An Empty Force
John David Morenski, M.D. and William P. Glasheen, Ph.D.
The Claim: On one of the forums of a very popular marital arts web page, www.uechi-ryu.com, an individual claimed he could perform rather extraordinary feats which include the ability to move others without touching them. Chi, also spelled “Qi” or “Ki,” has become a popular concept in martial arts circles in recent years.
Stated simply, proponents believe an energy, designated “chi,” flows through the body along non-anatomical pathways call “meridians.” Proponents employ this basic paradigm to explain very complicated physiologic events, such as the mechanics of movement and balance and even diseases. Despite this simple model’s utility, this energy eludes scientific detection. One supreme difficulty investigators encounter when they attempt to examine chi is its lack of a clear definition.
For proponents, chi can become anything they wish, and they build into the concept considerable room to maneuver. Thus, if one wishes to attribute health to chi, one may explain an illness as a relative decrease in the person’s chi. Should the person improve, his improvement results from increased levels of chi. Chi can then explain placebo effects, the variations in the course of an illness, the body’s ability to recover, and even the results of medical therapy. Proponents may justify their faith in the reality of chi by citing copious anecdotal reports. Chi proves a self-justifying paradigm. Investigators often find themselves trapped with the task of disproving the existence of chi, rather than discovering objective evidence for its existence.
The Test: The individual, however, presented a testable phenomenon. He claimed he could move others without touching them through an “empty force.” His results in demonstrations appeared impressive. Some participants dramatically fell backwards. Offered uncontrolled demonstra-tions and unsubstantiated claims, the author and others remained skeptical.
The administrator of the web page, George E. Mattson, a martial artist with over 40 years experience, persuaded the individual to submit to a controlled test as part of his demonstration during the recent martial arts summer camp. The design of the test developed over a roughly six month period through the combined efforts of Mr. Mattson, Bill Glasheen, a Ph.D. with solid background in biomedical engineering, and the author. James Randi privately provided many suggestions that tightened the controls of the test. Dr. Morenski insisted on a double-blind test of a specific ability.
The individual claimed he could move others without touching them, even through a barrier that prevented the subjects and the individual from seeing or hearing one another. The investigation employed two rooms separated by a wall. Both the individual and volunteer subjects stood at defined positions on opposite sides of the wall. The individual received for each subject one of three random tasks: “push,” “pull,” or “do nothing.” The individual would then attempt to either pull the subject forward, push him backward, or do nothing.
For randomization, Dr. Glasheen used a shuffled deck of cards with one suit removed. Each suit represented an action. After drawing a card, Dr. Glasheen informed the individual of the intended action. Prior to the test, he agreed that one minute would be sufficient to move a subject.
Bill Jackson, who videotaped the subjects, called out the number and the time of start and finish for each volunteer. Blinding the judges proves critical in such investigations. Even sincere and skeptical observers may be influenced if they know what they are suppose to observe. The author cited Mr. Randi’s examination of a Russian psychic in his NOVA special, Secrets of the Psychics, as a demonstration of the need for a double-blind study.1
The Russian psychic claimed, with the support of Russian scientists, the ability to alter a person’s blood pressure and brain waves. Knowing what the psychic intended, the investigators consistently found evidence for the alterations. When properly blinded to the intent of the psychic, the scientists observed alterations that matched the psychic’s intentions only by random chance. Thus, an observer who knew the individual intended to “push” the subject may very well consider any backward movement in the random swaying of a subject as a “positive” result.
Dr. Glasheen provided a panel of blind judges. He submitted a videotape of the test to the judges, who were not present at the test Dr. Glasheen instructed the each judge to decide whether a volunteer moved forward, backward, or did not move at all. They were allowed to view a video of a demonstration performed by the individual in which he stops an attacker’s kick and pushes him back without touching him in order to know what to expect.
For the purposes of testing this individual’s claim, Dr. Morenski further insisted that volunteers not know that the individual intended to move them in some way. If the subject knows the individual intends to move him, he may move and introduce a bias in the data. A very skeptical volunteer may try very hard not to move.
Mr. Mattson and Dr. Glasheen contended it would prove interesting to know what the volunteers felt happened to them. At the conclusion of the test, but without knowing what the individual attempted to do to him, each subject was allowed to state what he felt. The subjects consisted of twenty summer camp participants. Some had participated in the individual’s previous open demonstrations. Some considered themselves believers in the existence of chi and this “empty force.” Some considered themselves skeptical if not complete unbelievers. None of the principle investigators served as volunteers or judges.
The results did not require analysis. Only two subjects, one whom the individual personally knew and who assists him during demonstrations, moved to any appreciable degree and another who strongly supports the existence of chi and participated in demonstrations. The first moved in the wrong direction, while the second, first moved in the wrong direction then the correct direction. What the subjects reported they felt had happened to them during the test did not correlate in any manner to what the individual intended.
After the test, Dr Glasheen asked the first sixteen volunteers what direction they thought they should have moved. Only one out of the total sixteen asked felt he had moved in the direction intended. Under controlled conditions, the individual could not demonstrate the “empty force.”
Discussion: It is not the responsibility of investigators to disprove an extraordinary phenomenon. Proponents must provide evidence. This experiment underscores the need for a scientific process. In removing confounding influences, the double-blind study suggests how these effects occur without proper controls.
Proponents must define specifically what they wish to test. Believers readily attach attributes to phenomena which can claim any effect as evidence. A proponent may intend to move a specific subject and fail, but then claim that movement of an audience member resulted from his powers. As the wise men become buried under the fool’s questions, investigators feel forced to disprove any aspect thrown at them.
This experiment isolated one aspect of the individual’s claims, specifically his claimed ability to move another person without touching him. A positive result would occur only if the subject moved in the intended direction determined by chance. A greater number of positive results than expected by chance would indicate that the individual could influence a subject.
The individual approved of all aspects of the test and what would indicate positive and negative results prior to the test. Since observers of a claim who know what they expect or hope to find may find evidence of it whether or not the evidence truly exists, the judges did not know the intended results for each subject. That none of the volunteers moved in the manner intended simplifies the analysis.
Witnesses of both the dramatic open demonstrations and the test may wonder what happened. Simply stated, strict controls removed other influences. Analysis of the controls suggests reasons for the results seen in the uncontrolled demonstrations. Participants in these seminars stood straight, often with their arms and hands fully extended. The individual then made motions in the direction he wished the participants to fall. Anyone familiar with the ideomotor effect seen in dosing or Charcot’s pendulum will recognize an analogy. In all cases, an object exists in an unstable position. Dowsers hold rods in such a manner that the slightest movement of the hands or body will result in movement of the rods.
With Charcot’s pendulum, the subject suspends a watch or pendent on a string or chain held between his index finger and thumb. Very small movements of the hand muscles that the subject and witnesses do not notice will cause the pendulum to move. Individuals can influence these minute muscle movements. A person moving his hand around the pendulum can appear to make the pendulum swing and even rotate in the direction he wishes. The human body is essentially and unstable structure. The axial muscles of the back along with the muscles of the limbs actively maintain a stable position. Vision, vestibular, proprioception, and cerebellar pathways work in conjunction to correct small deviations. Any impairment of these systems or the muscles they influence will affect a person’s ability to maintain a stable posture.
Just as a person holding a pendulum or a dowsing rod can influence their movements, a person standing can sway in the direction intended. Indeed, it is impossible to maintain station without even the slightest sway. The individual attempting to move the subject and any observers may attribute any sway in the intended direction as evidence of the apparent empty force. However, swaying does not account for subjects falling. The holder of the pendulum received constant reinforcement from the individual trying to move the pendulum.
The individual moves his hand in the direction he wishes and gives verbal encouragement: “See? It is moving!” Audience members may join in the reinforcement. The empty force demonstrations often involve a number of volunteers, some who have attended if not assisted in previous demonstrations. Their movements serve as a visual reinforcement of what the subjects are expected to do. Part of the purpose of Chariot’s Pendulum is to select subjects who are more suggestible than others. The individual demonstrating the empty force may then select subjects who respond better than others and use them for progressively more involved demonstrations. Each “positive” result reinforces further cooperation in the subject and may strongly influence new subjects. The double-blind study removes all of these confounding influences. Without them, subjects behaved as one would expect if no force exists.
That the empty force cannot demonstrate specific results without confounding influences may lead on to conclude that these influences in and of themselves explain the dramatic results observed in uncontrolled demonstrations.
References: 1 NOVA: Secrets of the Psychics, copyright: WGBH Educational Television, 1993
Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank George E. Mattson for proposing and sponsoring this test. It would not have been possible without his constant encouragement and occasional diplomacy. He has practiced and taught martial arts for over forty years, and he runs the annual summer camp in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. For more information about the marital arts or the annual Martial Arts Camp, visit the Eastern Arts website: www.uechi-ryu.com or call Mr. Mattson at (508) 586-3969 or e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
James “the Amazing” Randi (www.randi.org) patiently answered questions and critiqued the test during throughout its design. His suggestions proved invaluable for designing a proper study. Joe Nickell, CSICOP Senior Investigator, provided suggestions for conducting the test and, especially, for reporting and analyzing the data. Bill Jackson provided volunteered his time and expertise videotaping the test.
Authors: John David Morenski, M.D. has practiced martial arts for twenty years and serves as a Clinical Fellow with the Department of Neurological Surgery, University of Washington. He often acts as the resident skeptic for the forums on www.uechi-ryu.com.
William P. Glasheen, Ph.D., has practiced martial arts for nearly thirty years. He received his doctorate in Biomedical Engineering and is currently the Director of Health Care Assessment for Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield in Richmond, Virginia and a Visiting Assistant Professor for the Department of Plastic Surgery, University of Virginia. He administers one of the general forums on www.uechi-ryu.com .
Copyright 2000 by John David Morenski, M.D. and William P. Glasheen, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved