Wednesday, June 24, 2009


A common theme in modern skepticism is how people naturally see causation where none exists. Got cancer and live near a phone tower? Must be evil vibes from the GSM network. Got a child with autism? Must be that damn MMR jab.

"But surely that's just something that crazy people do? Us nice normal skeptical folks would never put the cart before the horse," I hear you cry. Well, I'm sorry to break it to you, but it's a natural human trait. And the thing about natural human traits is they don't just affect the nutters; they apply to everyone...

An example from the world of martial arts. I used to do a lot of Karate, so I have a feel for how to punch, kick and otherwise mutilate an opponent. I haven't trained for years but, as a result of a change of location, I've decided to take up Taekwondo. My first lesson was yesterday.

So a few minutes into the lesson I'm kicking and blocking like mad, but it just doesn't feel right. I'm stiff, I'm tense, my techniques don't flow nicely. This sucks.

Now, one thing I've heard people tell beginners in a whole range of sports is "relax and your technique will improve". So I decide to consciously try this. I systematically unclench my arms and try a few more punches.

And amazingly... it completely failed to work. My arm muscles, not being trained for this kind of task, weren't able to throw my fists forward without over-punching (which bloody hurts). My untensed leg muscles weren't able to lift my feet above hip height.

This turns the old adage on its head. It's not a case of "relaxation leads to improved technique". It's more like "being out of practice leads to poor technique, and your weakened muscles tense up trying to compensate".

So correlation has been confused with causation, and the resulting expert advice turns out to be useless. I wonder how often this happens?

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