Every so often you can hear faint rumblings in the feng-shui world about professional standards for practitioners. These rumblings rarely amount to anything more than public-relations posturing so that the public is lulled into a complaisant, semiconscious state of outstretched arms and open palms full of money.1

Some feng-shui enthusiasts seem bewildered at the very notion that the public might need protection from (or education about) feng-shui, its consultants and “masters.”2

We are missing a great historical opportunity. The scientific world has been busy embracing traditional knowledge as ethnoscience.3Anyone who cares should start practicing feng-shui on their feng-shui practices before they are dismissed as frauds, impostors, or — even worse — pseudo-scientists.

What good is a certificate as a qualified feng-shui anything if it’s the equivalent of a doctorate in Creationism?

You know Creationism — it is the denial of the legitimacy of Darwinian evolution on the grounds that it conflicts with the description of the creation of the world contained in the Bible.If you like the idea of being the feng-shui equivalent of a doctor of Creationism, stop reading and back away from the monitor: you’re in the wrong century, and God will get you for messing around with feng-shui. (It’s not in the Bible.)

If you’re like me, and you want fengshui to avoid being lumped in with the beliefs of Flat- and Hollow-Earthers and creationists, we have some serious work to do. We have to catch up on the hard work necessary to put feng-shui on a solid footing as a true indigenous science.5

How bad is the situation?

An expert working group established by the International Council for Science (ICSU) has established some basic distinctions between traditional knowledge, legitimate science, and pseudo-science, and fengshui currently doesn’t look very good.

The working group was established in July 1999 at the World Conference on Science, partly organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the ICSU, primarily due to growing concerns about the endorsement of the contribution of traditional knowledge to modern science.

The issue was not about acknowledging the contributions of traditional knowledge — ethnoscientific fields are well established, and the scientific community is generally against divorcing traditional knowledge from modern science. Scientists were concerned about the need for a clear separation of traditional knowledge systems and legitimate science from pseudo-science.

Conference members agreed on documents that encouraged governments and scientists to support cooperation between holders of traditional knowledge and scientists, but they also expressed that approaches that seek to promote anti-science and pseudo-science should be identified and removed.The example of creationism was provided as the epitome of pseudo-science and/or anti-science.

The working group’s report, submitted in September 2002 at the general assembly of ICSU in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, makes it plain that science and traditional knowledge can (and do) work together, but they have nothing to do with (and should have nothing to do with) pseudo-science and anti-science.

What is “traditional knowledge”?

Traditional knowledge constitutes a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices, and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. It originated independently of science in a particular cultural setting, typically independent of Western culture.

Traditional knowledge is not intended to be in competition with science, and competition is not the necessary result of their interaction. If there’s any form of competition between legitimate science and traditional knowledge, it’s from people who want science to replace these other forms of knowledge.7 Traditional knowledge is well established in scientific circles as strengthening traditional science and contributing to a wide variety of sustainable development practices that range from medicine to environmental management. The challenge scientists have is to define it in a way that recognizes its value and does justice to its traditions without giving credibility to pseudo-science.

What is “legitimate science”?

Legitimate science is typically characterized as being more systematic than comparable pieces of everyday knowledge in how it describes, how it explains, how it establishes claims about knowledge, how it expands knowledge, and how it represents knowledge. There’s an inherent dynamic in science toward the improvement of knowledge that has been described as the constant attempt to increase the systematicity of knowledge and thereby to make progress. Descriptions become more systematic by higher degrees of accuracy of observation, explanations become more systematic by theories that are more and more comprehensive, new and more accurately repeated experiments increase the degree of systematic testing and thereby the efficiency of detecting mistakes, repeated surveys of the field increase the awareness of knowledge gaps, etc.8

What is “pseudo-science”?

The ICSU working group defined pseudo-science as always in competition with science and posing as a science by mimicking it. Pseudo-science displays a developmental pattern very different from legitimate science. While real science tries to increase its systematicity wherever feasible, pseudo-science is primarily static. If it moves (or improves) at all, it’s only working on defense mechanisms against criticism from the scientific tradition it’s trying to supplant.9

By static scientists mean that pseudo-science rarely attempts a rigorous assessment of knowledge claims in the field. For example, where claims are probabilistic (like talk of tendencies, or fuzzy talk about influences), in science you do systematic statistical testing. But pseudo-sciences rarely conduct statistical testing procedures — they rely on anecdotal evidence (“testimonials”).

If knowledge claims of pseudo-scientific subjects are systematically evaluated at all, it’s not a self-critical attempt by those involved — the evaluation is made by legitimate science. And legitimate science is doing the evaluation to determine the accuracy of claims made by the pseudo-science.

In other words, pseudo-science won’t police itself.

Typically, pseudo-scientific enterprises are extremely conservative and their dynamics are defensive — they merely oppose the counter-attacks of the scientific community. Pseudo-science also tries to delegitimize existing bodies of scientific knowledge by gaining equal status, but typically does not have people with a strong education in the field they’re competing with.

How do you tell the difference between traditional knowledge and pseudo-science? The existence of pseudo-science as an enterprise fighting science is invariably bound to the existence of science, while traditional knowledge simply is — it does not need a conflict to exist.10

What is the current status of fengshui in regards to this?

I leave you with this and hope you think it through.

Define the different types of fengshui in terms of their adherence to traditional knowledge and in terms of their straying from traditional knowledge. Look at the history of Ba Zhai or Xuan Kong, for example, which can be traced through literary sources. Look at the archaeological evidence for feng shui. Contrast that with the scant literary sources of Black Sect (beyond the publishing boom of the last century, that is).

Identify the developmental pattern in each variety of feng-shui and compare them to:

Traditional/indigenous model

  • Long history as a study of interactions and of traditional knowledge of the physical and biological world.
  • Often adapted by science and reapplied in contemporary contexts and through contemporary management.
  • Empirical knowledge built up over generations and grounded in practical evidence.
  • Emphasizes attachment to place.
  • Embedded within a specific worldview that emphasizes the symbiotic nature of the relationship between humans and the natural world, a network of social relations and obligations.
  • Developed by indigenous people away from Western civilization.
  • All about interaction with the natural world.
  • Not in competition with science.

Legitimate scientific model

  • Systematic improvement of knowledge in all practically possible directions.
  • More systematic than comparable pieces of everyday knowledge in how it describes, explains, establishes claims about knowledge, expands knowledge, and represents knowledge.
  • Has an ideal of completeness.

Pseudo-scientific model

  • Poses as a science by mimicking science.
  • In competition with science.
  • Conservative. No attempts to push the envelope on systematic understanding.
  • No systematic, self-critical assessment of claims to knowledge.
  • Reliance on anecdotal evidence (“testimonials”).
  • Little or no evidence of systematic statistical testing.
  • Delegitimization of existing bodies of scientific knowledge and (to some extent) traditional knowledge.
  • Defensive.


  1. Various US and International Feng Shui guilds issue and display documents on their Web sites about regulations, codes of conduct for professional practice, public confidence in feng shui practices, and the like. However, there’s no international agreement on what constitutes “abuse and poor practice,” or even “professional competence,” in the words of the UK Feng Shui Society (www.fengshuisociety.org.uk). So what comes out is much like the word salad of the Feng Shui Guild (www.fengshuiguild.com): a “legitimate beginning level measuring stick against which a prospective student or client can comparatively evaluate varying courses of study or consultant’s knowledge and style of analysis.” To which Gary Quelch has retorted, “HMS UK Standards is not a worthy vessel and it should never have gone to sea. … introducing standards that are so low that they only represent the mere ‚Äòfoundations’ of such a school, will only damage the prospects of these new graduates, not enhance them.”
  2. Feng Shui News (www.fengshuinews.com) asks questions such as these, and: “Do you have the education, experience, and qualifications to be a Feng Shui professional? What do you think the qualifications should be?”
  3. Ethnoscience is the study of interactions and of traditional knowledge of the physical and biological world. It’s based on the work of Harold Conklin among the Hanunoo of the Philippines in the 1950s. Traditional peoples are generally recognized as a potential source of knowledge for science. International Council for Science (2002). Science and Traditional Knowledge: Report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge.
  4. John Scott (2002). Litmus test proposed for ‚Äòpseudo-science.’ (www.SciDev.net)
  5. Joseph Needham championed the view that feng-shui is an ethnoscience, partially on the fact that its principles follow the scientific model and are based on calculations and complex mathematical formulas.
  6. The study group acknowledges the gradual weakening and disappearance of traditional knowledge and recommends the ICSU and member organizations express clear goals of sustaining traditional knowledge systems through active support to the societies that are keepers and developers of this knowledge, to promote training to better equip young scientists and indigenous people to carry out research on traditional knowledge, to promote and develop research to better appreciate traditional knowledge, and to organize an international symposium on science and traditional knowledge. The group recommends the International Society of Ethnobiology become an International Scientific Associate of ICSU. They also recommend that ICSU participate in the work of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) specifically in the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore.
  7. ICSU: 13
  8. ICSU: 12
  9. ICSU: 13
  10. Ibid.

Earlier version published in Feng Shui Times — June 2003