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Jul 22 2012

Fire-walking gone awry

The main shtick of so-called motivational speakers is to persuade people that if only they think positively enough, they can achieve great things. One such speaker named Tony Robbins provides a practical demonstration of this principle by borrowing a practice that is fairly common in India and Sri Lanka during Hindu and Buddhist religious festivals, and that is ‘fire-walking’ which involves people walking across a bed of coal embers to show their devotion to their gods whom they believe will protect them from burns.

After his show, Robbins encouraged members of his audience to do this while chanting a mantra, presumably to show the strength of their minds over matter. Many people ended up with serious burns on their feet.

After the event, which ended about 11 p.m., the crowd walked across the street to the park, where 12 lanes of hot coals measuring 10 feet long and 2½-feet wide rested on the grass.

Jonathan Correll, 25, decided to check out what was going on when “I heard wails of pain, screams of agony.” He said one young woman appeared to be in so much pain “it was horrific.”

“It was people seriously hurting, like they were being tortured,” he said. “First one person, then a couple minutes later another one, and there was just a line of people walking on that fire. It was just bizarre, man.”

Whether your feet get burned by hot things depends on the laws of physics involving such things as the temperature of the coals, the time of contact, the area of contact, the temperature, thermal capacity, and conductivity of the coals, how much they are covered with cooler ash, the level of moisture on the skin, and so on. The only thing that will save you is that you can stride across 10 feet with four steps, meaning that each foot is in contact with the coals just twice. Sometimes the physical conditions are such that you will not get burns, at other times you will. It is as simple as that. To think that your state of mind can overcome these laws and prevent burns is insane. If so, you should be able to simply stand on the coals without burns, not that anyone should even think of trying that.

And yet, news reports say that some people were repeating this experience even after suffering burns the first time. This is what happens when woo is allowed to proliferate and people take it seriously. Fire-walking does not give evidence of religious devotion or the power of mind over matter. The only thing it demonstrates is the power of woo over good sense.

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  1. 1
    Cuttlefish

    All the misses and the misters
    Who walked barefoot over coals
    And whose tootsies got some blisters
    In defiance of their goals
    Will be told they lacked conviction
    Or they’d overcome the heat—
    It’s a victim-blaming fiction,
    And a scam that can’t be beat

    You can pay a lot of money
    To achieve a state of mind
    But it’s still a little funny
    (Though, in truth, a bit unkind)
    That a walk across some fire
    Had a lesson to be learned…
    Have a care whom you admire;
    Trust a fraud, and you’ll get burned

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2012/07/21/21-burned-in-clear-lack-of-faith/

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    Next up for the survivors: “Improve your self-confidence by winning at Russian roulette”

  3. 3
    Hank Fox

    Nice piece! I linked to you and Cuttlefish both in my own post on the subject: Toasty Toes at Tony Robbins Event

  4. 4
    glendenb

    Ages ago I saw an episode of mythbusters – they examined fire walking. They did various experiments and determined that a steady even pace was better for not getting burned because moving faster you dug your toes and heels into the coals. They also pointed out that the basic physics involved were the biggest issue – the way fire walking is normally done you don’t walk on red hot coals, you walk on the ashes and cooler coals above them which don’t transfer heat very effectively. So long as the coals aren’t actually red hot when you step on them, you keep moving at a steady pace, don’t let your feet stay in contact with the coals very long you aren’t likely to get burnt.

    That said, I’m pretty sure that Tony Robbins’ loyal followers have learned a valuable lesson about Robbins’ credibility.

  5. 5
    MNb0

    The story has made it to at least one Dutch newspaper, thus nicely confirm our prejudices about stupid Americans:

    http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/4496/Buitenland/article/detail/3289928/2012/07/21/Motivatiegoeroe-laat-mensen-over-kolen-lopen-21-gewond.dhtml

  6. 6
    Doug Little

    I was taught in high school physics that a successful walk is due mostly to the Leidenfrost effect. The trick to walking on coals is to make sure that the bottom of your feet are wet. This is normally done by having a section of wet grass before the coal pit.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    That used to be the most popular theory but that link I gave suggests that it may not be considered the dominant effect anymore but it is one of many factors.

  8. 8
    Doug Little

    Cool, Thanks Mano. It’s always good when people point out that you are using out of date information.

  1. 9
    THE POWER OF WOO… | Have Coffee Will Write

    [...] Mano Singham writes: And yet, news reports say that some people were repeating this experience even after suffering burns the first time. This is what happens when woo is allowed to proliferate and people take it seriously. Fire-walking does not give evidence of religious devotion or the power of mind over matter. The only thing it demonstrates is the power of woo over good sense. [...]

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