Magical chi powers, debunked.

by Ryan Gregory, February 22nd, 2012

If you have trained in eastern martial arts like karate, kung fu, aikido, and the like, then you are surely familiar with the notion of “chi” or “ki” or “qi”. You may not be able to define what it is, but that’s not surprising since it’s a rather vague concept. It is often equated with “life force” or “energy”, and is often described as something that can be developed, harnessed, and even projected outwardly. To the extent that the concept of “chi” helps martial artists to focus their techniques, it is useful even if it does not actually correspond to anything in physical reality. I think most martial artists, including the skeptics and professional scientists among them, would have little problem with seeing “chi” as a helpful metaphor for a combination of mental focus, physical strength, and proper technique.

The problem arises when people become convinced that “chi” is an actual physical substance that can be used as the sole basis for defense or attack. For such believers, chi may be seen as the source of magical superpowers such as the ability to knock out an opponent without touching them, becoming impervious to attacks, or even moving objects with their minds. The fact that this would violate any number of well-established scientific principles does not phase them. Nor does the consistent failure to demonstrate any of the purported effects under controlled conditions or with opponents who are not acolytes of the master doing the demonstration.

In our first example, George Dillman makes the claim that he can render people unconscious without contacting them physically by focusing his chi. He makes some specific claims about the physical properties of chi as well, such as it consisting of “radio waves” that can be formed into a “chi ball” and hurled at others, and which can alter the physical appearance of his fingers when used. National Geographic filmed Dillman and his students demonstrating some remarkable abilities, including the afore-mentioned no-touch knockout. But what happens when this technique is tried on a “non-believer” (Dillman’s words)? I think you probably can guess.

What I find particularly interesting is the fact that Dillman has several rationalizations for why the technique failed miserably. The skeptic’s tongue was in the wrong place, or maybe his big toe was raised. A more likely explanation, that Dillman’s powers are actually the result of suggestion and therefore only work on believers, is not considered. We’ve seen it before.

The Dillman example is by no means isolated. Here is another example:


And another, this one showing the effects on fellow practitioners…

…and the lack of effect on a non-believer:

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that this is the kind of thing that could get you hurt in a real situation. And you’d be right.

Wait — it gets worse, such as when a person believes that their chi can be used to block a sword.

WARNING: This next clip is not for the squeamish!

So, if chi is not a real thing, then how do we account for the ability of martial artists to perform impressive acts of strength like breaking boards and bricks?


It’s physics plus anatomy plus skill.

Maybe you find this to be a let-down. I see it as just the opposite. Knowing how something is accomplished, that it does not require supernatural abilities, and that it is the result of hard work and practice is much more interesting to me than pseudoscientific nonsense about radio waves and big toes. I particularly like the following quote, from a fellow martial artist and skeptic:

“When I used to break in competition I used to psych myself up by running through a few simple facts of human physiology and physics: Bone is denser than concrete or pine wood and force is mass times acceleration. If my targeting was on and I was calm I could generate the required speed to break stuff and I could do it consistently. Reverse time a few hundreds years when science was still lacking and I have to suspect that the best explanation of the day for some of these feats was ki.”

Use the concept of chi however it works for you, but beware of setting yourself up for a harsh encounter with physical reality.


Physics of Karate – No Woo Required (Skeptical Teacher)

Karate (Newton’s Apple)

Karate blow (Harvard)

Busted Explanations for Karate Breaking (Gleaming Retort)

Comments (1)

[…] opinion. My first time through, I never washed my belts. It would remove the chi! But wait — I don’t believe in chi as a physical substance, and if I did, I don’t think it would be stored in my belt. Now, I […]

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