Is handwriting analysis a science?
One of my favorite anecdotes regards the emperor of China. So the story goes, a controversy arose as to the length of the emperor’s nose, a question hard to answer because no one outside the court had ever seen the emperor, and those who had seen the emperor were forbidden to speak of the emperor’s visage. So it was decided that the people of China would be polled to decide the question. Untold millions were asked the length of the emperor’s nose and the results were tabulated, giving a final figure precise to 7 decimal places.
Since Mike Zullo, the only one besides Reed Hayes who is reported to have seen his report on Obama’s birth certificate, isn’t sharing it, and has reportedly even copyrighted it, I feel a little like one of those Chinese subjects surveyed about the emperor’s nose when talking about the Hayes Report.
Unlike the emperor’s nose, we have a little bit to go on, some comments by Reed Hayes on a notorious murder case noted by a commenter1 here.
I was not a follower of the JonBenét Ramsey murder case but a little boning up at the Wikipedia (they need money by the way) yielded the necessary background. A central element of the story was a handwritten ransom note left at the Ramsey home. Speculation abounded as to who had written the note. A grand jury determined that sufficient evidence existed to charge the parents of child abuse leading to death, but the district attorney refused to sign the indictment (this only learned in 2013), and there remains unmatched DNA evidence pointing to an unknown male (along with an unmatched palm print and a pubic hair).
The ransom note had to be a magnet for every graphoanalyst and graphoanalyst wannabe and Reed Hayes proved no exception and here we get into the question of whether handwriting analysis is a science, because if it is a science, its results should be repeatable. Consider this little vignette from The Rocky Mountain News:
A well-known national handwriting expert said Monday he is 99.9 percent certain John Mark Karr wrote the ransom note found near the scene of JonBenet Ramsey’s murder. … Curt Baggett, the Texas-based co-founder of the School of Forensic Document Examination [said comparing the ransom note to a high school yearbook signature] “That there are so many similarities pushes the odds up into the seven digits.” …
One person who could find himself on the other side from [Baggett] … is Honolulu document examiner Reed Hayes, author of a textbook on forensic handwriting analysis.
"I do see a few similarities between the writing in the yearbook and the so-called ransom note, but not enough that I would identify him as the writer.
"In fact, I would lean more toward him not being the writer."
Ronald Morris, who spent 23 years as a document expert with the Secret Service said both where getting ahead of themselves, criticizing conclusions based only on copies.
Hayes later told CNN, “there`s a problem here in that my colleague seemed to be reaching these strong conclusions of identification based on improper comparison material. You know, we`re looking at…” (the clueless reporter didn’t let him explain), but by Hayes own statement, an analysis has to be based on proper comparison material, and that should be a factor considered when and if we see the actual Hayes report. I do not think Hayes has any original documents.
Hayes didn’t give a percentage, but he has an opinion as to who wrote the Ramsey ransom note, reports the Honolulu Star-Bulletin :
[Hayes] makes it clear that he is not working on the case in an official capacity, but says the note is a ruse, basing his opinion on copies of the note and handwriting samples sent to him by fellow graphonanalysts. He says Ramsey’s mother Patsy was the likely note writer, although no consensus has emerged among his colleagues.
Hayes said then that handwriting analysis is 80-90% accurate, and this from someone who is reportedly saying now that Obama’s birth certificate is a 100% forgery.
A handwriting expert will say that their conclusions are base on experience and training, but a discipline that yields unrepeatable results and relies heavily on personal judgment is not solid science. The National Science Foundation on study on Forensic Science stated:
Although there has been only limited research to quantify the reliability and replicability of the practices used by trained document examiners, the committee agrees that there may be some value in handwriting analysis.
The other thing we can conclude about the Hayes Report is that it must be based on faulty analysis because it is wrong. The document he claims is a forgery is about as well-authenticated as any document you’re likely to ever see.
1Commenters provide valuable contributions and in a sense this blog is “crowd sourced.”