Monday, December 8, 2014

Dumb Lefties — Left Handers, That Is

My present topic is not politics but handedness. In particular the findings of a recent investigation that left-handers are deficient in cognitive skills, have higher rates of mental and behavioral disability than normal people, and earn less.

As a lefty, this comes as a shock, brought up as I have been to the idea that we lefties are smarter than the right-handed mass. For example, among left-handed rulers there was Ramses II, whose reign is considered by many historians to mark the pinnacle of Egyptian art and culture; Alexander the Great, conqueror of the Persian Empire; Charlemagne, who invented joined-up writing, while founding an empire that set Western Europe on the march from stinking backwater to dominant global power; and, in Washington, DC, sometimes identified as the home of a "vast left-handed conspiracy," four of the last five US presidents (George Dubya Bush being the exception and obviously the dimmest of the lot).

And lefties have excelled at most other things including art (Leonardo and Raphael) ; invention (Leonardo again, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Alan Turing — inventor of the computer, Nikola Tesla); science (Einstein, Madame Curie — the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, Linus Pauling, the only person to win two unshared Nobel prizes), etc., etc.

Clearly history vindicates the undeflatable self-esteem of the left-hander: we have something that righties will never grasp.

Still, this new study makes one wonder. In our family, three out of four are left-handers. I was graduated from university with first-class honors and the faculty prize, my wife, who is smarter than I, was a distinguished young scientist, chief editor of scholarly treatises and journals, an administrator, and educator, all while doing a superb job of domestic management and child rearing. Our son graduated in a hard subject from a major North American University with first class honors and the faculty prize. But then there's our daughter, who is right-handed and is smarter than all of us — possibly all of us put together.

So yes, one is left to ponder whether left-handers may indeed be missing something. And if I am able to identify that missing mental feature, I would say it has something to do with socialization. Our daughter, who at university played on the school hockey team, while getting A plus in everything from physics to fine art and poli-sci, is tremendously sociable and to my knowledge has never expressed a view that is truly at odds with the deepest convictions of her friends and co-workers. She is, in other words, very well integrated, with the result that she has never had difficulty finding a job, getting on with peers and bosses, or finding friends. All this I think is wonderful, but it reflects a mentality very different from my own, which makes me wonder whether this difference is the key to understanding the left-right divide.

To me, in any conversation, it is always the subject that is of interest: the facts, the logic, the implications, the hypotheses that might be formulated. Never, spontaneously, do I think how the conversation might be adapted to suit the interests or feelings of those with whom I am talking. This is an aggressive mode of interaction that serves very well in debate (I was chairman of debates at school and, momentarily, at university), but does not gain one a reputation for tact. It is the mentality of those who fail to court the management because, like the leftie Thomas Edison, they "just aim to accomplish somp'n." With age, I have learned a little discretion. But when compelled by polite company to speak with circumspection I am often at a loss for anything whatever to say.

If this is the critical feature of the left-handed mind, it suggests that a deficit in attention to social relations and the emotions and thoughts of others allows scope for greater reflection on objective reality beyond the social domain. Such a difference could sometimes pay-off big-time, even though more often than not it means one will be regarded as awkward, ill-adjusted and unworthy of a pay raise.

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