This is the first part of a series of articles inspired by an interview with Matt Thornton. It is a collection common fallacious arguments and strategic errors regarding martial arts efficacy. From here on, when I write an assertion like, "X works," I mean:
- Substitute for "X" any specific martial art, system, or technique.
- "X" is generally applicable in a real fight.
We live in an era where thousands of hours of video from almost-no-holds-barred sport fights and security camera records of criminal assaults exist at our finger-tips. If we can't find many instances of both specific techniques and movement patterns being useful in fights at this point, it's extremely unlikely that you've stumbled on some hidden, ancient fighting secret.
As Matt Thornton points out, it's a question of epistemology. That is, how can you determine a fighting technique works? How do you test it? How do you obtain evidence? What do you consider to be convincing evidence? Training time is scarce. Will you spend your precious time training in a fighting system for which there is more evidence of efficacy, or one with less?
This question of epistemology begets two terrible hurdles in self-defense education:
- Knowing little about fighting, how do you choose a teacher?
- If you cannot validate what you learn, can you overcome cognitive dissonance to escape a poor teacher?
Although it lies at the intersection of psychology, anatomy, exercise physiology, motor learning, morality, law, and ethics, fighting is still a matter of objective truth. Evidence may be expensive to obtain and controlled experiments may be prohibitive to conduct, but neither relegates fighting to the realm of faith, superstition, or subjective opinion alone.
Precisely because evidence is imperfect, experiments are imprecise, and individuals differ widely in their capabilities and goals, the criteria by which individual people judge martial arts does vary. Peter Boghossian suggests that, rather than asking others to justify their assertions, that we rather ask, "Under what circumstances would that system/technique not work?" There are no universal self-defense moves; all have legal, moral, and physical contextual limitations. It may well be a conversation – or train of thought – they've never had. Failing that, discuss from judging a real system to the underlying epistemological question of how to judge some hypothetical, new, and novel technique or system.