Time for an 1840s science lesson, folks!

I’m tempted to start this post by saying something along the usual lines of, “You wouldn’t think this would have to be explained in the year 2015,” but really, really, this shouldn’t even have to be explained in the 1900s to anyone except fringe doctors and psychiatrists.

So a bit of background:

The MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, congratulated the Matric class of 2014 on their results on 6 Jan 2015. Her speech had these concluding remarks:

As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my inner most conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish that our system could recognise that there are left brain and right brain children and treat them accordingly;

Let’s break this down a bit. We have a weak start right out of the gate. Although brain lateralisaton is a very real thing, the concept of hemispheric dominance has been thoroughly debunked as far too simplistic. But perhaps we can give her the benefit of the doubt on this one. Sure, she’s trying. It’s not that harmful and I know many smart people who still believe this. Let’s ignore that she’s a Basic Education MEC for now and push on through.

That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly, based on the fact that no two people in the world write the same, just as no two people in the world have the same fingerprints, voices, or same physical appearance;

Oh dear God, it’s getting worse. I really hope that whoever transcribed her speech is just playing some sort of practical joke at this point.

Graphology is not to be confused with computational stylometry or linguistic fingerprinting, murkily supported approaches in the field of forensic document examination but both fascinating and not without their merits. She seems to be muddying the water a fair amount here. It’s correct that no two people write the same but it’s the application of that knowledge and the assumptions in the conclusions that are concerning. You don’t want your kid to end up in a poor performing class because their letters are a bit too squiggly and loopy for the in-school graphologist’s liking.

Graphology is the analysis of handwriting primarily to determine the personality traits and mental well-being of the author. It’s been discredited since about the 1980s (a generous estimate), when several studies showed the inability of graphologists to accurately predict any personality traits whatsoever. (At least aligned with other personality tests such as Myers-Briggs and Eysenck, which are not without flaws themselves). Human resources can be a pseudoscientific area with many corporate institutions and sometimes even smaller companies using questionable psychometric testing to determine a potential employee’s skills and, far vaguer, their personality traits.

The field of psychology today sees graphologists as akin to astrologers and palm readers with no scientific merit. Yet here stands one of our Basic Education MECs claiming that the practice of graphology is one of the thoughts that guides her “inner most conscience” in leading to an “ideal education system”.

That Philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers;
That chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools;

Things seem to be improving somewhat. I’m not convinced these are consciousness-guiding points but at least she didn’t suggest aligning chakras and dowsing for good marks.

That our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly.

Phrenology, to put it incredibly simply, is the study of skull size and shape to determine characteristics, intellect, and penchant for crime. It has been used as support for entrenched racism in the form of slavery and been pinned as one of the beliefs that laid the foundation for the Rwandan genocide by encouraging the idea that Hutus were superior to the Tutsis. It is now regarded as “an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy [1].”

Nic Spaull in the Daily Maverick details why Ms Nkonyeni’s lack of basic scientific literacy is dangerous. She’s an MEC in the most populous province and already has a tawdry history with damaging anti-science beliefs in a country that can’t afford to have such misguided people in leadership positions.

One thought on “Time for an 1840s science lesson, folks!

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