5X5 Episode 99

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5X5 Episode 99
5th January 2011

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5X5 98 5X5 100
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about graphology. Graphology is generally recognized as a pseudoscience which purports to analyze the hand-writing of individuals and infer a psychological profile from them. Essentially, graphologists look at the little curves and loops and lines, and the strength of the letters that people write, and then they correlate clusters of these little signs in writing with personality traits. That's graphology in a nutshell.

E: Graphology in its earliest forms was taking place in the late 1500s and early 1600s. As literacy spread in the 16th and 17th centuries, hand-writing analysis became popular, being practiced as an art form by such literary figures as Goethe, Poe, the Brownings [Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning] and Dickens. Jean Michon, a French author and clergyman, coined the term graphology in 1875. Michon systemized hand-writing analysis by associating hundreds of graphic signs with specific personality traits. By this time in the late 1800s, entire series of books and courses on graphology were being published in Europe and America. Alfred Binet, who was the famous French psychologist and inventor of the first usable intelligence test (known at that time as the Binet Test, which is basically today called the IQ test), was persuaded to do research into graphology around the turn of the 20th century. Binet ended up calling it "the science of the future", lending it credibility that it did not deserve. During the course of the 20th century, graphology associations, organizations and other splinter groups of graphologists eventually merged into a single organization in 1976, titled The Council of Graphological Societies. Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the graphology organization has suffered major declines in membership but, like all pseudosciences, they can be created but they never fully go away.

B: The application of graphology covers a considerable range including not just pure psychological analysis but also for things you might not consider like jury screening, in which a graphologist writes up a personality profile based on a potential juror's hand-writing and advises counsel whether he or she should actually be struck from the jury. Even after the trial starts, advice can be given to counsel on how to elicit a favorable response from the jury. Other applications include marital and business compatibility and employment profiling, which has been criticized not only based on a lack of evidence and plausibility, but also on ethical grounds and legal grounds. Claims are also made that the information gleaned from hand-writing analysis can give insight into personality problems from past lives that are spilling over into the current life.

R: Of course, graphology has been tested quite a bit. There have been several studies done on graphology and all of them have found that there is no science to graphology. In fact, just back in 2009, there was a study done by some researchers in Italy that found "no evidence was found to validate the graphological method as a measure of personality." In addition to scientific studies, there've also been skeptics who have tested this: graphology as a pseudoscience. You can probably even try to get James Randi's million dollars based on it. He's even tested it himself on an episode of the show James Randi: Psychic Investigator, in which he asked a graphologist to match five examples of handwriting to five different subjects, determining their professions on basis of the reading, and of course, the graphologist failed. He scored one out of five, which is exactly what you would expect by chance.

J: This pseudoscience is not to be confused with the legitimate field of graphonomy, which is better known as Forensic document examination. Graphonomy is a comparative analysis of hand-writing samples with the goal of determining if a sample is genuine or counterfeit. This would be used when comparing a known authentic signature with one found on, for example, a cheque or a will. Specialists in the field use video spectral comparators, electro-static detection apparatus, and stereo microscopes and computer-based image-enhancement programs. Despite the use of these tools, the results are still not 100% trustworthy.

S: So graphology really is an excellent example of a pseudoscience. It has all the trappings—there's an elaborate system, experts have their theories and their detailed analyses. The problem with graphology is that there is no internal consistency and there is no external validity. So whenever you compare one graphologist to another, they won't necessarily come up with the same reading. Just like two feng shui experts will come up with completely different recommendations. And when graphology is studied for external validity, does it actually correlate with anything? It has utterly failed every rigorous such test.

So graphology is, in the final analysis, made-up nonsense, but it is interesting to look at graphology because it is such a well-developed pseudoscience; it is used in a lot of contexts; there are a lot of people who firmly believe in it, and it's one of those pseudosciences that displays a lot, if not all of the features of pseudoscience and therefore it is a great subject for scientists and skeptics to study.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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