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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Finding power and balance: proving and disproving claims

The New Zealand Curriculum’s science capabilities help students practice the types of thinking, questioning, and actions needed to become informed citizens. Anyone can be fooled by false claims and clever marketing, writes MARK HANNA.

kyonite crystal smallWe can all be fooled

When reading a story about someone who has been scammed, it’s very easy to think ‘that could never happen to me’. From the outside, warning signs always appear obvious and the conclusion often seems untenable. It’s easy to assume that people who fall for scams or are otherwise misled must be unintelligent or gullible. The reality is less comfortable. We can all be fooled, even the best of us.

One historical example of someone very intelligent falling for what now seems to be clearly false, involves author and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Despite obviously understanding the principles of scepticism, Doyle became convinced in the early 20th century that fairies were real, based on a series of photographs of the “Cottingley Fairies”, which were revealed decades later to have been faked using paper cut-outs. Intelligence is no failsafe against being fooled.

More recently, many people, including Shaquille O’Neil and Bill Clinton, have been fooled by a plastic wristband: the makers of which claim it can improve a person’s strength and balance.

The ‘theory’ behind the tests used to promote these wristbands is also employed by various alternative health practitioners in attempts to evaluate treatment effects and to diagnose illnesses, allergies, and intolerances, despite the fact that there is no scientific proof behind it.

It’s known as ‘applied kinesiology’ and, if you don’t know any better, it can be very convincing.

A lump of kyanite crystal

Some years ago, a friend of mine came to Taekwon-Do training with a strange blue stone pendant. He said it was called ‘kyanite’ and, amazingly, that holding it would improve your balance. No one believed him at first, but he told us he could prove to us that it worked.

One by one, he prompted us to stand on one leg with both hands cupped at our sides. While we were balancing like this he would take his hand and push down on one of ours, trying to overbalance us. Of course, we immediately lost balance and tipped over. Next, he placed the rock in our other hand, and pushed down on the first hand again. This time, we were steady and barely affected even though he was obviously putting a lot of his own weight into pushing us down.

We then tried the test again, with him balancing and someone else administering the test, with the same results. This is a friend who I trusted to be honest with me. I was convinced. Within the next week, I made my way to a crystal shop and purchased a hunk of kyanite for my own.

Power balance in a bracelet

I later discovered that the method of testing he showed us was an example of ‘applied kinesiology’, although it can be referred to with the more generic term ‘manual muscle testing’. One thing it's quite commonly used for is to persuade people that wristbands such as the Shuzi Sports Band, Eken Power Band, and Power Balance Bracelet are able to improve your balance, strength, and flexibility. Applied kinesiology is also employed by some alternative health practitioners, including chiropractors, as a diagnostic test.

In the marketing of these wristbands, people selling them often perform several tests in order to demonstrate their effects. Often, this involves a balance test, a strength test, and a flexibility test. Watch this Power Balance video clip that demonstrates these tests.

The test that I described earlier is basically a mix of their balance and strength tests. In their balance test, you stand on one leg with both arms rigidly held out to your sides. Someone pushes down on one of your arms, and you fall. Then you wear their bracelet, they push down, and you don't fall. The strength test involves cupping your hands at your sides standing with your feet together, and again they push down and at first you'll fall but next time, with the bracelet, you won't. The flexibility test involves holding a hand straight up in front of you, then moving it outward so that you turn your torso around as far as you can. When you try again while wearing their bracelet, you can turn further.

If you don't know what's going on already, these tests can be very convincing. I speak from experience on this, having been convinced by them in the past. However, when bracelets like the Power Balance are subjected to more objective tests of balance, strength, and flexibility, no differences are observed. So what is it about the tests that gives the impression these items are making a difference, even when they actually aren't affecting your strength, balance, or flexibility?

Blind testing

The best way to test these tests is to ‘blind’ the participants so that neither of them know which tests should succeed. That way, you can rule out any differences in the way the test is administered or received that depend on what either of the people expect to happen.

For a wristband, one way to do this would be to get two similar wristbands – one that is meant to increase these attributes and one that everyone agrees is inert – and cover it with something like a sweatband so neither the person wearing it nor the person administering the tests know which one is being used.

When this is done, the probability of the test using the ‘real’ wristband being the successful one turns out to be indistinguishable from chance. So what's going on?

For the balance and strength tests, as well as the other balance test I described earlier, the answer is quite simple. For the tests that successfully overbalance someone, the force being applied is straight down. For those tests that fail to overbalance them, the direction of the push isn't straight down, but down and slightly toward them. The difference doesn't have to be very large for it to become easier to resist, especially for the strength test where the location you're pushing isn't far from their feet.

The difference in angle is really quite small and hard to notice, especially when you’re the one being tested. The difference between falling and standing straight is very obvious though. The way the experiment is framed emphasises that the difference between the tests is the object (wristband, stone, or whatever else), so it’s easy to wrongly conclude that this object is the cause of the different results.

In the case of the flexibility test it’s slightly different – after stretching your torso from the first test you’re simply a bit more limber and this is what lets you stretch further the second time. Again, the experiment is framed so that the object is the obvious difference, not the fact that you’ve limbered up, so again it’s easy to wrongly conclude that it’s the cause of your apparent increase in flexibility.

One great thing about these tests is that they require very little equipment to do. The item that's supposed to increase your strength, balance, and flexibility doesn't have to be something that is usually advertised as such. It could be just about anything, so long as it's something for which these effects could be superficially plausible. When I first encountered it the object was a coloured stone pendant, for example. If you start by making sure that the tests are successful when the item is held or worn when you're demonstrating them, then those watching will come to expect that result and will be more likely to receive the same results when trying the tests themselves, even if they don’t realise that the results are due to pushing at a different angle.

This video clip shows James Randi (a well-known scientific sceptic and retired stage magician) testing applied kinesiology in telling the difference between a ‘healing crystal’, as picked out by the practitioner of applied kinesiology, and rat poison. As you’ll see in the video, to start with the practitioner demonstrates the efficacy of the crystal by testing the strength of a participant’s arm – pushing it down easily at first but unable to budge it once she’s holding the crystal. Once the crystal and four pieces of rat poison are each put in opaque bags though, she incorrectly determines through applied kinesiology that the crystal is ‘bad’ and one of the pieces of rat poison is ‘good’.

Applied kinesiology in healthcare

There are more seemingly plausible uses of applied kinesiology in healthcare than ‘crystal healing’, though. It’s commonly used by chiropractors and naturopaths, for such things as nutrition or allergy testing and in order to test whether or not a spinal manipulation has been a success. In all uses though, there is just as little evidence as there is for it being a useful test as there is in the case of plastic wristbands, coloured stones, or crystals.

When my younger brother went to see a chiropractor in Wellington for lower back pain, he was surprised that applied kinesiology was used on him. The chiropractor felt all around his back, putting his arms, hands, and fingers in various positions and telling him to resist as they pushed. This was how she intended to diagnose the cause of his back pain.

In many cases, when she pushed and was able to move him, it was because he hadn’t realised she expected him to resist. He described to me one case where she’d asked him to pinch his thumb and forefinger together, but he didn’t realise he was expected to clench them tightly as she pulled them apart until she’d moved on to his second hand. She commented that the first hand was ‘much weaker’ and moved on, presumably drawing some conclusion about the cause of his back pain.

When making adjustments, she would then retest him and consistently note how much stronger he was now, so the adjustment must have been beneficial. During his second appointment, he decided to deliberately mess with her results. Before adjustments, he’d hold himself as strong as he could. Then, when she retested him, he’d allow himself to be weak.

He noticed that, during the first test, she was dragging his arm down with her entire arm. However, when she retested him after an adjustment, she was often not pushing his arm down so much as holding his arm up by placing some fingers beneath his wrist while she squeezed it. He described this technique to me as ‘too refined for it to be unconscious’, interpreting it as being intended to convince him that the adjustment had been effective rather than being intended as a legitimate test of it.

But I’m not entirely convinced this was the case. The idea that your body can be moving in ways you're unaware of is strange and counterintuitive. Just as we like to think we’re too smart to be fooled, we very much like to think that we're in control of our actions, and in the case of involuntary actions like a hiccup or a shiver we're at least aware of the movement. However, there are many scenarios in which your body can move in ways of which you are unaware; for example, dowsing, a practice in which the swing of a pendulum can supposedly answer questions.

A simple experiment to try – and further thinking for students

The cause of these involuntary motions is the ideomotor effect. The name derives from ideo, as in idea, and motor, as in movement; it refers to involuntary movements caused by a thought or idea. There's a very easy experiment that most people can do to effectively demonstrate how powerful this concept is for themselves, which also involves a pendulum. Making a pendulum of your own is easy: it just needs to be a free-hanging weight on a length of something like string or thread. Something as simple as a paperclip at the end of thread will do the trick.

This experiment involves holding the string of a pendulum between your index finger and thumb (so that your thumb is on top and the string goes over your index finger then hangs) so that the weight is a couple of centimetres above a stationary mark. The mark can be anything, so long as it's stationary on a flat surface. For example it might be a coin, or a dot drawn on a sheet of paper.

While the pendulum is being held like this, try to keep your hand still. Don't move it in order to move the pendulum or to counter any movement you see in the pendulum, just hold it still. Then, imagine the pendulum moving in a certain way: left/right, forward/back, clockwise, or anticlockwise. Even though you shouldn't see or feel any movement in your hand, the pendulum will likely start moving in the way you have imagined. If you start imagining it moving in a different way, then it will start moving that way.

I've found the strength of the movement can vary widely from person to person. It's quite strong for me, but for those who have more trouble I find it helps to have a very free-swinging pendulum (I've tried using headphones but found them difficult to use as the wire is not as supple as thread) and making sure that the person holding it isn't trying to counter any movement in the pendulum. Holding the pendulum so that the length of hanging string is longer can also help, as can making sure that your elbow isn’t resting on a solid surface. If you still have trouble replicating the movement though, it may pay to ask a friend or family member to try it.

When Power Balance was still in business, before they were forced to admit to defrauding their consumers, many intelligent people were convinced by their claims that their products really could make them stronger and better balanced. I still keep the kyanite crystal that I bought as a reminder of this fact, which can be easy to forget: everyone can be fooled. That includes me, and it includes you as well.

Classroom activity: Explore double-blind testing, placebo effect, and randomised trials. This free online classroom resource covers designing a fair trial.

-       Mark Hanna is a co-founder of the Society for Science Based Healthcare, a New Zealand-based advocacy group. He writes the blog Honest Universe.

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