October 16, 2013

Smug dismissal of "pseudoscience" -- what makes an attractive target, like handwriting analysis?

While looking through pictures of celebrity autographs over the years, I found this article about how people aren't willing to pay much for them these days because Millennial handwriting is so ugly. Miley Cyrus' looks on the masculine side of the female spectrum, and Justin Bieber's looks too feminine and immature. That does seem new, and a quick check of some sex symbols from about 20 years ago does indeed show livelier and girlier autographs. Here is Paula Abdul's, and here is Kelly Kapowski's.

Would there be some way to develop that hunch, looking at what the stylistic changes over the past generation reveal about the changing social-cultural mood? Not according to the editors of the Wikipedia article on handwriting analysis ("graphology"), who immediately dismiss the whole field as "the pseudoscientific [1][2] study and analysis of handwriting, especially in relation to human psychology." Welp, guess that settles that!

Unlike the incurious spergs at Wikipedia, I actually poked around the data in the literature that they cite, primarily the meta-analysis by Dean ("The Bottom Line: Effect Size") in an edited volume by Beyerstein & Beyerstein (1992), The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology -- The Study of Handwriting Analysis. He finds correlations of between 0.1 and 0.2 when people try to predict job performance or personality from a person's handwriting. That may not be impressive, and is certainly well lower than what the graphologist gurus would have you believe, but it still contradicts the denialist claims in the article that the approach is "essentially worthless," has "zero validity," etc. Nothing to see here, folks, just move on...

If people couldn't discern anything about a person's personality and behavior from their handwriting, those correlations ought to be 0. In fact, it looks like the handwriting experts were poorer at guessing than psychologists with no training in handwriting analysis. That suggests that the field was like surgery and medicine before Harvey, Lister, et al -- that the self-designated experts were blinded by a bogus theory, while naive folks were better at detecting patterns. Not that the patterns weren't there to be seen.

As far as I can tell, the handwriting experts did not take an empirical approach to positing what links there were between handwriting and personality. Some influential gurus formulated what they found the most plausible links, and their disciples ran with it (a leftward slant means X, a rightward slant means Y). An empirical approach would simply give people a personality test, get a handwriting sample, and use their own brains or perhaps computers to try to notice what features distinguish the extraverts' handwriting styles from the introverts'. Then test that first guess with a brand new sample to see if the link holds up.

The goal of science is not to see who wins in a contest of foresight, but who is the best at noticing patterns and explaining them.

This case study is not terribly interesting in itself, but it shows the general contours of the broader War on Pseudoscience by non-practicing scientists. I don't care if you don't have a degree or credential -- if you've never collected, coded, analyzed, and attempted to explain a bunch of data (not even necessarily your own), and then passed your ideas along to others who gave feedback, then you have no clue what is and is not science, what does or does not follow the scientific method, etc. Notice how so many of the warmongers are writers, professional atheists, and magicians like The Amazing Randi and Penn & Teller.

Look over Wikipedia's list of topics characterized as pseudoscience, and see what they have in common. Not what their merits are as hypotheses, research programs, etc. I'm sure that like handwriting analysis, a good deal of these approaches are marked by over-inflated claims by their guru/disciple supporters. And that others have been more or less vindicated despite the spastic backlash by skeptics, such as phrenology, which can only be considered a pseudoscience if we're willing to dismiss all pre-heliocentric astronomy as pseudoscience. Modern psychology and neuroscience take it for granted that certain parts of the brain deal with different things, including both cognitive and emotional traits.

Likewise, I remain agnostic about the claims of palmistry until I look into the literature (given what I saw with graphology), but they were correct that certain seemingly arbitrary physical features of the hand can tell us much about someone's personality and behavior. Namely, the explosion of work on digit ratio, or how the length of your ring finger compares to your pointer finger. How could it possibly? I mean, that sounds, like, way more made-up than whether one crease crosses another on your palm. But thankfully, there have been enough curious people to look into it, rather than assume that their kneejerk doubt renders the relationship impossible. Or rather, INCONCEIVABLE!

Yet some topics clearly get the skeptics' panties twisted in a wad more than others. It looks to me like it's any idea that posits a link between an outward, physical substance and a hidden, inner quality. Such ideas fly in the face of the proverb "Never judge a book by its cover." Thus, handwriting reveals nothing about personality, and certain substances cannot improve (or even affect) overall health and well-being.

Physical is allowed to affect physical -- just look at how few targets there are in the field of physics and engineering, even though cranks and wackos put forth no shortage of ideas about non-mainstream physical science. The alternative medicine targets do not belong here, as those claims are not about how one substance affects another substance, say how crystals affect liver enzyme levels. Rather, they are about how a physical thing affects the hidden inner quality called "health," "well-being," or whatever.

Also, immaterial or informational stuff is allowed to influence other kinds of immaterial/informational stuff. Just look at the shameful absence of theories like stereotype threat, i.e. the theory that blacks (or whoever) under-perform because they feel the urge to confirm negative stereotypes about their group that are circulating in the surrounding dominant culture. Or that women feel like nurturing babies only because Society Told Them To. Nope, nothing pseudoscientific about that. (However, googling "sexist pseudoscience" brings up over 2 million results, whining about how, say, ovary function might affect voting preferences.)

Why not include the entire field of macroeconomics?

Then there are pop theories that ascribe all sorts of evil beliefs and attitudes to people with one or another political orientation or religious view. Sure, we all know that one set of beliefs could influence another set of beliefs, and one set of attitudes could influence another set of attitudes. But for skeptics, none of those theories could possibly be pseudoscientific, and others really-scientific. If it's informational affecting informational, it could still be an inaccurate theory -- but not pseuuuudoscientiiiific...

What is it about the autistic mind that gets irritated at the very suggestion that material and immaterial things might be related? Here's a representative answer from the entry on biorhythms in the list above: "No biophysical mechanism of action has been discovered..." This objection will sound painfully familiar to anyone who's ever hung around academics. If I can't articulate the mechanism underlying some link between A and B, then there can be no such link between A and B. Welp, guess that settles that!

Sufferers of Autism Spectrum Disorders tend to be obsessed with mechanisms, so an inability to point that out when describing a pattern will trigger their DOES NOT COMPUTE alarm. In their minds, a mechanism must be easier to understand or accept if it links two things of the same type of stuff -- physical and physical, or immaterial and immaterial. "That just makes better sense." I don't know, I don't find it hard to believe that people with certain personality differences have distinguishing facial features, that homosexuals speak with an impossible-to-miss "gay voice," and so on.

And the autistic mind is obsessed with compartmentalizing things, which would seem to be necessary in accounting for why only some kinds of mechanistic links annoy them. All material things are boxed off in the material realm, and all immaterial things are boxed off in their separate realm, and the rigid boundaries make it impossible for one to affect the other. Hence pseudoscience is the scientific study of how the corporeal affects or reveals the influence of the ethereal.

Autistic individuals also have quite limited social experiences, and their social perception is blunted even if they did interact with other people. Both deficits give them little in the way of observations ("data") to intuitively test any mind-body relationships they read about. I see this as a less important factor, though, since they don't have experience with physics experiments or stereotype threat either, yet they don't hold same-realm links up to such intense scrutiny as they do with physical-mental links.

You'll notice that "pseudoscience!" sperg-outs reinforce the politically correct hegemony of the times, although it would be a mistake to attribute much power to the incurious skeptics themselves. They're only given access to such a loud megaphone because those with real political and economic influence see them as useful foot soldiers in the propaganda war. The nerds at Wikipedia are more of a tip-of-the-iceberg group, whereas academics and journalists who publish in the War on Pseudoscience earn a living thanks to large corporations and government funding.

You're far more likely to get picked up by the New York Times if your article "debunks" the pseudoscience of craniometry than if it took on crystal therapy instead. You're being paid to create a hostile thought environment for anyone who notices that in many contexts you can judge a book by its cover.

19 comments:

  1. "I mean, that sounds, like, way more made-up than whether one crease crosses another on your palm".
    I would think the opposite. People have been generalizing from the size of various bits of anatomy for a long time. Ratios are also interesting (asymmetry would be an obvious example, somatotypes are another). Creases sound more like tangled chicken entrails.

    Since handwriting experts follow really wrong theories adopted without empirical support, that would seem to justify calling it a "pseudoscience", even if a real science of it is possible. "Stereotype threat" researchers claim they actually have found empirical support. And even Sailer seems to think there is something going on, it's just not as simple as what the researchers claim when they generalize their results.

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  2. Anonymous1:08 PM

    great observation, as usual.
    do you have any news magazines to recommend as accurate?

    -Curtis

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  3. brilliant, important essay. one of your best.

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  4. "I would think the opposite. People have been generalizing from the size of various bits of anatomy for a long time. Ratios are also interesting (asymmetry would be an obvious example, somatotypes are another)."

    That sounds like a post-hoc rationalization because you already knew that the digit ratio stuff is so well supported. If you have a debunker mindset, you would've dismissed digit ratio ideas as well before all the experiments were done.

    Palmists also discuss length ratios, such as length of palm to length of fingers. That determines your "hand shape" -- earth, fire, air, or water.:

    http://www.handresearch.com/diagnostics/finger-length/elemental-hand-shapes.jpg

    I bet there's something to this. A long palm relative to fingers looks masculine, and more equal or longer fingers looks feminine. Prenatal or circulating testosterone during development? Who knows -- maybe this would provide even stronger results than digit ratio.

    But will the professional debunkers backpedal and say, "No wait, we were only dismissing that voodoo palm crease stuff, not the more Objectively Scientific measurement of palm and finger lengths"?

    "Creases sound more like tangled chicken entrails."

    Chromosomal abnormalities affect how two creases are spaced. Normally developing people have two creases that run parallel below their knuckles (the head and heart lines, in palmistry jargon). But in pathological cases, they are fused into a "Simian crease" a la our primate relatives:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transverse_palmar_crease

    That's the extreme. Presumably in normal folks, there's still a degree of variation in how far or close those creases are spaced. The hypothesis from looking at Down's Syndrome is that normal people with closer head and heart lines will actually show subtle abnormalities within the mind.

    If there are any psych grad students, or psych profs running through a dry spell, there are a couple of studies ready to go right there.

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  5. "Since handwriting experts follow really wrong theories adopted without empirical support"

    Stop right there. You're talking like one of those Wikipedia editors. What constitutes a "really wrong" theory? There was some basis for what they believed in, just a flimsy basis. Was all astronomy pseudoscience before they placed the sun at the center of the solar system?

    And they did have empirical support -- just not the grand claims that the salesmen were making.

    There is no qualitative difference between that state of affairs and any other in really-scientific science. You find fads in just about every field, guru/disciple forms of obtaining and spreading the ideas, pushing the initial idea far past its usefulness, not wanting to abandon it for fear of looking foolish or cognitive dissonance, etc. etc.

    There's no distinction to be drawn between delusional and sane science. As though phrenology were pseudoscience, but then matured into a real-science with faculty psychology and neuroscience. It's just less developed and more developed stages.

    As though there weren't fads promoted by guru/disciple teams in neuroscience today, pushed beyond their usefulness. Is Optimality Theory pseudoscience? Is Connectionism?

    And remember, professional debunkers are not trying to chasten the overly enthusiastic promoters, saying "Well, your claims don't have as much support as you think they do, but y'know, if you looked at it this other way or took it in this direction, the field could grow and flourish."

    It's -- "this entire field is pseudoscience." This location of thought-space is permanently closed to the public, and all residents are hereby served an eviction notice. Men's minds were not meant to colonize this corner of the realm of ideas.

    I can't believe how widespread this Thought Police attitude is these days. Another reason to go back to the '80s -- no armies of self-elected, self-congratulatory debunkers. No TED talks!

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  6. "do you have any news magazines to recommend as accurate?"

    I don't think there are any left. Magazines are more niche feature articles than news reporting. The NYT, WSJ, and LA Times are all good newspapers, though. The op-ed section regularly reads like the funny pages, but they do have the resources to have reporters cover a variety of goings-on.

    Even when it's reporting on some New York elite trend, that's still telling of the times, isn't it? Like, in the 1950s Manhattan parents weren't struggling to get their kids into a 200 IQ pre-school. What's going wrong with the world today?

    WSJ is better about broader social trends, especially if there's a technology angle to it.

    LA Times is the only big place left that still does investigative reporting, and they often make their data public.

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  7. "Stop right there. [...] What constitutes a "really wrong" theory?"
    "it looks like the handwriting experts were poorer at guessing than psychologists with no training in handwriting analysis. [...] the self-designated experts were blinded by a bogus theory, while naive folks were better at detecting patterns. [...] the handwriting experts did not take an empirical approach to positing what links there were between handwriting and personality. Some influential gurus formulated what they found the most plausible links, and their disciples ran with it"

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  8. "Bogus" is not the same thing as "really wrong." If they were "really wrong," then graphologists would've shown high-magnitude negative correlations when predicting personality.

    But they showed positive correlations, just not quite as strong as untrained psychologists.

    "Really wrong" is a code for "biased" away from the truth. A "bogus" claim is inaccurate, inadequate, in error. "Not true" is not the same as "misleading," "biased," etc.

    That should all have been clear from the context of the sentence and rest of the post. But what skills can we expect from kids whose reading comprehension scores have been grade-inflated since kindergarten?

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  9. And don't ignore your other claim about the graphologists adopting theories "without" empirical support.

    You can't even properly characterize the other side's argument, so why bother reading your response to it?

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  10. Dahlia9:26 PM

    This is one of your best posts. The psychology of the "skeptics" deserves much more treatment. I also liked the evolution you described of various disciplines; we don't appreciate how unsophisticated they were in their beginnings.

    A big takeaway for me was how diametrically opposed their mindsets are to what is needed to be a good scientist despite the tribute they pay to it.

    One odd thing about these people is that though they are clearly on the autism spectrum, they seem to be able to avoid doing something that Aspies are famous for: noticing patterns. This was one of the major turn-offs for my husband who does have Asperger's (he manifests some of the physical symptoms of it which don't get talked about much when I see this topic crop up) when it came to that Penn and Teller show. It was profane,too, but the blank-slatism that kept showing up in their premises was the main thing drove him to quit watching.
    He doesn't relate in so many ways to the people often pilloried as "Aspies", the type you so well describe in this post and others, but they lie somewhat closely on the same spectrum. A difference in intelligence? Something else? He married young, has plenty of friends, sociable, great career... but something is going very right for him and all too often, very wrong for the other types of Aspies.
    On this topic, the corporeal revealing the ethereal in a new, or unstudied way, he'd share the bias with the "skeptics", but his attitude would be more of chuckling one, slightly dismissive. A demonstration with good evidence is something he would take seriously; he can be convinced with not a whole lot of prodding.

    BTW, here is an introductory book on handwriting analysis whose "fun quiz", which you can see on Amazon, is worth a look. Just "look inside" and scroll down a few pages. The answers are so obvious, especially questions 4, 7, and 10.

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  11. Dahlia9:31 PM

    BTW, I wish your comments at Sailer's about the gay parents were available. What a let down to think, formulate, and write down your thoughts for it all to not show up. I'm glad you pointed out that you had attempted to comment.

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  12. I was just thinking about you when I came across a video of an Albanian-born German belly dancer. Like, "Hmmm, maybe that 'best dancer' commenter has some crypto-Mediterranean blood in her..."

    I do have another post in the works on how skepticism vs. curiosity relates to reason vs. intuition, and stems from sheltering vs. experienced upbringing.

    I might as well write a proper post about studies of gay parents. I just find it so tiresome and frankly disgusting to put myself in their mindset, and their fag hag friends, to get a better idea of what's going on.

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  13. Dahlia12:44 PM

    "Hmmm, maybe that 'best dancer' commenter has some crypto-Mediterranean blood in her..."

    I'm pretty danged white, so the idea makes me laugh a little, but it's not so absurd...

    The most exotic, non-northern European thing about me is that I'm part Czech; 1/8 on paper. My g-grandfather was tall, slender, with the darkest hair and bluest eyes. Heart-shaped face. My paternal grandmother is almost a clone of him.

    I got almost none of those genes. When it came to my father, my grandfather's German/Swabian genes just pummeled the heck out of those genes :)

    However, when it comes to dancing, I never looked upon my family on either side and thought, "Wow, what a bunch of great movers!", with one exception: that very Czech grandmother. She was too old for me to appreciate her dancing really, but few people loved to dance more than her. She was over 80 and would CRANK UP her old-timey music (polka), close her eyes, bring out her arms, and bounce around as much as her frail legs would let her.

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  14. Dahlia1:34 PM

    Another thing about my grandmother was that starting when I was a little girl she would bring up the subject of dancing herself and how much she loved it.

    She came of age in the late 20s and early 30's marrying around 1932 if I remember correctly. Our tiny, religious town had a dance hall that played the popular music of the day and her fondest memories centered around going up there one the weekends and dancing her heart out. She brought the subject up often and also wore her hair in the flapper style for the rest of her life.

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  15. Dahlia5:38 PM

    Agnostic,
    Looking back over your older posts (because I don't know much about non-northern Europe) and, well, there is no doubt in my mind any more about the Slav thing and dancing, especially the Southern Slav thing...

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2008/07/balkan-beauties.html

    It's TMI, but that one trait was one I could have done without. Yes, that one. It was far from the worst thing, but it didn't help with the guys I was attracted to. It just seemed to cause problems by attracting black guys, cads, etc. My own husband has told me in the past that *it* could have been smaller :( I wasn't a fat a** as I was too thin, but it earned me nicknames :( It came from my dad by way of his mother, the dancing grandmother.

    Another thing about my g-grandfather. He had a reputation as a man more interested in having a good time than working, completely unlike my austere, nose-to-the-grindstone German grandfather. The only thing I can recall off the top of my head about him is not his job, but a list of dozens of fiddle songs he knew which my grandmother had him write down in his old age.

    Thanks Agnostic! Helping solve the mysteries of who we are :) ('cause I know I'm not the only one)

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  16. Dahlia7:21 PM

    Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here's a good visual for what my grandmother and her father looked like, picking a close surname in the family tree (her maiden name pulled up barely anything so I went to the next closest: Moravek) If the soccer player's face was a touch more heart-shaped/feminine and the eyes more blue, that would be them. But, yeah, totally related.

    I had an aunt that inherited these looks and let me tell you, she married EXTREMELY well.

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  17. Anonymous9:33 AM

    The most exotic, non-northern European thing about me is that I'm part Czech...When it came to my father, my grandfather's German/Swabian genes just pummeled the heck out of those genes

    Swabia was in southwestern Germany. The most southern part of the modern Czech republic is roughly at the same latitude as the German cities of Ulm and Tubingen. Prague is at approximately the same latitude as Frankfurt, which is north of historic Swabia.

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  18. Dahlia4:02 PM

    "Swabia was in southwestern Germany. The most southern part of the modern Czech republic is roughly at the same latitude as the German cities of Ulm and Tubingen. Prague is at approximately the same latitude as Frankfurt, which is north of historic Swabia."

    This is the problem with changing borders: it can be difficult to keep track!

    This is also why I tried to be as descriptive as possible and included a link to the surname, "Moravek", because "Czech" was pulling up people who didn't look like my Czech relatives. What's with all the blondes?!

    My grandmother always said "Czech", but she died only a few years after Czechoslovakia got split into two.
    My Czech ancestors were mostly dark. The Moraveks, incidentally, were the "elite" half of that branch of my family and would have been part Austrian: they left, or more likely, were kicked out during the nationalist uprising in the late 19th century and left for the U.S. on a clipper ship which only the wealthy could afford. If you saw Jan Moravek's face, the soccer player, he has a more German oval face than you see with others. He looks so very much like my G-grandfather, but the other half of my g-grandfather was more peasant and darker accounting for the differences I mentioned earlier.
    Most of my "Czech" relatives lack the striking blue eyes.

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  19. Dahlia9:03 AM

    For the edification of anyone following on Eastern Europeans, of whom I'm not as educated as I'd like to be I researched more...

    My ancestors are indeed Czech. Their surnames show up on the Czech surname list, the censuses list their origin as "Bohemia", they're Roman Catholic and they had first names such as Anna, Josef, and Wenceslaus.
    I have pictures of them and the current generations that stayed in Minnesota in predominate Czech communities and there isn't a blond in the bunch.

    They are no less Czech than Jan Moravek, the soccer player whose ethnicity is not in doubt, whom I linked to earlier and who my g-grandfather looks so much like.

    Agnostic or someone else could explain how someone so dark can live at that parallel and be Czech; I cannot. I'm not saying all my Czech relatives were very dark, but they were mostly dark and the picture of Jan Moravek really captures their look.

    If someone had even implied to my German grandfather that those folks could be similar to his people... well I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when that happened. He's not merely turning over in his grave, but spinning, LOL! His #1 pastime seemed to be ranting and raving about them.

    BTW, when I looked up my grandmother's maiden name, the pictures were overwhelmingly of one sports guy whose sport seems to require mirrored shades. Say that for them: they've got good health and vitality!

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