Saturday December 2, 2006
What does it mean when the shadow chancellor of the exchequer is using graphology to attack Gordon Brown? Just to backtrack: Gordon and George, squabble, Gordon threw papers across the floor â€“ thatâ€™s how adults resolve conflict â€“ George scooped them up, saw hand-written notes, and sent them off to a graphologist to discover the secret inner Gordon.
Now you donâ€™t need me to tell you that graphology is quack nonsense on a par with astrology or tarot. â€œThe writer is not shy. The writer shows unreliable and poor judgment. The writer was not in control of their emotions and instincts at the time of writing. There are signs that the writer is someone who does not like to give a clear cut image of himself. There are signs that the writer can be evasive.” And so on.
You donâ€™t need me to tell you that graphology is based on the same performance principles as psychic readings, or tarot: skills like â€œcold readingâ€, which are worth picking up, especially if you work in the manipulation industries like politics, or sales. You can pick up social cues, you can tailor your assessment, you can look at what words are written, or what the person coming to you is like: whether they look like George Osborne, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, for example.
You can rely on â€œconfirmation biasâ€, the well researched flaw in our reasoning apparatus that leads us to selectively attend to information that confirms our beliefs, and to ignore, or undervalue, information that contradicts our beliefs, perhaps because fitting new facts to a pre-existing explanatory framework requires less cognitive effort than devising a whole new one.
You can rely on â€œsubjective validationâ€, and the â€œBarnum effectâ€, named after P.T. Barnum, the circus man who had â€œsomething for everyoneâ€: our tendency to find personal meaning in statements that could apply to many people. You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. You had an accident when you were a child involving water. Iâ€™m available for expensive psychic consultations if this is working for you.
Now of course, like astrology, or psychic readings, or tarot, graphology can produce fun talking points, by randomly throwing personality variables onto the table for discussion, even if it has minimal convincing empirical support for its claims. And like astrology, it has face validity, of a limited kind: sweeping Gâ€™s for the grandiose, winter vegetables for Gemini foetuses.
But none of this answers our question: what does it mean when the shadow chancellor of the exchequer uses the science of graphology to attack Gordon Brown? Is the political right, contrary to popular speculation about muesli-eating Guardian-readers, the natural home of quackery?
Thereâ€™s no doubt that nutritionism, what we might call the â€œbollocks du jourâ€ of the alternative therapy movement, is an inherently right wing individualist project: we know that the most significant lifestyle risk factors for adverse health outcomes are social inequality, not obsessive, complex, individual tinkering with your diet. But we pretend – without an evidence base â€“ that complex dietary interventions will make us healthy, because itâ€™s something we can do as individuals. We can take personal responsibility for our health, and we can blame those who donâ€™t, for their own misfortune.
Or is it about something deeper than that? The post-marxist social theorist Theodore Adorno, for example, who I quote only because it amuses me to quote a post-marxist social theorist, wrote at length about the psychodynamic links between astrology and fascism, about the need for rightwing ideologists, and especially their followers, to have simple, clear, authoritative narratives, rigid systems, patterns, and structures that make sense of the world. And the Daily Mail does have an ongoing ontological program to divide all inanimate objects into ones that will either cause or cure cancer.
But even more transparently than that, â€œsciencesâ€ like graphology are about elevating our intuitions, an attempt to use â€œscienceâ€ to bolster our prejudices with some kind of objectivity, to render them in biomedical terms. George, letâ€™s not forget, is no stranger to medicalising his foes, to deploying scientific notions in warfare, a man who has previously called Gordon Brown â€œautisticâ€, a term that many patients may be surprised to see used perjoratively.
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