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Monday 26 October 2009

Unacceptable Conduct? - Pseudohistory in the making

YouTube, LLCImage via Wikipedia

Pseudohisoty is the distortion of established facts through the complete creation of disinformation or the application of confirmation bias. Often both occur together or someone starts off with a falehood, then someone else buys into it; invests in the story in some shape or form (often emotionally) and then uses confirmation bias to prove its authenticity. Recently I have seen an example of pseudohistory unfold and it happened in the martial arts community. A videotaped incident of a man being severely beaten in a US karate dojo that apparently occurred in 1984 has been revived on YouTube. Local police said that they had seen the beaten man - a local vagrant - days after the unfortunate episode apparently happened. He said he didn't want to press charges. Nevertheless, it gained some notoriaty in the early 1990s. However, this is nothing like what has followed in 2009.

Apparently the instructor who owned the dojo where the beating occurred, plus set up and encouraged it, is the man responsible for posting the footage on YouTube. This was met with a horrified response. Since then fictional information has been added, including connecting the incident to a "cold case", where a dead man was found in a dumpster around that time. Showing a shocking desire not to check facts, the incident was then reported on a US TV news programme, albeit with the question as to whether or not it was a hoax . When I received an email on Facebook asking to join a club that wanted to waste time and resources to investigate this mythical case, I felt I needed to say something. So, I joined a thread I remember seeing on the Martial Edge forum and posted my views.

Keen to show this example of pseudohistory in the making to an audience that would better understand it objectively I passed on details of my small amount of activity on the forum, to the "Undercover Sceptic" blog. Here is their post:

I have seen the power of the media from both sides of the camera. I grew up in showbusiness and my parents' company supplies to the media industry. It is incredible what imagery and emotional language can do to people. Things I have learnt since I embraced critical thinking are that no one is invulnerable to propaganda and gossip, and it is all a question of finding someone's level of creduality. I am still shocked how so many people in the circus world, my first culture, can be taken in by charlatans. It seems mad to me that a culture who counts some of the greatest tricksters of all in their heritage - Phineas T Barnum for example - can buy into all sorts of pseudoscience, old wives tales and superstition. Likewise, the subculture of martial arts and its offshoot, that of modern self protection methods, both of which I am heavily entrenched produce people who are just as gullible. We are in a time where "defence of the self" is being preached as a method of ultimate self defence. I am in line with this way of thinking and feel that we need to be aware on all fronts.

Undercover Sceptic's points that martial artists should be "switched on" not only to the hard dangers in life, but also to the manipulations of others is very apt. In my Martial Arts Scepticism series of articles for "Jissen!" magazine, I pointed out that scepticism is a philosophy that would benefit the martial arts world. A martial artist aspires to a high level of discipline and self control. This is usually meant by the fastidious way they stick to their physical training, rituals and self control often just means don't go around abusing your skills on others. However, I argue that this self control needs to be honed at an even deeper level. A good defence against becoming susceptible to the emotional impact of gossip, the tabloid media and other stimulants that set off the sympathetic nervous system is to become more disciplined with critical thinking. We should always question intelligently and have a rational set of tools to help us spot red flags in a story. When shown any sort of imagery we should be sceptical and ask some simple questions, doing our best to remove our emotions from the questioning. It is not difficult and before long you will have a built-in intuitive sense of whether or not something is entirely true.

The Washington Post's more balanced review of the "cold case"

Some more hysterical responses:

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