Hands Up – Anyone Believe In Palmistry?

I did.

Palmistry (also known as Chiromancy) is the reading of people’s hands to discover their fortune and personality type.  This is not limited the lines on the palm, but the shape of the hand and its proportions including length of fingers, natural lumps or “mounts” on the palm and the colour and condition of the nails and skin.

I got interested in this in my early teens after observing a fellow holidaymaker informally read people’s hands for entertainment at a social gathering. I got a few books on the subject and read the hands of my friends, most of whom were intrigued. Some Christian friends made sanctimonious remarks, but I responded that the Bible has a (admittedly vague) reference to people’s hands in Job 37:7

He sealeth up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work.  – KJV

Actually, now I look at it again, that is really vague and says nothing about the legitimacy or not of reading hands. There are more direct references in many other cultures and religions.

I don’t think I was an especially convincing palmist. Although I certainly believed in the validity of what I was saying I was naturally hesitant and guarded in my pronouncements on people’s hands. Perhaps with time I could’ve unintentionally learnt cold reading. However, as with most teenage fads, I slowly lost interest in palmistry as I grew up.

Some modern palmists play down the future prediction aspect of hand reading, perhaps because it sounds too stereotyped, easy to say and difficult to verify until years later, when any failed predictions will likely be forgotten. However, a quick survey of palmist’s websites shows almost all are involved in some other method of fortune or personality divination. Amelie Appleby is a palmist who also practices crystal ball and tarot card readings. Philena Bruce also offers a wide variety of psychic services including readings of photographs and healing through sound. Unfortunately, none offer any independent research showing the efficacy of their claims.

However, I discovered with excitement that one hand reading website does include a discussion of the Forer Effect. Ken Lagerstrom of HumanHand.com writes:

The Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect or Subjective Validation Effect) refers to the tendency to accept vague or general statements as being very personal and accurate. The Forer Effect is a serious consideration in hand analysis, for both the professional and client. Psychologist Bertram R. Forer ran a series of tests in which he gave people a personality profile and asked them to rate its accuracy. Forer actually gave each person the exact same profile…

The test subjects rated these supposedly individual profiles as 85% accurate! With a vague enough profile that is mostly positive, most people will believe at least part of it truly relates to them.

Positivity is clearly important for the clients of psychic readers. Amelie Appleby, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledges this need:

…Amelie’s intuitive palm, tarot and crystal ball readings are positive and upbeat, full of enthusiasm and integrity, good humour and great fun.

Certainly people paying money are more likely to be pleased with a reading that predicts meeting a tall dark handsome stranger (although they’re probably smart enough not to use those exact words) than one divining a life of miserable solitude. Crucially, I think people are also more likely to believe things they find comforting.

Sadly, despite a promising looking article, Ken Lagerstrom ends up resorting to ad-hominem attacks:

In my experience, the real hard-core skeptics are just as fanatical (and biased, judgemental, self-certain, etc.) as the more extreme religious zealots. It’s just a different “faith”.

To call skepticism a faith is to broaden the definition of faith to become meaningless. A hard-core skeptic (or at least a serious one) is willing to assess the evidence and reach a tentative conclusion. Some skeptics get sick of hearing anecdotal evidence presented as if it were absolute proof. That might make them cynical about vague pseudo-science claims after a while. That’s not the same as being a zealot.

Then he presents a flawed analogy:

If you go to your doctor and hear him say “You need to examine your habits with diet and exercise, because you are damaging your health with your present body weight.”, does that physician’s diagnosis get dismissed along with the entire field of orthodox medicine?

No, you’d test his claim. Excessive weight may affect many people, but you can measure the person’s BMI and compare it to the healthy band. All conventional medical advice is in a constant state of being formally tested and reviewed. This is a good thing; it leads to better understanding and treatments.

It might not be as simple to test a hand reading, but some fair experiments could be devised and carried out on a statistically significant number of people. Specific predictions could be recorded and compared in later years to reality and their chance of occurring. Importantly the subjects should be blind to the predictions made. For example, telling someone they’ll make a journey to the Far East could influence their decision and is statistically fairly likely for certain demographics. Recording as part of the experiment that they’ll find a new job in early 2009 with a French company would be more significant if it occurred. Similarly personality predictions could be carefully controlled (perhaps so only the hands are seen) and compared to psychological assessments and surveys made beforehand.

The problem was, I began really searching for statistical proof that all palmistry was nothing more than superstitious garbage for the weak-minded.

That certainly was the problem. Ken Lagerstrom was trying to prove a negative. No matter how many charlatans employing the Forer Effect, cold reading or other psychological techniques (whether deliberately or not) he uncovered, he would always be wondering if the next one might be genuine. It’s like trying to prove the non-existence of a celestial teapot orbiting the sun. Proving its existence is theoretically possible (simply by finding one), but proving it’s non-existence can never be done. At what point would you stop searching?

That doesn’t mean we have to believe all extraordinary claims by default. Rather, the skeptic should tentatively disbelieve something out of the ordinary until appropriate evidence is presented. The burden of proof is most definitely on the psychics making the claims, all the more so if they are charging money for their services.

In the UK at least, new regulations have made this clear and on one website I noticed that, below her many testimonials, at the bottom of the page in small print, Philena Bruce has included this message.

This service is intended for entertainment purposes.
This is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed.

I wonder if such regulations will make a difference to the wishful-thinking punters considering paying for a psychic reading, but it is a step in the right direction. Just to be clear I’d have no problem with these businesses if they could provide evidence that their psychic claims are true – to a standard similar to that required of other products. If they can’t, then every consumer should ask themselves why that is.