Martial Arts Scepticism: Taking it on the Chin and Listening to Fools

Martial Arts Scepticism: Taking it on the Chin and Listening to Fools

 

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.  Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

George Orwell (1946)

The process of martial arts training can be a long and arduous one. Many of us have our stories of disciplinarian and perfectionist teachers who would be fast to notice minute faults in our technique. Sometimes we would be corrected by more than one instructor over the same thing. What one instructor put “right” another would find fault and put it back the way it was and we’d start feeling like some sort of tennis ball being batted one way and then another. Students have to accept error when their teacher points it out. The fierceness defined by training in martial arts inspires an atmosphere not to question the instructor – you are humble in the presence of his knowledge and experience. Perhaps it speaks to our tribal instinct and puts us into a state of automatic awe of an alpha figure who we assume won their position through combative superiority. Perhaps it is part of the legacy of a time when the military and religious institutions influenced all places of learning. Humility is a regular topic in the world of martial arts training and many students are taught about its virtues by their instructor. And yet few of us stop to wonder how humble the instructor is when he is wrong?

The question is a very valid one to anyone who claims that what they teach is “marital science”. This term has a time-honoured tradition the world over. Western boxing has been referred to as a science and often as the “Sweet Science” for generations. Muay Thai is the "science of eight limbs", with close Burmese relative "thaing" calling itself "the science of nine limbs" General Choi Hong Hi is noted for his inclusion of specific Newtonian physics to describe the correct execution of his strikes in the Korean art of tae kwon do – specifically Newton’s Third Law.[i] Appeals to science were transferred over to choi kwang do, a style that split from Choi’s International Tae kwon do Federation. They are quite common in Ed Parker’s kempo system too with long descriptions using mathematics to explain certain techniques and concepts. More and more martial artists claim a scientific basis for their systems, and having line diagrams or 3D imagery of violent acts dressed with equations is an increasingly common sight. Physics isn’t the only science referenced regularly by martial artists and self defence coaches. Biology is perhaps an even more popular. We regularly discuss the physiological effects of violence and argue for an understanding of them to better prepare ourselves for combat. And if it isn’t the hard sciences being quoted then it is the soft ones. Psychology is proving particularly popular with those teaching reality-based self defence or combatives and those teaching combat sports.   

 

However, does this then automatically make some martial arts martial sciences? I am not so sure. Quoting science is one thing. Using science to explain natural phenomena from body mechanics to the effects of adrenaline is very encouraging. However, using scientific-sounding phrases to describe something does not make that something “proven by science”. I would argue that the scientific method – that which underpins anything that should be called a science – does not resemble the typical martial arts method; at least not at a teaching level. A scientist works hard to test against a hypothesis he has produced from his observations. He does this because he knows that once he puts his conclusions forward and produces his theory, the rest of the scientific community will try to repeat his method in order to test against this theory. Science teachers provide a theory and then prompt their students to experiment, record their results and draw temporary conclusions supported by the empirical data.

This passage from Kathryn Schulz’s book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” sums it up beautifully:

 

“As an ideal for intellectual inquiry and a strategy for the advancement of knowledge, the scientific method is essentially a monument in the utility of error. Most of us gravitate toward trying to verify our beliefs, to the extent that we bother investigating their validity at all. But scientists gravitate toward falsification; as a community, if not individuals, they seek to disprove their beliefs.”

 

By contrast martial arts institutions teach us to accept the words of our teachers without question. There is no proper investigation process and no real experimentation. Few clubs or styles take kindly to submitting their ideas to a peer review. The teacher has earned his position and the teacher before him has earned his position and so on. Any changes that are made to the system these changes occur at the top[ii]. It’s a top down approach, directions decided by the opinions of its leaders. In Alex Gillis’s book “A Killing Art” he quotes Choi Jung-Hwa, the son of tae kwon do’s most famous founders, Choi Hong Hi, describing his father’s International Taekwon-do Federation as something that resembled a cult. He says, “The ITF organization was an absolute autocracy – there were no questions asked”.

The average martial artist is drawn by what Kathryn Schulz calls “The Allure of Certainty”. In her fascinating psychological study of our peculiar relationship with error, Schulz uses an example of the first people to be called “Zealots”. These were called the “fourth philosophic sect” by the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, who describes how they, under the leadership of Judas of Galilee, fanatically rebelled against the ruling Romans in 6 AD. Their intentions may have been admirable, to throw off the yoke of imperial rule on their homeland, and the fact that every single one of them fought to the death rather than be captured (the last 960 being killed in a self-organized slaughter rather than allowing the Romans to take them alive) evokes comparisons with the Spartan 300, but they were fanatics none the less. They had a scorched earth policy, which included starving and killing fellow Jews who would not join their single righteous cause. Schulz describes how the name “zealot” stems from Greek meaning “to be jealous of the truth - to guard it as your own”. She explains that the legacy of the original Zealots is “not ideological but methodological”. Today’s zealots believe above all else that they are the holders of the truth. Schulz explains:

 

“What zealots have in common, then, is the absolute conviction that they are right. In fact, of all the symbolic ones and zeroes that extremists use to write their ideological binary codes – us/them, same/different, good/evil – the fundamental one is right/wrong. Zealotry demands a rejection of the possibility of error.”  

 

Schulz provides a chapter that helps us better understand the reasons why certainty are so alluring. She sees it as a base evolutionary characteristic, which unfortunately can easily get carried too far. She marvels at the way we find others certainty in matters that seem so absurdly wrong to us and yet rarely think about how others see our own absolute beliefs. We aggressively defend these beliefs and ridicule our critics, often feeling hurt by their temerity to challenge such obvious truths.

Watch any respected or successful martial artist get caught on anything and then see how the self-justification comes in both from them and their followers. Forget the actual fighting. 2010 saw more and more reported cases of martial artists get prosecuted convicted for a wide variety of crimes from fraud to sexual abuse – often cases that were directly related to the running of their clubs and associations. For the first time I have seen in the UK martial arts press, Combat magazine reported on these cases for two months running on their newsline page. I felt the reporting was a serious step forward in the martial arts community, but little has been made of the inordinate number of criminal cases that are blatant examples of abuses of authority. Put martial arts fraud or martial arts sexual abuse into an internet search engine and you will see that neither are uncommon events, it was about time that a magazine started reporting something that wasn’t connected to promoting one club or other. However, this prompted little more than a shrugged shoulders response.

It is little surprising for me. Once I found myself amid the ranks of instructors I saw a world of self-justification or blind spots. Gone was the innocence of the student who was expected to humbly accept criticism and make the right changes. It seemed that a by-product of investing time in a chosen art and in one’s self can be a narrower mind and a far more fragile sense of self-esteem. Cognitive dissonance is a very popular area of psychological study that describes the uncomfortable feeling of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. This typically occurs when a person is presented with compelling evidence that a decision or belief they hold might be completely wrong. The logical procedure for a human being to follow when faced with such evidence is to look into evidence objectively, but humans are not naturally rational creatures. In their excellent study “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”, award-winning psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show that we use self-justification in order to protect our sense of certainty as well as our tribal allegiance and that all important self-esteem that most martial arts clubs promise to bestow on their students. This leads us to put up a variety of mental barriers, often resulting in anger, embarrassment and deeper prejudices.

Self defence pioneer Geoff Thompson perfectly summed up a typical example of a martial arts cognitive dissonance when he described his own experiences of real fighting after years of karate training. The evidence Geoff saw was that real fights little resembled anything he had experienced in his karate dojo. However, through the filter of confirmation bias – another mental defence mechanism of self-justification – he started telling himself that certain disparate street-fighting tactics were just rough versions of what he had been practicing. Fortunately Geoff was quickly able to break away from this way of thinking, expand and develop his training accordingly and the rest is history. However, his initial critiques of the way various arts were being practiced encountered a tidal wave of controversy coming from the collective cognitive dissonance of his martial arts peers.  

 

Most martial arts instructors are often dismissive of anything that differs from their methods of training let alone something that contradicts it. So, it is interesting to see how they respond to irrefutable evidence that they have been in error. Even good friends of mine who pride themselves on being open-minded, progressive and “always a student” reveal their hardwired mental barriers when being caught out. I first started really seeing this on internet forums, through discussion emails and now it is ever-present on Facebook. The internet provides us with more accessible research information than ever before. Unfortunately it is also at least equally full of misinformation and disinformation, which many of us buy into – after all belief not scepticism is our default mental position.[iii] Therefore urban legends thrive on the internet, often through social networks, forums and email. I have received emails coming from legitimate and perfectly respectable self defence academies warning me of all manner of gang initiations, the most popular being the abandoned child car seat ambush. The unaware citizen stops at the side of the road to examine a discarded child seat. Upon doing this a gang member will attack them, rape them and maybe kill them. When I first saw this it sounded plausible, but my critical thinking alarm buzzed away, so I checked out my favourite urban legends debunking sites, Snopes and Hoax Slayer. Hoax Slayer had the whole story nailed in a detailed article, which included its history as a chain email and even quoted two separate letters from two different police stations confirming it all be an urban legend.

I immediately sent a private email to a well-intentioned instructor who had forwarded me the story on his headed form. My email was a discreet short one sent with a link to my source, proving it was a hoax. My reason behind sending it was genuine concern for my friend’s reputation. His response was a one line answer: “Thanks Jamie, but I still think it is important for people to be aware”. Therefore the instructor, perhaps without realizing it, was justifying the need to be vigilant about a non-existent crime. And yet instructors like him – instructors like me and most of those reading this for that matter – spend a good deal of their time enthusiastically busting myths regarding the impracticalities of most martial arts hard skills as it is applied to modern self defence. We know it is inefficient to devote time to defending against unlikely or unreal techniques, so why is it okay to make people aware of false threats? The debate over whether or not the martial arts and self defence world trades on irrational fear is a subject for another article and is touched on in my “Pornography of Reality Based Self Defence” piece, but what is important here is that the instructor felt he needed to defend his mistake.

 

The very best get it wrong. Gavin de Becker is a writer on threat management and a government level security advisor I have cited and recommended for years. However, more evidence from scientific studies brings into question reliance on intuition. As much as I have found it difficult to admit sometimes listening to your gut can get you into to more danger[iv]. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is another writer I have regularly recommended for his studies into performance under pressure. However, his otherwise excellent six hour lecture, “Bullet Proof Mind”, makes a wrong assumption about likely criminal profiles for youth spree-killers[v]. I haven’t seen any evidence yet of either of these two doyens (and I say that with genuine respect) of combat soft skills updating their positions on any of this yet.   

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop within the styles or even at the door of the house of martial arts or self defence. The outside world is becoming increasingly aware of the eccentricities caused by martial arts group polarization. The exotic fighting systems of the world have often been ripe for parodying. Martial arts actors like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung even built an entire career on their ability to combine comedy with martial arts. Several comedy shows and cartoons have featured martial arts as a device for humour. However, others outside the world of martial arts – men like Jim Carrey, Tommy Cooper and Paul Kaye – have taken far less affectionate digs at the arts and their practitioners. The movie “The Foot Fist Way” only just pulled back from giving the typical strip mall a coup de grace and is the longest example of an overt martial arts satire. Many martial artists have laughed all of these examples off and shared the sketches with their friends. Many have acknowledged the truth within the jest, but do not see the satire being directed at them or their particular school. Again, we see the shrugged shoulders response. As martial arts have grown as an industry and a subculture, taking root in most towns in the developed world, so has many of its inadequacies become more apparent. Geoff Thompson described this lessening mystique in his book “The Pavement Arena”[vi], where he noticed the increasing number of black belts made the average person less fearful of the wearer’s supposed fighting prowess. Now the criticism is more overt and more focused.

The pseudoscience, scaremongering, strange rituals, highly questionable physical claims and dubious marketing methods have all fallen under the eye of the empirical sceptical movement. James “The Amazing” Randi was one of the first to do this on national television when he exposed James Hydrick’s[vii] inability to exhibit telekinetic skills through his martial arts training. Brian Dunning dedicated his 19th January 2010 episode of his popular weekly show, “Skeptoid”, to the “magical” claims of certain “McDojos”. The podcast garnered a lot of support from martial artists who had previously seen some of these claims, particularly the no-touch knock-outs, exposed on Fox Chicago’s prime time news. However, it wasn’t until Penn and Teller dedicated an episode of their award-winning HBO show, “Penn and Teller: Bullshit!” to martial arts that finally we saw a strong reaction from martial artists. Unlike the satire, the two months worth of disturbing reports in “Combat” magazine, the investigations and debunkings on sites like Bullshido.net, the Fox news special and the podcast dedicated to a certain sector of the martial arts world, this show aimed and fired at martial arts as a whole.  

 

The “Penn and Teller: Bullshit!” reaction is perhaps the best example of how the martial arts community really feel about criticism. This time even many who normally take on the role of the martial arts critic felt a need to put aside their differences and respond aggressively to the show. I have seen some superb much-needed rebuttals against the episode in the form of blog articles, internet forum posts and even an entire YouTube critique[viii]. I could easily voice many of my own criticisms too, from the moot compliance to a criminal argument[ix] to the lack of newspaper coverage of martial artists defeating criminals[x], but I somehow feel we might be missing the bigger picture.

I admit when I first watched the episode I winced and as much as I consider myself to be a martial arts sceptic, I felt my defensive mental barriers begin to rise up. It is very easy just to write the show off as a crude and childish attack on everything that does not marry up with the two magician host’s opinions. The show’s very title and its style of delivery are intentionally provocative to the point that it is impossible to take it too seriously. The two magicians retain the professional act they have used throughout their career: Penn Jillette is the brash outspoken one with all the one-liners and Teller remains the literally silent partner. This sets the tone as much as it would if the presenters had puppet sidekicks. In addition to dressing the show with the odd magic trick to use as a clever metaphor, Jillette swears profusely throughout and a good number of the episodes include gratuitous nudity mainly displayed by many models employed by the show.

 

Jillette defends the profanity by saying that calling someone “an asshole” rather than a “fraud” or a “charlatan” frees them from a lot of legal action, as “vulgar abuse” is not considered to be slanderous. Nevertheless, it is still used excessively and is not always in the context Jillette outlines in his justification. This is especially evident when it is used to express Jillette’s exasperated dubbed over reaction to comments made by anyone who represents the subject matter they are criticizing. He even introduces supporters of the view he opposes with the phrase “And then there’s this asshole!”

The excessive nudity seen in the series is intended to satirize the media’s apparent obsession with sex appeal. Penn and Teller have strong libertarian and some strong liberal political views and they take issue with what they see as hypocritical prudery and censorship in America. However, rather than leave the nude model stunt in an episode like “Sex, Sex, Sex”, where it is relevant, it became something of a hallmark of the show’s formula and, like the copious amount of swearing has ended up wearing thin.

 

These issues aside, “Penn and Teller: Bullshit!” intends to carry on the debunking tradition started by the magician and escapologist Harry Houdini. It is also very much influenced by the aforementioned James Randi. They make a strong point that despite being “cheerleaders for science” they are not scientists. Like Houdini and Randi they are performers, so one might argue that their approach is in line with their area of expertise.

 

This doesn’t mean they don’t respect the scientific method and regularly use the empirical sceptical tool kit for debunking. On the contrary, they point out logical fallacy arguments, they explain the importance of empirical evidence, they show how scientific hypothesises and theories are tested and they interview highly qualified experts in their respective fields. Most of the topics they have chosen are not just attacked with aggressive opinion - although it might sometimes seem that way - Penn and Teller do a good amount of research. Many of the audiences they reach are not the ones that will typically read scientific papers or even watch highbrow documentaries and serious investigations, so one can hardly blame them for not producing an American version of “Dispatches”. Just because their execution might be difficult to take seriously this doesn’t automatically mean the argument and information they present isn’t valid. After all, we often look to satire – no matter how apparently crude – for some of our most honest commentary on serious issues. Season Six of the show even demonstrates its opposition to all that is “anti-intellectual” thinking in its opening credits when they literally knock the “anti” part of the word down. Hitherto virtually all of their scientific and historical episodes use arguments supported by the scholarly mainstream.[xi]

So, have the martial arts and self defence community just overreacted to the episode that criticizes their industry. Perhaps, but it is understandable for two reasons. Firstly, even if we put our showbusiness and populist filters on there is one element that is difficult to divorce from the show’s execution. The show’s formula from day one is to present a topic and then declare just before the opening credits that it is “Bullshit!” This is always a blanket statement. So when Penn Jillette declares “Martial arts are bullshit!” there is little space for most of the martial arts instructors and students, who are personally attached to their chosen activity, to shrug their shoulders. The loud and clear unambiguous message is – “They mean us!”  And we begin down the road of group polarization.

 

The second reason is that despite showing a clear awareness of logical fallacies, Penn and Teller are notorious for using the strawman argument. This is the one feature in the otherwise very entertaining and informative show that really doesn’t do them any credit. We can excuse the style and execution for the substance of the argument, but if guaranteeing that entertainment value means using extreme examples of your opposition then it is difficult to take the critique seriously.

 

However, how legitimate are these reasons in this context? The blanket attack is designed to provoke and to ensure the greatest impact. It wouldn’t have been nearly as attention-grabbing to say “Some martial arts systems are Bullshit!” or “Some martial arts instructors teach Bullshit!” With this show, it is all or nothing. So do they really mean it? Well, when you have Marc “The Animal “MacYoung as their key sceptical consultant you begin to wonder. Marc’s points are all on the money and are legitimate criticisms of self defence and martial arts. However, as many martial artists and self defence instructors remarked, Marc is a self defence instructor who has a long background in the martial arts and regularly teaches for the martial arts community. He is cited as an expert, but not in the same way as a legitimate medical practitioner might be seen as an expert opposing alternative medicine. He is an expert in critiquing martial arts, which includes the reality-based self defence area, because he is an experienced martial artist.

 

This isn’t the first time Penn and Teller have done this. Their first episode of the fourth season was on Boy Scouts and wasn’t nearly as wholly dismissive of the subject as the pre-credits statement “Boy Scouts are Bullshit!” would have you believe. They supported one scout leader who didn’t want to see the end of the Boy Scouts, but the end of their anti-gay policy. The overall critique of Boy Scouts wasn’t the legitimacy of the organization or its function, but its religiosity. Similarly Marc MacYoung’s involvement on the side of Penn and Teller does not indicate that everything to do with martial arts and self defence is nonsense and damaging, but certain key aspects are seriously in question. I would not disagree with this point.

 

Take one look at the mystical Chinese martial arts practitioner, Dena Saxer, in this episode and you will see a textbook target for the show. New Age pseudoscience and spiritualism are old hat subjects for them and the sceptical community as a whole, going back to the days of Houdini. However, if we move away from her eccentric characteristics, such as statements regarding how our organs speak to us, is she really such an extreme example of the mystical martial arts?  The basis for her art is no different for just about any system that has its principles in pre-scientific Chinese medicine. The New Age industry is huge and whole sections of major bookstores are dedicated to material in this genre. Whole publishing companies are dedicated to unscientific and unproven concepts about qi energy, chakras and auras.

Organizations that promote much of the extremely eccentric stuff, including no-touch knockouts and magical healing powers are not small affairs. From the Yellow Bamboo to George Dillman, they are big players and far from being fringe groups compared to those who do not endorse their practices. Even your average local tai chi class that makes no promises of self defence skills and just plays the healing the card, will talk of channelling qi energy in a literal manner. Likewise the whole practice of qi gong is based on the idea that you are using an invisible energy force, or qi, to enrich your health. I won’t go into the mess of interpretations that surround qi, but will refer you to the “Chinese Martial Arts: A Historical Survey” for their definitions and the way it got mixed up in the practice of martial arts.  

 

Despite some very intelligent and well-written rebuttals on the subject[xii], there is one regular criticism that I don’t think is really fair. This is the fact that Penn and Teller don’t distinguish between self defence and martial arts, and use the term interchangeably[xiii]. How we understand and clarify that distinction is not in the mainstream of even the martial arts world. If it were, Geoff Thompson wouldn’t feel the need to explain it on a regular basis or in books like “The Pavement Arena” and Iain Abernethy’s online book “The Martial Arts Map” would never have been written. It is an important distinction to make, but very understandable how most people confuse them. So, although you and I might hold our heads when others mix up self defence and martial arts we should perhaps climb down off our high horses a little and admit that most of the blame lies at our subculture or industry’s door.[xiv]

 

The fact that there is no standardization for black belts even, in some cases, across different schools never mind associations, is also a valid point made by Penn and Teller. I am not saying there is an easy answer to this one, as martial arts differ so much and individuality is something we need to moving more towards than away[xv]. However, depending on what it is you teach there should be some degree of transparency and consistency. Otherwise when you start looking at the whole problem from afar it just seems like each teacher, school or association is using a changing of the goal posts argument whenever they are caught out on not fulfilling a certain requirement. Personally, when it comes to teaching the self defence side of my club I try to bring in an independent examiner with a legitimate background in realistic protection methods from an unconnected school to verify key principles. They are not looking for technique just whether or not they can transparently see the student has a well-rounded education in self protection, taking into account age and experience.

 

We can quibble all we want about biases, errors and exceptions to the rule, but the question we need to ask is why would a big budget, award-winning and highly successful show target martial arts? If we consider the way overt criticism of the martial arts world has increased from outside sources, we can see that perhaps “Bullshit!” marks a milestone. This could be where martial arts are beginning to come to rest in western culture. In “Angry White Pyjamas” Robert Twigger reflected how contemporary Japanese society regard their own martial arts in the same way as the British regard Morris Dancing[xvi]. Now, as I see the world of mixed martial arts becoming an entity unto itself, with its magazines easily outselling comprehensive martial arts magazines, I watch as each new martial arts craze is shorter lived and has less impact. The businesses are certainly doing well with full-time martial arts centres now more commonplace then ever before, but does this mean they have become more respectable to the public at large? After all many an eccentric pastime or cult can boast of large numbers contained within their own group. Outside their respective bubbles the rest of the world looks on in more bemusement, taking the messages the martial arts world brings less seriously all the time.

 

Understanding key problems in martial arts is crucial. However, in order to do this we need to take stock of legitimate criticism and we need to accept when we are wrong. We also need to open ourselves up to it more and move further forward to a position of peer review. Accepting when we are wrong can mean understanding that a certain aspect of our art is based on an erroneous assumption; perhaps something that comes from a pre-scientific way of thinking or maybe something that was included for political or marketing reasons. As we assail the ladder of experience, garner more accreditation and become aware that we are influencing more people, we need to look to the fools in our court for some humility. The Fool in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “King Lear” plays the role of a conscience. Rather than just being a jester his job is to remind the king of his mortality and therefore his fallibility. He tortures his master with tough love throughout the play as he jibes Lear for the way he allows his arrogance, vanity and pigheadedness to blind him, creating more problems. This corrosive effect can be seen in the way martial arts might be falling out of favour with the general public.

 

The great sceptic and scientist Carl Sagen made an important point about science, which supports my point:

 

“In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”[xvii]

 

With all due respect to politics and religion, if we are to call what we do a martial science then we need to be wary of certainty. Politics and religion deal with absolutism. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, but they define our beliefs and because of that we attach them to our sense of identity. Science is very different. Science changes, sometimes drastically, and is continuously changing within – that is its unique strength. It thrives on a community that is forever testing and updating information, trying to replicate experiments and always challenging the current accepted position. By accepting, at a fundamental level, that it does not provide all the answers it has to be open to criticism all the time.

 

So do we just accept all criticism levelled at us? Of course we don’t, but we need to recognize how we are responding to that criticism. If you admit that there is an error then you need to positively do something to rectify it. Only through making mistakes can we progress. In “Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” the authors describe an incident where a Japanese maths student kept making mistakes under the observation of two American psychologists, James Stigler and Harold Stevenson. The two winced every time the student made an error, feeling a lot of sympathy for him and the embarrassment they thought he must be feeling. However, they soon discovered this sympathy wasn’t necessary. The student showed no signs of being upset when he discovered he was wrong. He just accepted it as a natural part of his learning and after 45 minutes of trying to draw cubes in three dimensions on a blackboard the Japanese student finally succeeded. Western culture tends to identify so deeply with an error that feel a need to justify or mitigate it once it is uncovered. The error brings the person embarrassment and makes him feel less of a person in front of his peers. Stigler reflected afterwards “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake, whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, errors, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.”[xviii]

 

There are many self defence and martial arts instructors who have accepted the utility of error, at least in the microcosm. Rory Miller, Iain Abernethy and I are at least three examples I know of who encourage those who train with us to “look for the flaw”. This is the acceptance that every training drill, test or exercise directed towards combat has a component that allows it not to regularly result in serious injury. The flaw is then addressed in another exercise, creating an overlapping approach to training. All the best instructors I know understand the concept of constant revision. Aidan Carol, who runs regular self defence courses in Ireland, regularly tells his attendees that there is a very good chance the same course will have changed by next year. This makes perfect sense if what you profess to be teaching is modern. Mo Teague also promotes constant revision, pushing his instructors and students to research and find out ways to improve their training. Mo’s attitude to absolutism in training and life is summed up his regular catchphrase “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster!”

 

Personally I like to make as much as I teach an investigation and experimentation process for the students rather than just passing on a series of techniques I have learnt. I actively look to my students for new revelations in training, I learn from our mistakes all the time, encouraging a bottom-up approach to martial education. I also look outside of our own disciplines into related fields that are better funded and do rely a lot on peer review – areas like sports science, behavioural science, military research, psychology, history, the social sciences and the hard sciences.

 

However, this approach has to extend beyond our own clubs and associations. If what we teach is to respect the scientific model then whatever exercise we do needs to be tested in some replicable form by independent instructors and students, and then the feedback of their conclusions returned to the source. Through this process you create an environment and a community of peer review that combats group polarization and brings any claims being made by instructors immediately into question.

 

If the word “art” is “joined at the root with the word artificial”[xix]then where does that leave the martial arts? I guess this might be a reason why many prefer the term “martial science”. However, does it really suit the personalities of those who are drawn to and prevail in the world of martial arts? Science crushes fragile egos and is a relentless process, where there are no sacred cows. It is a world where arguments based on lineage, culture and hierarchy have no place. It is a place where saying “I don’t know” should not be uttered with a sense of embarrassment and no one is above criticism. Think of the last time you heard or read anyone openly criticize the biggest names in 20th century martial arts – Gichin Funakoshi, Jigaro Kano, Bruce Lee, Yip Man, Helio Gracie et al – and think of a time when such comments were not met with aggressive derision. These great pioneers, whose brilliance and fame largely came from their own changes to the established martial arts order, are held up as untouchable god-like figures despite plenty of primary evidence that proves their mortal faults. As a person that derives inspiration from history, I find that knowing the faults and mortal weaknesses of great people humanizes them and makes their achievements seem more admirable. As progressive martial artists honouring their own spirit of change we need to understand their limitations and mistakes in order to build on their knowledge.

 

In order to do this, however, we need to depersonalize errors in ourselves and in others. In “59 Seconds”[xx] Richard Wiseman discusses an extensive case study, again repeated in “Mistakes Were Made” that children perform better when their work is praised rather than themselves. Likewise if we can separate the feelings of embarrassment, depression and anger we associate with making mistakes, we’ll be bolder in the decisions we make with our work and more dispassionate in the way we respond to the discovery of our own mistakes. Having little personal attachment to our errors we can focus more energy into rectifying them. We need to accept that highly intelligent people make big errors, mistakes that people with far lower intelligence can see.[xxi] From my experience incredibly tough people with real life combat backgrounds are just as susceptible to believing hocus pocus pseudoscientific and supernatural ideas about fighting as anyone else.

 

Israeli President Shimon Peres said it best when he was questioned about his good friend, President Regan, about a controversial decision he opposed, “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake”. If more of us in the martial arts, self-defence and combat sport world could really take this to heart, and consider Sagan's earlier statement, some serious progress could be made outside our respective bubbles.



[i] General Choi Hong Hi Encyclopaedia of Taekwon-Do 1993 (3rd ed.) International Taekwon-Do Federation, Canada, Vol. 2

[ii] And whether or not a martial artists admits their style changes with every new teacher who takes a class

[iii] For more on this see Chapter 5 “Belief” in Kathryn’s Schulz’s “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”  (Portobello Books Ltd. 2010)

[iv] See “Risk” aka “The Science of Fear” (Virgin Publishing and Dutton Publishing 2008) by Daniel Gardner for a more up-to-date and well-rounded scientific study of how our “gut” (System One) and our brain (System Two) compete. Gardner’s book might provide the next serious paradigm shift needed for self defence instructors who are interested in providing an honest soft skills programme for their customers.

[v] “Columbine” (Twelve/Hatchette Book Group and Old Street Publishing Ltd 2009) by Dave Cullen is the most in depth investigation available in book form on the Columbine massacre. It completely debunks the myths regarding loners and subcultures. The killers in this instance and others have been popular and typical mainstream youths.

[vi] Summersdale Publishing 1993 and 2001

[vii] Hydrick, who at least admitted to the trickery behind his supposed “powers” later, joins the ranks of martial artists convicted for a sexual offence on a girl then aged under 14 (source: Meganslaw.ca.gov)   

[viii] Phil Elmore’s The Martialist’s critique of the entire show can be found on YouTube. A key criticism voiced by Elmore is the apparent contradictions between Penn Jillette’s stance on gun control and his views on reality-based self defence.

[ix] As just about every intelligent critic of the show has pointed out, compliance isn’t always necessarily the best option – instances such as rape, abduction or murder for example - and besides even a mediocre self defence teacher will tell you that if only money or property are on the line it isn’t worth tackling a violent criminal. This is a classic strawman argument.

[x] It is way too easy to fall into the trap of just attacking the show’s weaknesses and this is not the purpose of my article. However, for the record, this part is particularly badly researched. Many clubs proudly display examples of martial artists/combatives students who have been reported in the press for thwarting a criminal attack. Furthermore, there are CCTV examples on YouTube of this sort of thing happening on nightclub doors and even on man’s doorstep. The Martial Development critique of the show, “Penn and Teller: Two Morons Learn Martial Arts”, also makes the sound argument regarding the nature of reporting. In fact, being a person who is sceptical of the practicality of most martial arts schools when it comes to self protection, I would say that martial arts connections are over-reported in the press and their relevance over-hyped.

[xi] One obvious exception to this was their episodes on global warming.

[xii] Martial Development’s article comes to mind and fellow martial arts sceptic, Ron Goin wrote a great critique of the show on his blog.

[xiii] See the Martial Development article “Penn and Teller: Two Morons Learn Martial Arts” for an example of this criticism. However, it is quite common among other critiques I have read/heard online.

[xiv] Many modern combative systems that focus entirely on reality-based self defence, from Russian Systema to Israeli Krav Maga, layout their training structure, philosophy and gradings in a way that closely resembles traditional martial arts. Many use the belt system introduced by judo founder Jigaro Kano with black belt as the recognized instructor level qualification. They also have oaths and cultural philosophy integrated into the training in much the same way that traditional martial arts do. 

 

Many traditional martial arts, such as karate, began as self defence systems. Today a typical martial arts poster, regardless of whether we want to categorize the style or system as a combat sport or traditional/classical martial art, will have self defence as one of the numerous benefits offered. Bob Spour’s muay Thai, arguably seen as a combat sport more than anything else, has whole sections of its syllabus dedicated to self protection. Traditional tae kwon do also has sections confined to self defence techniques. Many students began their martial arts training to learn self defence and my guess, from the many students I have spoken to, is that most believe that their respective style or system is an efficient means for self defence. Check the brief biographies of the most famous proponents of reality-based self defence in the world and you will discover that a good percentage of their credentials (often well over 50 per cent) are in what anyone would define as martial arts.

 

Furthermore, there are influential proponents who oppose the distinction. The Straight Blast Gym, for example, makes an enthusiastic case for not even dividing sports and self defence practice. Many of their supporters are actively involved in military; law enforcement and security work, and believe that the type of person produced by full contact combat sports like boxing, muay Thai, wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts will be more than capable to handle interpersonal violence. They follow the adage that it is easy to “just add dirt” to the techniques their “alive” adherents pressure test on a regular basis against non-compliant opponents. Some of their instructors would also find sympathy with Penn and Teller’s points about that statistically the potential risk of a real life encounter for a civilian in the developed world is too remote to justify dedicating so much time and energy. Dan Gardner’s “Risk” makes similar points when discussing the supposed fear-mongering in the security industry as a whole

[xv] For the record my personal views on this are pretty much in line with those expressed by Iain Abernethy in his series on the black belt system.

[xvi] Phoenix Publishing 1997

[xvii] Keynote address CSICOP conference, 1987

[xviii] Stigler recalled this story in his obituary for Harold Stevenson in the “Los Angeles Times”, 22nd July, 2005

[xix] “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”, Kathryn Schulz

[xx] “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” by Richard Wiseman (Macmillan Publishing 2009)

[xxi] Michael Shermer dedicates a special bonus chapter in a later edition of his “Why People Believe Weird Things” (Souvenir Press, 2007) entitled “Why Smart People Weird Things” and Ben Goldacre does the same in a chapter in his book “Bad Science” (Harper Collins, 2008 and 2009) called “Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things”. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan further discussed this in an interview on the “Point of Inquiry” podcast on 18th December, 2010 and said that intelligent people who had established beliefs were far less likely to change their minds as knowledge of their intelligence reinforced their confidence in the said belief.

the martial arts and self defence, and even the combat sport, world could really take this to heart and consider Sagan’s earlier statement we could make some serious progress outside of our respective bubbles.  

Endnotes, further reflections and resources for this article:

[1] General Choi Hong Hi Encyclopaedia of Taekwon-Do 1993 (3rd ed.) International Taekwon-Do Federation, Canada, Vol. 2

[1] And whether or not a martial artists admits their style changes with every new teacher who takes a class

[1] For more on this see Chapter 5 “Belief” in Kathryn’s Schulz’s “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”  (Portobello Books Ltd. 2010)

[1] See “Risk” aka “The Science of Fear” (Virgin Publishing and Dutton Publishing 2008) by Daniel Gardner for a more up-to-date and well-rounded scientific study of how our “gut” (System One) and our brain (System Two) compete. Gardner’s book might provide the next serious paradigm shift needed for self defence instructors who are interested in providing an honest soft skills programme for their customers.

[1] “Columbine” (Twelve/Hatchette Book Group and Old Street Publishing Ltd 2009) by Dave Cullen is the most in depth investigation available in book form on the Columbine massacre. It completely debunks the myths regarding loners and subcultures. The killers in this instance and others have been popular and typical mainstream youths.

[1] Summersdale Publishing 1993 and 2001

[1] Hydrick, who at least admitted to the trickery behind his supposed “powers” later, joins the ranks of martial artists convicted for a sexual offence on a girl then aged under 14 (source: Meganslaw.ca.gov)   

[1] Phil Elmore’s The Martialist’s critique of the entire show can be found on YouTube. A key criticism voiced by Elmore is the apparent contradictions between Penn Jillette’s stance on gun control and his views on reality-based self defence.

[1] As just about every intelligent critic of the show has pointed out, compliance isn’t always necessarily the best option – instances such as rape, abduction or murder for example - and besides even a mediocre self defence teacher will tell you that if only money or property are on the line it isn’t worth tackling a violent criminal. This is a classic strawman argument.

[1] It is way too easy to fall into the trap of just attacking the show’s weaknesses and this is not the purpose of my article. However, for the record, this part is particularly badly researched. Many clubs proudly display examples of martial artists/combatives students who have been reported in the press for thwarting a criminal attack. Furthermore, there are CCTV examples on YouTube of this sort of thing happening on nightclub doors and even on man’s doorstep. The Martial Development critique of the show, “Penn and Teller: Two Morons Learn Martial Arts”, also makes the sound argument regarding the nature of reporting. In fact, being a person who is sceptical of the practicality of most martial arts schools when it comes to self protection, I would say that martial arts connections are over-reported in the press and their relevance over-hyped.

[1] One obvious exception to this was their episodes on global warming.

[1] Martial Development’s article comes to mind and fellow martial arts sceptic, Ron Goin wrote a great critique of the show on his blog.

[1] See the Martial Development article “Penn and Teller: Two Morons Learn Martial Arts” for an example of this criticism. However, it is quite common among other critiques I have read/heard online.

[1] Many modern combative systems that focus entirely on reality-based self defence, from Russian Systema to Israeli Krav Maga, layout their training structure, philosophy and gradings in a way that closely resembles traditional martial arts. Many use the belt system introduced by judo founder Jigaro Kano with black belt as the recognized instructor level qualification. They also have oaths and cultural philosophy integrated into the training in much the same way that traditional martial arts do. 

 

Many traditional martial arts, such as karate, began as self defence systems. Today a typical martial arts poster, regardless of whether we want to categorize the style or system as a combat sport or traditional/classical martial art, will have self defence as one of the numerous benefits offered. Bob Spour’s muay Thai, arguably seen as a combat sport more than anything else, has whole sections of its syllabus dedicated to self protection. Traditional tae kwon do also has sections confined to self defence techniques. Many students began their martial arts training to learn self defence and my guess, from the many students I have spoken to, is that most believe that their respective style or system is an efficient means for self defence. Check the brief biographies of the most famous proponents of reality-based self defence in the world and you will discover that a good percentage of their credentials (often well over 50 per cent) are in what anyone would define as martial arts.

 

Furthermore, there are influential proponents who oppose the distinction. The Straight Blast Gym, for example, makes an enthusiastic case for not even dividing sports and self defence practice. Many of their supporters are actively involved in military; law enforcement and security work, and believe that the type of person produced by full contact combat sports like boxing, muay Thai, wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts will be more than capable to handle interpersonal violence. They follow the adage that it is easy to “just add dirt” to the techniques their “alive” adherents pressure test on a regular basis against non-compliant opponents. Some of their instructors would also find sympathy with Penn and Teller’s points about that statistically the potential risk of a real life encounter for a civilian in the developed world is too remote to justify dedicating so much time and energy. Dan Gardner’s “Risk” makes similar points when discussing the supposed fear-mongering in the security industry as a whole

[1] For the record my personal views on this are pretty much in line with those expressed by Iain Abernethy in his series on the black belt system.

[1] Phoenix Publishing 1997

[1] Keynote address CSICOP conference, 1987

[1] Stigler recalled this story in his obituary for Harold Stevenson in the “Los Angeles Times”, 22nd July, 2005

[1] “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”, Kathryn Schulz

[1] “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” by Richard Wiseman (Macmillan Publishing 2009)

[1]Michael Shermer dedicates a special bonus chapter in a later edition of his “Why People Believe Weird Things” (Souvenir Press, 2007) entitled “Why Smart People Weird Things” and Ben Goldacre does the same in a chapter in his book “Bad Science” (Harper Collins, 2008 and 2009) called “Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things”. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan further discussed this in an interview on the “Point of Inquiry” podcast on 18th December, 2010 and said that intelligent people who had established beliefs were far less likely to change their minds as knowledge of their intelligence reinforced their confidence in the said belief.

Recommended article: "No Nonsense, Common Sense, Self Defense: Thankfully Mistakes Were Made" by Ron Goin

 

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