Handwringing Over Handwriting In The BBC

This week the BBC reported on the condolence letter written by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the mother of a fallen soldier. Labelling a spelling mistake in the note as ‘disrespectful’, the BBC then decided on report on other inferences the note could betray about the PM’s mental state.

But what does Mr Brown’s handwriting style, and those of other prime ministers, betray about their state of mind?

That’s right – we’re on that little known nonsense that is Graphology – with the BBC running the letter by Elaine Quigley, former head of the British Institute of Graphologists.  In case you’re not familiar with it, graphology is the pseudoscience of examining handwriting – size, shape, slant, angularity, form of the letters and more – and using the analysis to gain insights into the personality and mindset of the writer. Which doesn’t work. But why let that stop a good feature?

Elaine’s reading ofthe PM’s letter produced some seemingly astonishing insights:

“It is very jerky. The separate lines don’t flow together and the ends of the words are abrupt, as if he’s cut them off. Look at the Es, for instance. This absence of flow suggests he doesn’t communicate naturally. He’s living on his nerves when he goes beyond his own environment and his own space.

“The right-hand-side of the letters signify one’s connections with other people and the future. The way they are cut off suggests he can’t empathise because it’s not part of his make-up. The lower section of the letters show how you feel. The As and Gs and Ys are all abrupt, so he’s focusing on getting this task done. And the way the left margin moves towards the right shows how urgently he wants to get it finished.”

Now that might seem stunning, but let’s look at what she gleaned:

  • Doesn’t communicate naturally
  • Can’t empathise easily
  • Abrupt when getting a task done

Well that does indeed sound like Gordon Brown – those are all criticisms that have been levelled at him in the past. And therein lies the rub: If we know enough about Gordon Brown’s characted to tell Elaine’s reading is accurate, Elaine must also know enough about him to write an accurate-sounding reading. It’s little more than a hot reading – one based on prior knowledge.

Similarly, Elaine described how former PMs Blair and Thatcher too revealed their character in their characters. On Blair, she wrote:

“His words have an easy flow to them and this suggests he has a lot of charm and is very articulate. He doesn’t like routine or boredom, but style, fluidity and flexibility. The T-bar pointing down suggests he is stubborn.

All the writing has a right slant which means that he gravitates towards people and he can charm them. It’s also very mobile, which means that he will come up with the right thing at the right time. Look at the word “strong”. A lot of people in jobs serving the public open their Gs to the right, as if they are opening their energy to the public sphere”

Here we see ‘charm’, ‘articulate’, ‘style’, ‘fluidity’, ‘flexibility’, ‘stubborn’, ‘energy’ and the repeated notion of being a ‘people person’. This is part hot reading if Blair’s public persona (seen through rose-tinted glasses, of course) and part cold reading of general common personality traits. As for Thatcher:

“It’s a masculine script, not prissy or emotional, but it is still elegant. Unlike Mr Brown’s, her writing has charm and elegance. Underlining it is that she likes control. The vertical spacing means she is independent and doesn’t like to be crowded by others. There is a general sense of confidence from the writing. She has a calmness about her and an assuredness about her. She can use charm and make people feel that she cares about them but it’s implicit that they also know she won’t let them manipulate her.”

Here we see ‘masculinity’, ‘unemotional’, ‘elegant’, ‘control’, ‘independant’, ‘confident’, ‘calmness’, ‘assuredness’ and more. Which is uncanny – almost as if Elaine had some way of getting a kind of general, basic impression of the character of Baronness Thatcher, who ruled the country for 11 whole years of interviews, TV appearances and press conferences. Shame the reading says nothing along the lines of ‘the way she curves her letters means she likes to fuck the coal miners’. That would have been a nice touch.

Making personality analysees of public personas is really not that hard – backing it up with plausible-sounding pseudoscience is even easier.

Fortunately, however, this nonsense didn’t remain unchecked in the media for long – in fact the first signs of rational skepticism started pouring in pretty quickly, filling the comments section of the BBC site with notes of science and reason:

Graphology – analysing personality from handwriting – has no any scientific basis. This story is total nonsense, and it is utterly unacceptable for the BBC to publish this. A comprehensive review Should We Write Off Graphology? by Russell W Driver, M Ronald Buckley, Dwight D Frink, in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment found “the overwhelming results of well-controlled empirical studies have been that the technique has not demonstrated acceptable validity”. If Quigley is such an expert, why doesn’t she even pick up on Brown’s poor eyesight?
Stuart Finlayson, Edinburgh, Scotland

What does Gordon Brown’s handwriting tell us about him? Nothing except for the fact he has messy handwriting. The end.
SM, Glasgow

The claim that graphology can tell anything about the subject’s state of mind of psychology is not supported by the available evidence. I do not think pseudoscience should be supported on these pages even if by means of omission, as in neglecting to mention the fact that according to the vast body of available studies and according to mainstream scientific thinking it is not possible for anyone to discern details as lengthily described by Elaine Quigley.
Balint Szabo, Budapest, Hungary

Why don’t you also ask an astrologer for their opinion on former prime ministers? Or perhaps a palm-reader could tell you that Brown is tense, Blair was charming and Thatcher liked control, based on their thumb length. Or maybe phrenology or tarot cards could tell you the same thing. Don’t give our licence fees to charlatans like this, send them to daytime cable TV where they belong.
Jon Taylor, London

On top of that, social networking sites Facebook and Twitter helped pass the story around and subject it to real scrutiny, with the ensuing criticism prompting the BBC to review the story – calling Prof. Richard Wiseman for his commentary and insight. As of 2.35pm on the day of publishing, the story had been amended to include Wiseman’s input, explaining:

“There is no credible scientific evidence with it at all, every controlled test has showed that no evidence has emerged. While a person’s handwriting might reflect they are in a hurry, there’s nothing which compares it to their mood.”

So, what are we to make of this? Well, for one thing it’s not great that the BBC ran the story in the first place, especially witout the basic research required to discover the unscientific nature of graphology. Yet it’s something of a win that after the critical response of the skeptical community, spearheaded in this case by Richard Wiseman (who seemed pretty annoyed with the BBC for running the story unchecked), the BBC were willing to insert a rational perspective. Still, the final cut is hardly conclusively scientific, with something of a woo-sandwich effect in place: ‘pseudoscientists believe in this pseudoscience, scientists have proven them wrong but the pseudoscientists disagree’. False balance if ever I’ve seen it.

For anyone who wants to find out more about how graphology works, I recommend the series of videos Michael Shermer did on the topic.

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