Anti-Science

Everything happens for a reason.

YouTube is rife with charlatans. Where else can you so easily reach millions of people for free? One recent addition to the collection of absurdities is this “QiGong Master,” who demonstrates his amazing ability to knock over pieces of wood, break glass, and move a bowl of water from a few meters away. Watch this video carefully, and then read on.

Every new medium presents both new challenges as well as new opportunities. Though the Internet has allowed more frauds to peddle their nonsense to the masses, it also gives us the opportunity to more carefully examine their claims. There is no longer any excuse to not have video evidence of a paranormal claim — cameras are ubiquitous, found even in the cell phone I got for free from Sprint. Uploading images to the Internet is a matter of mere button-pushing. So, let’s make the most of this opportunity to use the Internet for some lesson learning, shall we?

I’ll tell you something that seems extraordinarily simple, and yet is often forgotten — when it comes to a magic trick, nothing is accidental. Watching the QiGong video, what do you see? The setting is a narrow hallway, allowing for only one camera positioned for the most part at one angle. Is it an accident that the makers of the video would choose such a restrictive viewing environment? How about the table? Notice that the table is covered by a large cloth. Put yourself in the video makers’ position — why would you purposely place that cloth there? Certainly not to lend an air of formality. Pretend you’re a hippie and repeat after me: everything happens for a reason.

We’ve given the video a quick once-over, now let’s look closer. The resolution is poor, but we can notice a few things. My first eyebrow-raising moment came at around second 27 in the video, as the camera zooms closer to catch the falling forward of the second block. Watch the table, and you’ll see a small bump rise up, pushing over the block. Was this the effect of the “Qi?” Sure, if Qi is the name of a small man hiding beneath the table. Go on, watch that part of the video again and see if it doesn’t make you giggle. Or is it just me? I’ve immortalized the moment in .jpg form, as seen above. Everything happens for a reason.

Later in the video, the Master causes a glass to break. What exactly do you see? He places the glass on the very edge of the table. Why? He lays it down flat. Why? He covers the glass with a napkin. Why? The tablecloth flutters just prior to the breaking. Why? If you were to break a glass using the power of your mind (or Qi, or what have you), how would you do it? Would you cover it with a napkin? Would you lay it down flat, or stand it up in the center of a table so everyone could clearly see what was happening? Repeat after me: Everything happens for a reason. And you thought mantras were for the pseudoscience crowds.

The man causes a bowl of water to move along the table. Notice that it sits upon a wooden slab that has now been placed on the tablecloth. Why? If it were just a matter of not wanting to scrunch up the cloth as it moved, why not just remove the cloth from the table? Everything happens for a reason.

Next, the Master takes what appears to be a piece of bamboo and presses it against his throat until it snaps. This happens to be the same gag used by ripoff corporate team-building companies around the world, debunked by Penn and Teller on their Showtime hit Bullshit. The bamboo is not against his trachea, of course, it is against his suprasternal notch. We all have one, and it’s really quite hardy. If you Google suprasternal notch, you’ll find that it has its own sexual fetishists. This has nothing to do with the Qi video, I just thought that was funny. Again, the trick can be done by anyone.

Finally, we see the QiGong Master apparently sharpening a blade and SWIPING IT ACROSS HIS STOMACH! I say “apparently” because of a few basic problems with the video: 1.) I can’t tell he’s actually sharpening anything; 2.) The camera cuts away, indicating that he could very well be sharpening a completely different knife or a different edge; and 3.) It doesn’t actually look as though he’s coming anywhere near his, er, voluptuous stomach with the knife. This could be just the poor quality of the video, but hey . . . everything happens for a reason, right?

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Following my call for help yesterday, I received a number of very kind offers, which I will be replying to hopefully today. Thanks!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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11 Comments

  1. Further evidence that magicians make great skeptics. I immediately knew that something fishy was going on with the tablecloth, but I couldn't decide specifically what it might be. Hiding somebody underneath just seemed, well… Too obvious. I was going to go for a string or something (no way fishing line would show on that crappy video), but that's a way simpler explanation.

  2. All of that extra setp-up (the tablecloth, the narrow corridor, the one-angle camera perspective… all of that is what Nicholas Humphrey refers to as "Unwarranted Design" in his book _Soul Searching_. He's very flowery and self-congratuating at times, but the essence of the book is to arm you with that simple question "Why do we need all of these EXTRA conditions for magic/miracles/ESP/etc to work?" That video is a great example to put this kind of questioning into practice.

  3. Hmm, they went to more trouble than I would have. Flourocarbon is a great way to make things move, and even in a much better resolution image it is practically invisible. You can get it at just about any tackle shop, looks like fishing line but it is quite invisible unless you look straight at it. Added bonus would be no need for a table cloth…

  4. I think you are all just scrabbling for explanations. For example, it shouldn't be surprising that the application of enough Qi to move a brick can spill over and move a little bit of tablecloth, too.

    I'm sure I could come up with religious explanations for the rest of it, too, if I could be arsed.

  5. Well, Trevor, that certainly sounds like the sort of explanation their side would give. But what of parsimony?

    Parsimony (in the form of the infamous Occam's Razor) would tell us not to assume more than needs to be assumed. And what would be the bigger and more complicated assumption to make at this stage in our knowledge?

    Would it be simpler to assume that there is a mystical force of energy that is almost completely unobservable and unrecordable (and, therefore, unexplainable) but that certain people can manipulate?

    Or is it more parsimonious to assume that it is possible there is some kind of trickery afoot?

    In my opinion, it takes far less special pleading in order to assume the latter than it does to assume the former. After all, the world is replete with examples and evidence of tricksters, but I've yet to hear of any reliable evidence of Qi or the Force or Psi.

    Of course, given that this is a skeptical blog, it's most likely that you are being sarcastic in saying that. But I don't care, because I just like to hear myself talk. :-P

    Cheers!

  6. So, let's see…the simplier explanation.

    Either:

    a) this guy pushed over the brick with his mind powers,

    or

    b) this guy got some other guys with him, one of whom had to sit underneath this table, which they also had to arrange with a tablecloth and carefully positioned camera, and together they somehow tried to time this guy under the table pushing up at the right moment when the main guy tried to fake pushing the brick over…and all without that guy under the table getting annoyed with the main guy pulling all this "energy" out of his ass and wanting to get his own attention and thereby blab all the details…

    Well, I know which explanation makes more sense…

  7. Thad –

    That's all well and good. But there's nothing simple about assumed mind powers. We have evidence of humans, of greed, of scams, and of trickery…such things have been proven to exist all around the world.

    But there's no evidence of "mind powers," and though it's the simpler SOUNDING choice, it is not simpler in principle. You'd need to also explain why it can't be detected, measured, quantified, or (most likely) replicated in a lab somewhere. We can do that with gravity, nuclear forces, electromagnetic force, and so on. No one has ever succeeded at doing that with "mind powers," so the assumption of the existence of mind powers is far less simple than the assumption of the existence of fakery.

    There's no way, aside from catching them outright, to prove that it DIDN'T happen by some mysterious force. All you can do is prove that it could have been something else, and reproduce it in that way. It doesn't thoroughly discredit whatever it is that these guys do…it just cuts off the appearance that the mystical explanatin is the only possible one.

  8. Thad,

    Like many people, you have stated Occam's Razor incorrectly. It's understandable since the incorrect version is more pervasive than the correct one. OR does not prefer the "simpler" explanation. It prefers the explanation that requires fewer assumptions. So the fact that you managed to pack a lot more words into option B is sadly irrelevant. Here is the actual OR analysis:

    a) Requires that mental powers exist. This is an assumption since there is currently no evidence that they do.

    b) Requires that people are capable to faking mental powers. No assumption here since there are floods of evidence that that people can and do fake mental powers.

    "b" is the clear Occam's Razor choice. To be clear, OR is not infallible. Sometimes new assumptions turn out to be correct. That's how knowledge advances. But OR is a good indication that more evidence is needed before one should be impressed, which is definitely the case with this lame video. I'm not expecting any more evidence. Are you?

  9. More importantly, thad's option b is the sort of thing stage magicians do all the time.

    What James Randi said about Uri Gellar applies to so many of these jokers: If he's using psychic powers, he's doing it the hard way.

  10. thad wrote:

    "and all without that guy under the table getting annoyed with the main guy pulling all this “energy” out of his ass and wanting to get his own attention and thereby blab all the details…"

    As always, there's two possibilities:

    A) He already has, but that particular story didn't get quite the amount of news attention as the original hoax, or he told some people he knows, but, you know, I don't know any Chinese people who know this guy, so the news of that particular trickery may never reach me.

    B) He has some kind of gain in keeping the secret. After all, he had something to gain at the time the video was made, or he wouldn't have sat under the table to perform those tricks.

    Further more, it's very likely the "Chi master" also runs some kind of a "martial arts" dojo where people pay big bucks to train with him. Any "helpers" he has are bound to share in the wealth.

    Basically, I think "hoax" is by far the simplest explanation.

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