Scitech | Lost in transcription: Giving pseudoscience the finger

An article from the January 12 issue of ScienceNow, called “Are You a Moneymaker? Look at Your Hands,” discusses research that looked to draw a relationship between a financial trader’s success and his or her index-to-ring-finger ratio. Whether the researchers’ motives arose from purely scientific curiosity or out of economic incentive is beside the point. They found that the traders with the lowest ratios – meaning a longer ring finger in relation to the index – were the ones who made the most money in a given time period.

Now, there was scientific rationale behind the hypothesis: other research has shown that a longer ring finger is a sign of higher exposure to testosterone in the womb, which in turn creates sensitivity to the hormone later in life, which then makes those people more apt to react to things quickly and to take more risks. Got that? Lots of testosterone means you become sensitive to it, this makes you get all risky and dangerous, and to top it off, you get an extra-large ring finger.

So, yes, this chain may sound a little unbelievable, and the interesting thing here is that the article demonstrates how much we love finding anatomical patterns that explain other aspects of ourselves. Breaking away from scientific research, there are tons of myths out there that people believe to varying degrees; whether it’s the famous comparison of a male’s forefinger length to the size of his package or the idea that a man’s height is related to how high he climbs on the business ladder, we absolutely love thinking we can read a certain characteristic as a clue for another. Do our bodies really reveal that kind of information, or is this a human fabrication of fascination?

Our preoccupation is definitely not a new one. A popular 19th century discipline was phrenology, the study of a person’s skull and facial features to determine their personality traits. And people took it really seriously – basing decisions like who to marry on the length of a nose, or how a person’s upper lip curved.

Of course, the problem with looking for these types of patterns and relationships in a statistical way is that it can get out of hand very easily. Eugenics comes along, and all of a sudden this pseudoscience is a tool to promote stereotypes and racism. Nazism is one historical example, but the trend stretches back to the early 20th century. Early eugenicists twisted Darwin’s ideas of evolution into an idea of racial superiority, establishing a spectrum of evolution that placed Europeans as the most “highly evolved” people and Africans as more “primitive.” In one famous case, a Congolese man named Ota Benga was brought to the United States in 1904 and exhibited in the World’s Fair and the Bronx Zoo, labelled as a link between primates and humans. He was even caged up with an orangutan so visitors could note similarities in stature and smile. Disturbingly, these “human zoos,” as they were called, were very common.

Is there a more productive, less harmful way to relate anatomical patterns to other human characteristics? What if we could observe a person’s favourite colour by the fissures on their skull, or find out something about their study habits by how far apart their eyes are? Would we be able to notice these things without categorizing people or even ostracizing them? Even if these types of relationships existed and we could study them effectively, it would still be a shortcut to getting to know someone, and a pretty limited, black and white assessment at that. Most of us hope for a bit more complexity in our personalities.

So you can check your hand right now to see if you should be a top financial trader or if you’ll just have to settle for being very well-endowed, but chances are you probably believe it doesn’t really work that way.

Diane’s column will appear every other Friday. To give her the finger, email