The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘magical thinking’

Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

This past weekend I attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, along with about 1300 other skeptics & supporters of science.  And, like last year, there was a talent show in which I participated.  Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson – this time on karate & board breaking.  And, thanks to my colleague Dean over at the Blog of Phyz, I have some slow-motion footage of my grand finale break…

It might surprise many people to know that pretty much anyone can break boards with little training – in order to do more challenging breaks like that pictured here takes more training, though the basic principles are still the same. But in the end there is *nothing* mystical involved – no chi or “life energy” or any of that rot. With proper body mechanics and good use of mass (twisting the body), velocity (dropping to convert GPE into KE), and a low time of impact (solid supports that won’t give) one can make lots of kindling out of boards. Oh yeah, and the spacers are a nice trick as well 🙂 For a fuller explanation, see my previous blog post on the subject.

And, just to put my money where my mouth is, I have to brag about one more thing: while at TAM8, I taught skeptic & paranormal investigator Joe Nickell how to break boards.  Joe had never before performed a board break, and – to my knowledge – has no formal martial arts training, yet I was able to get him successfully breaking boards with just 5 minutes of instruction.  Here he is successfully performing a palm-heel strike on a board I’m holding…

So, there you have it: if Joe Nickell, at his age & with no formal training, can employ the basic physics & body mechanics required to break a board, then pretty much anyone can do it… no special chi or paranormal powers required 🙂

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Physics of Karate – No Woo Required

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2009

I’ve practiced martial arts of various styles for 20 years, and in all that time I’ve heard a number of very strange & woo-filled explanations for why people can accomplish the physical feats they can.  One such example is breaking wooden boards with the bare hands & feet – often people provide an explanation by referencing so-called “chi, ki, or qigong energy”. The whole concept of chi is more of a philosophical concept than anything else, and it is little more than a “dragon-in-the-garage” (an untestable notion that cannot be verified through scientific means).

karate chop

Well, I’m here to tell you that such physical feats as board breaking can be performed & explained simply by referencing the known laws of physics – no woo required.  Take a look at the video of me performing such a break with five pine boards at once…

How do I accomplish this feat?  Here’s how: I hit the boards really hard – the question is how do I generate such a large force of impact?  Read on…

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Superstition & Computer Technology

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2009

Today I saw a great post over at the Tech Republic blog about the “10 habits of superstitious users” of computers.  I wanted to pass this along to you, partially because it is an excellent contemporary example of loose & magical thinking.  I am also sharing it partially out of deference to my wife, who has to deal with the computer illiterate all-too-often who view the computer as either some kind of malevolent entity or a magical box.

Here is the main text of the article [note that I’ve added relevant links to the text]…

Superstition: A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way (Wiktionary).

In 1947, the psychologist B. F. Skinner reported a series of experiments in which pigeons could push a lever that would randomly either give them a food pellet, or nothing. Think of it as a sort of one-armed bandit that the pigeons played for free. Skinner found, after a while, that some of the pigeons started acting oddly before pushing the lever. One moved in counterclockwise circles, one repeatedly stuck its head into the upper corner of the cage, and two others would swing their heads back and forth in a sort of pendulum motion. He suggested that the birds had developed “superstitious behaviors” by associating getting the food with something they happened to be doing when they actually got it — and they had wrongly concluded that if they did it again, they were more likely to get the pellet. Essentially, they were doing a sort of food-pellet dance to better their odds.

Although computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons, users who really don’t understand how a computer works may also wrongly connect some action of theirs with success (and repeat it), or associate it with failure (and avoid it like the plague). Here are some of the user superstitions I’ve encountered.

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