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Feng shui (pronounced fehng-shway) is a way of getting rich by arranging your furniture which definitely works because the Chinese have been doing it for centuries and it’s utterly unheard of for a traditional belief system to be kept in place unless it’s totally genuine and authentic.

Even before it became all Westernised and crappy (my research is still very flimsy, but it does seem that it was a lot different in China a few millennia back before we got our decadent capitalist hands on it), it didn’t have much grounding in reality. It was less mockably trivial, perhaps, concerning itself with agricultural planning and encouraging a positive energy in your life, rather than moving some chairs around a bit, but it’s all pretty wacky and with no real reason to believe a word of it.

The phrase “feng shui” (pronounced fung-shooey) itself translates rather less poetically as “wind-water”, which refers to a line from an ancient Chinese Book of Burial, which was about qi (pronounced qi), and how stuff like wind and water relate to it, or something. The concept of qi is fundamental to all this wind-water business, so you may be interested in reading further elaboration (pronounced tedious rambling) about how vapid it is, over here in this article I wrote about qi.

This qi stuff is everywhere, being shaped and channeled by people and plants and buildings and the natural environment. It’s running amuck, and must be contained until an antidote is found. Okay, not that, but feng shui (pronounced flung-sheep) is about arranging things – structures like buildings and their contents – to encourage a flow of qi conducive to providing a more positive “energy”, increasing happiness and prosperity. A worthy goal, especially if it can be achieved by just buying some new cushions or shifting those bookshelves to another part of the room so that window lets the light in better. I’m feeling more prosperous just thinking about it.

In fact, this is itself perhaps rather telling. It’s easy to mock feng shui for just being about moving some chairs around a bit (as I demonstrated a few paragraphs ago), but if you give it credit for extending a bit more broadly, you might start to end up with something resembling a philosophy of interior design. I’m not aware of anyone decrying interior design as a frivolous pseudoscience; it’s about providing an environment where people will feel comfortable, be able to move around easily, and just not be brought down by their surroundings. Things like natural light and a sense of space can have a big impact on people’s moods, so rather than being dismissive about “moving some chairs around”, maybe it would be useful to study how people’s mindsets can be affected by the layout, colour scheme, and use of space when it comes to their furniture.

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost track of the mystical qi aspect here, and I’m really just describing interior design. If that’s all there is to consider, then any competent interior designer will know where to point your chairs for what effect, how to take advantage of the windows letting the light in, and so forth. Maybe there are some feng shui practitioners doing pretty much exactly this, and really providing some people with more enjoyable work environments. But this misses the point of what feng shui is seen by many to really be, and certainly has little bearing on its origins.

However useful it might be to have your foot-stools somewhere you probably won’t trip over them, and wallpaper that isn’t maddeningly garish, for most people feng shui is about the channelling of actual qi energy, to make it behave in a beneficial way – it’s important that the mystical element is there, and it’s not all just about psychology and taste. There’s some kind of spritiual force which flows through your house with some degree of effectiveness, which can be influenced to your emotional and financial gain by strategic placement of certain objects.

Except there’s not, and it can’t. I know that seems quite feebly brief, and as if I’m resorting once again to the “Nuh-uh!” school of argument, but that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, and feng shui (pronounced bulls-hit) is another of those things which people just seem to act as if it’s true, without any evidence ever being put forward, even the flimsy and useless kind. It just seems to amount to “Red’s a very angry colour, you should have more blues in this room. And maybe a plant. And move this chair a bit. See, I’m an expert!”

It would help a little if so-called experts could even agree amongst themselves on which colours are angry, and where all our chairs should be – but there’s not even any kind of system by which the “right” answers can be checked. The only way to find out would be to set up some kind of scientific test – and this has been done, but the data from such methods all indicates that the qi we’re chasing doesn’t even exist. In the first season of Penn and Teller’s show Bullshit!, they invited three practitioners to offer their advice on organising the same room, and got completely contradictory advice from all three. One said the red colour scheme there was great for positive qi, another said it was really, really bad. There’s no one method or protocol that’s accepted as standard, or that’s in any way better supported than any other. You can do that very easily with made-up nonsense, you know – act authoritatively about how a particular untestable and invisible phenomenon is going to behave, and show no consistency with anyone else who says similar things and is just as qualified as you. It’s not hard.

I’m just blathering. Yau-Man Chan knows more about this than me.

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Qi

Qi is a term from traditional Chinese culture, translating into modern English as “some sort of mystical cosmic energy or something”. It has been understood as things like “breath” or “spirit”, but the New Agers have got a hold of it now and they’re not letting go. (Damn those Westerners, with their bastardisation of an ancient dignified culture, and their technological advances, and their evidence-based medicine.) However, it doesn’t seem to be any less vague a term in either case.

“Energy” is a favourite term of the New Age movement despite nobody seeming to know what it means. (It’s not to be confused with the scientific concept of energy as a measure of ability to do work, of course. This use of “energy” actually means something and can be measured in useful ways; this is one reason why you don’t see many hippie physicists.) I can’t find a case of qi being much more precisely defined than this – it seems to just be some ethereal, non-physical, immaterial, abstract stuff, which has some place in our model of reality but not one that anyone can measure. It’s an extremely convenient formulation: its definition is so vague that just about anything can be claimed to be affected by it, but whenever empirical data fails to show up you can just say that “it doesn’t work that way”. Because there’s no consistent or well-defined way it does work, you can be as evasive as you like about the results.

Basically, qi is the force by which the “karate master” in this video knocks people out. Like when he waves his hands around that guy’s head without touching him and… nothing happens. But that’s a special case, because the guy may have had his tongue in a certain place in his mouth, which totally nullifies the effects. Yes, apparently that’s actually how it works. Also if you raise one toe and lower another, that’ll do it to. Wiggle your feet a bit and you’re totally safe from energy which would otherwise knock you on your arse. Oh, it also doesn’t work if you don’t believe in it. I don’t know how much more evident it needs to be that this is nonsense. Try maintaining a skeptical attitude to electricity while sticking a fork in a mains outlet, and see how far that gets you. (Note: do not actually see how far this gets you.)

Qi is also what the Kiai Master in this video is using to make people fall down by waving his hands… until he’s faced by someone who doesn’t buy into his crap, at which point he gets punched in the face.

Amidst all the blather about “life force” and whatnot, a number of seemingly testable claims about qi seem to be made. For instance, “I can exert a force to knock someone over by channeling this energy” is easily tested, and the above videos provide some pretty good disconfirming evidence. Even if the claim is something like “I can do all that, but only if the person isn’t moving their tongue or their toes in a particular way”, I can still imagine putting together a testing protocol where people’s extremities are carefully monitored as the power of the qi is supposedly flung their way.

Believers in pseudoscience are always keen to complain when people actually try and find out if the stuff they’re pushing really works, as if this is somehow unfair. But like anything else, if qi actually does something, then if you want us to believe it, you’ll have to tell us something it actually does, and then let us see whether it actually does it. If it could ever be convincingly demonstrated, then it wouldn’t matter that it’s all vague and mystical nonsense. If it works, it works.

It doesn’t work. It’s not there. The magic is nothing more than mentalism, the medical uses are nothing more than placebos. The long and illustrious history of qi as something widely believed in by millions of people who didn’t understand what it is, dating back to a time when you could expect to be dead by 30 and nobody had even invented the lever yet, isn’t very impressive in the face of absolutely no supporting evidence.

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