In the Middle Ages, palm reading was used to detect witches. These days, it is used to detect the gullible. The lack of studies, empirical evidence, and explanation for how it works are no match for the thrill of hearing one’s future revealed, and of having one’s personality dissected by a mysterious stranger.
Palmistry was practiced in ancient China, Egypt, and India, and modern-day practitioners make a big deal out of this. The practice is also synonymous with Romania, and a big deal is made of this as well.
Palmists, also known as chiromancers, read fortunes from lines, marks, and patterns on the hands. Like most good pseudosciences, palmistry varies by practitioner. Depending on the reader, they key factor can be the size of the hand, its shape, or which one is dominant. Others put emphasis on bumps, intersections, fingers, fingernails, texture, flexibility, or skin patterns. Color was once considered crucial by some palmists, but they ceded to the KKK the ability to determine a person’s character based on melanin levels.
For some readers, the left hand indicates inherited personality traits and potential, while the right hand indicates individuality and accomplishments. The reverse is true for southpaws, and it’s unclear what the ambidextrous are to do. What the hand reveals is up to the reader, which indicates the practice is invalid. The same person will get very different readings depending on which palmist they see.
While there are different schools and philosophies, most palmists base their practice on the idea that hands show three main lines. The Life Line reveals physical vitality, the Head Line shows intellectual capacity, and the Heart Line correlates to emotions and passion. Chiromancy is based on sympathetic magic, the simplistic metaphysical belief that like affects like. For instance, if the line that is supposed to reveal romance is broken, it means the person has a tough time committing to relationships.
Without any explanation for how this would work or why we should believe it, palmists assert, as another example, that those with fan-shaped hands are sensitive. Readings like this leave the customer open to self-fulfilling prophecies or self-delusion. The practice is built on communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, and cold reading. A cold reader employs high-probability guesses and infers details from facial or vocal cues from the person being duped. Cold readers mostly tell people what they want to hear, while keeping it generic enough that the description applies to most people. With these loose standards, a 70 percent success rate is almost guaranteed, and that will be enough to convince a person who wants to believe.
Some try to put a modern twist on it by comparing palms to DNA or cells, pointing out that no two people are identical. But a person’s career path cannot be determined by examining their saliva in a laboratory or from their cell sample. Nor can it be deciphered through the palms. You might be able to guess that a man with calloused hands is a laborer, or that a woman with wrinkled hands is elderly, but you could find that out by asking them, so palmistry is useless in determining traits.
The conflicting interpretations of what various lines and features tell, along with the lack of empirical evidence for palmistry, cement its place among the pseudosciences. In a real science, such as biology, there will be agreement of the basics because they are empirically proven and continually tested. There will be disagreements in specialized areas, which is where experiments, peer review, and analysis come in. Palmists, meanwhile, bicker about which hand tells what, or reach vastly different conclusions on what a Life Line shows. This would be like biologists arguing over whether babies are the result of sex or the stork.
Chiromancy is still practiced everywhere, and it has adapted to the modern day by offering online readings where a person sends scanned handprints for analysis. I decided to keep it old school and go for a reading in person. My palmist asked for my dominant hand, which she said would serve as a window to my conscious mind. I was unsure why I would need someone to tell me what my conscious mind was thinking. However, my dominant hand would also reveal what she called my “realized personality,” while my opposite hand would show my subconscious and my potential. As a test of her ability, I went undercover as a southpaw and presented my left hand as dominant.
She assured me that hand shapes are either Earth, Air, Water, or Fire. I was told that I have Air Hands, consistent with long fingers, protruding knuckles, and dry skin (I forgot to put on my Patchouli Essential Oil that morning). Oh, and the key point is that my middle finger is the same length as my palm, so I’m squarely in the Air Hand category.
Gazing at my Life Line, she let me know that I have great potential and a sense for adventure. She didn’t say potential for what, but I hope to tap into my ability to expose ridiculous ideas. I love to travel, so she nailed that one. Her opening sentence, then, was a microcosm of the divination charade: Tell the customer what they want to hear and sprinkle it with open-ended ideas that will apply to most people.
My Head Line is telling her that I think before acting. I asked to get this one in writing so I could show my wife. However, she cautioned, there were some breaks in this line that might represent a lack of focus. Or it might suggest something else, but I can’t remember what since I was watching a fire engine go by.
My Heart Line indicated a combination of sentimentality and good instincts. But I instinctively know that I’m not sentimental, so she only scores 50 percent on that one.
She gazes with more intensity at some of my minor lines, then asserts that major changes might impact my life and that I should pay attention to my diet. Each handprint that chiromancers examine might be unique, but the advice they give is universal.
Looking at something called the Line of Apollo, she tells me, “Your success is almost guaranteed, but some effort must be put forth.” So if I succeed, the palmist’s advice worked. If I fail, it’s because I didn’t try hard enough. Of course, I’m unsure exactly what it is I will be succeeding or failing at since she didn’t tell me. But I can see her failure, as she was unable to detect that she was reading the wrong hand.