I am a cynical man and don’t get disillusioned easily. But after repeatedly watching practitioners of mixed martial arts and Krav Maga making mincemeat of traditional kung fu masters on YouTube, my long-time – and naive – belief in the efficacy of kung fu has been deeply shaken. It wasn’t that I thought Ip Man could really have beaten dozens of trained fighters all at once, or that Bruce Lee could have taken on 100 judo masters and prevailed. But I had at least assumed that one on one or even one on two, they could always win. Tarantino ‘isn’t a Bruce Lee fan’, says ‘Warrior’ star Tobin As I started to think about my unrealistic expectations concerning traditional Chinese martial arts – well, after all, I grew up, like most of my generation, watching kung fu movies from the Shaw Brothers Studio – I found this fascinating essay, “Epistemic viciousness in the martial arts”, by Gillian Russell, a philosophy professor now at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. You can find it in a collection of essays on martial arts and philosophy titled Beating and Nothingness ”. (Fans of French existentialism will recognise the in-joke.) As an 11-year-old, she told us, she worshipped her gym teacher and thought she could learn his style of fighting called shizentai yoi and be able to kill a bull with one blow. Thankfully, she grew up to become a successful academic rather than a shizentai yoi fighter. She calls the cause of such false beliefs “epistemic viciousness”, using the noun in its more traditional meaning, as in the possessing of vices. “Vices (such as avarice, alcoholism and nail-biting) are common, and most of us struggle with a few,” she wrote, “but ‘epistemic’ means ‘having to do with knowledge and the justification of belief’ and so epistemic viciousness is the possession of vices that make one bad at acquiring true beliefs, or give one a tendency to form false ones.” Perhaps feng shui and healing crystals are the most obvious examples. Their beliefs are probably harmless most of the time and in most cases. But think of a certain late billionaire in Hong Kong who almost gave away her entire fortune to a self-styled feng shui master, who was subsequently jailed for faking her will. The consequences of her beliefs were pretty harmful to people closest to her, even though she was already dead by then. Or think of the Boxer rebellion during the late Qing dynasty involving a Chinese secret society known as the Yihequan , or “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”. The cult group practised certain fighting and callisthenic rituals in the belief that they made them invulnerable to all sorts of weapons, including especially bullets. She calls the cause of such false beliefs ‘epistemic viciousness’, using the noun in its more traditional meaning, as in the possessing of vices Perhaps such beliefs simply die out with their believers in a social version of Darwinian natural selection. Though Russell was writing about unrealistic beliefs in martial arts, the notion of epistemic viciousness applies to most, perhaps all, human domains. There is a simple reason, which is that most of us – I know I am – are plagued by it sometimes or even often. It must be said that it is much easier to spot it in other people, especially with people you don’t like, than to spot it in yourself. Such self-criticality is extremely rare, and if you have it, you are a natural-born philosopher like Socrates or David Hume. Sammo Hung film launched a genre and made him a player I must confess I was somewhat disappointed by her conclusions, though I am grateful for her to have given our almost universal tendency to subscribe to false beliefs at least some of the times a very useful descriptive phrase. Her explanations turn out to be mostly sociological or economic, rather than philosophical. She wrote: “The fact that (1) so few karate claims can be straightforwardly tested, with the results published in peer-reviewed journals, makes it harder to challenge (2) the beliefs that are held solely out of deference to history or tradition, (3) solely out of a tendency to exaggerate the worth of the things we hold sacred, or (4) solely because we have invested so heavily in them that it hurts to give them up.” (1) is really about the impossibility of applying scientific empiricism to study the effectiveness of martial arts. (2) is what the sociologist and historian Max Weber calls historical or traditional legitimacy or authority. (3) is similar to (2) and is what Weber calls religious legitimacy or authority. (4) is a classic example of what economists call “the sunk cost fallacy”. I would add (5) to her list, which is what Weber calls charisma, that is, a charismatic teacher like the one Russell had when she was a child. Such individuals can have a deep hold on their followers who lose all critical sense to their leaders’ claims and teachings, however implausible. However, I would dispute (1), that is, you can get into as many fights as you can physically withstand to test empirically, that is, “scientifically”, the effectiveness of your fighting style, provided you don’t die or are permanently maimed. Anyway, when my son asked if he could take lessons in mixed martial arts and Krav Maga, I said sure, just no kung fu.