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Karate Is Still Not A Science

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The article Karate is Not A Science has generated quite a bit of feedback. Some are not convinced Karate is not a science, and some are willing to concede it isn’t exactly a science, but they are still clinging to the idea that somehow there was drive-by science involved in its development. I wanted to revisit this topic and explain why it is so important that we understand our Karate is not based in Science but instead in belief.


Some of the readers have commented that while Karate is not developed in a laboratory by men in white coats looking through microscopes, that it is still created using empirical methods, and therefore has at least some basis in science. If only that were true. But it isn’t.

This fallacious argument is made, I believe, as a way of somehow lending particular credibility to a particular style of performing Karate. Sure, I used to buy into this argument myself when faced with someone doing Tae Kwon Do or some other style. When they asked me why we did things a particular way, I’d arrogantly pronounce Shotokan a scientifically researched and designed martial art whereas TKD was the product of Koreans learning Shotokan for six weeks after being conscripted by the occupying Japanese army. But I was wrong about that.

Where did I get that idea? From various Karate books, of course, written by Japanese instructors who loved to write about how Karate was being developed scientifically, and who published interesting, scientific-looking data in the backs of their books with graphs and supposed empirical research.

A style of Karate is mostly a connected series of decisions about how to best handle a set of variables. But an entirely different set of decisions could have been made with equal validity. This is what makes Karate art instead of science.

Since then, I have come to realize that Karate is not a science, and wasn’t developed empirically. It is a tradition, a craft, an art. It is mostly a connected series of decisions about how to best handle a set of variables. But an entirely different set of decisions could have been made with equal validity. This is what makes Karate art instead of science.

But why can’t we at least say that it was studied and refined using empirical methods? Various methods of performing Karate techniques were not tested, the various outcomes were not measured, and the best way of performing a technique was not documented through evidence and then adopted. In fact, almost exactly the opposite happened.

One method of performing a technique was adopted because the revered instructor ordered it be adopted, and it was rarely if ever tested against anything resembling a human body, the evidence for its effectiveness was not documented, and today, various people perform the punch in significantly different ways using entirely different methodologies within the same style of Karate – indicating that there is no “best practice,” no documented knowledge of how to perform one best, and little more than supposition as to what might work.

The problem with Karate techniques is that they do not exist in a vacuum. You can say, “Punch like this to deliver the most force,” and someone else will say, “No, that method leaves you vulnerable to attack. Punch this way and get enough force but some protection.”

And yet another person will say, “No, that first way does not produce extra force. It produces enough to break some boards, but you would be more powerful against a human doing this instead.”

And yet another will say, “You are all three wrong. Punching like that is for punching the air, not for punching a person, and trying to develop self-protection while punching is pointless.”

To complicate the issue even further, none of these people have any measurements of how much force is generated, and no outside way of observing how much force is generated. They don’t even have the ability to determine whether or not force is what they ought to be using as a measurement of an effective punch. They cannot even agree that punches should first and foremost be strong.

That is not science. That is the very definition of an art. I can hit a board and see it break. Someone can coach me to punch a particular way, and I can break the board more easily. But your jaw is not a board, and were I to try to punch you in the jaw, the results are not exactly predicted by the board, and I cannot be sure that I used the best method, even if my attempt to break your jaw was successful.

Should I be trying to break your jaw at all? I don’t know. Maybe the punch would be more effective, meaning that it would be more disabling of an attacker, if instead of breaking the jaw I simply impacted the jaw with less force, causing perhaps more immediate pain and less chance the attacker would be stunned into numbness.

These sorts of variables and unknowns – these are the hallmarks of something that is not a science and not developed scientifically. I want to be clear about this, because so many Karate instructors and famous authors have claimed that Karate was refined using scientific methods.

I think that no science or empirical research at all went into the development of the Karate product. There is not even a unified Karate product to observe and say “This was our result.”

Karate is absolutely not a science. In fact, I cannot see any signs of science in Karate’s development at all. Goju and Shotokan practitioners cannot even agree on where the draw hand goes on the body. They cannot agree on the best method for developing an effective punch. And Shotokan practitioners do not agree on whether or not using tension at the end of a technique is effective or debilitating but protecting of joints.

I think that no science or empirical research at all went into the development of the Karate product. There is not even a unified Karate product to observe and say “This was our result.”

Karate was developed and refined through various people’s differing opinions, speculations, beliefs, superstitions, misunderstandings, and traditions. It was toyed with repeatedly, but I don’t think you can call one guy’s experimenting with possibly doing things a little differently empirical research. If that were empirical, then you would also have to confess that my beliefs about tension at the end of the technique being counter-productive were developed through empirical means.

I used nothing but reasoning to come to that conclusion. I did not experiment. I don’t have a radar gun to punch into to measure the speed of my punches. I was not able to determine what delivered the most force, and couldn’t even tell you for certain if force is even the right thing to measure in this case.

Karate is art. Pure and simple. The evidence says it is an art, the product varies from person to person like an art.

Unless you can tell me how many foot-pounds of pressure, how many joules, or how much acceleration, or even how much speed you tend to generate, then do not think that any science is involved. Without data, there is no science, and there is no data.

Think about that. There is no data at all. None. There isn’t even agreement on a goal we should be gathering data about.

Until you can show a unified best practice, there is no evidence of authentic research and development. Without any evidence as to what works, people will adopt preferred methods based on their beliefs rather than evidence. Without evidence, there is no empirical research.

It’s an art, a craft, a sport, a method of exercise, a hand to hand combat method… Karate is a lot of things, but it is not a science.

Now, to the real question. Why do I care whether or not people say Karate is a science? This is the really the most important point in this entire discussion. It is because when Karate practitioners believe that their particular methods are somehow proven out to be conclusively the “proper way” or “best way” that they begin to develop style bigotry. They begin to think that Shotokan is better than Goju-Ryu, or that Olympic TKD is foolish nonsense whereas the World Shoto Cup is where the sun rises.

This sort of style-centric thinking retards our development. We find ourselves preferring our own methods, eschewing the methods of others, and locking ourselves in a virtual closet, refusing to listen to reason from anyone else.

But when Karate is art, when we think of it as an art… let me be more aggressive in that statement… when we realize the truth that Karate is definitely not scientific at all but is art the same way music is art, we can get together with other people and listen to them instead of simply impatiently waiting to explain to them why our way works better and how scientific it is. We become open to the fact that other arts are equally valid for their own reasoning and approach to the same problem.

And this very important, as I wrote about in my article SHU, HA, RI, Karate development is a maturation process. And that second step, where we begin to express our independence without yet going so far as to be creative, is when we look over the fence and say, “That kata Sepai those Goju guys do is pretty cool. Hey, can you show me that?”

Like musicians, we can share our songs with one another. We can learn each other’s methods. We can get together and expand our understanding, widen our perception of what is valid, and by opening ourselves to possibilities, we mature, make new and interesting friends, and leave behind the comfortable dogmatism that protects our egos from things we are afraid of, such as the fact that our Karate is not any better than anyone else’s.

Tagged in: Karate