Epistemic Viciousness

Some­one de­serves a large hat­tip for this, but I’m hav­ing trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing who; my records don’t seem to show any email or OB com­ment which told me of this 12-page es­say, “Epistemic Vi­cious­ness in the Mar­tial Arts” by Gillian Rus­sell. Maybe Anna Sala­mon?

We all lined up in our ties and sen­si­ble shoes (this was England) and copied him—left, right, left, right—and af­ter­wards he told us that if we prac­tised in the air with suffi­cient de­vo­tion for three years, then we would be able to use our punches to kill a bull with one blow.
I wor­shipped Mr Howard (though I would sooner have died than told him that) and so, as a skinny, eleven-year-old girl, I came to be­lieve that if I prac­tised, I would be able to kill a bull with one blow by the time I was four­teen.
This es­say is about epistemic vi­cious­ness in the mar­tial arts, and this story illus­trates just that. Though the word ‘vi­cious­ness’ nor­mally sug­gests de­liber­ate cru­elty and vi­o­lence, I will be us­ing it here with the more old-fash­ioned mean­ing, pos­sess­ing of vices.

It all gen­er­al­izes amaz­ingly. To sum­ma­rize some of the key ob­ser­va­tions for how epistemic vi­cious­ness arises:

  • The art, the dojo, and the sen­sei are seen as sa­cred. “Hav­ing red toe-nails in the dojo is like go­ing to church in a mini-skirt and halter-top… The stu­dents of other mar­tial arts are talked about like they are prac­tic­ing the wrong re­li­gion.”

  • If your teacher takes you aside and teaches you a spe­cial move and you prac­tice it for 20 years, you have a large emo­tional in­vest­ment in it, and you’ll want to dis­card any in­com­ing ev­i­dence against the move.

  • In­com­ing stu­dents don’t have much choice: a mar­tial art can’t be learned from a book, so they have to trust the teacher.

  • Defer­ence to fa­mous his­tor­i­cal mas­ters. “Run­ners think that the con­tem­po­rary staff of Run­ner’s World know more about run­ning than than all the an­cient Greeks put to­gether. And it’s not just run­ning, or other phys­i­cal ac­tivi­ties, where his­tory is kept in its place; the same is true in any well-de­vel­oped area of study. It is not con­sid­ered dis­re­spect­ful for a physi­cist to say that Isaac New­ton’s the­o­ries are false...” (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

  • “We mar­tial artists strug­gle with a kind of poverty—data-poverty—which makes our be­liefs hard to test… Un­less you’re un­for­tu­nate enough to be fight­ing a hand-to-hand war you can­not check to see how much force and ex­actly which an­gle a neck-break re­quires...”

  • “If you can’t test the effec­tive­ness of a tech­nique, then it is hard to test meth­ods for im­prov­ing the tech­nique. Should you prac­tice your nuk­ite in the air, or will that just en­courage you to overex­tend? … Our in­abil­ity to test our fight­ing meth­ods re­stricts our abil­ity to test our train­ing meth­ods.”

  • “But the real prob­lem isn’t just that we live in data poverty—I think that’s true for some perfectly re­spectable dis­ci­plines, in­clud­ing the­o­ret­i­cal physics—the prob­lem is that we live in poverty but con­tinue to act as though we live in lux­ury, as though we can safely af­ford to be­lieve what­ever we’re told...” (+10!)

One thing that I re­mem­bered be­ing in this es­say, but, on a sec­ond read­ing, wasn’t ac­tu­ally there, was the de­gen­er­a­tion of mar­tial arts af­ter the de­cline of real fights—by which I mean, fights where peo­ple were re­ally try­ing to hurt each other and some­one oc­ca­sion­ally got kil­led.

In those days, you had some idea of who the real mas­ters were, and which school could defeat oth­ers.

And then things got all civ­i­lized. And so things went down­hill to the point that we have videos on Youtube of sup­posed Nth-dan black belts be­ing pounded into the ground by some­one with real fight­ing ex­pe­rience.

I had one case of this book­marked some­where (but now I can’t find the book­mark) that was re­ally sad; it was a mas­ter of a school who was con­vinced he could use ki tech­niques. His stu­dents would ac­tu­ally fall over when he used ki at­tacks, a strange and re­mark­able and fright­en­ing case of self-hyp­no­sis or some­thing… and the mas­ter goes up against a skep­tic and of course gets pounded com­pletely into the floor. Feel free to com­ment this link if you know where it is.

Truly is it said that “how to not lose” is more broadly ap­pli­ca­ble in­for­ma­tion than “how to win”. Every sin­gle one of these risk fac­tors trans­fers straight over to any at­tempt to start a “ra­tio­nal­ity dojo”. I put to you the ques­tion: What can be done about it?