The martial arts, like any subject with ties to the past, is replete with information, facts, conclusions, rules, philosophies, strategies, and more. Lots more. Some of it is useful, and some of it is not. The mere act of trying to decide what it good and what is bad is a daunting task. How could you possibly question knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years?
Fortunately, there is a strategy that can help. It is called critical thinking, and it is an immensely powerful technique for making your own informed decisions. A good definition of critical thinking was written by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction:
Normally, this isn't the kind of thing someone would immediately relate to the martial arts. They are fighting styles, not intellectual subjects. How often does a martial artist pull out his or her calculator to verify the momentum of the punch he used to send his opponent into the ground? Probably not too often, but the definition of critical thinking isn't just a general term for any intellectual activity. It relates to a process of validating actions and beliefs. Critical thinking would ask questions like why is that punch powerful? What evidence or observation validates the belief? Another example would be to ask whether or not a specific action is possible.
For a subject as serious as self-defense, I think any martial artist would want - need - to know whether or not what they are practicing has any real value. It may be that there is something in the art that isn't right, or maybe just the way the martial artist is practicing it. Either way, how would you know whether or not it is effective? The simplest, easiest way would be to make observations and look at the evidence. Can she break concrete with her hand alone? How would you verify whether or not a specific concept is valid? Is there anything to this Qi (life-energy) that the martial artists sometimes use?
In the following sections I am going to give a few examples of different ways critical thinking can be of service to the martial artist. There is a lot of knowledge to wade through, so I won't even try to cover everything. Rather, my goal is to give you some idea of how critical thinking can be used to the martial artist's advantage. Self defense isn't just about punches and kicks, but the entire process of making sure one of the most important people you know (namely, yourself) stays safe. Finally, the last chapter covers the physics of martial arts, and why it is useful to know this kind of stuff.
I'll have to be honest here, because I do have a reason for writing this. The most common wielder of critical thinking is usually a skeptic. I'm definitely a skeptic, and my goal is simply to know reality as it is. In general, the martial arts do not have a stellar reputation within the skeptical community. This is due in large part because there are some pretty extraordinary claims floating around about martial arts. Some are valid, and some aren't, plain and simple. I think this needs to be fixed, and the best way isn't just to educate but also to teach martial artists how to educate themselves using - you guessed it - critical thinking. This not only makes everything safer (i.e. not practicing dangerous or unnecessary stuff), but also makes a martial artist's skills more effective (by practicing stuff that works, and knowing why it works).
There's just one more thing to get out of the way about skeptics. This term is misused for a variety of reasons. The most widely held view is that a skeptic is a doubter of everything, throwing water on anything slightly resembling a fascinating subject, like anything that isn't mundane can't possibly be real. Subjects that are interesting or fantastical, like free energy, levitation, astrology, or dowsing, are often the primary targets of skeptics. For this reason, skeptics are sometimes thought of as party poopers, spoilers of fun, or just plain stick-in-the-mud's. Get this notion out of your head right now. If this is what you think of when you first heard "skeptic," then you've probably heard this originally from the people pushing the fantastical subjects. It isn't true.
Skeptics don't dislike interesting things. They just want it to really be true. For instance, when someone makes a wild claim, a skeptic's response is, "Hey, that's fantastic! Can you prove it?" Sadly, virtually every case where skeptics come down hard on a subject, it is because the practitioners cannot offer any verifiable, substantive proof that what they are pushing is anything beyond wild fantasy. Skeptics are almost universally in favor of science because it does just that. Science is not a set of facts, but a set of knowledge backed by testable, verifiable processes. Reality is the way things are, and skeptics like to know what is real and what isn't.
If dowsing actually worked, then it would be able to withstand a double-blind test, but it can't, and it never has. People swear by it, but nobody has ever backed it up with a real test. Therefore, skeptics say that dowsing is hocus-pocus nonsense. As a skeptic, I would not be disappointed to hear that dowsing suddenly passed a test. That would be extremely interesting (though surprising.) What is irritating is that so many people swear by dowsing when it has never, ever proven itself. Water is underneath 85% of the surface in the U.S., so dousers are guaranteed to have that level of accuracy when prospecting for water. When they have to do it for real, they fail. Always!
So when you hear skeptic, you should understand that it is simply someone who is asking for proof for a fantastic phenomenon. The more fantastic it is, the more proof is required. Science depends on knowing reality as it really is, not as we want it to be.
A note about references...
Originally, I did not intend to put any reference information in here. Most of the material comes from many years of teaching self-defense, but like any knowledge it had to come from somewhere. Quite a bit of stuff is common knowledge or just common sense. The problem is that a lack of reference is a sign of lack of supporting evidence, and a basic absolution of traceability. Critical thinking is all about using evidence as a basis for action and belief, and there is something particularly troubling about a source of information from a vacuum (i.e. no references.) So where appropriate, I have included reference information so that you can do your own fact-checking. After all, the point of this site is so that you can do your own critical thinking!
- James Randi, The Matter of Dowsing: http://www.randi.org/library/dowsing/index.html: June 20, 2006
- Scriven, M. & Paul, R., Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking.: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk: August 28, 2006