A dose of woo: Martial Idiocy

Recently Orac took apart the findings of another acupuncture study. Those who administer acupuncture typically insinuate that a mysterious vital energy known as "chi" travels along meridians in the body, and that normal flow of chi is necessary for good health. Orac pointed out that this recent study effectively disproved the notion of meridians in traditional Chinese medicine.

Similar woo also permeates the martial arts. If one's chi is properly aligned, supposedly the practitioner can make their body do amazing things such as selectively exploding an opponent's internal organs when struck, or sometimes inducing a time-delayed killing sickness. My old kung fu instructor even tried to demonstrate that chi existed by having us hold our hands right up next to a mirror after a workout, supposedly when our chi is flowing maximally. He claimed you could see the visible effects of chi which manifested as a mist traveling up the mirror away from our hands. He was right: the mirror did fog over. I imagine it had more to do with the mirror being at a significantly lower temperature than our hands, which were sweaty and radiating heat, which caused condensation to appear on the mirror and radiate upward away from our hands with our body heat. Oh well.

So in the Philippines, which is home to one of the arts I currently train in, they don't necessarily believe in the Chinese concept of Chi but they do subscribe to just as much martial woo. From oración to anting anting, by aligning one's energy and going through ritualized moves, objects, chants, and breathing, one can prepare his or her mind and body to ward off blows. From swords. It works. Right.

Incidentally, if you don't like blood, don't watch. However, you'll also get a brief dose of Filipino martial history and one of its main figures, Lapu Lapu.

I think we can consider Chi and the like one more debunked philosophical construct. Just because you believe something, that doesn't make it so. Any nice sharp sword will demonstrate that concept. Interestingly, Tara at Aetiology finds that HIV denialists have the same mentality. Hopefully they'll learn a thing or two from this video; HIV can be every bit as dangerous.

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What a maroon! He should've tried his jugular or carotids. Then, he would've won a Darwin award. Instead, he's just stupid.

YOU caused him to cut his arm. by taping this and putting it up on the logical internet, you've collapsed his wave functions in ways consistent with what _we_ call reality, rather than his version (where he doesn't get hurt). YOU'RE ALL TO BLAME FOR WATCHING!!

Here's a similar video, without (as much) blood. A "Kiai Master" who can beat the pea-waddin' out of his students without touching them takes on a mixed martial-arts fighter, with a $5000 bet on the line. The MMA fighter hasn't drunk the dojo Kool-Aid.

The old man's reaction when he sees his own blood is priceless.

mind, very interesting comment, perhaps we indeed changed the outcome by observing it. i like to think of chi as energy, and i do believe that some people are more in touch with their power to manipulate this energy. also, heat = energy, so the heat coming off his hands is really energy, or excess chi....

By riboflavin (not verified) on 01 Oct 2007 #permalink

A guy stabs himself with a sword, therefore Chi is false. Can't argue with that logic.

Love it. I do a version of Silat (Silat Bela Diri), an Indo-Malay martial art. The breathing exercises and rhythmic forms are purely for mental focus and physical conditioning. No woo involved (although I'm sure that it was traditionally). I can take a sizable blunt impact if necessary, but get out of the way of the sharp stuff quick smart.

mind, very interesting comment, perhaps we indeed changed the outcome by observing it. i like to think of chi as energy, and i do believe that some people are more in touch with their power to manipulate this energy. also, heat = energy, so the heat coming off his hands is really energy, or excess chi....

But what kind of energy? I've had practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts tell me so many different things. Chi is breath. Chi is "vital energy", whatever the hell that is. Chi is electrical energy. Chi is the energy sum of your nerve impulses and your blood flow.

There are many different types of energy in the sciences, but when it comes to Chi nobody gives me a consistent definition of which energy we're referring to, or how to measure it.

So now heat (thermal energy) is synonymous with Chi? I'll add that to the growing list.

A guy stabs himself with a sword, therefore Chi is false. Can't argue with that logic.

Hey, he's the one arguing he can manipulate his energy to stop the sword in the first place. They set 'em up, then knock 'em down for us.

Hey KiwiInOz, that's fantastic. I am schooled in Inosanto's blend of Kali/Silat, so I get a smattering of multiple styles. I love Silat's throws and takedowns, they're some of the most amazing uses of human anatomy I've ever seen.

Hi Evil Monkey. SBD is a pragmatic evolution of Silat Perisai Diri, and incorporates multiple styles too. I'm still at the "grasshopper" stage as far as proficiency goes, but love the deceptive grace of the movements and sheer speed and effectiveness of the style. The sweeps are just poetry when done properly.

I believe that he may have successfully performed this same kind of stunt before. I've seen other documentaries such as ones on Shaolin Kung Fu where similar feats are performed. This includes breaking a spear with your neck, being repeatedly kicked in the groin taking the pain, and supporting the weight of your entire body on 1 or a few fingertips.

By Moses Cahyn (not verified) on 01 Oct 2007 #permalink

Chi being heat makes perfect sense now I've opened my mind to the possibilities. Thats the only logical explanation for why you can have a good feeling after, for example, drinking a nice cup of tea, eating a cooked meal or sitting in a jacuzzi, think of all the mystic energy you take in!

That'd also explain why those cans of coffee were so expensive, the ones which which heated themselves up (badly) when the button on the bottom as pressed. They had spontaneous life energy generators in them! Not sure what happened to them, I've not seen them in the shops for a good few years now.


The crucial aspect of such stunts is the use of proper technique. One cannot overemphasize that. This particular guy was obviously using wrong technique and ended up nearly severing his arm.

Take a look at this video, which is aptly titled "The art of the Deceiver"


Like Leung Ting mentions towards the end of the video, one can perform seemingly superhuman stunts by careful training and practice. If one is not careful, the results could be disastrous. There is nothing supernatural about these things.

Dude, you made it to reddit!

There was an old carnival trick about walking on swords - the rationale being that, if you step on them at 90 degrees, they won';t cut you; that they woudl only if you slice with them.

Again, carnival trick, so it may have been done with somewhat dull swords. And somebody failed to inform the poor hapless abstard about these tricks.

Have you seen me levitate away from the ledge of a building?

Yeah, a lot of this stuff is junk but at the same time a lot of this stuff is not junk. The groin-kicking thing (which is shocking to watch) was featured in an episode of a show called "Human Weapon" where a pair of US meat machines (a MMA fighter and a football player-slash-student of martial arts) travel the world looking for martial arts and then they challenge top people to a fight. They've done pretty well in those, but i wouldn't say they have a winning record...

I know "History Channel brings its guns to bear on martial arts" sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the show is quite good.

His Chi was not strong.

The crucial aspect of such stunts is the use of proper technique.

I'd agree with that. My kung fu teacher can do some pretty amazing things, but he'd be the last person to ascribe them to anything woo-ish. It's just, you know, close to 50 years of consistent practice means you'll be pretty damn good.

I've walked on hot coals, for that matter. There's nothing supernatural about it, even though it seems pretty astounding when you're doing it.

By G. Williams (not verified) on 02 Oct 2007 #permalink

Chi, of course, is derived from a nonsensical pneumatic theory of physiology. However, there are occasions where chi does "work."

A classic example is the "unbendable arm" of aikido and tai chi. In this demonstration, the student is told first (the control) to be strong, and resist the efforts of another person trying to forcibly bend his arm at the elbow. An equally strong person, using both hands, can overpower the student rather easily, although the student feels that he is exerting all his might.

Then he is told to relax his arm, and visualize the flow of chi through the arm. This time, he is able to easily keep his arm straight, with almost no sensation of effort, while the person trying to bend his arm is straining.

Palpating the muscles explains how it really works. In the first case, the student's triceps is tight even before force is applied--but so the biceps, the muscle that bends the arm. His sensation of great effort is actually due to the fact that he is fighting himself. You only need to help out the biceps a little bit to bend the arm.

In the "chi" case, both muscles are initially flaccid. Only the triceps tenses, and only in proportion to the force applied to the arm. Small wonder that it is much easier, and less tiring, to hold the arm straight.

And while the chi visualization works very well to learn this technique, once you know what it "feels like," you can do it at will without thinking about chi. Indeed, one does not even need to employ chi even the first tiime--I've seen it done simply by engaging the student in conversation while somebody is trying to bend his arm. All the chi visualization really does is distract him, so that he does not try to consciously override his body's automatic control of his muscles. His brain knows that he only needs to use the triceps to keep his arm straight, but his conscious mind does not.

Nevertheless, I find that chi visualization is still an extremely effective way to learn this technique. I find this a useful point to remember--the fact that the theory is nonsense does not necessarily mean that the phenomenon is not real.

so, in other words (or in your words), chi has to function exactly in the same way, all the time, for everyone... or it's proven false? interesting. do practitioners of martial arts claim that chi is part of a science or a philosophy?

your video and subsequent conclusions actually go more towards proving your own short-sightedness.

so, in other words (or in your words), chi has to function exactly in the same way, all the time, for everyone... or it's proven false? interesting. do practitioners of martial arts claim that chi is part of a science or a philosophy?

Typically, if a phenomenon doesn't have any consistent, predictable properties (outside the quantum world anyway), it doesn't exist and it's time to revise our model. Chi proponents, elan vitale supporters, pneuma pimps, they're all unwilling to do such.

Many practitioners of martial arts claim that chi is a real phenomenon. That's about as much agreement as they can muster. Many say it is scientifically validated. Some of them wish to relegate it to "only" philosophy, a working definition of sorts, albeit an admittedly incorrect one.

Well, in my view, this video cannot proof or disprove anything. Fact is, that traditional martial arts exist for a very long time,so one wonders why those traditions have survived if they where ineffective at all, or the proponents would have seriously wounded or killed themselves all the time. The only thing i can honestly say, from a scientific point of view,is that such phenomena cannot be explained with contemporary theories and methods. But that doesnt rule out the possibility that this could change in the future. It may well be all rubbish, but i think its a mistake to *believe* that only because something cannot be explained by contemporary scientific wisdom, it cannot possibly exist.

Hi Evil Monkey. I nipped over from Aetiology to see this. And, er, I can't make myself watch beyond about 3 minutes in, which is strange; I didn't think I had a particular aversion to the sight of blood! Or maybe not so strange, as I was quite concerned he was going to amputate his own left hand.


... i think its a mistake to *believe* that only because something cannot be explained by contemporary scientific wisdom, it cannot possibly exist.

I agree, and I suspect most SBers would too, the essential qualifier being "comtemporary". Some of us might go further and concede that some phenomena may in principle inexplicable, as a result of some limitation imposed either by our cognition or by the fundamental physical laws on our power to investigate.

However any phenomenon that manifests itself in the natural world must in principle be detectable. If chi exists, you would expect it to reveal its effects in studies of human physiology and psychology through irreconcilable problems with the data, which could then be explored in greater depth. This is after all how many phenomena are discovered. But I cannot find any evidence that chi does in fact explode your opponent's organs on impact any more effectively than a robotic arm programmed with the same movements and possessing the same momentum (or Chuck Norris), or that it enables you to absorb blows any better than can explained by anticipation, mental focus, physical balance, and selective muscle relaxation and tension. I may, of course, be poorly informed...

By Peter Barber (not verified) on 04 Oct 2007 #permalink

I was thinking about the history of chi. As trrill pointed out, chi is a useful concept in order to teach muscle relaxation. The brain doesn't think the way science does, and if thinking about chi is the best way to train a body to flow, then chi is a useful concept.

Also "recognized" chi powers might help convince students, and maybe even fellow chi-believers, and let the chi master conquer all opponents merely through the power of suggestion. I certainly wouldn't under rate that -- and it seems to happen in the present day as well.

But I can't help but think that soldiers and warriors and people who actually had to fight and wear armor and get cut bashed and killed had a healthy respect for the limits of chi. Or maybe, since everyone had trained their chi so well, they theorized that their chi-advantage was negated, and so they went back to focussing on things like actually learning to fight, and save their chi magic for killing peasants or whatever.

Also, what differentiates Western practice from "alternative" and "traditional" therapies, is a curiosity about starting premises.

Accupressure might work, because people built and justified the system on a few points that did make sense. The shoulders are a tense point -- that must be an important chi point. Sometimes rubbing the stomach helps digestion -- must be some meridians running through there! From these effective treatments, they cobbled together a comprehensive system. And, by thinking about this system, they make assumptions and claims that are, more often than not, going to be completely wrong.

Does any alternative therapy ever question its starting premise? No. Chiropractic sure hasn't. Homeopathy hasn't. Yes, they can point to studies that show X treatment to be effective for Y, but that doesn't mean their foundational theory is in any way valid.

People used to think that fermentation was caused by decay. It was common knowledge. ANd how could you prove it? Leave some grapes out, they decay, and presto! Fermentation. What would tiny micro-organisms have to do with that? That's ridiculous! It's clearly decay. I mean, the evidence is right there. The problem is that watching grapes ferment is not a test of foundational principles.

Fortunately, yeast can be destroyed, so it's an easily falsifiable claim. Boil some grapes, killing the yeast, and seal 'em up. See if it ferments.

There are plenty of ways to invalidate the chi theory, and I think it's been thoroughly discredited by now. If any chi believers would like to make a claim about chi, we can see if
a) there's an alternative explanation
b) if there's an agreeable way to test (falsify) the chi claim.

If you can't falsify it, it doesn't bloody well exist.

I went to an acupuncturist and we got into an argument after I pressed him to explain the meaning behind the metaphors that he kept using -- "chi", "energy", "flow", "balance", etc. I had always just assumed they were aesthetically pleasing metaphors (western doctors use metaphors too, for example war metaphors to describe the immune system). But eventually my acupuncturist admitted they're unprovable metaphysical phenomena of some kind, which one has to have faith in for acupuncture treatment to work.

The treatment was relaxing, while it lasted, but what I really needed was a good old fashioned M.R.I.

A yoga master raises his body temp through meditation.

Any fool can raise his body temperature by imagination. For example, simply think of your pet peeve. :-)

"Can't be scientifically explained"? I gather you're trying to say that you haven't tried to explain it scientifically.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 06 Oct 2007 #permalink

Ah well. Of course I believe him that he's done it a dozen times and this is "the first time it happened". The big question is whether he'll do it a dozen more.

Fact is, that traditional martial arts exist for a very long time,so one wonders why those traditions have survived if they where ineffective at all, or the proponents would have seriously wounded or killed themselves all the time.

Whether martial arts work or not (define "work", please) is a separate question from whether chi exists. I have known, sparred with, and taken lessons from some very good martial artists, all of whom acknowledge that they're only as good as their last fight. None of them subscribe to the concept of chi as anything other than a potentially useful idea as per trrll's description, and some of them don't even go that far, thinking that it's a dangerous idea to ascribe a learned skill to an unproven concept.

By G. Williams (not verified) on 06 Oct 2007 #permalink

Has anyone spent much time considering the advantage of developing these theatrical displays of ability? The more miraculous the powers of the master, the less they'll actually have to fight - they'll win by default on reputation alone. Once the techniques become demonstration techniques to frighten enemies, then the obvious temptation is to use illusion and deception to make them even more impressive. It's 'art of war' 101.

What I find most interesting in these cases is the strength of the placebo/nocebo effect on students of these guys who **really believe**. They fall over at the slightest brush, it affects their heart rate, and they totally believe the masters powers. The master then starts to really believe in a positive feedback loop, in a similar way to cold-reading psychics who end up believing their own woo, because their techniques seem so successful.

By reg_spyder (not verified) on 06 Oct 2007 #permalink

What I find most interesting in these cases is the strength of the placebo/nocebo effect on students of these guys who **really believe**. They fall over at the slightest brush, it affects their heart rate, and they totally believe the masters powers.

It's pretty amazing how powerful suggestion is. You see the exact same thing happening with faith healers smacking people in the head up on stage to put the power of Christ into them. I'd love to hook some of these students up to an EEG before they get chi-blasted and see what's going on in their brains.

Quibble with EM: Typically, if a phenomenon doesn't have any consistent, predictable properties (outside the quantum world anyway)

Quantum effects are remarkably consistent, and even predictible. They just don't match up with our (macroscopic) intuitions about causality and determinism.

There's a big difference between saying "I don't know what this result will be", vs. "under these conditions, nobody can know what this result will be". Ordinary randomness usually is covered by the former, while quantum indeterminacy falls under the latter.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

Typically, if a phenomenon doesn't have any consistent, predictable properties (outside the quantum world anyway), it doesn't exist and it's time to revise our model.

That's still true in the quantum world, except that there the properties are statistical. Analysis of statistical predictions requires a heck of a lot of extra conceptual machinery, otherwise you wind up proving homeopathy.

In the case of the video you showed, the guy made a purely deterministic claim (that this ritual would work every single time), so statistical analysis would be unnecessary. And also rather painful.

i think i can make a prediction here: these concepts of supernatural forces at work in the martial arts ought to be inversely correlated with the particular art form's propensity for injury, in a sense.

what i mean is, we ought to see much more of it in the "empty hand" forms such as karate derivatives than we would in the forms involving edged weapons; this Filipino gentleman ought to be in a minority. (the placebo and nocebo effects will not work on his shortsword, after all!) and we ought to see next to none of it in modern practical pistol shooting.

in fact, i wonder if there's any way to quantitatively measure woo in order to rank martial arts forms according to susceptibility. the results might prove interesting.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

It is well known that most of the oriental stuff have their principles wrong, but hey many a time they do work.

Ayurveda for instance, I personally know of cases where ayurveda and acupuncture has worked and even extreme stuff like healing. And homeopathy was better at curing my two year old daughter of asthma than allopathy ever was. Dont any guy get on to placebos?

Ever tried placebos on an infant or an animal? homeopathy is used in both cases and many a time succesfully. And why wouldnt a tablet of paracetamol that the kid takes does not work as a placebo while a concoction of homeo medicine does. We are deeply mired in placebo shit.

OK agreed that western science has done a good job by pointing out the exact mechanisms of action for many medicines, but a sick man is not waiting for education, but a cure, any damn cure, many a time.

Notice that formerly discredited stuff like ayurveda are gaining scientific assent, with better tools and equipment, till now earlier scientists reasoned but they had not the tools to know it and therefore came to the conclusion that these are trash sciences or disciplines. A case in point is Rauwolfia, Neem, leeching, all finding favor after being in the wilderness.

When we go on to the yogic and martial arts, we see the same scenario, sciences that work well, but wrapped up in old mumbo jumbo. This doesnt mean that these science were wrong but that they provided explanations consistent with the level of expertise then, we are talking 1000-2000 years ago.

It is a good question as to why these people do not change their principles. It is not that it has been tried, but these solutions seem to be based on a mix akin to a golden ratio and changing them does not seem to be as efficacious as the old standard ones.

So somewhere things are wrong either in the understanding of the people who have tried to change these things or that these principles are interconnected to other things that are not understood well at this moment in scientific language.

Science is an admission of the limits of our ignorance, we keep moving away the limits with each scientific success. That does not mean that science can be used to look at anything.

Scientists looked at snakes for long and concluded that they respond to movement by listening to vibration, their eyesight being poor. Till we discovered that they have infra red vision, at least many of them. So what happened to the prior claims? It is stupid to be rational when the tools of rationality are too few and the domains are too large.

Many people must have met with antenna noise and what happens when some one finds that it is connected to the big bang. Tell that to any rational man of the earlier century, say bacon or owen and they would smirk.

Anyway as we move away from traditional domains like the physical environment, into quantum theories and gravity, science looks almost indistinguishable from magic.

Imagine that your length changes as your speed varies while you hover somewhere close to the speed of light. Tell that to Newton and he would probably growl and at least think about it in a new fashion.

The problem as Whip Hoxworth says in the Michener novel Hawaii is that you can get Yale students to solve any problem as long as another intelligent man points out the right problem and perhaps also the right way to look at it.

Guys who write these blogs are educated to reason but not to wonder. Western science if it has got anywhere has got there by wondering, wonder what will happen without friction and you have inertia, wonder what will happen when you travel at light speed and you have relativity. That was Galilieo and Einstein. Want more quotes?

The other guys I mean primarily those who write these blogs, educated, seeming thinkers, look bright, seem to think, but mostly they are rehashing known ideas.

They will also look at every thing from these known ideas and are as susceptible to errors as famous scientists. like the one who rubbished black holes or kelvin who rubbished the idea that the earth is really old. Continental drift anyone?

Let not science lend itself to dogma. It is ok to say that we did not find anything spectacular or in line with what is thought, but to say that such a thing is not possible at all is plain stupidity of the highest sort.

You are all trained, correct, but not trained to be like dogs to masters, but trained to reason. But observation should precede reason otherwise you will end up like Lamarck.

Let us not judge eastern disciplines without the right tools to check them. They have not only been here long, but have frequently been found to be too damn subtle that it has taken years for western science to find them.

The guys who started off chi and similar stuff, also invented zero, that should get you thinking. they were not duds.

let us wait before we pass judgement. To really understand these things one needs a different mind set, which could be critical but also considerate.

Look at Nick Humpreys account of the monkey displaying a visual acuity which would not be displayed in a lab atmosphere in a controlled setting. We should understand that science is young and the world is old. let us rejoice in science's successes but moderately.

"Ever tried placebos on an infant or an animal? homeopathy is used in both cases and many a time succesfully. And why wouldnt a tablet of paracetamol that the kid takes does not work as a placebo while a concoction of homeo medicine does. We are deeply mired in placebo shit."

Homeopathy working on infants and animals "many a time?" Where is the documentation? Where are the double blind studies? Controlling for all the biases of the observer? You are aware that Randi will pay you $1,000,000 to prove such claims, aren't you?

Paracetamol can and has been compared to a sugar pill, with significantly differing efficacies. There would be no difference between a group taking homeopathic "medicine" and a sugar pill.

"It's stupid to be rational..."
I think that is the most idiotic claim on this comment page.
I don't mean to pick on you, Udaya, I get the general drift of your post. There is no such thing as certainty, and one should never abandon an open mind, or one's curiosity.
However, defending people's belief in this idiotic garbage as rational open-mindedness is absurd. It is the opposite.
It is amusing that most of the examples thrown up by the Defenders of the Woo here as being "not scientifically explainable" are, in fact, scientifically explainable. For example, it is true that with practice, martial arts "masters" (or anyone else) can manipulate their emotional state, often without any outward indication. Despite the fact that observers may not perceive this by means of conventional indicators that we all use to communicate, such as facial expressions, it can and does have a real, measurable effect on brain/body chemistry, which can manifest in measurable physical phenomena. Like an actor getting into character, exploiting the body's inherent traits through self-induced emotional states can result in chemical secretions in response, causing measurable phenomena such as increased strength, increased pain threshold, increased or decreased body temp, heart rate, blood pressure etc. etc. etc.
Emotion can be real or contrived, but can still result in a reaction from the autonomic.
Combine this with carefully practiced stage tricks such as balancing on swords (which are explainable with elementary physics) and you get a portfolio of Woo that will be quite effective in duping the gullible (as well as, it seems, sometimes the practitioners).
Woe to the "master" who believes the Woo, eh?
I point out to the rational among us that debunking these ridiculous claims ad nauseum has not been very effective in steering the world into the light, as it were. And why would we presume to do so? I think instead, attention should be turned to the emotional problems that cause people to resist rationality, and hold fast to demonstrably false beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I think this would apply to all religion, Eastern and Western, as well as "alternative" beliefs like quack medicine, spiritualism and psychic mumbo jumbo, alien abduction, and my oh my, does the list go on. What causes people to develop this deep-seated emotional need to believe in Woo? I am sure that individually the reasons are as diverse as human experience can be, but there would seem to be some underlying principle, here. I do not suggest that this principle be explored as a way to enlighten the populace, but only for personal understanding (and possibly further amusement). So here is a new idea for you: let's stop trying to drag these freaks into the 21st century, and instead enjoy a good laugh at their expense while simultaneously undermining their cultural relevance. Logic, and rationality, are indeed "old ideas" and if you are suggesting we abandon these things in favor of whimsy, why, I have to point out that that idea is at least as old, and you , Udaya, are right down here in the re-hashing pit with the rest of us.

By Scott Graham (not verified) on 19 Oct 2007 #permalink

And let me just add, in case you complain of me missing your point, that by citing a dozen or two historic theories, recent or in the distant past, that have since been shown to be erroneous, (by scientific means, I emphasize!) you seem to infer that ALL science is baseless, and it is only a matter of time until every scientific theory under the sun is shown to be erroneous.
That is about as Woo an idea as I have ever heard.

By Scott Graham (not verified) on 19 Oct 2007 #permalink

To heck with the chi.

I knew something was wrong when he said he sharpened the sword for the camera. One can hit oneself like he does with a relatively blunt blade, but sharpening it changes the physics entirely. I was utterly aghast when I saw him hit his arm.

This man clearly has no idea what he's doing with swords. Swords are designed to cut flesh with a high degree of efficiency. The sword did what sharps swords to... cut through flesh like water.

I've cut myself to the bone with a sharpened spear head. I bumped my hand against the blade. Just a little bump. It took no effort and I had no idea I did it for a few moments. The good news is that it was on the side of a finger where no major vessels, muscle, or tendons reside. It healed with hardly any scarring with careful attention.

I've also witnessed other horrible gashes caused my momentary lapses in attention with sharp swords by professionals. Loaded guns are far more safe than swords.

I've done an Okinawan form of karate for over twenty years. I think trrll is onto something: there's plenty of conceptual baggage that's there because it helps with visualization or otherwise has the effect of improving the efficacy of training.

During my training, I haven't run into anything that isn't entirely consistent with old-school Newtonian physics. But some of the techniques are hard to learn, and over the long history of the art, teachers have come up with a number of ways to communicate to their students what it feels like to do them right. Much of that description is in the form of metaphor, analogy, poetry, tap-dancing and other imprecise forms of communication.

In my experience, the teachers are mostly hard-headed pragmatists, but they're often pre-scientific in their outlook. I don't think they use concepts like chi to bamboozle anyone-- it's just a remnant of an old world-view. I'm sure there's something there that hucksters have built on, but a lot of these guys just want to get better at their art and teach students. Most I've dealt with aren't even all that clever with money. Their grasp of capitalism is on a par with their understanding of science.

So we should be careful to distinguish woo-as-baggage from woo-as-BS. They have different motivations, different degrees of potential for causing harm, and potentially different cures.

By Futatorius (not verified) on 21 Oct 2007 #permalink

As for the woo aspects of your video, I don't have much more to say than if you know the Philippines, you'll also know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only do we have anting-anting we have dwende, aswang -- even a judge who until he was dismissed recently claimed he consulted two spirits who could teleport him to several places.

Now as to the Lapu-lapu story you lead the video with, you should know that EVERYTHING we know about Lapu-lapu, and i mean EVERYTHING, comes from only one man, the Italian adventurer Pigafetta who accompanied Magellan in his voyage here in 1521. Pigafetta doesn't give Lapu-lapu more than a few lines, nowhere in his account (you can look up Blair and Robertson for a side by side reprint, Italian on one page, English translation on the other) does he describe how the warrior appeared, how he spoke, much less what style of fighting he personally favored. The bio that has been handed down to our history books is pure conjecture (although fabrication might be a better word). Which doesn't take away from the fact that Lapu-lapu was one tough hombre. He was willing to pit a half-naked horde of natives, armed with wooden shields and native swords, against hardbitten armored Euorpean soldiery equipped with halberds, crossbows and small cannon. When Magellan told him he still had time to surrender, he basically replied, shut up and fight already. Pigafetta devotes a few lines to how the battle went, but nowhere describes any fighting styles of the natives.

Pardon, but I'm a Filipino, and nowhere in our history (at least the one I learned in High School) did it say that Lapu-Lapu did any of these silly rituals.

Lapu-Lapu was known to be a brave warrior, and warriors do get wounded. The thing is, he MUST have been a better warrior (along with his men, of course) than the conquistadores could ever be that he avoided being wounded by the amateurish-by-his-standards Spaniards.

I've dabbled into the martial arts. There is trickery involved in hacking yourself with a blunt blade. And martial artists' "invincibility" all relies on the fact that they have trained to endure pain or avoid it altogether.

Hey matanglawin, I didn't mean to necessarily endorse the content of the video clip as historically accurate, I apologize for that. My intent was more to bring a prominent Filipino figure into the consciousness of my readership, with the hope that they'll become interested in doing some more learning.

I stumbled upon this entry from another site while studying woo-woo-quackery and must admit I was thinking in the same lines of reg_spyder: As there seem to be so many fools who insist upon believing in so much of this clap-trap, why not learn the techniques (Cold reading, etc) and make a nice profit?

Ahhh.... I know why I resist. My damned conscience and self-respect step in the way.


Thank you for the entertainment!


In reply to Orlando's claim that:

>"Fact is, that traditional martial arts exist for a very long time,so one wonders why those traditions have survived if they where ineffective at all, or the proponents would have seriously wounded or killed themselves all the time."

I wish to draw everyone's attention to the Boxer Rebellion in China, where martial artists told their students that their art would make them invincible. Sadly, the students were, after facing Western black-powder weapons, unable to get their money back, on account of being dead.

I'm a martial artist with approximately twenty years of training in three different arts, and I'm a black belt and assistant instructor of taekwando. One would expect that I would support the "chi" hypothesis.

However, I am _also_ a high school physics teacher, and the fact is that I've broken down each technique into simple physical terms. The reality is that knowledge of the body's movements and the physical principles behind them enables one to generate more power with less training.

As a black belt, I would love to be able to throw fireballs from my hand and tornadoes from my feet, but the reality is that I can't, and I have never met anybody who can and people who claim the existence of qi and their ability to use it in combat get thrown and knocked down by me on a fairly regular basis.

As such, my provisional hypothesis is that qi is, pardon the pun, a load of hot air.

Now, as a Popperian in practice, I would be willing to accept that I am wrong-- just show me _one_ person who can use qi on _me_, and I will bow down and accept him as my master.

The offer has been standing among my relatives for five years now. They keep saying that they will, but somehow it's like Sylvia Browne's acceptance of the James Randi prize-- nobody wants to put their qi where the fist is.

Sharp swords cut things?! O_O Why was I never told this in school?! Oh, they found time to tell us condoms don't work, but this?! Egad! Etc! (what a moron)

Having a neuroscience degree, and recently having taken up Qi Gung, I thought that I may have something to add to this debate.

I'm a very sceptical individual and find it difficult to believe any claims about knocking people over without touching them etc... However, that doesn't mean that there is no scientific basis for Qi. In fact, only a little research will show anyone interested, that lots of academic papers have been written on the subject. Like acupuncture, chi is increasingly becoming part of mainstream thinking.

From my own point of view as a practitioner and scientist, I would offer the following points as likely mechanisms for positive effects
1. Breathing excercises increase vital capacity of lungs. In turn this increases surface area for gaseous exchange and makes breathing more efficient.

2. Meditative effects. These affect brain wave function and offer a variety of benefits, including relaxation and release of beta enkephalin (natural endorphin). Enkephalin is a natural opiod and has lots of postive effects on the body including - reduced blood pressure, lower heart rate, pain relief, euphoria. It has also been linked with the release of several anti oxidant enzymes.

3. Neuromuscular benefits. Practising control over breating and posture helps strengthen core muscle groups. Also, as blood oxygen levels are increased, the muscle works very aerobically, helping fat burning. I have noticed an effect on my body over and above what I would have expected by doing the excercise alone.

All in all, being dismissive is not the same as being sceptical! Quite clearly I wont be practising by trying to chop my own arm off, but ther's enough in it to keep me really interested. Also qi scores great in scrabble!

All the things you listed as benefits are common to pretty much all exercise and meditation. I'm not sure what that has to do with made-up energy meridians.

Its more to do with the way that you exercise during Qi Gung tbh. You are combining the meditative elements with a different way (at least different to anything I've come across and I have studied karate for 4.5yrs and competed to a reasonable level in athletics) of excercising new muscle groups.

I know enough about physiology to understand that the state and conditions under which you excercise, offers differing results.

As for made up meridians, I cant really comment. I havent seen anything to prove or disprove them conclusively. As such I'll take the benefits I can get from my practice with an open mind. That includes not buying in wholesale to anything I can't see or touch (in fact our teacher has stated on a number of occasions that the only way to knock someone over is to hit them - I concur!)

What I would say about the Chinese culture where it originated is that they were no-ones fools. Admittedly their descriptive sytems seem (to us) highly allegorical, they produced some pretty good stuff. Including advanced mathematics, oil and gas rigs 1400 years before the west, gunpowder, complex mechanics, printing (6 or 7 centuries prior to the west, paper currency & economics and spaghetti. I am therefore, not in too much of a hurry to completely discount their entire tradition in medicine and physiology.

Have any of you actually ever practiced Chi Gong for any lenght of time. I've practiced Tai Chi and Nei Gong for 11 years now. Skeptical by nature, I didn't believe in Chi at first. After practicing the exercises, it doesn't matter if you believe in chi or not, you start to feel it.

I don't know what it is exactly, but while doing push hands with advanced Tai Chi students and teachers I have been able to feel the vibration of their ... energy.

I was then able to make my own "chi" vibrate in such a way that they were unable to push me. When this happened it took very little effort to control my opponet.

Granted, these were hands on exercises, and I'm very skeptical of the "masters" who manipulate their students without touching them.

I'm open to the idea that people can feel other's chi, even without touching them, but I doubt the martial aspects of this effect.

So, basically, it doesn't sound like any of you have practiced enough to let the exercises prove themselves to you.

If you wait for science to prove your feelings, you will be waiting a long time. Simply do the exercises (which are anything but simple physically), and eventually you will feel how powerful they are. Eventually, after your body adjusts and is able to actually do them, which can take months to many years.

The only way to know is to practice, not to reason.

I'm concurring with Milo on this one. I started learning about martial arts when I was in Pre-school. Bruce Lee was doing "The Green Hornet" thing and me, my brothers and our friends thought it was cool to do that also. In the course of my life I have traveled around the world with the Navy for 21 years. I lived in Japan and Korea for a few years, and I learned a lot about Asian culture as well as their Martial Arts. Oh course I knew what "Chi" was, but I also had heard that it was very difficult to develop. Let me briefly share what made me believe in Chi energy.
In Japan, the Karate school I was attending was a tough one. Mas Oyama had founded it, and I think it was Kyoshinkai or some variant. I walked in one day and the instructor said we would be breaking bricks today. Well, it turned out to be concrete blocks. The same ones your house might be built with. These were supplied to us from a construction company, so they were the real deal. So here I am staring down this heavy, solid, block of concrete (with a center support in the middle of it) suspended on top of two exact same blocks. I thought to myself, there is no friggin way I'm going to be able to break this thing. So I take a whack at it with a forceful bottom-fist strike...NOTHING! Not only did the block not even shudder, my hand felt like hell. The instructor said that I had shifted one of my feet at the moment of impact, and my entire Chi had escaped. So I tried it again, did what he said, concentrated, breathed a few deep breaths...WHACK!. Again with a bottom fist strike...NOTHING! This block was laughing at me. My right hand hurt so bad at this point it was throbbing. The instructor looked at me and said "try elbow strike". Great, I'm going to bust my damn elbow now I thought. So I prepared for the strike, a few deep breaths, a bit of concentration, and then something happened. When my elbow went up, I visualized it as an axe, and when it came down, I didn't even think about the block, I acted like it wasn't there. At the instant of impact I felt a force that came up through both legs, into my chest, into my arms, and straight to the one small spot on the end of my elbow that made the contact. I shouted out a loud Ki-eye, bent my knees into the strike and felt my whole body striking as one movement. I had to close my eyes to protect them from the burst of concrete pieces that flew up when that block shattered like glass. I'll never, ever, forget that feeling! Also, my elbow was totally un-affected. I had no pain whatsoever on my elbow. It was like it touched by a feather.
I knew that energy had come from the earth, channeled through my frame, and almost effortlessly destroyed that block. I knew that my Chi was focused, and I had struck the object exactly right. My instructor later said that was the feeling that you can bring back each time you throw a punch, kick or strike. I would have to work harder to develop this. Lastly, there was a Japanese guy filming the whole thing. In this age of Youtube and the internet, I'd do just about anything to find a copy of that video and post it on the web.
The point of the story is: If you've never broken a concrete block before with just your own limbs, than put up or shut up about weather Chi is real or not.
Thanks for reading and keep training.

I find it interesting that the Skeptic approach to debunking rely's on rational logic and quite often Newtonian or Einsteinean physics. Mention is made of quantum physics as though it were outside of the domain of consideration. Yet, quantum physics is actually the study of the stuff that reality is made of. The recurring theme in quantum physics is that reality is mutable.

So without leaning one way or another too far, I think it is safe to say that it is certainly possible that the observer has the potential to affect the outcome. How this is accomplished may be at the moment "woo", but we have found that "woo" is often proven in subsequent generations even though the stuff that it is made of tends to be refined over time.

I think that if you truly want to be a good skeptic, you should open your mind to the possiblity that while it is possible on the one hand to "debunk" a phenomena by showing that it is not consistently repeatable, it may also be that there is a whole realm of phenomena that will be accepted in subsequent generations that is not consistently "repeatable" except that there are varying probabilities that the phenomena will occur. Maybe one day we will discover that "faith" is more powerful than we realize and that "faith" can actually affect the probability matrix that certain phenomena will occur that otherwise might not occur without faith.

Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. I do think that while a healthy respect for scientiffic method is a good thing, an obsession with 100% repeatability may prove to be just as self limiting in the future, as superstition is currently considered to be self limiting.

Quantum mechanics shows that the 100% repeatability has its limits and that those boundaries are frequently crossed by misbehaving particles that simply refuse to accept those limits.

Though I don't think you will see me intentionally trying to stop a fast moving sharp sword with my un protected arm.

By simon tarsis (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

any activity done by a human will not be 100% a 100% of the time

if so can you make 100 out of 100 free throw shots in basketball? or bowl a perfect score?

i think science can only go so far when talking about one's skill/telent

i think control of qi/chi/ki is just that skill(we can all train are selfs to be good basketball players but can we all be pro's)

2000 years ago there would be alot more silence then now (alot more time to listen to the body)and alot more time for training

By tigerpalm (not verified) on 04 Nov 2008 #permalink

It all comes down to belief and the power of suggestion.

What is a master or ruler without people who follow him? Noone!

How does one become a master, ruler, hollywood star? You get people to believe in you by various means.

How do you think Obama became president...manipulation on a mass scale.

We're all manipulative beings, and easily manipulated by others.


"After practicing the exercises, it doesn't matter if you believe in chi or not, you start to feel it."

Let's rephrase your statement. "After practicing, I started to feel it." By practicing anything, your setting your mind up to believe in it. A mind that doesn't believe in something wouldn't be practicing it. Duh!

Even thou you didn't believe in chi, and were quite skeptical before practicing, once you started to practice and do the movements (which confirms to your mind that you believe in it) your mind/body worked together to make you feel it. So it still has everything to do with belief, even if you don't realize it.

By practicing anything, you're beliving in it, and giving/exhanging your power with it.

There is no such thing as a skeptic BTW, often a skeptic is so focused on proving his his point, that he is giving so much of his power away, and feeding whatever he doesn't agree with. Most of the time they don't even know it. A true skeptic lives in ingnorance. Ignorance is bliss after all.

Honestly all of you need to rediscover how energy works, and how it's easily taken and recieved.

Qi / ch'i / ki is the bane of the martial world and nowhere more so than in the so-called "internal" arts of Taiji / Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi where devotees are in a state of total reality denial. I think the culture of relativism is seriously eroding peoples' ability to recognise that such a thing as The Truth even exists.

Well done for raising the subject - I can only hope qi's days are numbered, though I'm inclined to think things are set to get a whole lot worse before they get better.


Truth exists, but when does one reach the point when wisdom and experience can accurately pin-point the truth? How do we know if anyone has actually been enlightened enought to experience The Truth?

Qi is a slippery slope. Everything possesses it, but it is the controling of it which makes it function for the individual. Put it like this: I can swim, but does that does not mean everyone knows how to, or that everyone who knows how to can swim as well, perhaps they can swim better.

Simply because we can show instances where people fail doesn't mean it is evidence that qi doesn't work or exist. Sadly there are charlatans out there, as there are in every practice from religion, law, politics, martial arts, medicine, etc.. It is falicy to condem an entire system on a few rotten eggs.

I suspect that 'chi' was their word for adrenaline...

Think about it. Chi is described as something that radiates about a circulatory system of sorts, (meridians) starting somewhere on your spine or core and reverberating. Well what does adrenaline do? That 'dan tien' point is loosely about where your adrenal glands would be. If you were a medieval peasant and didn't know better, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the white heat feeling when you have an adrenaline rush was your 'chi' radiating.

Just two cents from a skeptical western girl. Lol.

By wolverine (not verified) on 09 Sep 2010 #permalink

I'm a Tai Chi student at a Kung Fu school, and the attitude about Chi is wide and varied among the instructors. My take is that it's like some of the visualization techniques used by golfers, divers, runners and a host of other athletes. I don't believe in an energy flow, but I do believe that you can use imagination to improve your focus and have more control over your own body. That's what I think Chi does for martial artists. That said, once you convince yourself you can break a brick it comes down to learning the physics of the technique to focus force on a small point on the brick to cause it to break. I don't think you necessarily need both the visualization and the technique, but combined they make people more successful at some of these feats.

By Frogman27 (not verified) on 22 Nov 2010 #permalink

I find it interesting that the Skeptic approach to debunking rely's on rational logic and quite often Newtonian or Einsteinean physics. Mention is made of quantum physics as though it were outside of the domain of consideration. Yet, quantum physics is actually the study of the stuff that reality is made of. The recurring theme in quantum physics is that reality is mutable.