February 05, 2015
There is no shortage of psychics and palm readers in the region: a rough count shows about 70 spiritual shops in Greater Philadelphia, despite there not being a shred of science behind what the services purport to offer and an attempted -- but failed -- crackdown by the city in 2007.
Still, many Americans continue to believe in spiritual phenomena by the millions: according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 26 percent believe in "spiritual energy," and 15 percent reported seeing a psychic in the past year.
But popularity doesn't equal validity. So, what's the verdict from the science community?
"Cutting to the chase: There is scientifically no evidence whatsoever to support the claims about palmistry," says James Herbert, head of the Psychology Department and interim provost at Drexel University. "The core claim people make is that the patterns of lines on your palm relate to something about your personality, and that this can be useful as a way of assessing personality traits -- more useful than standard ways, especially if we're looking at introversion or extroversion."
The human brain is a pattern-seeking organ. We evolve to look for patterns. ... The cost of seeing a pattern that isn't real is smaller than the cost of missing a pattern that is real. So, false positives cost less than a false negative.
The only exception to its falsity, he says, is the obvious.
"The exceptions are common sensical things -- a guy who has muscular hands and a lot of scarring, you can assume that person is a laborer. I have a neighbor across the street from me who is a builder, and he's got big, muscular, scarred-up hands. But that's purely common sense -- it tells me nothing about his personality, just his occupation."
In which case, why does anyone buy into palm reading -- or anything like it -- as a science, then?
"It's called the illusory correlation," he explains. "The human brain is a pattern-seeking organ. We evolve to look for patterns. ... The cost of seeing a pattern that isn't real is smaller than the cost of missing a pattern that is real. So, false positives cost less than a false negative."
For example, if we see a squiggly dark line that looks like a snake on a hiking trail, we'll generally step out of the way -- because, despite our uncertainty, why wouldn't we? Applying that to palmistry, patterns observed have been dug into, because the costs of being wrong are so low, and the gains are so high. It's the brain's way of filling in the blanks to create links.
Trouble is, as is typically pounded into our heads in science class, correlation doesn't equal causation.
Herbert explains that we have a built-in "confirmation bias" -- that is, we tend to dismiss information that challenges preexisting beliefs. (Hence, why stereotypes exist.) Palmistry, he says, overlooks the controlled scientific method scientists often use for studies to avoid these biases.South Jersey-native Fred Salzman, a former medical technology worker and current "chirologist," is hardly a non-believer in science -- he's worked in hospitals as a lab technician and at Spring Garden Street's American Red Cross center as a supervisor for blood transfusions, after all. But he is waiting for science to get out of his way when it comes to palm reading.
"It's a lot of work to try and convince everyone," he says of palm reading's merits, "because even if you have a hard report, there are still people who aren't going to buy it."
To that end, he acknowledges that there still are no university- or foundation-supported reports legitimizing palmistry. But that doesn't mean he's not pressing on with the pseudoscience -- "spiritual science," as he calls it -- anyway.
What's immediately eye-grabbing is that Salzman -- plainly dressed and well-spoken when we meet -- doesn't label himself as a "psychic" or "palmist." Instead, he advertises himself as a chirologist; "chiro" meaning "hand" in Greek, and "-ology" meaning -- as one might imagine -- "study of." To boot, he runs his business primarily out of Bliss Body Studio's Wellness Center, in Collingswood, N.J. He's hardly the spiritual gypsy you'd pass on South Street.
"Everyone's got this picture in their head of a person who does a palm reading, and then they see me and are like, 'Who are you?'" he jokes. "Like, I forgot my Magic Eight Ball."
He says he first felt inspired after visiting a palm reader while touring Sedona, Ariz.; the palmist couldn't tell him a thing about his personality, and he wondered if something was haywire in his circuits.
Salzman's pitch goes a little something like this: the palm is a user's manual, he says, to the "hard wiring" of the brain; as he explains it, "The hands tell no lies."
"When I got back, I was curious to see what my hands said about me. So I ordered three or four different books, and this one made sense," he says.
"This one" being "Palmistry: Apprentice to Pro in 24 Hours" by Johnny Fincham; it's essentially a user's guide to reading palms, based on Fincham's own claim of 20 years of personally teaching and marking commonalities between people whose palms he's read. (Few specifics are noted in the book about his research process, except to say that "Only if a sign on the palm works a thousand times over in a thousand examples has it made it into this book.") The book is Salzman's Bible -- in practice and theory.
"Cutting to the chase: There is scientifically no evidence whatsoever to support the claims about palmistry," says James Herbert, head of the Psychology Department and interim provost at Drexel University.
Salzman's say-so goes a little something like this: the palm is a user's manual, he says, to the "hard wiring" of the brain; as he explains it, "The hands tell no lies." But it's less about predicting the future, he emphasizes, and more about identifying personality traits and behavior through fingerprints (the most reliable read, he says), skin type (the smoother the better, basically), finger length, palm lines, finger nails (yes, finger nails) and thumb pads.
His purpose, then, is to "empower." He says he's had about 60 clients, but never any repeats -- because, he says, he teaches them the ins and outs of his method to give them the tool to help themselves. He clarifies that it's not a fortune-telling tool, or a scam to keep people coming back for cash-grabs, but a means of allowing for self-awareness.
"I'm not telling anyone anything they don't already know; I'm just allowing them to understand themselves better," he says. "It's to allow people to be who they are. ... So if you're just not a person who's competitive, you play baseball but you've got 'silky skin,' it may be challenging for you -- you may not have the coordination for it."
In which case, he's taking the idea of palmistry a step -- leap, really -- farther than the usual turban-and-crystal-ball type would. His idea: To use palm reading as a sort of "Myers-Briggs" personality test for schoolchildren and HR departments.
"From an HR perspective, I think this should be mandatory," he says. "Because you want to see how this person's wired. So, if they have a lot of whorls [on their fingerprint] and a person needs to work by themselves, you don't want to put them in cooperative work environments where they have to work with people, because it could be challenging for them."
Certainly, his is not a common -- or, on the surface, altogether unreasonable -- argument for palm readings.
The new question at hand, then, is this: Could palm reading really be practical?
"That's frightening," Herbert says of the HR and school-kids spiel.
"Imagine making a negative HR decision where someone says, 'Oh, you emerged as a top candidate after our process, but your palm says this,' or to a teenager, 'You scored well, but your line says you're not that smart, so we're going to put you in remediation,' ... The suggestion of using that in HR decisions or school is just not OK."
Still, he adds: "You can have well-meaning, well-intentioned people who are not frauds, who do not recognize the limitations of the human brain, so they come to conclusions that are completely false about all kinds of things. Palmistry is a great example of that"
Pseudosciences, Herbert says, are "like Whac-a-Mole."
"You debunk palmistry, and next in line there are many, many, many other equally crazy claims," he says. "Point being, you can't debunk them all."