Fake news is one of the year’s hot topics. According to media pundits, fake news takes different forms. First are made-up news stories of events that never happened. False reports of a celebrity death are this type of fake news. A second category is a false report based on an honest error. These mistakes are quickly corrected once the truth is determined. Natural disaster fatality reports fall into this category of fake news.
Certain claims about left-handedness are a unique form of fake news. The core news fact is a scientific finding or theory about left-handedness considered to be true at one time. This fact standing alone becomes fake news when the contradictory evidence is omitted in the news report about left-handedness.
Ideas about switching handedness from the left to the right hand are good examples of fake news. Recently, a teacher from the United States contacted me. She had a young student who had been left-handed but was switched to right-hand writing. She noticed that he could write with either the right or the left hand but his left-handed writing was of better quality. She asked me if she would permanently damage his language skills if she encouraged him to write with his left hand reversing the previous rightward conversion. I replied that the child should write with the hand that felt most comfortable. She need not worry about the change because his language development would not be affected. She responded, “Are you saying that all this stuff I’ve been reading about handedness, switching and language skills is not true?” I answered, “That’s what I’m saying…it’s not true.”
In the 1920’s and 1930’s there was a widely-held idea that switching children from left- to right-handed writing put them at risk for developing a stutter. A study of rightward converted stutters reported that their stuttering improved or disappeared when they went back to their original left-handed writing. This result supported a connection between language disorders and left-to-right handwriting shifts. Many studies since that time report no relationship between rightward handwriting conversion, stuttering and other language disorders. Clearly, the literature this teacher consulted emphasized the nearly 100-year-old theory linking handedness conversion to language disorders. The intervening years of research contradicting this relationship did not make the information cut.
Why are fictions about left-handedness so tenacious and long-lived? Often a prominent researcher from a prestigious university is the author of the original study (in this case claiming a relationship between rightward handwriting conversions and stuttering). He/she may be a prolific scholar producing many books and articles promoting the theory which then makes a big one-time splash with other researchers and with the public. The test of the theory’s adequacy extends over decades, many laboratories and many researchers. The continuous dribble of results refuting the theory is diffuse. The major impact of these follow-up studies is cumulative and only becomes apparent when the results of many research efforts are considered as a group. Such a long-term process does not result in a major press release of a single dramatic finding and tends to be ignored.
People’s attachment to the power of anecdotes is also a factor in the continuation of fake facts about left-handedness. The 2010 movie The King’s Speech details the struggles of King George VI of England (the current Queen’s father) to overcome his debilitating stutter. The king was a switched left-hander which biographers claim was the cause of his stutter. Did the king’s handwriting conversion cause his stuttering? Maybe so, but from a statistical standpoint, one instance does not make a general trend. The king’s story is one illustration of a possible connection between stuttering and handwriting conversion. It rivets attention on this link regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Scientist face a challenge regarding fake news. Something is not a fact just because many people believe it to be true. Overt evidence supporting an alleged fact is essential for discovering the truth. International Left-hander’s Day is coming soon. It is a day of pride when left-hander’s celebrate their unique view of the world. Hey left-handers, now’s the time to take a stand for science and against fake news perpetrating false claims about you and your handedness.