Fortune Tellers, East and West

"A Fortune-teller Told Me" by Tiziano Terzani. Flamingo, 1997.

From 1971 to 1994 Terzani was a journalist in East Asia. Among many other events he reported on the fall of Saigon and the fall of Pnom Penh. In 1976 a fortune-teller in Hongkong foretold that 1993 would be a dangerous year for him and that on no account must he fly in that year.

Over the ensuing years he occasionally remembered that visit with amused disbelief. Many other fortunes were told to him: he made it his habit to visit the reputedly best fortune-teller in town as an anthropological survey and as a good way to learn to find his way around each of the many places he visited. In spite the many visits, the 1976 one in Hongkong occasionally returned to his mind, and more frequently during 1992, as the supposedly fateful year approached. In the final days of 1992 he resolved not to fly in 1993. Though this sorely tested the loyalty of his employer, he kept his job. As a result Der Spiegel got a year of unusual dispatches, including a reportage of the first "democratic elections" in Cambodia, reached via a circuitous route from Bangkok, Terzani's base.

A considerable part of the book is taken up by reports of his visits to fortune-tellers (if at all possible, the best in town). He describes with amused detachment the phonies and with skepticism the ones that impress him (there are such). He came to believe that monks, with their meditation, acquire certain "powers", though it's not clear to him what these are. The "fortune" is often not intended as a prediction, but as a tendency for events to unfold in the way foretold, with the implication that this tendency can be circumvented, resulting in a better outcome. Thus the fortune-teller becomes a counselor to a client whose nature has been shrewdly assessed at the beginning of the session.

Terzani describes a great variety of techniques: cards, rose petals, palms, soles of feet, date and time of birth in combination with astronomical calculations, ...

After reading the book I was amazed at how widespread such superstition is among the Chinese of Southeast Asia who make their way so successfully in the modern world. What a contrast to Europe and North America, I thought by the time I had finished with Terzani's book.

It so happened that my next book was "The Patient Paradox" by Margaret McCartney, a British physician. She deplores the adoption certain medical screening programs where various negative effects outweigh benefits. Many doctors know this, but, as one confided: "Some of my patients want to know."

That is, they want to have their fortune told!

All of this is in the context of medical screening programs. In addition to these, McCartney points the reader to direct-to-consumer genetic screening. Her favourite example is Genetic Health where one can find the following services offered

As a sample, let us consider Obesity, Diabetes and Weight Loss. This one is particularly exciting because of the "recently identified polymorphisms of the FTO gene and the TCF7 gene for Type 2 Diabetes" and because Genetic Health screens for these (as well as five other ones, and all that for only £ 195!). The test will tell you whether you have the "wild type" (i.e. normal) allele or the dreaded newly identified "variant" allele. Now, let's systematically survey the possibilities:
  1. If you are not fat and are wild type, then you need not worry (what's £ 195 for peace of mind you wouldn't otherwise have?).
  2. If you are not fat and variant, then you do need to worry. You make sure you stick to a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
  3. If you are fat and wild type, then you have no excuse for being fat: you had better make sure you stick to a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
  4. If you are fat and variant, then what? Just sit back and bemoan your fate? No, you make sure you stick to a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
And, if you are not fat and you are wild type, wouldn't you stick to a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise? Just to make sure?

McCartney sees nothing in the results of these screenings that would change her advice to her patients. Does that mean the Genetic Health is going to whither away? Maybe not, as they tell you

It's a long journey -- understanding the road ahead will help you plan for the future.
Everyone of their services seems indispensable. The only one you can afford to miss is Premium Male if you are female, and vice versa. So that's £1410. Never mind that the plan should be the same, whatever the test outcome.

What is it that drives customers to splurge on such genetic screening services? It is that which drives people of all cultures to fortune tellers. The difference is that cards, rose petals, etc no longer hold magic. Right now, our genome does.