There is probably not a single phrase that is a more accurate prelude to bullshit than “such-and-such is based on ancient Chinese wisdom.” The idea that credibility is gained the older and more distant a practice becomes is nonsense. It is similar to the common arguments one often hears when debating Christians: “Well, people wouldn’t have believed in this for two-thousand years if it were false.” For some reason there is an allure for practices surviving to modern times from a distant and tumultuous past. A difficult notion for some people to accept is that modern man knows more than any primitive culture, and the allure should be reversed, favoring the advice of modern doctors or scientist over the scribblings of some ancient shaman from the Bronze Age.
This allure in ancient teachings is interesting, and the direct proportionality of the age of an idea to the fervency with which it is believed is even more curious and nonsensical. I don’t know if there is an actual name for this fallacy, but I’d call it the fallacy of antiquity, or argumentum ad antiquitum: Because something is old, or has been done in the past, it should be valued.
I got to thinking about this when watching a new Fox News “story” about some third-grade kid who espouses to have “healed his friend with Qigong,” an ancient Chinese practice. I am unable to post Flash videos on my blog, so I recommend taking a look at that video and coming back to read the rest of what I have to say.
The “Qigong master” Chunyi Lin says the following:
“A person sends out energy through the heart to help others to clear the energy blockages — clear the aches and pains. . .”
Right away my bullshit detector is going off. I really have a problem with such an il-defined (more like un-defined) use of the word “energy.” What energy? Where does it come from, and how does wiggling your hands over some area of the body somehow concentrate this energy? Sure, the body radiates energy in the form of heat, but the idea that you can “send out energy through the heart” and apparently through the fingertips in order to “clear energy blockages” is insane and has absolutely no scientific backing. Plus, it makes me think of something akin to force lightning.
Wait, wasn’t there a Qigong in Star Wars? Or maybe it was Qui Gon. . .
Another part of the “story” that caught my attention was this:
“Lin said he knows that just by looking at it, Qigong can appear to be hokey, but a recent study at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic found that people suffering from chronic pain felt significantly better after weeks of external Qigong treatments.”
So, I did a little investigating and found an abstract of the study–I’m NOT paying $25 bucks to read the whole paper. The study, from what I can tell from the abstract alone, doesn’t seem very thorough, since it was not a blinded test. Some people were given Qigong treatment and others were given “equivalent attention time,” whatever that means. There were no subjects who were told they were receiving Qigong, but were instead given a mimic Qigong treatment. That would have been helpful. Plus there was no real rigorous way to assess pain besides the telephone and questionnaire method.
“At 8-week follow-up, participants were contacted by telephone and mailed a questionnaire.”
Also, this bit of information seems rather important when considering the effects of Qigong.
“Most patients were also receiving other treatments (74%)”
Usually, when performing an experiment, you are going to want to hold all other variables as constant as possible. When testing for the effectiveness of a specific treatment, it would seem rather logical to not have 74% of your subjects taking a variety of other treatments in concert with the treatment you’re specifically trying to evaluate for effectiveness.
Something tells me that these people weren’t trying as hard as they could have been in testing whether Qigong is actually better than a placebo. I would have liked to see some energy field sensors, too. Oh well.