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Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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palmistry

Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is the practice of telling fortunes from the lines, marks, and patterns on the hands, particularly the palms.

Palmistry was practiced in many ancient cultures, such as India, China and Egypt. The first book on the subject appeared in the 15th century. The term chiromancy comes from the Greek word for hand (cheir).

Palmistry was used during the middle ages to detect witches. It was believed that certain spots on the hand indicated one had made a pact with the Devil. Palmistry was condemned by the Catholic Church but in the 17th century it was taught at several German universities (Pickover, 64). Britain outlawed palmistry in the 18th century. It is popular enough in America in the 20th century to deserve its own book in the Complete Idiot's Guide series.

According to Ann Fiery (The Book of Divination), if you are right handed, your left hand indicates inherited personality traits and your right hand indicates your individuality and fulfillment of potential. The palmist claims to be able to read the various lines on your hand. These lines are given names like the life line, the head line, the heart line, the Saturne line. The life line supposedly indicates physical vitality, the head line intellectual capacity, the heart line emotional nature, etc.

Some palmistry mimics metoposcopy or physiognomy. It claims that you can tell what a person is like by the shape of their hands. Creative people have fan-shaped hands and sensitive souls have narrow, pointy fingers and fleshy palms, etc. There is about as much scientific support for such notions as there is for personology or phrenology. All such forms of divination seem to be based on sympathetic magic and cold reading.

The authors of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Palmistry, Robin Giles and Lisa Lenard, claim that "palmistry works because your hand changes as you do." They claim to have a few anecdotes to back them up on this, but fail to produce any scientific support for the claim. They also think that cloning makes it much easier for us to understand how palmistry works. "Palmistry is possible because you are represented in your hand. No two hands are alike because you--and your cells--are unique." True, and they are as likely to discover whether I will marry a rich woman or find the job of my dreams by looking at my cells as by looking at my palms.

Although you can often tell a lot about a person by examining his or her hands, there is no scientific support for the claim that you can tell such things as whether you will inherit money or find your true love from the lines or marks on your hands. I suspect that many of those who think they have found support for palmistry are guilty of confirmation bias and have found it in the form of anecdotes.

The desire for knowledge of the future seems to be at the root of palmistry and other forms of divining secret knowledge through paranormal revelations. Also, fortune tellers relieve us of the obligation to gather evidence and think about that evidence. Our palmists and graphologists, etc., also relieve us of the difficult task of evaluating the consequences of taking various actions. They absolve us of the responsibility of decision-making. They are great comforts, therefore, to the insecure, the lazy, and the incompetent. Of course, they can also be data points, i.e., they provide one more piece of data that a person can use to make a decision. Some writers even use divination such as the Tarot or the I Ching to give them ideas for characters or plots (Pickover, 40-41). They probably could do just as well by thumbing through the Bible, a newspaper, a poetry anthology, an encyclopedia, or a skeptical dictionary. 

Politician Sarah Palin gave palm reading a new meaning after giving a talk to the Tea Party. While responding to a question, she consulted her palm for help. The BBC reports that "a photo taken during a question-and-answer session after the speech showed her left hand with the words 'energy', 'budget cuts', 'tax' and 'lift Americans spirits'. The word 'budget' had been crossed out." PZ Myers, who had just completed a speaking tour himself, commented: "Man, next time I go off to give a talk, I'm going to get a sharpie and write 'Science. Evolution. Anti-creationism.' on my left hand, in case I get asked what I'm going to talk about. 'Cause I might forget, you know."

See also astrology, crystal power, cold reading, dowsing, dream, feng shui, fortune telling, graphology, I Ching, iridology, magical thinking, metoposcopy, mentalist, numerology, oracle, phrenology, physiognomy, psychic, reflexology, runes, scrying, tarot and How F.B.I. profiling is like palm reading.


further reading

Fiery, Ann. The Book of Divination (Chronicle Books, 1999).

Marlock, Dennis and John Dowling. License to Steal: Traveling Con Artists, Their Games, Their Rules--Your Money (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1994).

Park, Michael Alan. "Palmistry or Hand-Jive?" in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Pickover, Clifford A. Dreaming the Future - the fantastic story of prediction (Prometheus, 2001).

Last updated 22-Dec-2013

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