Occasionally I make the mistake of tuning in to the BBC, an organization for whom the lead news item will always be its own self-importance.
Now then now then now then. There has been much brouhaha, for example, about the alleged crimes, now coming to light, of a popular BBC presenter (now dead) and how much the BBC management knew about them at the time. It is suggested that a major BBC news and current affairs show investigated the business, but hushed it up, a fact unearthed by a different BBC news and current affairs show, the ramifications of which were discussed on every other BBC current affairs show – including – bizarrely – the one at the centre of the cover-up allegations. No-one is denying that there is a public interest angle here, nor that the allegations aren’t important. But apart from the unedifying sight of trekkers forming their wagons into a circle and shooting inwards, one detects a certain meretricious excess in the BBC’s self-flagellation.
But it gets worse.
Yesterday morning, as I was driving Crox Minima to her place of secondary education (the Miss Lovely Academy for Young Ladies) I tuned in, as I knew I shouldn’t have done, to the leading BBC news and current affairs show on the radio. It had, I admit, a pretty good feature on epigenetics.
Such things, must be a fluke, as this morning, it carried (for no apparent reason) a feature on graphology, the activity in which practitioners claim to achieve insight into a person’s character by analyzing their handwriting. HR departments in major corporations take this seriously (there is even a graphologist who writes for the recruitment pages of the Financial Times.) The presenter interviewed a well-spoken and articulate graphologist who suggested that all sorts of personality traits might be discerned from samples of handwriting; that temporary anxieties might be winnowed from underlying personality attributes; that all kinds of things might be gleaned from the way one forms one’s letters.
The first thing that occurred to me was that there was no balance. Some studies, apparently, show that graphology is poor-to-hopeless as an indicator of personality as compared with standard questionnaire-based personality tests. The persistence of graphology is probably related to what one study calls ‘illusory correlation’: ‘Semantic association between words used to describe handwriting features and personality traits was the source of biases in perceived correlation.’ In other words, the same trick of ‘cold reading’ used by hucksters of all stripes, from astrologers to tarot-card readers to mediums. That is, statements that seem very specific to the person and which suggest very specific outcomes but which might actually be applied more broadly.
Not that any of this matters, because the radio programme did not then balance their interview with a critic of graphology. Instead, much time was taken up by the graphologist’s interpretation of the interviewer’s handwriting. The interviewer was superficially relaxed, but deeply sensitive and ordered underneath, apparently. You could tell this from the way he wrote his ‘m’s.
‘Foul!’ screamed the scientist inside me.
* What atoms, what particles, of any letter or string of words can possibly contain such detailed information?
* If there is consistent mapping between particular features of handwriting and particular personality traits, are these verifiable experimentally?
* If so, what is the degree of error, and the sample sizes?
* Where are the control experiments?
* Are these findings reproducible?
* Where are the case-controlled double-blind studies of people writing the letter ‘m’, or indeed anything else, matched with independent assessments of personality using other metrics?
* Why did the interviewer not ask such things?
The interviewer did ask whether the graphologist had had any feedback – had candidates taken on by firms on the basis of her advice performed as she’d predicted? The answer? That she almost always never heard back, so assumed that the candidate performed as predicted.
So, no proper follow-up study.
I should add that there is a British Academy of Graphology as well as a British Institute of Graphologists, but their websites gives no details about more than a handful of publications, and no critical studies. For balance, I offer Quackwatch and the Skeptic’s Dictionary.
Now, I’m not criticizing or castigating graphologists for doing what they do. The interviewee performed brilliantly and answered all the questions with grace and aplomb. The argument I have is with the BBC, which should know better.
But perhaps the finest journalistic minds of the BBC have been distracted from their supposed high standards by the current obsession with what various of its internal organs knew or didn’t know about what one of its presenters might or might not have gotten up to years ago, and there is much navel-gazing about its own future.
In which case I respectfully suggest that the poor benighted Director General, a Mr Entwhistle – forced to face questions from Parliament on the latest scandal (here is the ongoing news feed from The Guardian) – might find out by having his handwriting analyzed. Or perhaps the handwriting of the dead presenter, if any survives, to see if anything might be discerned retrospectively of his character.
If that doesn’t work, I’d sacrifice one of our hens and study her entrails, except that Mrs Crox wouldn’t let me.
But if all else fails one can always rely on Mystic Meg. Mr Entwhistle was born on 8 July, 1962: that is, he’s born under Cancer, which is unfortunate if you read the Daily Mail. Today, Mystic Meg says of people born under the
Cromer Crab as follows:
Creative ideas flow but it’s the way you work out the costs involved that turns them into winners. The sun in your love chart makes you popular – but avoid stirring jealousy. Single? Your new love has just got back from working abroad. Luck links family living in three towns.
Whether this might be read as
Beware the unquiet shades of eccentric cigar-smoking disc jockeys who claim they’ll fix things, for you might get more than you bargained for
… is for people more attuned to the aethereal vibrations than I am.