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.
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