Martial Development has a challenge for skeptical martial artists: Prove that chi is scientifically impossible. Naturally, since I consider myself to be an open-minded skeptic and a martial artist, I had to take a crack at this one.
First, while it is my intent to provide a skeptical view of chi it is not my intent to disrespect proponents of chi. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am happy to listen to anyone’s point of view, theories, etc., but I will not accept them at face value. I won’t believe something just because you say something is true. I usually need a little bit more evidence than that.
The reason I think this way has to do with my profession: I teach information literacy skills to hundreds of college students each year. Quite simply it is part of my job to evaluate information and teach others to do the same. Information literacy is simply “the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.” Included in information literacy is “analysis” which is nothing more than critical thinking. Now academia has many different ways to think critically, and in writing this post I struggled on how to succinctly convey a method to you, the reader.
In the end–and to reach the widest audience–I chose methods outlined in Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. Sagan had the ability to convey complex science to the layperson. This skill is rare in scientists which is one of the reasons why he is one of my heroes. Anyhow, when considering supernatural notions like “chi”, I would encourage you to use Sagan’s methods for “baloney detection”. They are:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts (a second party should be able to recreate the event)
- Encourage debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view
- Arguments based solely on authority carry little weight (e.g., xyz is true because Joe is a 9th dan)
- Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply go with the first explanation. Always consider others.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. In other words, prepare yourself to give up long-held beliefs. (harder than it looks)
- Quantify, wherever possible (numbers are generally more accurate).
- If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
- “Occam’s razor” – if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler. i.e., the more fanciful hoops you have to go through to make something true, the more likely it is to be bunk.
- Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result
- Conduct controlled experiments – especially “double blind” experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
The point in all of this is to lay down guidelines that can be used to test fantastic claims. A common misconception is that skeptics are out to just rain on peoples’ parades. While there are some skeptics with axes to grind (e.g., hate religions, etc) or those who have personal agendas, true skeptics and scientists generally tackle a topic objectively. In fact, most would be pleased if you could scientifically prove something supernatural using the tools of science. Simply put, the scientist doing so would probably win a Nobel Prize and be on easy street for the rest of their career (lectures, books, etc).
Now before discussing chi there is one other misconception that I must cover: People often think that science works in absolutes. For example, Martial Development’s challenge of proving chi to be “scientifically impossible” may be an example of this. What science does is operate in terms of probability based on the evidence. A good example that we are all familiar with is the weather forecast. Meteorologists use science to predict the weather and they assign a probability that a certain weather event will happen (e.g., 40% chance of rain). The better the evidence the higher the probability that a weather event may or may not happen. Science also develops a notion from a hypothesis to a scientific law. This process is called the scientific method and in some cases can take decades.
Lay people often misinterpret the language used by scientists. And for that reason, they sometimes draw the wrong conclusions as to what the scientific terms mean.
Three such terms that are often used interchangeably are “scientific law,” “hypothesis,” and “theory.”
In layman’s terms, if something is said to be “just a theory,” it usually means that it is a mere guess, or is unproved. It might even lack credibility. But in scientific terms, a theory implies that something has been proven and is generally accepted as being true.
From a scientific perspective, “chi” has not made it past the hypothesis stage:
This is an educated guess based upon observation. It is a rational explanation of a single event or phenomenon based upon what is observed, but which has not been proved. Most hypotheses can be supported or refuted by experimentation or continued observation.
In fact, most scientists would argue that based on the evidence chi is not even a good hypothesis. In other words, the probability that chi exists is quite low, based on the current scientific evidence.
Chi or Ki: In the martial arts world chi is thought to be some sort of mystical life force that, after years of training, the martial artist is able to control. Once this mastery is achieved the martial artist (depending on the dogma of their particular martial art) is alleged to be able to do all sorts of wondrous things. Ideas range from meditative calm and focus, to channeling chi into deadly strikes that can break bone, wood, or concrete; to such extreme ideas as “no-touch” knock-outs or “iron skin” where the martial artist can withstand blows that would kill a normal person.
In fact, there are numerous videos on the Internet that can be used to examine these ranging views of chi:
I would challenge you to watch these videos then apply Sagan’s rules for baloney detection and my weather forecast analogy. In other words, after watching them can you think of a more probable alternate explanation than chi? I know I can:
- On meditation: Lots of good science being done here and it’s making its way into academic journals. There is good scientific evidence that through meditation we can alter our own body states. The first video shows that monks can alter their body states. However, it’s probably not supernatural. Just something that science has not yet fully explained.
- Breaking is easy. Good ‘ole physics explains it: Force= Mass X Acceleration. A 150 lb body accelerating to 20 mph generates 3,000 lbs of force. Most bone is thought to be 40 times denser than concrete. Ergo, through training and techniques a martial artist can break all sorts of things that an untrained person could not. Bill Wallace was clocked kicking at speeds of 60 mph. Factoring in physics and bone density, that speed is enough to break all sorts of materials and also kill a person.
- Dillman’s infamous “no-touch” knock-out. Nerdy scientist 1. Dillman 0. I think the video speaks for itself. I’m guessing that those people who Dillman alleges to knock out “no-touch” style are his students, are probably highly suggestible, and just plain don’t want to make their sensi look bad. Also notice how Dillman back-pedals with a an ad hoc hypothesis? (i.e., “An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory.”) after failing the scientist’s first test? Give me a break! A tongue or toe positioning can stop his dim mak chi strike? Well if it’s that easy to counter what does this say his martial art? Regardless, besides the nerdy scientist, the best test Dillman could use to redeem himself is to enter into a UFC match and knock out an MMA fighter “no-touch” style. Good luck on that.
- Finally, combat ki. The simpler explanation is desensitization to pain. To varying degrees, all martial arts teach this. Boxers learn how to take a shot that would stop a normal person. Karatekas work their way up to withstanding almost full power blows on unpadded bodies, as well as conditioning their fists with the makiwara board. Finally, taekwondoists practice kicking each other while wearing their hogu vests in something called hogu drills. At low ranks the kicks are light but as they progress in rank so do the power of the kicks. All of these techniques are designed to train the martial artist to withstand blows that would slow or stop an untrained person. I would submit to you that the more reasonable and rational explanation for combat ki is extreme body desensitization through extreme training methods, not ki.
Now what about pressure points and the disruption of chi via certain “meridians”? I’ll grant you that the ancient Chinese were onto something. However, science eventually caught up and again offers a more rational and reasonable explanation than chi. Namely, certain nerve clusters on the body can be struck or pinched in such a way as to cause pain or unconsciousness. Again, nothing magical here, it’s just your body’s natural response to having one of these target areas struck. Certain modern fighting systems like Krav Maga or PPCT teach these pressure point tactics. In fact, when I worked in the prison system I had to qualify annually in the latter system.
Brachial plexus tie-in – Located on the front of the shoulder joint, a strike to this point can cause the arm to be ineffective. Multiple strikes may be necessary to ensure total dysfunction of the arm and hand.
Once during certification I was punched in my brachial plexus tie-in so hard that my entire left arm went numb and my fingers tingled. Supernatural? Hardly. It is the typical response to a blow by a cluster of nerves that medical science had long since discovered. The same goes for the brachial plexus origin: The infamous karate chop to someone’s neck does indeed work and science can tell you why.
Does all of this disprove chi with 100 percent certainty? Of course not. However, outside of certain historical facts or the field of mathematics, rare is anything that can be proved (or disproved) with certainty. So, while I may have not debunked chi I hope I’ve at least given you an alternate explanation to consider. Moreover, I personally do not believe that science makes the martial arts any less magical. In fact, it seems to me that using chi to explain what many martial artists spend years training their bodies to do, only does a disservice to their training and dedication.
However, I suppose I could be wrong.