Michael Hiltzik

Can't we finally put an end to anti-lefty discrimination?

Some of the most distinguished people in history were left-handed, and don't you forget it

A sizable percentage of the critical emails I receive accuse me of being a lefty. When I read them, my first reaction is always: How did this person find out which hand I write with?

Not that I conceal the fact, for we lefties consider ourselves to be enrolled in a gifted elite. Superior manual dexterity, thanks to the necessity of learning how to write on the right-hand page of loose-leaf ring binders and spiral notebooks in school. Top-notch cognitive skills, developed to ferret out the very few left-handed baseball gloves on the racks at the sporting goods stores.

And pride, as befits members of a tribe on the roll of which are counted (among so many others) Marie Curie, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Napoleon. Ask anyone: We're special.

That's why we're disdained by rightist society. We're sinister and gauche. "Left-handed compliments" are never appreciated. Calumny: The angel who sat at God's left-hand side was Lucifer.

Lately, some disturbing anti-lefty research has appeared. Joshua Goodman of Harvard's Kennedy School is out with a paper asserting that "lefties exhibit economically and statistically significant human capital deficits relative to righties." We score lower, he says, "on measures of cognitive skill and, contrary to popular wisdom, are not overrepresented at the high end of the distribution. Lefties have more emotional and behavioral problems, have more learning disabilities such as dyslexia, complete less schooling, and work in occupations requiring less cognitive skill."

This has shaken the secret society of left-handed overachievers -- and isn't that all of us? -- to the roots. Worse, Goodman finds that Lefts, who comprise about 12% of the human race and are somewhat more likely to be male than female, on average have annual earnings 10-12% lower than rights, "roughly equivalent to the return to a year of schooling" in his samples.

Goodman takes a run at the biological causes of left-handedness, which have been studied assiduously but remain inconclusive. The genetic component appears to be less than decisive, since as many as 25% of identical twin pairs differ in handedness.

Some researchers believe left-handedness results from stress on the fetus during gestation, and tie it to low birth weight and other manifestations of stresses and strains. The theory that lefties are blessed in the womb by an angel doesn't appear in his analysis. Goodman dismisses the contention of psychologist Stanley Coren that left-handedness is associated with superior creativity, but doesn't mention that Coren also has claimed that lefties have more accidents, are sicker over their lifetimes and die younger. 

As noted by Peter Orszag, Obama's former budget director and a lefty with two left-handed sons though married to a righty, Goodman's research is a challenge to other studies that show lefties to be overrepresented among very high scorers on the SAT and high-IQ individuals.

Orszag raises some important points here. One is that both findings could be true: Lefties could be more prevalent among low achievers, but also among extremely high achievers. The other is that the problems Goodman identifies may be concentrated, on average, among lefties with right-handed mothers. The opposite-handedness may interfere with the infant's efforts to learn from his or her mother by mimicking; a similar phenomenon occurs in right-handed children of left-handed mothers.

One other point noted by Orszag points to the question of whether Goodman is qualified at all to be conducting such sensitive research. You see, he's a righty.

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