The Dangers of Magical Thinking in the Martial Arts

Jennifer Raff —  February 23, 2014 — 73 Comments

This post comes courtesy of Jeff Westfall, someone I’ve known and respected as a leader in the martial arts community since I moved to Indiana in 1992. I’m absolutely delighted that he agreed to share his insights into pseudoscience in the martial arts with us. You can read details of his background on his school’s website here. –Jenny

I’m Jeff Westfall for the Martial Brain

Recently on Facebook I saw a video of a Finnish martial artist named Jukka Lampila who called what he did Empty Force or EFO, and claimed that with it he could control an attacker without touching him. His Facebook page proclaims him the founder of EFO. The video begins with clips of Lampila fending off ‘attacks’ from his students. He waves his arms; sometimes he twitches, and in each case the ‘attacker’ seems to be magically thrown to the mat without ever being touched by Lampila. He also shows an example of ‘controlling’ someone on the ground. He kneels calmly beside a supine student with the back of his hand gently resting on the man’s chest. “I don’t need to use any energy” he asserts as the student appears to try with all his might to regain his feet to no avail. It is a sad display of martial arts charlatanism.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lampila, a group of skeptics were in attendance this day, and several of them volunteered to be ‘controlled’ by Mr. Lampila. His chosen method was to have the volunteer try to push him. He failed in each case to stop them from doing so. The skeptics were admirably polite, giving Mr. Lampila an ample number of opportunities to prove his claims and not demonstrably gloating at his failures. When one of them calmly asked him if he would like to demonstrate his defense against a punching attack Mr. Lampila declined. He later invited everyone to pay for and attend his seminar the next day!

I’ve been involved in the martial arts since 1971. I’ve been teaching martial arts since 1975. In this time, and long before I became aware of formal scientific skepticism I grew to see that a lot of people are drawn to martial arts styles that are based on pseudo-science. The arts that are the biggest culprits by far are the arts that base their claims of effectiveness on developing and manipulating a purported form of internal energy. Whether you label it Chi, Ki, Prana, “The Force”, or Empty Force it has never to my knowledge been proven to exist through robust, double-blind, replicated scientific experiments. If it is energy, where are the scientific instruments that can detect its levels? Is this energy chemical, radiant, nuclear, kinetic, electro-magnetic, mechanical, or ionizing? Is this energy in the form of waves or particles? At the risk of building a straw man, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that practitioners and apologists for these arts would say that science doesn’t know everything, and that “chi power” is as yet unexplained by science. If this were plausible, wouldn’t it follow that a large number of physicists would be pursuing a future Nobel Prize by attempting to prove the existence of this vital energy?

In the last 43 years I’ve seen quite a few ‘demonstrations’ of this power. I have yet to be impressed. Mostly what I’ve seen were sad carnival sideshow tricks, many of which I can easily explain if not reproduce, without resorting to magic. The rest were feckless displays like that of Mr. Lampila.

I assert that on the rare occasions when practitioners of these styles defend themselves effectively it is through properly applied principles of leverage and body mechanics, and not the magical power of Ki.

This phenomenon raises further questions. First, what possesses people to train in such a system of martial arts? Second, what is in the minds of people who already train in such systems and continue to do so after seeing their ‘Master’ embarrassed as Mr. Lampila was in the video?

As for what draws people in the first place, I will cite what scientific skepticism has taught me. Human life experience is complex. A trait of humans is that we tend to be put off by complexity and seek simple answers. Perhaps this stems from an early genetic history as prey animals. In such an environment time spent on deeply rational thinking can get you killed. Quick and dirty heuristics are survival mechanisms. Perhaps we have an instinct to seek out simplicity. Whatever the origin of our propensity to seek out simple answers to complex questions, it can make us prone to magical thinking and leave us easy prey for con-men and charlatans.

Lots of folks are put off by the daunting challenge of thorough and extensive training in practical martial arts. It is a lot of hard work. It is time consuming. It costs money. It would be so much easier if one could avoid the stretching, calisthenics, set-backs, and occasional injuries and ‘simply’ cultivate one’s potent internal energy!

It is also frequently the case that some people wish to learn to learn self-defense, but have a profound sense of revulsion regarding violence. Unfortunately these sweet-natured people are usually powerfully drawn by the lure of a martial arts style that claims to be both effective and humane through the use of ‘Chi’. I have a soft spot for these folks, and I deeply respect their pacifism. As a result I am especially angered when they fall prey to arrogant, condescending, cynical con-artists who serenely take their money while harboring secret contempt for their foolishness.

Effective self-defense requires training, not magical thinking. From http://rpmartialarts.com/drupal/content/about-us

 

The best way to be able to defend yourself while striving not to harm your attacker is to train in practical martial arts until you reach a reasonable level of competence. A person who is not credibly competent at self-defense can no more claim to be a pacifist than a eunuch can claim to be a celibate.

As for explaining what keeps people already training in these styles in the face of a lack of evidence, there are parallels in other forms of pseudo-science. Whether it is faith healing, alternative medicine, astrology, or any other form of what James Randi refers to as ‘woo’, there are two types of followers.

The first is the ‘true believers’ who have so much of themselves invested that they engage in cognitive dissonance and turn a blind eye to evidence because their very sense of identity has become dependent on their belief being true. Humans are lamentably prone to profound self-deception. Many people take up martial arts for reasons other than self-defense. A very common motivation, whether at the conscious level or not, is that it can make you feel better about yourself. Many people have a trait that psychology calls the Fantasy Prone Personality. For those with FFP, a martial art based on magic is a perfect fit, engaging the fascination with the super-natural while building up the student’s self-image.

The second type of follower is the apprentice con-artist who sees the perks that the practitioner enjoys and is paying dues in the hopes of being the successor to the master or doctor.

It is worth pointing out that martial arts teachers pushing this stuff also fall into the categories of true-believers and cynical con-artists as well.

What to do about martial arts con-artists? I’m not fond of government regulation. There are too many disparate styles of practical martial arts to make it practical. I think the best way to deal with them is to shine the actinic light of scientific skepticism on them. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Don’t be put off by failures in this regard. Human nature yields a steady supply of victims for pseudo-scientific predators. Like practitioners of alternative medicine, they are unencumbered by the rigor of valid logic and the scientific method. Battling these people is like brushing your teeth or mowing your lawn, you never permanently finish the job, but you keep it up anyway!

2/25/14 Edited to embed the original Youtube video this post is referencing.–Jenny

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Jennifer Raff

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Scientist, fighter, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

73 responses to The Dangers of Magical Thinking in the Martial Arts

  1. 

    Reblogged this on The meme for blind faith and commented:
    wishful thinking, magical thinking, delusion, this is a good example of this things. enjoy.

    • 

      Wow….outstanding examples. Thanks for sharing!

      • 

        Another example of this bullshido, comes from another student of Dillman, Master Tom Cameron, a.k.a. “The Human Stun Gun”. He has variously demonstrated his foolishness on Ripley’s Believe It or Not (see http://www.metacafe.com/watch/55042/touch_of_death/ ), on the Steve Harvey Show (see http://www.break.com/video/ugc/death-touch-knock-out-694542 ) and on Stan Lee’s Superhumans. I have seen references to the last video but I have not been able to find this video nor have I ever watched it (note that Superhumans is another show which is sometimes known for being very lacking in properly applied skepticism of the subjects they cover).

        Nowadays, Cameron is better known for the video segment that a local FOX affiliate did on him where they actually brought over some people training in jujutsu for him to try the touchless knockout on. This one can be seen at http://youtu.be/pdrzBL2dHMI . It did not work out well for Cameron because the jujutsu students seemed completely unperturbed by his attempts at a touchless knockout.

        While my two paragraphs above and the first two paragraphs of Westfall’s article are addressing touchless techniques, I also consider pressures point techniques in general, including those demonstrated by Cameron, to be bullshido.

        I once attended a pressure point seminar given by Rick Clark, who was also a student of Dillman (I think I might have paid money for this –though not a lot). I was one of maybe two people on whom the techniques, in general, did not work on (I was told by Rick Clark that there’s always one or two such people in a large group). Basically, pressure points techniques are a combination of assorted pain compliance techniques (such as various joint locks –this stuff does work since it relies on trying to make stuff bend the wrong way which tends to hurt and forces a defensive response to relieve the pain) and strikes or pressure on various spots on the body (sometimes including areas with relatively unprotected, superficial nerves –think of hitting your “funny bone”) and which may be perceived as anything from a touch/strike to uncomfortable to painful (depending on how the technique is done and who it is done on). If they work at all, it is because they can be uncomfortable and because the person having the technique done will attempt to fulfill the expected response to it. Since this seminar included a number of judo people, it was pointed out to us that many of these techniques could be incorporated into judo techniques since many of them do not involve anything which is specifically disallowed by the rules of judo competition. Yet, as a general rule, you will not ever see any pressure point nonsense used in competition because it doesn’t really work.

        Then there’s the brachial stun demonstrated in the videos I linked to (also demonstrated, in the seminar I attended, by Rick Clark on one of his students). I believe that this is the only thing that works even if I’ve never had it done on me (nor do I desire to have it done on me). However, this works, not because of any pressure point magic, but because it’s an ordinary knockout achieved by jarring the head.

        Maintaining the head erect requires the tension of muscles working against each other, like taut cables, in conjunction with the structural support of the cervical spine. Hitting any of these elements produced a sudden (if brief) acceleration of the head. This probably also involves a neural component magnifying the mechanics in the form of reflexes because skeletal muscles have a normally protective, strong contractile response to sudden increases in tension. The result is that something which doesn’t look like much of a strike can be a lot more violent than it seems and will affect something which has not been directly struck (the head).

        When the reporter in the Fox affiliate piece had the brachial stun done to her she was clearly affected (even if not anywhere near knocked out) but she also exclaimed “wait, you just hit me in the head!” because the technique was not the light tap that this Cameron told her he was going to use and because she felt the head jarring effect. Of course, one of Cameron’s own students would have been more compliant and would thus have shown a more dramatic response even to a much lighter strike.

        • 

          I found it! I found Cameron on Superhumans! It’s as dreadful as one might have guessed. It’s from 23:12 to 32:02 at http://faststream.in/sc5rl72xdyvs?fl=stan.lees.superhumans.s01e08.jaw.breaker.hdtv.xvid-momentum.avi (it can also be found in French at http://youtu.be/jsivekH0RuI ).

          It’s awful because the program’s presenter starts out sort of OK and then drops the ball (this might be intentional since the title of the show is not “Stan Lee’s superfrauds”). He has Cameron try a touchless knockout on him and it produces no effect. Unfortunately, his next move is to call some “paranormal investigator” clowns but even they can’t figure out a way to make it look like Cameron is doing something special. Eventually, they do bring the paramedics (like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not crew did and like in the Chicago Fox News piece) who concluded, while monitoring a “touchless knockout”, that vital signs did change. This allowed the presenter to save face for the show and for Cameron and conclude that something weird was going on.

          All of this is inexcusable because the air date of the Superhumans piece was 2010. This means that if they had spent 5 minutes googling they would have been able to find the Fox Chicago expose which was on YouTube by 2006 and which would have had lots of views by 2010 (the Chicago Fox piece was broadcast sometime early in 2006).

        • 

          “Another example of this bullshido”

          Haha, nice.

  2. 

    The idea of “EFO” and no touch knockouts drive me up the wall. Not only is it ridiculous but it’s setting up the students to at best, catch a beatdown and worst, die. Looks like the George Dillman and “Human stun gun” garbage is making a comeback. Hope it doesn’t last long. Thanks for sharing.

  3. 

    This is a quite remarkable post for someone who seems to have no scientific background. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Thanks to Jennifer Raff for hosting it.

  4. 

    Some of the quackery being demonstrated by this EFO ‘master’ does have some basis in truth, but there’s no magic power behind this. The explanations are mundane.

    The no-touch strike idea came from a Samurai technique of pretending to strike, stunning and distracting the adversary before running a sword through him – making the adversary flinch, in other words. Back in the days it was refined, I’m told, to the extent the subtlest movement would cause a powerful (entirely psychological) reaction.

    This isn’t something new-agers could achieve by practising 2-hours a week in the safety of modern civilised society – the magic tricks, mystical experiences, highly developed intuition and whatnot came to Samurai who practiced long hours and were routinely in the profound situation of facing near-certain death. They adapted to their environment, we could say.

    As for the guy in the vid being ‘paralysed’ on the ground through ‘Chi’, that much would be genuine, if the ‘master’ was doing it correctly (which I doubt). It’s commonly practiced in Ki Aikido, but never as a fighting technique, and it’s done simply by relaxing (the arm is neither tensed or bending) so the guy on the floor has the other guy’s entire upper body weight to contend with.

    • 

      Michael,

      I believe what you are describing in your second paragraph is a type of freeze. There are three distinct types of freezes. They are tactical, physiological and mental/non-cognitive. From your description, I would say it is physiological. There are two types of physiological freezes. One is the changing of ‘gears’ when the body swtiches from a metabolic state to a state of high adrenaline (which is usually a short freeze, but depends on the individual). I believe you were talking about the second physiological freeze, which occurs when there is or is perceived to be a vast amount of danger. This is when you go into what Lt.Col Dave Grossman calls ‘condition black,’ basically become comatose. A deer in headlights, if you will. Heart rate above 175, sometimes loss of bladder control and the feeling of ‘I just couldn’t move’ or like the individual was watching the events unfold, like a fly on the wall.

      My point is that the technique and effects of it, on the samarai’s opponent, were most likely due to the 1) lack of training or skill set of the opponent and 2) the reputation of the samarai being very skilled, mystic or whatever.

      In my opinion, this is neither mumdane nor hard to train for. Criminals use these types of freezes (among other things) to get the upper hand on their victims quite often.

      For more infomation on these concepts take a look at On combat by Dave Grossman and Meditations On Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence, by Rory Miller.

      • 

        Many thanks for that. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the term for it. Imagine that sudden perception of danger, but induced by an almost imperceptible movement. A deer caught in headlights it doesn’t see.
        How that got distorted into some magical new age ‘Empty Force’ throwing at a distance thingy I’ll never know.

  5. 

    My friends Pete and Fraser filmed a debunking of a group of ‘martial arts’ called Yellow Bamboo. The YB people claim to be able to do the no touch knockouts. Pete and Fraser showed it was all BS.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1ykNZ7rAcw

    Also, here is an article that covers a bit on them as well: http://www.skepdic.com/yellowbamboo.html

  6. 

    “A person who is not credibly competent at self-defense can no more claim to be a pacifist…” a person who can’t defend himself can’t oppose war and violence?

    • 

      The point isn’t that if you can’t fight you aren’t allowed to be against something. The analogy is about the action/inaction of the claim of being a pacifist, not the philosophy. Just like a blind person can be morally against looking at nude images, but they can’t claim a moral high ground by saying, ‘I have never looked upon a nude image’. That person is incapable of doing so.

      • 

        Exactly, I meant no offense to genuine pacifists. On the contrary, I respect them. What I was ineptly trying to point out was the hypocrisy and condescension of many of these “internal energy” con-artists who cloak themselves in moral superiority through the claim of being able to defend themselves while preserving their opponent from harm through the power of their ‘magic’.

    • 

      That stood out to me too, but it was just a quirk of language, I think. This is my close-reading of it: A person who trains in self-defense, and is not credibly competent yet still engages in combat, cannot claim to be a pacifist.
      This individual is encouraging violence on him/herself and risks injuring or killing the opponent.

      Also common usage has diluted the term pacifist. A pacifist causes a peace that outweighs present conflict. That can actually include people who resort to violence to achieve that end, as long as peace directly results from said violence. One who practices consistent and enduring non-violence is a passivist–one who will take no overt action.

  7. 

    This is a decent article, but “A person who is not credibly competent at self-defense can no more claim to be a pacifist than a eunuch can claim to be a celibate” as a statement reveals to me what kind of person you are. Obviously many in the self-defense community feel the same way, or presumably they wouldn’t bother with it. And factually it all checks out- with life controlled by game theory, as the number of people willing to practice violence decreases, the rewards for becoming a hawk start to multiply. But it’s a crappy ideal for a crappy world, and I’d rather be hurt or killed than live if the times when that’s transparently true are coming back. Deciding not to learn to defend myself doesn’t make me an eunuch, it makes me an aesthete.

    • 

      Who said anything about ‘practicing violence’? Who said not practicing self-defense made one a eunuch? It’s about labeling oneself as if one had the moral high ground, yet one is simply at the default position.

  8. 

    I have a “theory” on how this works. Usually these people do have some skills. If they start early and use a bit of force in early training, using negative reinforcement when the students don’t “react” correctly I am fairly sure that the students can be trained to react to their “master”. George Dillman’s students have been shown to undergo detectable physiological effects. Yet he has no effect on skeptics when he tries to knock them out. Many years ago, before he came out with his version of knock out Dillman used to have seminars that people would take. They were filled with fairly basic joint control techniques that do work if applied correctly. Police have used them before Dillman came along. Second hand I have been on the receiving end of some of his techniques and they can be effective. They are not “no touch”. Students may have given him the cue for his touchless knockouts since his techniques did work when applied. By jumping early they avoid the pain.

    These people may learn to take a fall and their not falling may be later be shown to be a bad idea by a rough training session.

  9. 

    Reblogged this on Confessions of an Adversary and commented:
    This is perfect! As a lifelong practitioner of combat arts, I’ve seen more than my share of charlatans and frauds. Hell, I trained with a couple before I came to my senses.

  10. 

    this is our take on LKJ Powerful EFO

  11. 

    The stuff about pacifism is wrong-headed I think. The difference lies in consent. People do sports because they want to do them, because they enjoy the competition. In even the hardest full contact sports like rugby and MMA everyone is there because that is what they want to do. That makes it totally different from war.

    It’s true that in the USA contests are sometimes used for military recruitment, but that’s aimed largely at the fantasies of the kids in the audience, not at the competitors. In my experience, the competitors are almost all the most peaceful people you can imagine (except when they are competing).

  12. 

    For what is worth, I’ve been told by my teachers that “chi” _is_ essentially biomechanics, nothing magical about it.

  13. 

    Jabberwock,

    Personally, I would rather use the term “pre-scientific paradigm” to describe Qi, Ki, Pranna, etc… At best these are a catch all term for elements of biomechanics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and just plain ‘what ever works’ placed together in a pre science cultural framework. There’s often a lot of good stuff to mine in there, you just can’t take the traditional ‘why’ of it too seriously.

    At worst it’s just a term of mystification used by charlatans and new age Qi Huggers to justify a wacky world view or increase credulity in the mark. Even ‘real’ terms like ‘quantum’ are routinely abused in similar fashion.

    Good article Jeff, can’t wait to hear it!

  14. 

    After hundreds if not thousands of televised professional mixed martial arts fights I think we can honestly say that unless you’ve seen a professional fighter do it, it probably doesn’t work.

    • 

      Oh yeah, I was duped by the Dillman Method for a while until I came to my senses.

      • 

        I have trained with instructors who, while otherwise having a lot of interesting technique to teach, were overly fond of energy work as well. Keeping a straight face during class was really tough. I escaped to Muay Thai and BJJ not long after.

        • 

          Most “energy work” is basically just a form of therapeutic touch.
          On the other hand, some of the *real* stuff is great for relaxing you — I use cloud hands, for instance, to massage my arms loose after working out. But that’s not “chi.” That’s just the sensation we get when we keep a certain skeletal alignment and twist the body like a dishrag. I’ve helped scoliotics unwind and put on four inches with what a lot of folks would call “energy work” in standing meditation – but it’s *entirely* explainable in western terms.

          The difference I think for somebody who’s brand new and doesn’t know enough to sniff test well (Besides stumbling onto a place where they do it for you!), is “does the instructor expect you to do something that is really g-d hard work?” and “are his/her students who are doing that hard work also able to show the benefits?”

          There’s other questions – but when folks ask me, those are the two i bring up.

  15. 

    Many years ago I challenged Dillman to knock me out in front of a hundred people at a seminar he was teaching. He tried three times, and all that happened is his strikes became harder and more painful. I experienced absolutely no change in consciousness. As far as I’m concerned, it’s woo woo.

  16. 

    Reblogged this on The Perpetual Skeptic and commented:
    Again, while I am busy at my other blog, here is a Reblog.
    Keep your defenses up…be a Perpetual Skeptic

  17. 

    I think what these martial artists refer to by chi or ki, is less of an energy and more concentraition or focus, a state of mind, and I believe doing these “chi” or “ki” exercises is good. If “chi” or “ki” has something to do with energy, it’s mass and/or inertia and many of these “mystic” styles (I exclude the totally out there practices like that of Mr. Lampila’s) can benefit a lot from the idea of this “chi” or “ki”, because it helps you to be in the moment and feel the inertia and mass and control it in a more fluid and natural way then you could if you were juggling ideas like mass, inertia, concentration, angle and momentum during fighting. If removed from the scientifically absurd the concept itself is pretty damn useful I’d think, but only with vigorous physical training in speed, strength and endurance.

  18. 

    There are a few posters talking about how ‘chi’ is just a state of mind or another word for body mechanics or whatever else, but if that’s the case why are they calling it chi instead of the correct term. Not only does this obfuscate what they’re trying to teach, it makes people think they’re using something mystical. We have terms for all the ‘other meanings’ of chi that don’t bring to mind mysticism (leverage, meditation, focus, etc) so why use the term unless one is trying to sound mystical?

    • 

      Well Daniel, I have to say Chi or the life force energy and the chakra rivers running through our body does outline the nervous system. this is why acupuncture is so old and focuses on these pressure points. One could say the ancient Chinese found the nervous system and with chi is explaining the breath and how the electrical signals move the body. yes they believed it was a spiritual energy that’s without say. you have to learn Chinese Taoist Folk lore like say the immortals and other such things. they mean that chi is a spiritual energy. Today though, some people say it is still an energy which it is when you realize the ancients were talking about breath and the nervous system sure. whether you can cause someone to be paralyzed without applying force maybe in the realm of hypnotic suggestion. but chi definitely exists still within the discovery of brain waves, electrical signals neuro-synapses, the revitalizing of the idea of acupressure/puncture. and of course the understanding of the breath. plus various psychological conditions one can induce with various levels of Dopamine and Epinephrine.

      • 

        @Jeff
        There is just one problem with your argument, Acupuncture doesn’t work. If you don’t believe that, look at the evidence at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6060

        I’m afraid that what you say is just another example of the pre-scientific thinking that this post was trying to dispel.

        Contrary to what the purveyors of magic medicine will tell you, acupuncture isn’t ancient wisdom. It was banned by the Chinese emperor in 1822 as superstitious nonsense. The acupuncture that you see now was an invention of Mao’s “great cultural revolution”. It is a political construct that wad designed to stir up Chinese nationalism.

        • 

          I never said Acupuncture works. All I said that it was an old practice to point out that they found the nervous system that’s without say when talking about acupressure even. I never said anything about ancient wisdom either. why not actually “try” to read what I said for someone with such “wisdom.” I know Chinese history I study it, eastern history be my major and on top of that I used to be majoring in western medicine PTA (Physical therapy assistant) didn’t like it tried Clinical lab and moved to History instead.

          • 

            You could make an argument that ANY outline you make on the human body mimics the nervous system, because the nervous system is virtually everywhere. So you’re still at the problem of having a non-defined nothing word that doesn’t add to the discussion

          • 

            Daniel of course I can say this, and it adds plenty to the discussion its just another way to say what moves us. life force energy whether its spiritual or metabolic I say metabolic so yes I have something to add. I have 11 years of mix martial arts zenmartialarts.com wushu, Yue Chia kung fu, tai chi, Qigong, Brazilian jujitsu. And majoring in history both of my parents have there masters in Psychology and I used to be majoring in medicine.

          • 

            I am just pointing out that its easy to translate into something else. and other forms never got this close. might be because Europe went through a religious dark ages where anyone practicing medicine was labeled a witch and killed. while china continued its research no?

        • 

          @ David – you are misinformed.
          Acupuncture performed by quacks doesn’t work. There are scores of cases of acupuncture working in lieu of anesthesia for open-heart surgeries, tonsillectomies and so on.
          A co-worker was supposed to have a leg amputated after a vehicle accident. After dragging that stump around for a decade his back was so out of sorts he could bear the pain no longer. His chiropractor (to me a quack field) sent him to an expert in Queens, NY. He went. The following day his ankle which had been frozen for years, unfroze. A decade later and he walks almost perfectly again.
          I visited this doctor (Su Chen Lor). She is an MD, PhD. from China. She graduated number one in her class. At 81 she’s sharp as a tack…and she heals almost entirely through acupuncture. In 1996 (?) I was rear-ended by a sleepy driver. For years I suffered neck/shoulder pain, knots and muscle spasms. Three visits to Dr. Lor and the issues were gone.
          My co-worker’s dad “needed surgery” on his knee. Dr. Lor had him get an MRI which he did. She insisted no surgery. After several visits he walked normally again.

          I’ll grant you, I have also met too many low or non-performing acupuncturists. OK, either their intervention didn’t work or at best, gave temporary relief to a headache or whatever. However I know too many people cured by Dr. Lor to deny the power of that medicine.

          • 

            @Kure

            I can see that you didn’t bother to read the reference that I sent. I’ll repeat it in the hope that you might http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6060

            The “acupuncture anesthesia” was shown in the 1970s to be no more that a parlor trick, It was shown again in 2006. An alleged case of heart surgery under acupuncture exploded when it was revealed that the patient had been given a combination of three very powerful sedatives (midazolam, droperidol, fentanyl) and large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into the chest. The acupuncture needles were purely cosmetic.

            I’m afraid you have allowed yourself to be deceived by political nationalist propaganda by the Chinese government.

            The evidence is now perfectly clear. Acupuncture is pre-scientific myth, A toothpick works just as well.

  19. 

    Very interesting! I’m very interested in different kinds of pseudoscience, it’s interesting for me to learn that such have also invaded martial arts. One would think that this is one field where the empirical test is obvious and dramatic. But cognitive dissonance is a powerful effect!

    • 

      I’m going to speculate that MMA has made a big difference in undermining this particular form of pseudoscience…at least to the general public. It’s hard to argue with that kind of empirical test! But there will always be a dedicated group of people invested in the reality of magic…

      • 

        Less than you’d think. The thing with a lot of activities like MA is like an insight I got from a writer (I think Asimov) who talked about meeting so many people who said they wanted to write a book when what they wanted was “to have written a book”. They didn’t want the hard work etc of reaching the goal. The same people who buy gadgets that “make exercise effortless” – and the point would be?
        A lot of these schools, whether preaching chi or super deadly ninja secrets, will tell people what they want to hear. “These techniques are too deadly to use in sparring.” Actual quote to me “I can’t use my empty force against you as your chi isn’t developed enough and it would injure you”.

  20. 

    Thanks for this post. Lets say that when a slapping man encounter a thinking man, the thinking man will soon have a black eye. Placebo and self-deception are powerfull, but messing around with physics in a self defence situation could be more than dangerous…

  21. 

    I agree with Jennifer that MMA (although it has created a few problems of its own) has contributed towards counter-acting many martial arts stereotypes. I was teaching for a couple of decades before its advent, and have for couple of decades since. I do see a shift in the culture. I also agree with some of you that the terminology needs modernization. Using words like Ki and Chi only muddy the waters. If you mean bio-mechanics, SAY bio-mechanics.
    By the way, if you liked this blog, I do a regular commentary on the intersection of martial arts and skepticism on the Hiyaa podcast. I call it “The Martial Brain”. Listen to the last 5 or 10 minutes of episodes 38, 42-44, 48, and 49 to catch it. Thanks again for all the positive feedback!

  22. 

    This is a very nice piece.
    I wonder if, in addition to cognitive dissonance in the true believers, the sunk cost fallacy can play a role in keeping the non-cynical from acknowledging that they’ve been duped.

    • 

      In my experience it not only can but does, and fairly often. And the shame/guilt/just plain old feeling like a rube can run very deep after years and $1,000’s of dollars invested in something that was BS or simply not suited for the job they had hoped it would perform.

      One thing I’ve found that can help them move on without all the baggage is to remind them that their experience and money wasn’t totally wasted in any case. We all start out more or less ignorant and fantasy prone on the journey into Martial Arts and violence, and they have learned something useful if they can use that knowledge to evaluate and try new things instead of throwing up their hands in frustration and walking away from it all. Like many lessons in martial arts that sort of experience can leave one ‘scarred but smarter’, if only in a metaphorical sense in this case.

  23. 

    Hi, good article. A few bits you might like. Somewhere I read a quote from one of the Chen lineage (the guys who founded tai chi) that empty force was originally what we’d call a feint – ie something that looked like an attack but was empty of force – to lure an opponent into a mistake. I’ve worked with Chinese tai chi guys who said “when the old guys talk about Qi they mean leg strength”.
    Tai Chi people like to talk about Yang Lu Can (Yang the invincible) a tai chi guy who took on all-comers. They don’t like to mention that he trained his kids so hard that one ran away and one tried to kill himself. As the money rolled in and they didn’t need to work so hard, guess what? The training became lighter and the results more refined and intangible

  24. 

    The false assertion, “A person who is not credibly competent at self-defense can no more claim to be a pacifist than a eunuch can claim to be a celibate,” seriously damaged what was otherwise an excellent article.

    I can give any fool a gun, and in under an hour they will be very lethal. They were lethal the moment they held the gun. The hour is merely to increase the likelihood they kill a target rather than themselves. They do not need to be even semi-competent in martial arts of any sort. If they are a pacifist before having a gun, they’re are still a pacifist with one. Holding the gun does not make them a better pacifist. It will not stop them from being a pacifist.

    One of my teachers held that the idea of “ki” was an attempt to verbalize what is basically a physical sense of balance. An attacker is using force. You in defense, or counter attack use their force. You do this by shifting your balance to compensate; you add your force to their force. If you call “balance” or “force” some other word from a traditional Asian source, you get “ki.” Since we were in an A Ki Do, I thought he was being very clear.

    Watching the video, I saw that the so-called “EOF master” had hand-to-hand combat training. The first skeptic he faced clearly had training as well. I would be certain that my “fool student” with a gun could kill either of them with just an hour’s training. Unless my “fool” was a pacifist.

    Oh, eunuchs were not necessarily celibate either.

  25. 

    All this aside Jeff, you have to admit that “Big Trouble in Little China” is still a bitchin’ movie!

  26. 

    I believe that Bullshido guys will have a field day with this one.

  27. 

    Liked the article. I think some of the language issues might be misleading in those words ki and chi. I know that some concepts from my Japanese partners hold more than one simple meaning. For example, “maii” is often explained as “distancing”, but the Japanese word really encompasses more than just distance. Maybe some things are lost in translation.

  28. 

    ..,^>
    ..,{I know you may be very skeptical, but hear me out before rejections},
    {See; before one can change their perceptual determining beliefs, they must first understand that ‘things are not necessarily as they perceive them to be’}
    {open your mind to much & your brain will fall out, yet close it to much & it will suffocate, the right path is a ‘balance’, a “open-minded-skepticism’} >>>

    ?so?; I am not shore weather chi really exists, or if it’s just in my mind.
    yet; having enthusiastically practiced tai-chi with kung-fu for many years,
    I can not deny that I do feel something powerful in my chi gong practices.
    It feels like a great explosive power building up, with a great weight behind it.
    & you having not experienced it. but I find for me ‘thinking it exists’ helps me.
    It helps me to move faster, more powerful, & with a greater skill & flow.
    also, I find ‘feeling’ this ‘chi’ or ‘life force energy’, helps me to think deeper,
    & it has power to activate a level of poetry, I could not feel without it.
    also; I think ‘believing in it’, helps the shoulin monks achieve their ‘great feats.’
    & it can not be denied that what they can do, Is outstanding & amazing.

    also; I have found with it, the mind has uncovered a different way to grow,
    it is no longer just; hear, practice, repeat, until habit, then second-nature.
    we can; second-nature feel it, react to it, practice it, progress, & develop it.
    people; ‘perhaps only by believing in it’, are tapping into a ‘innate skill.
    It seems a ‘natural skill'; perhaps we evolved it, or perhaps its a mind structure built from to many kung fu movies , but; I know I do experience it inside,
    & you may not see it, you may live your howl life rejecting it for ‘your truth’.
    but; If it helps ‘me’, by believing in it, I’m going to continue to believe in it.
    {I can be open to the Idea that It may just be an imagination in my mind}
    I’m going to delve deeper into this feeling, & explore it, & grow it, & use it.
    “until all that I have seen or seem is but a dream within a dream” {& ‘win’}
    ..,or something ?>
    I would edit & fix this, but I got to go now, duty calls, lady wants me,
    here’s something to think about though, “shoulin monks rule”
    >>>

  29. 

    I don’t think there is anything mystical or magical about shaolin kung fu. Kids can be very flexible and much of the training in the film would be possible for any young gymnast, anywhere.

    All round the world, men and women find they enjoy the challenges of boxing, muay thai and MMA, and their training usually involves a lot more hard contact than most of that shown in the movie.

    There is something indomitable about the human spirit that has nothing to do with magic, or the mystical East. (I’m talking here about people who do it, not about fantasizing spectators.) I find it intriguing that when boxing got more safety-conscious in the 80s, people left it and got into muay thai, and later MMA. When boxing gloves changed from 8 oz to 10 or 12 oz, people reacted by moving to muay thai, or the 4 oz gloves of MMA. It seems that they didn’t want the head guards and huge gloves, but preferred sports that allowed shin-to-shin kicks and bare elbow strikes to the head. They were attracted by the fact that in MMA you can keep punching etc on the ground,

    It may seem odd to some people, but clearly many people welcome those hard challenges. They do them without any of the mumbo jumbo that surrounds kung fu. just to show themselves that they can. And women have shown they are just as good at it as men, something that has yet to dawn on the shaolin instructors.

    • 

      I guess I should have made it clear that I was talking mainly about amateurs. Money complicates motives, but it’s fascinating that amateurs flock to take part in the hardest of all sports, just because they want the challenge.

  30. 

    In my eyes this looks very much like something that started as (accidental) Pavlovian conditioning i.e. learned behaviour, probably from general training (as they don’t hit each other but pretend to be hit) and/or the assistant when the ‘master’ shows their moves.

    What do you think?

  31. 

    I saw an example of this magical thinking years ago on some newsmagazine. The practitioner of the non touching death touch was hysterical. When he failed several times when the interviewer played the role of the attacker, he failed every time. He then said it doesn’t always work. I think I’d rely on actual punching or stabbing to stop an attacker.

  32. 

    Its useless to talk about the pseudoscience in martial arts. Real martial artists would be training instead of trying to do all this nonsense. In a skirmish amongst a high leveled practitioners: intellectual thinking goes out the window. Sensitivity is highly prized in such a context, especially if you can feel your enemy before they can make a move. Whats not to say that this “qi” is something they were able to feel the moment they dropped constantly thinking and move into consciously feeling or as we know it: being aware. Personally, unless the talks about martial arts help increase the skill and depth of the people, all other talks of martial arts is useless. Especially coming from people who do not have the applied wisdom of being a martial artist.

    Shorten version: Unless they put up something valuable, shut up and train diligently.

  33. 

    Qi exists but these quack teachers are a disgrace. The real master would never advertise his skills in this way, be open minded and one day you might be fortunate enough to meet a true internal master.

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