(way after the fact)

You know what? You are absolutely right that I'm spouting an untested theory. I have since stopped.

The problem is that I see no way to test either side; either what I said or the converse, which you seem to be asserting, which is that whatever comes out of MMA is basically optimal fighting technique.

The only test I can think of is to load up fighters that assert opposite sides of this, and are both highly trained in their respective arts and so on, on lots of PCP, and see who lives.

There are ... some practical and ethical problems there.

I do think, however, that neither of us get to spout either side of this issue and claim that we have a well-tested theory on our side. Having said that, I would say your side has more evidence at this time.


This is also quite a while after the fact, but I will note that we do have access to some relevant information on this issue, coming in large part from military martial arts research. Active militaries have significant exposure to data on what sort of techniques are useful in self defense, and they use this as their metric for success. How closely does MMA resemble military based martial arts? I think the quote from one of the instructors in the Krav Maga episode of Human Weapon, to the host Jason Chambers, pretty much sums it up.

You're a good pro fighter, but you don't know shit about self defense.

9wedrifid9yIf that is the claim you are rejecting then I must agree. I have no reason to expect optimal fighting technique to come out of MMA, indeed, it would indicate a failure of optimisation in MMA competitors. As you go on to indicate you are measuring fighting technique as it serves to facilitate survival in one on one fights to the death. The social and physical payoffs in MMA training, competition and sparring are different. Optimising for one instead of the other has the problems of a lost purpose [http://lesswrong.com/lw/le/lost_purposes/]. Of course "optimal fighting technique" suffers from some rather significant No Free Lunch issues. Optimal for what? How many opponents are attacking you? Do you wish to use your arts to intimidate as well as protect? Are there consequences [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Con_Air] to killing the opponent instead of incapacitating? How tall are you? I can't suggest a better test than this but there is another problem here related to the above NFL considerations. There will be a correlation between the effectiveness of a fighting technique and success in battles but it is not a simple one. You will end up identifying the technique that is optimal for the most physically capable combatants, not the optimal fighting technique in general. A technique that is highly specialized to steroid pumping genetic freaks but barely usable by the majority of fit and healthy people will get the kills.

Epistemic Viciousness

by Eliezer Yudkowsky 2 min read13th Mar 200993 comments


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?