Arguments from Authority
Learning from authority is perhaps the way to learn when you are a child. After all, you are dependant on others for survival. Every day, you are taught by teachers and parents, and you believe that they do in fact know what they are talking about because you have considerable evidence that they are right, and well, they're supposed to know. For instance, if your parents tell you to look both ways when you cross a street, you will eventually realize they know what they're talking about. If they tell you not to touch that interesting looking cactus, you will find by experience (because you probably touched it anyway) that they were right. In both of those cases, you are learning because they have demonstrated prior knowledge, and further investigation proved that they were right. Unlike the cactus, though, you don't necessarily have to experience what would happen if you didn't look both ways when you crossed the street. You perceived the danger by observation and forming a hypothesis. This, incidentally, is also how science works. You don't necessarily have to personally experience something to learn from it. Indirect observation is often adequate to study the world, and in fact the only way for some sciences. The critical advantage to both lessons, though, is that you had evidence to back up your conclusions. Your parents knew what they were talking about because 1.) that cactus hurt! and 2.) those cars were moving faster than I thought! Your evidence consisted of pain and a visual inspection of the vehicles on the road.
This is how it is supposed to work. Arguments from authority are not necessarily bad. You could be the type that didn't think your parents knew anything. However, chances are you thought somebody knew a thing or two. You trusted them, and often it was because you had evidence that they knew something about the subject of interest. You assumed your friend, who liked cars, for instance, knew something about them and could help you change your oil. Often, your assumptions are right. However, what if they are wrong?
Arguments from authority are so common that you only have to look at almost any magazine, watch any commercial, or surf the web for only a few seconds to find one. What are they? Have you ever heard of a celebrity endorsing a product? Should I have even asked? Arguments from authority are used all the time. Often, though, they are sorely abused.
Humans are programmed to respond to this type of persuasion. When you were a kid and you wanted to know how to use a telescope, did you reverse engineer the components or did you just ask your mom or dad? We can't possibly spend our time finding everything out for ourselves, so often we ask experts. This is usually a successful endeavor, and it is essentially how we teach our young. Schools wouldn't get very far at all if the students had to have empirical evidence for everything. This trait, although mundane at first glance, is probably one of the biggest things that gave us an advantage over other species.
Arguments from authority do have a flaw, though they can be corrected. They break down when we stop asking for evidence, even the most superficial evidence. As I have already mentioned, you should always be thinking critically, so you shouldn't accept anything without thought. Elections have been won, many times, by politicians that were completely wrong about the issues or facts, but knew how to "sell" their argument. This relates to both the teaching of martial arts and self-defense on a more intellectual level. Martial arts are not immune to arguments from authority. In fact, the martial arts are usually governed by arguments of this type. Like our previous examples, we have to use this tool to learn. We'll examine several different types of arguments from authority and see what advantages and disadvantages they have.
When an argument is made, often the credibility of the argument is based on our perception of the source. If a Navy SEAL is teaching you how to survive in a desert with a shoestring and a flashlight, additional authority is given to the argument by the likelihood that they this person probably has had extensive survival training. If this same person is trying to show you how to decorate your home for a wedding, you would not be wrong to doubt his skills. Why? Because you have evidence, usually in the form of prior knowledge about Navy SEALs, that he might know about survival training, but you have no evidence that he knows anything about decorating. He may be a very good decorator, but you can only form opinions on the evidence (in this case, prior knowledge of the subject matter, but in science it is often experimental evidence). A martial arts instructor demonstrates skills in the classroom, and this adds weight to any argument that he or she makes about the art. If the instructor teaches you how to perform a wheel kick by actually doing it, you have unassailable evidence that the instructor knows how to perform the kick. If he merely explains how to do it, but doesn't show it, then your evidence is not as concrete. However, you don't necessarily have to witness him performing the kick, just as you didn't have to go with the Navy SEAL into a remote jungle to survive, because you have prior knowledge about him that adds much credibility to his teaching (noting that it doesn't necessarily mean he knows what he's talking about!). Your instructor is a martial artist, and has trained many martial artists how to perform the kick, so it would be reasonable to assume that he is an authority. While a demonstration would provide a warm and fuzzy feeling that he actually is, in fact, the real deal, we don't usually ask for that level of proof. In all situations, though, our opinions were formed by prior knowledge of the person and our assessment of his qualifications to be an authority, whether it was survival or wheel kicks.
Perceived knowledge is not as easy to detect, because most people make unwarranted assumptions. Whenever these types of arguments are made, they usually expect the subject to use general knowledge to fill in the gaps. This works because we believe that we have a good grasp on basic concepts that are easily generalized. We'll take a hypothetical advertisement for a seminar.
Unless someone was familiar with the many different styles of martial arts, he or she may not realize that this is a classic argument from authority. It is intended to tell the student that Master Duo is an expert at grappling and submissions in competitions. If you didn't know the differences between mixed martial arts, Aikido and Kata competitions, you may assume that Master Duo is qualified to teach mixed martial arts. However, Kata competitions and creative breaking in no way tell you that he knows anything about mixed martial arts competitions. You are simply supposed to think that he's a decorated martial artist, and that he is supposed to know stuff like that. I'll change this a little to make it more obvious.
This is a much more common argument. You are supposed to assume that Dr. Duo knows a lot because he is a scientist. He has published papers in science journals and has a Ph.D. Why wouldn't he know anything about climate change? It should be obvious that Dr Duo should only be trusted when he is talking about engineering, but this kind of argument from authority is tame compared to those used in advertising and political campaigns. Just because Dr. Duo is a scientist doesn't mean he knows anything about climate. The reader is supposed to use his perceived knowledge about scientists in general, and this is supposed to add weight to the argument. However, this previous knowledge may only be that scientists are smart. No one is immune to this type of persuasion. After all, if you knew that all astronomers used a certain type of telescope, and you wanted a telescope, you may want that type of telescope.
Now that we know there are two types of arguments from authority, what does this have to do with self-defense? It may be argued that critical thinking is the very foundation of self-defense, so I could just stop there. In the martial arts class, you hear arguments from authority quite often. How do you choose which techniques to use and which you should avoid? What is the safest route through a bad part of town? What kind of gear should you buy for class? This is the smallest fraction of examples. The biggest advantage, though, is knowing when you should listen to persuasion and when you shouldn't. If you use your critical thinking skills, you can make these decision based on actual knowledge. If you have ever fallen for the old advertising phase that says, "100 scientists agree that Product X is better than Product Y", then it should be important. Your skills to detect arguments from authority separate you from a simple follower and make you a leader. Sure, you won't always succeed, and sometimes you want the telescope that astronomers use, but you will also be able to make more informed decisions. This is the first line of defense.