The Self-Help Movement Can %$#@ Up Anything….

It’s getting late into Sunday evening here at Foster’s Underground Lair, and since my chow keeps looking at me expectantly, anticipating our nightly walk, and I’m planning on wasting a good portion of the night on video games, I’m going to shut down firefox and call it a blogging night soon.  But first, something to read, then something to listen to while reading!

I’m sure you’ve already heard of the fiasco that took place at a recent Tony Robbins motivational event.  I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I heard the news was “How do you fuck up the ‘walking on hot coals’ trick.  I’ve seen it done in person, and I’ve seen it done on video countless times.  But then I realized that I always saw skeptics perform the stunt, people who understood the physics behind the trick, not people who thought it was mind over matter woo.  I guess if you’re thinking of “cool moss” instead of the proper pace and way to step, you’re bound to get hurt.  And it is Tony Robbins after all.  Everyone who pays to hear him speak gets burned; this time it was just literal.

Anyway, Steven Novella has a piece on firewalking and the self-help movement over at NeuroLogica that is worth a few minutes of your time.

Robbins is a successful self-help guru with a schtick that depends upon the scientific illiteracy of his audience. After a session of telling people how to “unleash the power within” he demonstrates their new-found power by inviting them to walk barefoot over hot burning coals while thinking about cool moss. This is meant to demonstrate the power of mind over matter. This is, of course, nonsense.

The Hot Coal Deception

Many physicists have used the hot coal demonstration to teach a bit of elementary physics, as there is a very simple explanation for how people can walk over hot coals in their bare feet. I have, in fact, heard three (non-exclusive) explanations. The first, and the one that I think is probably the biggest factor, is that wood coals have a very low thermal capacity and conductivity. This means that they do not hold on to a lot of heat energy, and they conduct that energy very slowly. Therefore little heat is transferred to the soles of the feet – if you walk briskly across them and give little time for heat transfer.

Give the whole thing a read.  I’ll be back with a “Sunday Listening Pleasure,” and then it’s off to walk HyunA.


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