Dec 07 2007

Applied Kinesiology and Self Deception

Take a look at this video. (Thanks to Jake Hall for sending me the link.) It is a sincere demonstration of an “alternative” modality known as applied kinesiology (AK), dreamed up by Chiropractor Dr. George J. Goodheart, Jr. . According to an AK website:

Applied kinesiology (AK) is a form of diagnosis using muscle testing as a primary feedback mechanism to examine how a person’s body is functioning. When properly applied, the outcome of an AK diagnosis will determine the best form of therapy for the patient. Since AK draws together the core elements of many complementary therapies, it provides an interdisciplinary approach to health care.

Without putting to fine a point on it, AK is utter nonsense – as close as we get in CAM to pure magical thinking. It is based upon no legitimate biological, physiological, or medical principles or evidence. The basic concept is that the muscles of the body will become weak when challenged in some way. As the video shows, the challenge can be from being in contact with a physical substance or from just thinking about a person, thing, or statement. If the substance it healthful or the person is good or the statement is true, then the muscles will remain strong. If they are toxic, bad, false, then the muscles will display weakness. How does this work, you ask? Well it all has to do with balance and energy. In other words – the same vague pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that is common to so many CAM modalities. The legitimate science behind it is nonexistent.

The video is supposed to be a demonstration of AK. What it is really a demonstration of is self-deception, and as such it is very interesting. The subject seems to really believe that his strength is decreasing when he says the name “Hitler.” The lesson should be clear – the human capacity for self-deception is almost limitless. Therefore, we cannot trust anyone’s subjective experience.

This is a critical concept that skeptics appreciate and many believers (whether in the paranormal, spiritual, or some other pseudoscience) simply do not. There is a tendency to naively grossly underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. Of course, the only remedy for this human frailty is carefully controlled observation – or science. When properly blinded tests of AK are conducted, the effect disappears.

On a side note, from looking at the videos it is possible to distinguish genuine weakness from decreased effort. This is a distinction that clinical neurologists (like myself) have to make all the time. If a muscle is genuinely weak, it will behave differently from a muscle that is not weak but where the person is giving less than full effort – for whatever reason, and regardless of whether or not they realize they are giving less than full effort. We will then describe such weakness as “effort-dependent” or “effort-limited.” One key feature of effort-limited weakness is that it tends to give way. In other words, the strength is greater at first but then will suddenly decrease or give way. You can actually see this characteristic of effort-limited weakness in the video.

In other words – the weakness is not real, it is due to decreased effort on the part of the subject due to (apparently) his belief that his muscles should be weak under the proper circumstances. In other words – self deception.

AK is an easy target for skepticism. It is fairly straightforward magical thinking. But one of the advantages of scientific skepticism as an area of inquiry is that it looks at all fringe, controversial, or pseudoscientific claims and therefore can see patterns among them. Therefore, we can apply the lessons learned from the more obvious nonsense when confronting other controversial or implausible claims that are more complex. Understanding the power and nature of self-deception informs our assessment of other claims that are dependent upon subjective human elements.

So watch the video and learn the true lessons it has to teach – humans are simply not equipped to achieve reliable knowledge about the world without the rigors of science.

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