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Table with names and graphics used in Geomancy
From Raphael's sanctuary of the astral art. John Palmer, 1834

Teaching Scientific Literacy: The Case of the Scattered Sand

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This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, historian of science and technology, and Jackie Katz, 2022 Albert Einstein Fellow. It is one in a series on teaching scientific literacy using primary sources related to pseudoscience

What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? The designation of a discipline as a science indicates that it involves the study of observable, natural phenomena that can be better understood through tests that produce consistent and predictable results. The findings of these tests must always be considered tentative. If any of the above tenets are absent, the research is pseudoscientific.

Geomancy is a practice of seeking knowledge of future events by creating and then interpreting a random series of lines and dots, either in the sand, dirt, or on paper. It has been documented in some form in cultures across the world since the Middle Ages.

Challenge students to define geomancy by exploring images from historic texts about the subject. To prime student thinking, prompt them to explore the similarities and differences in the images, paying special attention to any patterns that they notice.

Figure 1:

Image of a circle divided into eleven sections with a person in the center and each section having items such as a house, a globe, a book and a shoreline.with
Fludd, Robert, and Johann Theodor De Bry. Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet Et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica Atqve Technica Historia, in Duo Volumnina Secundum Cosmi Differentiam Diuisa. [Oppenhemii: Aere J. T. de Bry, typis H. Galleri, i.e. Francofurti, 1624?, 1624]
Figure 2:

Image of a square with another square around in with angles pointing toward it from four sides
Miṣdāq al-raml

Be sure to note any inferences that the students raise while observing the sources, especially if those inferences are tied to assumptions students are making about the creators of the source. For example, if students assign a location to a certain source, ask them “why” they have come to that conclusion.

Using the lists of similarities and differences, ask students to define geomancy; students can use the sentence stem “I think ____ because _____.” Once students have their preliminary ideas, provide them with a bit of context about each of the sources:

Students can also observe the table organized by Henry Cornelius Agrippa in his “Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy.” A multitalented physician, philosopher, lawyer, soldier and occultist, Agrippa lived in present-day Germany from 1486 to 1535. Many of his writings seem to tie these fields together to help explain “magic,” which Agrippa considered to be a comprehensive way of knowing. Ask students to update their thinking about the definition of geomancy based on the new evidence and complete the sentence stem, “I used to think ____, but now I think ____ because ________.”

Have students share their thinking with the class by reading their completed sentence stems. Compare the students’ definitions of geomancy to that provided at the beginning of the post. Ask students how they used the sources provided to construct their definition, did they use patterns or similarities? Once students share their process, ask if they note any commonalities between their process and the one utilized by geomancers? Scientists? What might these common habits of mind say about pseudoscientific fields, such as geomancy?

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