How Brazilian Jujitsu Explains the Popularity of Bad Ideas in Academia

Bad ideas are fascinating. Especially the ones with a long lifespan. While our goal is obviously to discover the truth, we can learn a lot by studying inaccurate ideas. Why do some people come to correct conclusions, while others are persuaded by incorrect ones? How can so many bad ideas be so popular for so long?

Or perhaps my favorite question: why is academia, in particular, an incubator for bad ideas? Marxism, for example, is theoretically flawed and empirically falsified. It’s clear as day: Marx was wrong, and communism is a horrible, dangerous idea. Yet, English departments around the globe are notoriously bastions for Marxist ideas. Why?

The most persuasive answer comes from Brazilian jujitsu.

As I’ve said before, every pursuit – whether it’s mental or physical – ultimately points back to Philosophy. I mean it.

Both philosophers and martial artists are seeking truth, whether they realize it or not. The philosopher deals with abstract questions; the martial artist deals with concrete ones.

Martial Philosophy

Thousands of different martial art styles exist around the globe, from Kung Fu to Karate, Aikido to Jujitsu, Boxing to Tai Chi. They deal with the same underlying question: what do you do when somebody physically attacks you?

Though it might not be apparent at first, this question is quite deep, and the answers vary depending on the school of thought. Let’s explore the basic, abstract principles of the martial arts, and then the connection to academia will become clear.

We begin with the basics. If somebody is attacking you, they are using their body to harm your body. So we need to ask: how does the body work? Are there areas which are more vital than others? What are our mechanical weaknesses and strengths? If you could use a strong part of your body against your opponent’s weak part, for example, that could prove effective.

Another question: what’s more important in a fight – speed, power, technique, or the conservation of energy? I can imagine a really fast, really weak guy who doesn’t have enough power to protect himself or do any damage. I can imagine a really slow, really strong guy, who lasts about two minutes before being burnt out. What’s the correct balance between these principles?

Another, more divisive question: what’s more effective – striking or grappling? By “striking”, I mean doing impact-damage to your opponent through punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, etc. By “grappling”, I mean controlling your opponent with throws, clinches, joint locks, chokes, and dominant positions.

This question loosely divides the martial arts into two camps: hard styles and soft styles. Hard styles focus on strikes – think Karate and kickboxing – while soft styles focus on grappling – think Judo and Jujitsu. Many styles and schools do not allow crossing the line between hard and soft: in some dojos, it’s against the rules for karatekas to joint lock each other, and it’s against the rules for jujitsukas to strike each other.

Within soft and hard styles, we deal with even more specific questions: is it better to kick somebody or punch them? Should you focus on throwing your opponent while standing, or work on defeating him on the ground? What’s more efficient? Would the techniques still work against a larger opponent?

And what’s the best way of dealing with multiple opponents? Is it wise to fight on the ground when several people want to hurt you? And what if weapons are involved?

All of these questions need answering, and different schools of thought radically disagree on the answers.

Thus, we draw the first parallel to the world of ideas. Take any discipline – philosophy, economics, engineering, biology, etc – and you’ll find an analogous series of questions needing answers, and different schools of thought offering their theories. Though – as I’ll explain in a minute – certain disciplines agree more on the basics than others. Engineers, for example, have fairly uncontroversial theories about constructing safe bridges; philosophers, by contrast, can’t even agree on “what it means to exist”. There’s a reason for this.

One popular conclusion is to say, “We can’t ever know objective truth in philosophy, because so many people disagree about everything. If only ‘one school of thought’ were right, that would imply everybody else is wrong! It cannot be true that ‘virtually everybody is wrong except one group’, therefore, the truth must be unknowable.”

Brazilian Jujitsu

Applied to the martial arts, this line of thinking would conclude, “Bah! With all these different schools of thought, how can you possibly evaluate good martial theories from bad? The truth can’t be clear.”

This conclusion is wrong, and Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ) demonstrates why. BJJ, like any martial art, has a set of answers to the above questions. I’ll give you the overview:

The most important variable in a fight is energy conservation and positional control. It isn’t speed or power. It isn’t about doing blunt-force damage. It’s about outlasting your opponent and getting yourself into a dominant position. Once an attacker has depleted his energy, they become easy to defeat.

The BJJ practitioner focuses on grappling – specifically, grappling on the ground. Most fights, they claim, start standing but quickly go to the ground. Because of this, most fights also end on the ground – usually with one person mounted on top of the other, in a dominant position, able to finish his opponent however he pleases.

The preferred finishing technique in BJJ is the choke. Why? Simple body mechanics. Everybody has a brain, and it requires blood to be pumped to it. It turns out, the passageway between heart and brain – the neck – is outrageously weak. A tiny amount of force, applied the correct way, will choke 100% of humans unconscious in a matter of seconds.

The same principle applies to joint locks. Knees, elbows, and wrists are all weak hinges with a finite range. Push the joints past that range, and they will snap. Your odds of survival go way up if you can render your opponent’s joints useless by breaking them.

Also: virtually nobody in the general public knows how to fight on the ground. They might be familiar with punches and kicks, but the world of ground fighting is completely different. It’s exhausting, technical, unpredictable, and intimidating. This can work to the jujitsuka’s advantage.

Say a bigger, stronger, and faster opponent is attacking you. In the world of strikes, you’re at a huge disadvantage. You don’t want to stand and exchange punches with a muscle-head. But take him to the ground, and the odds start evening. The reason is this: speed and power are subservient to a deeper principle: distance.

The distance between you and your opponent is what determines the damage of strikes. Every punch requires the appropriate distance between your fist and the target to be effective. Outside of that range, the punch won’t land. Inside of that range, the punch won’t do a lot of damage. It might hurt, but it won’t knock you out.

So what does a smaller, weaker BJJ practitioner do? Manage the distance. Stay far away from punches and kicks, and when the time is right, close the distance and “clinch” your opponent – hug him closely, and prevent him from creating the correct distance to hurt you. Then, once you’re clinched, throw your opponent to the ground (or, what usually happens when two people are smashed together and moving quickly: trip, stumble, and fall your way to the ground).

From there, as my BJJ instructor likes to say, it’s like throwing somebody into the deep end of a swimming pool. Imagine you don’t know how to swim, and you wind up fighting a water polo athlete in a swimming pool. What’s going to happen? Well, you’ll probably die in a couple of minutes.

That’s what ground fighting is like. If you don’t know how to swim – if you don’t know the basic movements and how to manage your energy – you will always lose to a skilled ground fighter. It doesn’t really matter the weight or size difference.

Now, that’s a lot of words. It’s a lot of theoretical claims. I could go through and change each of these statements to fit the appropriate martial art I am talking about. The karateka might say, “The fight will never go to the ground, because we can knock the opponent out with one strike.” The judoka might say, “The fight will end by a devastating throw to the ground. Hard floors and cement are unforgiving and do even more damage than a strike.”

Why should anyone believe the theories of BJJ, versus any other school?

The Proof

It’s simple: allow the theories to be demonstrated. Allow the martial artists to bring their theoretical principles into reality by actually fighting against each other, without rules favoring any particular style. It’s called vale tudo, or “no holds barred” fighting. Whatever martial arts get their abstract principles correct, we should see their practitioners win more often.

This is precisely what happened during the 20th century. Without going into detail, an accomplished Brazilian martial artist named Helio Gracie – the founder of BJJ – wanted to put his style to the test. The result was perhaps the most amazing revolution in the history of the martial arts. He wound up fighting people from around the globe, from all different styles, and amassed an incredible track record.

His son Rorion took their project to the United States, and eventually founded the now-popular UFC.

But I want to focus on one thing: their so-called “challenge matches”. For decades, the Gracie family had an open invitation for any martial artist to come fight them. Karate masters, Kung Fu experts, judokas, boxers – they all took on the Gracie’s challenge for decades.

And it was documented on film.

The conclusion is clear, and it’s universal: the principles of BJJ are objectively superior to every other discipline. If you don’t believe me, then watch a few videos.

Here’s a Kung Fu expert:

Here’s a Kenpo Karate expert:

Here’s a pair of wrestlers meeting the same fate:

The internet is filled with old tapes of the Gracies fighting, and almost every match follows the same plotline: the striker cannot land his killer punch. They clinch and go to the ground. Within minutes, the striker is left helpless underneath the grappler. Over and over and over. Even with large weight differences, the same principles keep showing themselves.

All of the chatter surrounding “which martial art is best” was largely put to rest. Skilled grapplers have the upper hand against skilled strikers. The words didn’t resolve the disagreements; the demonstration of superiority did.

Now, in 2015, the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) is huge, and training in BJJ is universal. I can say, confidently, if you don’t train in ground fighting, then you are guaranteed to lose 99.9% of professional fights. Without some understanding of the basics, you cannot stand a chance against a skilled grappler – any more than you can beat a professional tennis player without being able to hit a backhand.

Helio Gracie’s style was so compelling, that the entire martial arts world has been upended in a very short period of time. And it’s not just for professional fighters. By far, the most effective practical self-defense training comes from Gracie Jujitsu.

(I must clarify, without getting into the weeds: BJJ has become so popular, that it’s now a sport. Sometimes, “sport jujitsu” is differentiated between “Gracie Jujitsu”, because some of the techniques have been altered for competition, where strikes are not allowed.)

Now, I’m not saying grappling is sufficient for winning a fight against a skilled opponent. But it is necessary.

Back to Ideas

So, what does any of this have to do with bad ideas? Simple: some ideas, by their nature, cannot be demonstrated as accurate or inaccurate.

With a fight, there is a clear and objective winner. There’s no murkiness about it.

But with philosophy, for example, there’s no vale tudo. There’s only words. Then more words. And then some more words. Nobody taps out. Nobody gets choked out. There’s no demonstrable visual evidence of an idea’s superiority or inferiority.

But, this is not so in all academic disciplines! Take the engineer’s theories. Is there any demonstrable evidence of the accuracy of his ideas? Certainly: if the bridge he builds collapses, he demonstrates his error. If the gadgets don’t work – regardless of how he talks about them – then they don’t work, and there’s clearly an error present. If the buildings crumble, even if he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, then he demonstrates the inaccuracy of his knowledge.

So this is the principle: the harder the science, the more obvious feedback you get about an idea’s accuracy. The softer the science, the less demonstrable feedback you get, and the easier it is for bad ideas to stick around.

It should be no surprise, then, that Marxism lives in the English department. What real-world, crystal clear, undeniable example do we have of Marxism’s failure? Well, you might say the Soviet Union, but it’s not 100% clear – at least, it’s not as clear as a bridge collapsing or a fighter getting choked out.

Nor should it be surprising that some philosophers have made their careers arguing that contradictions exist (which is the most foundationally incorrect idea somebody can have). You can verbally demonstrate the impossibility of logical contradictions a hundred different ways. But it will always be verbal. A conceptual or theoretical demonstration – while clear and satisfactory to some people – does not hold the same power as a visual demonstration.

Imagine somebody watched this video and said, “I think the Hapkido instructor won the fights.” He’d be dismissed as a moron. Socially, he couldn’t get away with such a clear denial of reality. But this kind of pressure doesn’t exist in the world of soft sciences and humanities. Somebody can argue – without immediate condemnation – that the minimum wage is a good idea, or that logical contradictions can exist. And with sufficient rhetorical skill, that person might even be able to confuse enough people to agree with his conclusions.

Islamic philosopher Avicenna thought of a humorous demonstration to illustrate the law of non-contradiction to deniers:

Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.

Of course, I wouldn’t support torturing somebody to show their errors, but Avicenna is making this same point about philosophy and real-world demonstration.

It Goes Deeper

The analogy between the martial arts and academia goes one step deeper. Consider how advanced the hard sciences have become in the last few hundred years. The same is true of technology and engineering in general. Now consider how advanced philosophy has become. By comparison, philosophy looks kind of silly. There’s a reason for this, again demonstrated by BJJ.

The jujitsuka has one more significant advantage over the striker: his methodology of training. The techniques of BJJ are not about damaging your opponent. They are about having the option to damage your opponent by controlling the distance and applying joint locks or chokes until the point of submission.

Joint locks and chokes have a methodological advantage over punches and kicks: you can train them full-force without damaging your opponent. The technical skill in BJJ is lightyears beyond the technical skill in karate or kickboxing, because you can train full-speed for years without breaking limbs and getting brain damage. With BJJ, every day you can learn what works in a realistic fight-scenario. The boxer gets significantly less real-world feedback.

The jujitsuka can constantly tweak and adjust his theories. He can discover the truth, if you will, through free experimentation, without getting permanently injured. Strikers do not have this luxury.

And here, we have the final parallel: the methodology of the soft sciences/humanities is stunted. It’s not just that the conclusions are abstract and difficult to concretely evaluate; it’s that the very practice itself is disconnected from feedback.

Of course the engineer will make more progress over time. Not only is his field grounded in concrete reality, but he has a superior methodology for learning. He can freely experiment and get immediate feedback. Philosophers and sociologists’ “experimentation” is usually a rhetorical exercise, disconnected from reality, and able to venture into the absurd without any real-world feedback.

It’s About Theory

All this being said, don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that “practice is more important than theorizing.” In fact, I believe the opposite is true. Theory is always superior to practice; what you practice is categorically more important than the fact that you practice. An unskilled fighter will be able to defeat a skilled practitioner of nonsense. The average Joe will build a better house than a master architect who has a backwards theory of gravity.

Nor am I saying “there is only one style of martial art/philosophy that gets it right.” This is certainly not true. You can learn a lot from different styles and different philosophies. I have a black belt in Kenpo Karate and a 2nd degree black belt in Hakkoryu Jujitsu. Both styles have discovered truths that I haven’t yet found in BJJ.

I am saying objective truth – the principles of body mechanics – is easily demonstrated in the martial arts. Similarly, objective truths in physics and engineering are easily demonstrated. But in the softer sciences – though they are also grounded in objectively true principles – the proofs are only conceptual, and therefore, the majority of them amount to empty rhetoric. This is no different than the Aikido or Taekwondo masters who insist their techniques are superior, but they never agree to fight anyone from a different style.

This is not a critique of abstract ideas, nor of speculative theorizing. It’s an explanation of the perpetual existence of bad ideas.