We all agree math is pretty amazing, but did you know it can literally tell the future? At least, that’s what proponents of numerology believe: that the numerical values of your birth and name can reveal deep truths about your personality and destiny.
And, like, it’s got numbers in it, right? So it kind of looks science-y. And according to this one article you googled, it was invented by Pythagoras, and he has his own theorem named after him. So this can’t just be another piece of occult nonsense like astrology. This must be a legit science!
Where did numerology come from?
Despite claims that Pythagoras invented numerology, there’s plenty of evidence of people linking math and mysticism before him. What is true, though, is that the most common “rules” of numerology in use today can be traced back to Pythagoras and his followers – including the meanings behind each number, and apparently also the numerical values assigned to each letter of the alphabet.
Now, notwithstanding that Pythagoras didn’t use the modern English alphabet, so probably didn’t actually come up with those values, we should definitely make something clear here: Pythagoras was a weird guy. Just because he invented something doesn’t mean it’s correct; the guy literally died because he was scared of beans, after all.
So when Pythagoras or his followers decided that “five represents justice”, for example, that wasn’t based on scientific endeavor – it was basically just based on Ancient Greek vibes. Why else would he decide that “all even numbers are female and all odd numbers are male,” for example? Objectively, it makes no sense.
And while some practitioners may point to numerology’s 2,500-year-old origin story as proof of its longevity, the truth is that the idea pretty much died out until the end of the 19th century. In its modern form, it purports to divine occult wisdom about people based on simple math – a practice that most say works due to the “inherent vibrations” of numbers.
In other words, it’s still all based on vibes.
What is the difference between science and pseudoscience?
The question of what makes “good science” is not quite as cut-and-dried as you might expect, but there are a few pretty good guidelines that can help us figure out whether an idea should be taken seriously or not.
Perhaps the most obvious test is whether an idea or model adheres to the scientific method. Already, we’re going to run into some problems here, because “the” scientific method is kind of a misnomer, but basically what we’re looking for is a hypothesis that can be tested as objectively as possible, which can then be used to make accurate predictions about the world.
Let’s look at the theory of evolution as an example – or, at least, one very specific piece of evidence in its favor. The hypothesis here is that different organisms evolved over millions of years; we can test the hypothesis with radiocarbon dating of fossils; and the hypothesis predicts (so far correctly) that, for example, fossils of rabbits will not be found in the Precambrian.
Does numerology adhere to this standard? The hypothesis of numerology, presumably, is that adding up the numbers associated with your birthday and name reveals something deep about your personality, destiny, and so on. But can this hypothesis be tested objectively?
It’s not too hard to think of a potential experiment: just work out the birth numbers and name numbers of a sample of people, and see how accurate the resulting predictions are. But there are a couple of problems here already, because the result you get will depend on your culture and chosen numerology chart.
“The biggest criticism of numerology is that it's based on an invented system of counting. This system was developed to allow people to count objects in groups of 10, rather than a single number,” notes Tracy V. Wilson for HowStuffWorks. “However, this system, known as a base-10 system, isn't the only system of counting. Indigenous tribes in Australia, New Guinea, Africa and South America developed number systems that counted in pairs. Some societies also used base-12 and base-60, which we still use to tell time.”
This problem doesn’t occur with real math – the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter will always be pi, for example, regardless of what base you’re using. Working out your birth number, however, only works in base ten, and only using the Western Gregorian calendar.
Similarly, many people have a selection of names they go by in various contexts. You may have a nickname that you use more often than your legal name, or a middle name that you’ve kept secret for thirty years out of embarrassment. Perhaps you’ve changed your name entirely at some point – something the vast majority of married women have done, to name just one example.
And even at this point, you need to decide what system you’re using to translate letters into numbers. The most famous may come from Pythagoras, sure, but it’s hardly the only one: there’s the Agrippan method, the Chaldean method, Greek numerals, Hebrew numerals, and that’s just to start.
But let’s say you get past all those issues and arrive at a framework that all numerologists agree on. How would you test the accuracy of the numerology hypothesis?
Well, a few people have tried. Back in 2017, one study calculated the birth numbers for more than 800 Nobel Prize winners – people who “have won international recognition for their extraordinary contributions,” the paper notes.
“Given the rarity of their accomplishments, numerology should be able to distinguish Nobel laureates from the rest of the population. Operationally, if numerology is true, then the distribution of birth numbers for Nobel Prize winners should significantly diverge from chance,” it continues. “In addition, we would expect different prize categories (chemistry, economics, literature, medicine, peace, and physics) to call upon different abilities. Thus, we would expect to find differences in the birth number distribution across prize categories.”
Seems straightforward enough, right? So, what did the results show?
To put it bluntly, the answer is: literally nothing. “The distribution of birth numbers for all Nobel Prize winners does not deviate significantly from chance,” notes the paper. “This suggests that Nobel Prize winners as a group have no special pattern of birth numbers.”
Additionally, “the pattern of birth number distribution between the winners of the six different prizes does not differ from chance expectation,” it adds. “These results provide no support for numerological claims about birth number.”
Another experiment, run by Maurice Townsend for the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) back in 1993, looked at more than just birthdates: Townsend received surveys from 96 people, collecting data on their name, birthdate, address, and place of birth, as well as their self-reported psychic and paranormal interest and ability level.
“It is generally agreed in numerology that the number 7 is associated with people who are psychic or psychically aware,” Townsend explained. “Thus it would seem a reasonable prediction that ASSAP members, who are interested in psychic matters, would contain a greater number of 7s in their ranks than the general population. This could test whether the association between the number 7 and the paranormal is correct.”
So, more information, more accuracy, right? Well, again, the results really showed no such hypothesized result. “The most obvious point is that the number 7 does not stand out in the results where it should do (i.e. for 'psi-orientated' people),” Townsend concluded – and in fact, he noted, “if there IS a ‘number’ for being psychic, the graphs would seem to show that 5 would a better bet than 7!”
In other words, numerology is pretty tough to test scientifically – which is generally a sign that it’s not, in fact, science at all. That said, the little experimental data which does exist does not support the hypotheses put forward by numerology: that certain personality types, character strengths, or destinies are intimately associated with certain numbers found in a person’s life.
Why does numerology “work”?
Another widely-accepted way to judge between science and pseudoscience is the concept of falsifiability – that is, can the theory or hypothesis be logically contradicted with empirical evidence.
The classic example here is the hypothesis “all swans are white” – an idea that was accepted as entirely true in Europe and Asia for centuries. Then, in 1667, the theory was falsified: the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh became the first European to see black swans in Australia, proving the hypothesis wrong.
Falsifiability – plus good old human psychology – is key to understanding what makes numerology “work”. After all, what kinds of things are being predicted by numerology? Say your birth number turns out to be one – according to believers, this signifies a person who is independent, but can get lonely; sometimes hides insecurities behind bluster; someone who has innate leadership abilities, but suffers without the support of friends and family.
Does that sound familiar to you? Wow! Maybe your birth number is one! Or more likely, these are just a collection of what are more commonly known as Barnum statements – descriptions which are so vague as to apply in some way to just about anybody.
When a statement is so fuzzy like this, it makes it extremely difficult to falsify. Maybe your birth number is one, but you don’t consider yourself particularly independent – well, the numerologist might argue, that’s just proof that you crave the support of friends and family, so the prediction is still true. Maybe you don’t feel like a natural leader at work or socially – but, a numerology proponent may say, that doesn’t mean you’re not a “natural leader” to your children, so that doesn’t falsify the hypothesis either!
Add that to the natural human tendency towards confirmation bias, and it’s easy to see why some people are drawn towards things like numerology. “Once one receives a numerology-derived horoscope or fortune – or lucky number or lucky color or whatever was produced – one tends to see it everywhere,” explains Brian Dunning in a 2018 episode of the Skeptoid Podcast.
“We all respond to many phrases in most horoscopes, because they tend to be things that we all want to be true about ourselves, and in most cases they are true about most people,” he said. “To anyone who has not studied the ways that these divinations work with human psychology, they do indeed seem compelling; compelling enough that you don't have to be stupid to be persuaded that there's something there.”
Basically, the reason numerology “works” – or astrology, homeopathy, conspiracy theories, or any other pseudoscience – is not because it’s backed by science. In fact, any attempt to explore the concept within a scientific framework has shown it to be false.
But for some followers of these practices, that probably doesn’t matter. After all, it works for them – and where humans are concerned, that’s unfortunately often all the evidence we need.