn’t to say that scientific predictions are always accurate. One of the reasons Africa Check doesn’t fact-check claims about the future is that there’s always a chance things will turn out differently. 

However, the mathematical process of “predictive modelling” allowed scientists to quite accurately determine the likelihood of certain events, said Joubert. 

“The reliability of this method is in the detailed statistical models and algorithms that are constantly refined, revised or validated as new data becomes available,” Joubert said. Belief systems like numerology, on the other hand, do “not go through any of these rigorous scientific processes”.

Contacted, Smith told Africa Check via email that she employed a form of numerology that was “totally unlike traditional numerology” and that numerology “is not ‘pseudo’ at all, it is scientific [and] more accurate than astrology”.

Her predictions rely on the use of a legally registered name and date of birth. “If this information is correct, the prediction is correct”, she said. The same methods are applied to all predictions, “whether they deal with a stock market, country, company or a person”. 

Apart from this, Smith did not provide further explanations of her methods, or evidence of numerology’s accuracy. (Note: We discuss her response in more detail here.)

Well-documented psychological tendencies explain numerology’s appeal 

So if numerology has a questionable scientific basis, why is it so popular among some audiences? 

Joubert said one reason predictions might seem accurate was because of confirmation bias – “the act of selectively interpreting the results that suit our already-held beliefs or desired traits”. 

For example, Smith has claimed to have predicted aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including a “collapse of jobs”. The Citizen also claimed that Smith “correctly called” outcomes like “the impact of the pandemic months prior to events materialising”.

In a video posted to her YouTube channel on 24 February 2020, Smith said “the job losses that we are hearing about – it’s going to increase – I can’t even say, is it 1,000%? 5,000%? But it’s going to be astronomical”. 

This could be interpreted to mean that Smith predicted the rise in South African unemployment rates during the pandemic. But we could not find any publication or video where Smith actually predicted a pandemic for 2020, and her predictions about job losses lacked any details which could link them to “the impact of the pandemic”.

Other analysts had predicted a continued rise in unemployment rates, but motivated these claims with clear reasoning.

Statistics South Africa’s published unemployment rate rose from 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020 to 35.3% in the fourth quarter of 2021, a change of 4.8 percentage points, or 15.9%, far from Smith’s “astronomical” estimates of 1,000 or 5,000%. The total number of employed people dropped from 16.38 million to 14.54 million over the same time period, an 11.2% decline.

Presenting Smith’s prediction as accurate means selectively interpreting it after the fact so that it fits in with events that have already taken place. 

Joubert also highlighted the Barnum or Forer effect, which she described as people’s tendency to believe that “personality descriptions from numerologists or astrologers apply specifically to them when, in fact, it is generic information”.

These kinds of predictions were presented as more spiritual, meaningful and personal, whereas evidence-based science could often appear clinical, spiritless, and impersonal, she said. 

Reliance on ‘magical thinking’ allows pseudosciences to thrive

Arthur Goldstuck is chief executive of South African market research group World Wide Worx, editor-in-chief of Gadget magazine and author of multiple books on myths and urban legends

Goldstuck said his company provided economic and political forecasts but “will never claim that these are absolute truths, merely that they are expectations”.

Numerology doesn't carry similar warnings. “In the world of numerology,” Goldstuck said, “almost the exact same predictions would be given as absolutes, based on claims to a science that does not follow scientific method.”

Promotion and endorsement of numerology without context may harm the public

Why is it important that predictions based on numerology include a disclaimer?

When predictions are treated as fact, they have the potential to be both misleading and harmful. 

During an appearance on BizNews with Alec Hogg on 10 December 2015, Smith predicted that South African president Cyril Ramaphosa “will never be a president” – he was sworn in to the office in February 2018.  In that, and a later BizNews interview, Smith encouraged readers to invest money in gold.

Smith has also made predictions about the future of the rand, South Africa’s currency, for the Citizen newspaper. She told Africa Check that she believes her audience can “absolutely” make financial decisions based on her predictions.

But Paul Theron, chief executive of asset management firm Vestact, told Africa Check “there is definitely a danger of using such ‘predictive’ methods to guide market timing purchases and sales”.

According to Goldstuck, “treating predictions as fact can persuade individuals to make financial and personal decisions that can prove disastrous”.

Media outlets that cover pseudoscience without context or awareness of where it fits in the scientific world create fertile ground for fake science and misinformation to flourish,” Goldstuck told Africa Check.

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