Thursday 1 September 2011

TV is not evidence

A while ago I had a friendly email exchange with a fellow tai chi blogger (I will not specifically name them, as I respect what they write, and wouldn't like this post to be interpreted as a criticism). The gist of the conversation was:
ME:  "...I certainly agree that there is much that is unexplained in this world. If you could point me towards some physical phenomena that are unexplainable, I would be most interested!"
THEM:  "How about this for "conventionally unexplainable" :)". [What they were referring to was this video]
Whether or not this video was sent as a joke in this particular instance, I don't know, but either way I have encountered numerous people who consider things such as this "evidence". This is most certainly NOT evidence or conventionally unexplainable, and I will explain why below. In my opinion, in the wider perspective, people quoting things like this as evidence gives the internal arts a bad name. If you quote things as fact that are not fact, it has the opposite effect and actually alienates people who are technically or scientifically minded like myself. This video squarely falls into my "hippie babel" category.

Ok, so let's get specific. What's wrong with this video?
  1. First of all, this is a TV show. It's whole raison d'être is to provide sensationalism and to dress up the mundane as exciting. As a TV show it has absolutely no requirement to tell the truth or to adhere to facts. Moreover, TV is based upon lying and manipulation with things such as trick photography and re-editing footage commonplace. Simply, you cannot believe anything they say.
  2. Next 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 Celsius) isn't actually that hot. I would speculate that it is possible to generate such heats with friction alone without invoking "chi". Indeed, we see in the video the chi gung master rubbing his hands firmly together frequently.
  3. Increasing pressure also generates heat, and again we see the master squeezing the towel repeatedly.
  4. If you look at the heat pattern from the IR camera, it is clear that the hottest part of his hands are where he has been holding the towel. Could it be that it is the towel that is in fact hot? Where does this towel come from? Who knows, just off camera he could have a big bowl of hot water that he keeps dipping it in?
  5. They have testimonials in here from doctors. So what? Testimonials are not evidence.
  6. Heat therapy and gentle massage of the body to alleviate (not cure mind you) arthritis pain? What's unconventional about that?
  7. What would be more compelling to me (but remember my TV caveat), would be a continuous shot of his hands through the IR camera. Why not show his stationary hands in plain view (not doing any therapy) starting at normal body temperature and rising (to 200 degrees) as he directs his energy? That would be more convincing about his ability to control his energy.
  8. The walking on paper bit is a complete non-sequitur and not even nearly unexplainable. This has been performed for thousands of years, in its more standard guise of "the bed of nails".
I think I'll stop there. For this to count as evidence, it must be beyond reasonable doubt, and without alternative explanations. The point I'm trying to make in the above statements is that this video contains only doubt and so there are a huge number of alternative explanations. Hence, it can not be considered as evidence or even in anyway convincing.

All this is not to say that I don't believe that this guy is a great chi gung master, I'm sure he is. Moreover, I'm sure his therapies do work. What I'm criticising here is the fact that this is "conventionally unexplainable", it is not. What we need to be able to reliably quote something as evidence is either peer reviewed publications or double-blind trials. Hearsay and testimonials are just marketing and PR.

I'm sure this master has genuinely helped many people, and I myself would probably go to him if I had the opportunity and need. The point is, there is a difference between belief and science. Belief is easy, science is difficult. People who claim there is science or evidence need to be careful, because it is a double-edged sword. If you can provide evidence and scientific research there is no more powerful argument, however, if it turns out not to be true, not only do you undermine your particular argument but you damage your entire reputation and credibility.

1 comment:

  1. From Stanford University:

    In addition to continuing their study of tai chi strikes, the researchers expanded the scope of their inquiries based on some preliminary studies performed on Stanford's own resident tai chi master, Shu Dong Li. Together with Dennis Grahn, PhD, senior research scientist in biology, and two professors of radiology, Scott Atlas, MD, and Gary Glover, PhD, they used thermography and functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure biophysical changes that occur during the process of "focusing the chi." In Chinese martial arts and Eastern medicine, chi, or qi, represents a life force or energy that can be focused through meditative concentration.

    "It was fascinating," said Blase Iuliano, a research associate on the study. "We could see Master Li's hands just light up in the infrared image." But that wasn't all. While the researchers were remarking about Li's ability to warm the skin of his hands by about two degrees, he volunteered to cool them as well. "And in a matter of moments, he reduced the temperature by about six degrees," said Iuliano. Furthermore, focusing the chi in this way corresponded with the activation of specific areas of the brain associated with movement and feeling in the hands.

    I wish I could read a full report on this study!