PhotoLet’s hash out the burning debate of our time: If you’re trying to sell your house but enjoying no success, would it help if you reorganized your home according to the principles of feng shui?

Well, that depends on exactly what you mean by feng shui (which is pronounced “fung shway,” to rhyme with “rung way”). In today’s America, feng shui is sometimes used colloquially to mean “organize and decorate your space to make it more pleasant.” If, for example, you check out this Bankrate article “6 Feng Shui Secrets To Selling Your Home,” you’ll find many of the “secrets” are actually pretty self-evident, like “Create a good traffic flow” – of course an area through which people can walk unhindered makes a better impression than a cramped, cluttered space where folks keep bumping into things.

But “feng shui” also carries quasi-mystical or even semi-religious baggage, when it discusses concepts like “energy flow,” “spirits,” “chi,” “life forces” and other things whose existence must be taken on faith rather than objectively measured. Bankrate’s article also uses this faith-based feng shui meaning, when it advises:

Real estate agents will tell you to close toilet lids because no buyer wants to look into your commode.

Feng shui philosophy advocates the same thing for a different reason.

"Water represents money and the toilet is the one place where water/money escapes," [feng shui consultant Jayme] Barrett says.

Instead, "You can place a small tabletop water fountain either at the entrance or in the back left corner of the home, which is the wealth corner," she says. "Moving water circulates prosperity energy throughout the home."

Prosperity energy

Of course, there’s never been a controlled scientific test demonstrating that decorative fountains result in prosperity increases, regardless of the fountains’ location relative to you. For that matter, nobody has ever shown that “prosperity energy” exists, let alone figured out how to detect or measure it. Yet there is a [tiny] kernel of truth at the center of the more mystical feng shui claims.

PhotoFeng shui originated in ancient China, which is also where the magnetic compass was either invented or discovered (depending on your point of view). The two facts are connected. After all, the Earth really is criss-crossed with invisible lines of force undetectable by human senses: namely, the planet’s magnetic field. That’s why a compass in the northern hemisphere will always point toward magnetic north (unless there’s a closer magnetic field interfering with it)—humans can’t sense the magnetism ourselves, but it’s real and it’s strong enough to move the needle.  

Back in ancient China, some genius whose name is lost to history discovered, probably by accident, that if you dropped small objects made out of “magnetite” or “lodestone” (a naturally magnetic mineral), they would always land aligned along a certain straight-line axis—just as compass needles align themselves today. 

So it’s understandable why the ancient Chinese would’ve observed this and then thought “There’s obviously invisible forces affecting this weird piece of rock; maybe there’s invisible forces affecting everything else, too!”  

Objective measurement

But the difference between magnetism versus feng shui “prosperity energy” or “chi” or other mystic forces is simple: you can conclusively detect magnetic forces with a compass. Send three different people into the same windowless room, ask them to identify magnetic north, and (provided their compasses aren’t broken) they’ll all point in the same direction.

There is no identical experiment you can perform with feng shui consultants, to identify “prosperity energy” or “life force” or—well, anything except where the compass is pointing.

The comedy magic team of Penn and Teller tried such an experiment several years ago, in an episode of their old cable-TV series “Bullsh*t!” (which we always thought was a pretty good show; we just wished it had a name we could politely mention in the presence of kids).

Three different feng shui consultants hired to work on the same room reached three completely different (and oft-contradictory) conclusions regarding how to make the room conform to whatever mystic principles the feng shui consultants proclaimed.

Of course, you’d get similarly contradictory results if you asked three different interior decorators how to make your home more attractive. But interior decorators generally don’t claim their work is based on channeling “prosperity energy” or “life force” or any other pseudoscientific power source.

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