The Natural Home of Silliness

December 2nd, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 34 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday December 2, 2006
The Guardian

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 – that’s how adults resolve conflict – George scooped them up, saw hand-written notes, and sent them off to a graphologist to discover the secret inner Gordon.

Now you don’t need me to tell you that graphology is quack nonsense on a par with astrology or tarot. “The 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 don’t need me to tell you that graphology is based on the same performance principles as psychic readings, or tarot: skills like “cold reading”, 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 “confirmation bias”, 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 “subjective validation”, and the “Barnum effect”, named after P.T. Barnum, the circus man who had “something for everyone”: 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. I’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 G’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?

There’s no doubt that nutritionism, what we might call the “bollocks du jour” 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 – that complex dietary interventions will make us healthy, because it’s something we can do as individuals. We can take personal responsibility for our health, and we can blame those who don’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, “sciences” like graphology are about elevating our intuitions, an attempt to use “science” to bolster our prejudices with some kind of objectivity, to render them in biomedical terms. George, let’s not forget, is no stranger to medicalising his foes, to deploying scientific notions in warfare, a man who has previously called Gordon Brown “autistic”, a term that many patients may be surprised to see used perjoratively.

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34 Responses

  1. AitchJay said,

    December 2, 2006 at 4:42 am

    Ahh.. Politics..
    Where else can the abuse of misappropriated authority feel so much like business as usual?

  2. JunkkMale said,

    December 2, 2006 at 6:06 am

    Thanks for that.

    The world is going to heck in a handbasket and now I have a further insight into the mentality and priorities of those who would lead us out.

    At least we’ll die laughing.

  3. Plant said,

    December 2, 2006 at 10:01 am

    No need to be coy about writing about the post-Marxist social theorist Theodore Adorno. I’ve been doing some empirical research (with p-values and everything..) on the link between authoritarianism and belief in pseudoscience and it seems the old lefty might have been onto something.

  4. woja said,

    December 2, 2006 at 11:06 am

    (I’m always wary of underestimating old lefties.)

    Lovely piece, Ben. Made me laugh (well, grin) and nicely argued.

    An entertaining and enlightening explanation of cold reading. You obviously have great confidence in your abilities and knowledge even though you sometimes doubt yourself. You are outgoing and sociable but value your time alone.

    Keep up the good work.

    PS. Read another piece about cold reading and “scientific” psychic people today (see: This is really spooky. Do you think there’s something occult going on?

  5. amoebic vodka said,

    December 2, 2006 at 11:48 am

    [blockquote]And the Daily Mail does have an ongoing ontological program to divide all inanimate objects into ones that will either cause or cure cancer.[/blockquote]

    You owe us a new monitor. Can’t we have some kind of health and safety warning on stuff like this…?

    “Should not be read while drinking coffee”.

  6. amoebic vodka said,

    December 2, 2006 at 11:53 am

    gah…and the coffee’s not working yet. Must. Not. Post. When. Asleep.

    “yet you tend to be critical of yourself. ”

    eeek…how did you know!!

  7. doctormonkey said,

    December 2, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    “Is the political right, contrary to popular speculation about muesli-eating Guardian-readers, the natural home of quackery?”

    umm, wasn’t Herr Hitler et al into spiritualism etc (and vegetarianism), I think he was on the right (or should it be Reich?) or am I remembering Indiana Jones and not history?

    Bad jokes aside, another excellent piece and I am very pleased to see someone question the validity of this – even the expert on Radio 4 (Today programme or morning news, can’t remember which journey it was) who I think did the analysis was not happy as she claimed to have had too little data…

    I hate to sound negative but are there any studies published in decent journals etc about graphology? I’m just curious about what, if anything, can be claimed about it and it is outside my medico-centric realm of knowledge

  8. doctormonkey said,

    December 2, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    of note, the wikipedia article on this is not brilliant and the chat page is notable for people debating the lack of evidence…

  9. kim said,

    December 2, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    Derren Brown used the “Barnum effect” in one of his tv programmes a while ago. He got a group of people together, asked for their birth dates, and then give each of them an individual personality reading in a sealed envelope. They all came back amazed at how accurate it was. Turned out each person was given the same “reading”.

  10. Junkmonkey said,

    December 3, 2006 at 12:34 am

    Of course the ‘science’ of graphology will eventually become totally redundant as we all start to type and text our thoughts into ever more complex hand-held computery. Then, a new ‘science’ will arise – analysing your choice of fonts.

    As is already well known, anyone who uses Comic Sans without being blatently ironic needs their head examined.

  11. gengar said,

    December 3, 2006 at 10:46 am

    And the Daily Mail does have an ongoing ontological program to divide all inanimate objects into ones that will either cause or cure cancer.

    Plus the objects that alternate in status over periods of a few months or so….

  12. BobP said,

    December 3, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    What’s wrong with Comic Sans?

  13. doctormonkey said,

    December 3, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    read the link Junkmonkey gave in #10 BobP – it actually has some good reasons! (i still like it but now will use it with added irony rather than the homeopathic doses i was)

  14. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 3, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    The way Derren Brown told it recently on radio, everyone involved in production who saw his personality analysis document also felt it to be a remarkably accurate portrait of their own character. But he could have been working the audience in saying -that-. It’s like ouija… someone telling you that spooky things happen, raising anxiety, does not amount to valid concern. (Hmm… Google for “how to fake ouija” gets no results, now -that”s- spooky! 😉

    Elsewhere in the comments, someone seems to have confused ontology and oncology, or maybe that’s the joke and I didn’t get it?

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 3, 2006 at 7:06 pm

    Elsewhere in the comments, someone seems to have confused ontology and oncology, or maybe that’s the joke and I didn’t get it?

    ha, sounds like it could be one of the idler’s unfinished jokes..

  16. David Mingay said,

    December 3, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    Re #14: This personality analysis stunt is a fairly standard classroom activity for undergrad/A Level students, done by cynical lecturers/teachers (like me). Even without priming, they still generally rate the accuracy of the “analysis” at about 8/10. And even if you use that widely-used piece of nonsense, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.

  17. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 3, 2006 at 10:30 pm

    Either I’ve heard “The steaks are too high” joke on BBC radio or else someone else did and put it in their Internet signature. It’s Milton Jones’s thing, at least I hear it in his voice, but I’m not good at voices. Or perhaps it isn’t his at all if he nicked it from there.

    Hmm, I shall have to bookmark the Web site that accepts unfinished jokes. It seems to be mostly [Viz] readers but it also would be useful to me to release the tension – it’s so difficult to let crap jokes go, but if it’s out then it’s out.

  18. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 3, 2006 at 11:04 pm

    …and National Unawareness Day was 1st November? Right, -that- one’s going in then.

  19. Kells said,

    December 4, 2006 at 10:40 am

    I thought this was the home of the pedant? Shouldn’t it be ‘pejoritively’ ?

    Sorry – good article but does it matter if the shadow chancellor will read tea leaves rather than the FT? He will never get the keys to the treasury, it is written in the stars.

  20. Delster said,

    December 4, 2006 at 11:56 am

    should send one of those analysts a sample of my hand writing… after two broken wrists it’s more illegible than most doctors

  21. kim said,

    December 4, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    Na, Kells, it should be “pejoratively”.

  22. Dudley said,

    December 5, 2006 at 11:18 am

    No need to quote Adorno, the big ol’ fraud.

    Try quoting a master of precise prose and logical thought instead:

    “It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together… [B]ut it is possible to make two guesses. To begin with, the theory that civilization moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that “all this”, or something like it, “has happened before”, then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes forever impossible. […]
    “Secondly, the very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates. [T]he same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults.
    There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound hostility of both to the Christian ethical code.”

    – George Orwell, “W.B. Yeats”, in Horizon, Jan 1943.

  23. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 5, 2006 at 11:36 am

    heh nice one dudley

  24. jj_hankinson said,

    December 5, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Ben – a while back I e-mailed you re: having to do MBTI at work as part of my ‘stakeholder management’ training. I think I remember at this time you were fairly comfortable with the use of that particular ‘indicator’.

    Given you’re anti-graphology perhaps you should take another look at MBTI – i think you might be surprised just how skepticism there is around it. After all, its based on the work of Jung, a man who believed books spontaneously exploded on his shelves and that his cousin could cause knives to shatter while still in their draws with loud bangs.

  25. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 5, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    i have no strong feelings either way on the myers-briggs personality inventory but your argument against it seems to be that it is partly influenced by some ideas from Jung, along with lots of other ideas, and that Jung had some funny ideas?

    anyway, you said:

    As an aside, I’m having some ‘consultancy’ training at work at the moment, and I got into an involved discussion about the Myers-Briggs personality testing. I’m very skeptical about it, especially given its a commercial product, but it was interesting hearing a ‘business psychologist’s’ view of the situation – not surprisingly, he saw less reason to have solid evidence for the test.

    Have you written much about this? The ‘proof’ for MBTI reliability looks a lot like ‘proof’ of the accuracy astrology. Its your classic unfalsifiable test.

    and what i replied in characteristic speedtyping rush was:

    “well, it’s got some sort of vague “facce” validity, ie it feels
    p;lausible, but more than that, for ttests like these psychologists
    spend a lot of time looking at reproducibility, whether it ocrrelates
    with other tests, and how the results cluster or spread, etc. v
    interesting field. i’m not sure mbpi is all that awful. it’s most
    amusing instantiation is on okcupid website (not something i frequent

  26. Andrew Clegg said,

    December 5, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    Robert (#14):

    Since ontology is the study of being or existence which seeks to separate the world into the basic categories to which things belong, or in its new computer science usage, an ontology is a classification schema over which one can reason in an automated way, it seems entirely appopriate.

    Although the ontology/oncology thing is good. I nearly did a PhD with someone who wanted me to build an oncology ontology, I’m glad I didn’t, I’d have got really sick of typing that after three or four years.


  27. DrHyde said,

    December 5, 2006 at 8:20 pm

    If the Daily Hate Mail wishes to have a computer program to reason automagically about oncology, it would be easy to write.

    10 PRINT “Immigrants cause cancer”
    20 PRINT “Cancer scare: house prices may tumble”
    30 GOTO 10

  28. Aspiring Pedant said,

    December 5, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    WRT Myers-Briggs Personality types, I summarise this from Bob Carroll to mean that it’s bollocks –

  29. bootboy said,

    December 6, 2006 at 2:30 am

    in its new computer science usage, an ontology is a classification schema over which one can reason in an automated way

    pedantic computer scientist warning

    More precisely, it’s a classification schema and a set of relationships between the classes over which one can reason in an automated way.

  30. Delster said,

    December 6, 2006 at 11:18 am

    I can see that bootboy is going to be right at home here! 🙂

  31. roGER said,

    December 7, 2006 at 10:16 pm

    All this would be well amusing except in the early 1990s, I was asked by a large(ish) ‘hi-tec’ company for a handwriting sample as part of a half-day interview program.

    OK it was in France (!), and the personnell lady assured me that it was ‘just some fun, you know’ but my comment that my star sign was Aries and that horoscopes were also ‘fun’ may, just may, have been the reason why I didn’t get the job.

    Had it been in Britain I would have seriously considered legal action, if only for the fun of seeing graphology taken apart in a court of law.

  32. Allan said,

    January 3, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    In defence of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators:

    MBTI defines 16 sterotypical personality types. Once you know the types, a surprising number of people appear to the casual observer to be one of these types. For instance, we all recognise the subclinical obsessive-compulsive who can’t leave the house until the washing up is done (“INTJ” in the MBTI jargon). Likewise the scatty, extrovert, arty type who become nutitionists and colour therapists (“ESFP”).

    In professions where personality types need to be discussed (for instance, when a professional services company puts together a project team), MBTI types are a very handy shorthand, each having their own strengths and weaknesses.There isn’t much science in it, but there doesn’t need to be any at all.

    However, I do observe that MBTI predicts the non-existence of certain types who are also rare in my experience (how many IT professionals do you know with an interest in modern dance)?

  33. ncullum said,

    January 12, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    “we know that the most significant lifestyle risk factors for adverse health outcomes are social inequality, not obsessive, complex, individual tinkering with your diet.”
    Love your columns. Came across it by picking up an issue of I, Science at the doctors surgery.
    Regret I must be a tad pedantic and point out that the quote above is ungrammatical: social inequality is a singular
    I doubt you can object to the same rigour being applied to the basics of your use of the English language as you – rightly – apply to bad science…

  34. LittleRichardjohn said,

    March 7, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    Most mysticism denies the possibility of progress through human action. Astrology for instance claims to be able to predict an inevitable future. If it’s inevitable, there’s no point in trying to make people’s lives any better. Only The Great Cycle, or ‘Gyre’ can do that, and it will turn in its own good time. And so any real progress is impossible, and any attempt a futile vanity by a vainglorioius speck of insignificance calling itself Mankind – which is the core agenda of fascism, after all. The delusion that all virtue lies in a mythical past which shall be reborn in the hands of a great redeemer. A Superman in contact with the forces of history.

    This cyclical world-view, in which things happen over and over again is embodied in the favourite reactionary slogan ‘There’s Nothing New under the Sun’ and is routinely used to belittle all achievements which might make people’s lives better while also reinforcing the idea that Man is a base animal who only responds to cruelty and force. This cyclical universe was most famously depicted in the Swastika, of course, and is in reality, nothing but political wish-fulfillment. A classic symptom of the poverty of reactionary thought. If it can be called thought.
    Which is why there are always far more classified adverts for mystics in right-wing publications than in progressive ones (if any). And many more column inches devoted to this kind of mumbo jumbo.
    And before anyone tries to put a fag paper between religion and Mysticim, ask The Endtimers if the future is predetermined or in the hands of mankind. They are Christian, Jewish and Muslim, after all.

    The political power of mysticism lies in the fact that there has to be a secret code or lore to the understanding of The Cycle and predicting its stages. This secret is naturally too dangerous for anyone but a semi-devine sect with special ‘gifts’ and ‘crafts’ to have access to. They, in turn must be protected and nurtured and feared as befits their elite status. The member of the sect who succeeds in monopolising the lore becomes the natural leader, in constant touch with the very workings of time and space. The Divine Leader, repository of all justice and wisdom is created. All others are inferior by definition, but those nearest are less inferior, and most likely to survive and prosper, thereby promoting the myth of the lore even further. And so a rigid, exclusive hierarchy is encouraged, relying on inequality and fear to maintain itself. And there are publicly funded ‘courses’ in Tarot-Reading and Astrology in adult education establishements all across the country. You don’t hear the Daily Mail complaining about that.

    I wonder why there is so little tabloid outrage at fascism being peddled everyday in print. After all, these harmless bits of fun are promoting a very Un-British, anti-democratic world-view. The evening classes by Madam Arcaty and the endless columns for the hopeless are, in their turnip-headed way, the Madrassars of Suburbia, and every day their assumptions are backed by the most popular newspapers and the richest men in the world.

    Perhaps this is their idea of promoting a British Identity. A nation of gullible sheep, accepting every disaster and injustice as divine inevitability. But how different is that from the ‘Inshallah’ used to justify the actions of the suicide bomber?