For the purposes of this article, I am going to use "Questioned Document Examiners (QDE)" as those who solve forgeries by matching signatures. I am therefore going to use "Handwriting Examiners" as those who analyze personality through handwriting. I am trained in both but prefer the personality.
Per Adam Brand, a document examiner in the United Kingdom, "QDEs who are not trained in handwriting examination to assess personality strongly dislike going to court against them."
While the QDEs dislike the additional competition, they always try to imply that handwriting examiners are not capable of producing forensic reports compliant with Civil Procedure Rules.
Yet, properly trained and qualified handwriting examiners do use scientific methods to validate their profession. For QDEs to dismiss their counterparts, is like stating the individual who rides a bike will never learn to drive a car.
QDEs want to be seen as ‘scientists’ but the handwriting element of document examination has some way to go before it can claim a full ‘scientific status’. It is awkward for QDEs to have to admit that they are being subjective - rather than scientific - when rendering their professional opinions.
Although extensive research has been conducted on handwriting identification, there are still no universal fundamentals.
What follows are just a few examples where QDEs were challenged on proving their "scientific" status.
- In 1894, Alphonse Bertillon was considered the very 1st person to attempt proving that his approach to handwriting examination is scientific. He ‘proved’ by statistics and analysis that Captain Dreyfus’s handwriting demonstrated his guilt of selling French military secrets. Bertillon’s testimony then helped force Dreyfus’s conviction. Dreyfus was then sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island for 4 years until the true criminal was exposed (an innocent man imprisoned).
- The founder of modern QDE is Albert S. Osborn who wrote the text book on it in 1929. This book is still used as a foundation for today's document examination courses. Albert and his son worked on the Lindberg baby kidnapping case in 1932. The Alberts both examined the writing of Robert Hauptman (the accused) and decided after careful that Hauptman was innocent and did not the write the kidnapping notes. Yet, the police stated the ransom money had been found in Hauptman’s garage. Within an hour, these two famous document examiners changed their opinion to say, "we are now absolutely certain that Hauptman did write the kidnapping notes." Hauptman was executed in 1936.
- In 1971, the Osborns again failed to prove their approach was science. In this case, Paul and Russell Osborn stated that the letters supposedly written by Howard Hughes - where Hughes gave permission for Clifford Irving to write his autobiography - were genuine. However, Howard came out of hiding long enough to state he did not author those permission letters.
- With the Hitler diaries case in 1983, the internationally known QDE Ordway Hilton compared the forged Hitler diaries with examples of Hitler’s real writing and declared them to be a match. Yet the handwriting examiner Marie Bernard immediately stated that the feeble character seen in the writing of the forged diaries could not be that of Hitler. She, rather than Hilton, turned out to be right. A German Government chemist who examined the ink and paper also confirmed Bernard's findings.
- The case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1993 concluded that the QDE lacked empirical support as a science.
- On April 4, 1995, Judge Lawrence L. McKenna in the case of USA v Starzecpyzel stated, "Forensic document examiners are not scientists, but are more in the nature of skilled craftsmen."
Some Science so are NOT 100% Pseudoscience!
To be a competent QDE, scientific training is imperative. An understanding of physics to operate electro-static detection apparatus (to identify impressions) and video spectral comparators (to distinguish between different inks using infra-red light, etc), chemistry to identify those different inks, and biochemistry to determine type and age of papers are all part of the curriculum.
Per Adam, "While inanimate materials such as paper/cloth/wood and ink are relatively stable over time, this is not the case, however, with handwriting."
QDEs examine: movement (speed, rhythm, pressure patterns, line quality, skill level); spacing (size, proportions, alignment) and form (starting/ending strokes, forms of connection, method of construction).
Handwriting Examiners assess: size of the paper, the mood of the writer, whether there are medical or mental health concerns, aging issues such as eyesight or arthritis, street drugs, type of pen, etc.
Because of this variability, handwriting examination does not have an exact science as a foundation any more than QDE. That's why, if a court case is more about the personality than who-wrote-what, QDEs should not claim their findings are more scientific, as that would be untrue.
QDEs Should Give Credit to Handwriting Examiners
Per Adam Brand, document examiners owe much gratitude of their ability to handwriting examiners because they actually started the entire process. Without them, there would be no QDEs at all.
For QDEs, samples are considered to be written by the same author if there are enough similarities without any significant differences.
Adam also stated in his 2019 article, "Handwriting is considered to be simulated if the significant differences with the known writing cannot be explained. With all the above points, handwriting examiners were the first to establish precedence. The factors first established during the birth of handwriting examination are still taken into account by QDEs such as the mechanical aspects, writer’s graphic maturity, writer’s relative speed of writing, the copy-book learned, the writer’s nationality, the writer’s visual sensitivity, the writer’s power of graphic expression, the writer’s knowledge of foreign languages, the writer’s physical condition, and whether the letter is at the beginning, middle or end of a word."
How can Handwriting Examiners Help QDEs?
As Adam stated, "QDEs are prepared to admit that environmental factors (writing instrument and writing position) health (drug taking, mental health, eyesight problems, aging) and emotional state (angry, happy, depressed) can affect writing. But QDEs are unwilling to consider the effect of personality on handwriting; this is the handwriting examiners area of expertise.
Adam elaborated, "QDEs use the expression ‘master pattern’ to define a person’s natural writing, around which there is a range of variation. If, however, they could accept that the ‘master pattern’ reflects the individual character of an individual, they would be in a better position to understand what drives a person to write the way they do. Such an understanding could help them when deciding whether or not one or more authors are involved.
An example of the way handwriting examiners can help QDEs is in the area of disguise. If examiners are able to see dishonesty in known writings, they could - instead of tending to assume a very different writing means forgery - get a head start by testing for disguise."
QDEs insist on comparing like with like.
For example, per Adam, if there is a small hook at the start of a ‘t’ stem, then they will accept only a comparison with another hook at the start of a ‘t’ stem; a similar hook at the start of an ‘h’ cannot be considered. QDEs are not prepared to compare cursive handwriting with signatures and they are not prepared to compare capitals with cursive lettering. Clearly such comparisons cannot be included in a court report but some consideration of the above aspects can help in an examination.
Although comments on personality and ‘inexact’ comparisons similar to those sited above are not typically included in a forensic report, an understanding of the psychology behind important ‘inconspicuous movements’ (indicative strokes or typical gestures) can give document examiners a faster route into deciding whether or not a piece of writing is authentic. Indicative strokes can, of course, be copied, but to do so, while, at the same time, copying a range of individual characteristics such as speed, up slant angles, pen lifts, baselines, crest lines, fluency is difficult."
Without graphological understanding that handwriting examiners specialize in, QDEs often draw odd conclusions or even make up possible causes of discourse.
One of the examples Adam illustrated is when a QDE was examining handwriting on a plain sheet of paper saw a middle zone end stroke pulled below the base line. The QDE stated "since there is no printed line, there was nowhere for that particular stroke to stop."
Handwriting Examiners would have never said such as dumb thing. Handwriting examiners know that such a stroke often indicates that the writer is argumentative and stubborn.
Although a person’s writing often changes over time, the handwriting examiner can still discern the consistency of the writer's personality.
Clearly, it appears that it may be easier for a handwriting examiner to become a QDE than a QDE to become a handwriting examiner. Nonetheless, dismissal of the field of handwriting examination definitely prevents QDEs from employing a useful body of knowledge which could help their work immensely.
So Why Do Document Examiners Dislike Handwriting Examiners?
There really is no good or valid reason. The true answer is EGO.
The QDEs like to tout that they are "scientists" because they follow the ASTM Standards.
However, ego aside, honest QDEs will admit that their 'science' - like that of handwriting examiners, and professionals who offer biorhythm services, homeopathy, feng shui, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, Ayurveda, colon cleansing, body detoxing, Reiki, traditional Chinese medicine, EMDR, hypnosis, neurolinguistics, psychoanalysis, chiropractic services, and polygraphs - is somewhat a pseudoscience.
Oh, and did you know that Lyme Disease, Leaky Gut Syndrome, and the Myers Briggs personality tests are all considered pseudoscience, too?
Either way, you will find that properly trained experts in all of the above areas can have extremely high accuracy rates and help you solve your case or improve your life.