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February 21, 2006

The Mad Biologist Receives Odd Emails

I received this email:

I live in Monterey, California. I would love to share this story with your readers. My children went to a school in which pseudoscience was taught to them. However, it was something more insidious than "intelligent design." It was Qigong taught as science. One of my daughter's classmates fell unconscious while she was performing these exercises. Then the Qigong instructor ran to the victim and began moving his hands over her body, telling the students that he was healing her by moving his hands over her which was manipulating body energy or "Chi."

There's a petition too:

Over the past three years, the International School of Monterey, California, a public charter school, has had two "doctors of medical qigong" from the International Institute of Medical Qigong instruct their student body in "medical" qigong exercises. This was done without parental consent or notification. These "doctors" are not licensed by the State of California. In fact, to become a doctor of medical qigong, one has to learn among other things how to project energy balls, how to treat Spirit or Demon Possession, how to use hand seals and incantations to paralyze spirit entities, Faith Projection and Incantations, and finally how to understand psychic and sorcery attacks. The basis for these beliefs is the belief in a universal life force called "chi." This was also taught to the children.

In fact, one exercise that the children performed had them hold out their arms to the side and raise them over their heads. At this point, they were told that they were pulling energy ("Chi") out of the earth and it was populating their body organs, then as they lowered their arms they were told that they were returning the excess "Chi" to the earth.

The school has stopped the practice, but has refused to inform parents that their children were exposed to these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs. The school's charter is now up for renewal with both the State and the County. We the undersigned are requesting that both the State and the County refuse to renew the school's charter and withhold state and federal funding until the following steps are taken:

1. The School fully discloses to parents what the children were taught, including all lesson plans, tapes, and other relevant materials.

2. The school fully discloses all internal documentation about "qigong" and how "medical qigong" became part of its curriculum.

3. The school presents to all students the scientific view of Qigong and the non-existence of "Chi."

If these steps are not taken, then we the undersigned are requesting that the school’s charter and public funding be halted immediately.

Additionally, we the undersigned are asking that the state adopt a policy for schools that mirrors the 1998 federal law that states that employers cannot force their employees to perform these “exercises” without written consent from the employee because these activities could conflict with employees' religious beliefs or lack thereof. If employees cannot be required to engage in these, surely children should not be required to engage in similar practices in school that offend the beliefs of the children and their parents?

Are schools really teaching kids that they can pull energy out of the ground? Is there a cultural or political agenda here that I'm unaware of? And why didn't someone tell Bush that you can pull energy out of the ground by flapping your arms? It beats the hell out of switchgrass.

Update: figuring out what specific behaviors infringe on others' religious beliefs sometimes is quite tricky (e.g., sex ed). But teaching kids that they are sucking energy out of the ground is just daffy. That's as ridiculous as intelligent design.

(crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist)


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Efforts to keep asian spiritual exercises out of schools can cause a lot of collatoral damage. Christian groups often get behind them quite energetically, and use them to ban things as simple as Yoga exercises divorced from the belief system that historically gave rise to Yoga. There was even a ballot measure in washington state that tried to ban 'relaxation techniques'.

My daughter (age 3) is learning some yoga at her school. As far as I can tell it consists of taking deep breaths when one is over excited, and stretching and holding poses to learn bodily awareness.

Historically, these exercises were linked with the goofy metaphysics of ancient hinduism. Breathing deeply is supposed to be good because it lets the body take in prāna. Whatever. The technique remains effective even without the metaphysics. Caroline has avoided temper tantrums because she stops, breathes slowly, and focuses her attention on breathing. That is actually pretty intense for a three year old.

The funny thing about Christian attempts to get Asian exercises out of the schools is that the Christians are far more likely to attribute occult powers to the exercises than any of their contemporary Western-educated exponents. Ideas about prāna, qi, and what not are soft pedaled in all but the most new agey of circles. On the other hand, Christians fighting asian exercise systems tend to think the practitioners are geniunely consorting with the devil.

Suck energy out of the ground? Only Tesla could do that... maybe they'd better work up to it by starting with turnips. Sucking a turnip out of the ground, now... THERE'S some energy for you!
I'm just relieved that they aren't taught that, when they spin clockwise, there's a kid just like them on another planet somewhere that has to spin in the opposite direction, just to keep the universe from tipping over... ^..^

Seriously, this just sounds like yoga to me. Was it really being taught 'as science'? Your correspondent has left out some details -- was this in Physics or in Gym class?

In fact, one exercise that the children performed had them hold out their arms to the side and raise them over their heads. At this point, they were told that they were pulling energy ("Chi") out of the earth and it was populating their body organs, then as they lowered their arms they were told that they were returning the excess "Chi" to the earth.

Here's a secular alternative: "Close your eyes and breathe deeply, and feel the calmness spreading through your body." Would this be pseudoscience, or just non-scientific? The latter is OK sometimes.

It's taught as part of TCM by the looks of the place the accreditation came from.

For instance - I've heard a lot of people teaching, ahem, "qigong" (i'm quote marking because qi gong as a style of martial arts closely related to tai ji, is something I highly respect) or "qigong"-derivatives talk about how chi is an "electromagnetic" "bioenergy" that, when it isn't properly "balanced", causes illness, fatigue and pimples.

There's non-scientific beliefs, and then there's belief's who's main theological dogma relies on the phrase "science doesn't explain everything" for, as steven fry once put it, "Yes, but science does explain some things" and the only reason to teach that "chi" is an "electromagentic" "bioenergy" is if you were using it as a negative example of psuedoscience during an explanation about the standard model and electromagnetism.

The usefullness of the long discredited chi theory of pre-industrial china is that it explains in reasonably simple terms everything it needed to regarding kinetic energy, body joints, bloodflow and mass/weight issues. As soon as you start trying to make what is essentially a phlogiston or epicycles type theory, conform rather clunkily with modern science, that's when the entire theory stops being useful.

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