If you’re into fantasy gaming or historical weaponry at all, you will have seen the video by now. You know the one: Lars Andersen trick-shooting and speed-shooting with a bow like, as one person in a comment thread has put it, “Legolas on meth.”
I’m not an archer. Sure, I’ve fired bows before. I even took an archery class in high school nearly 30 years ago. I think I got a C. And like many observers, I enjoyed the heck out of the video. In fact, I’d watched and enjoyed an earlier Lars Andersen trick-shooting video ages ago, before his more recent Jan. 23, 2015 upload went viral.
Nevertheless, my first instinct upon watching him shoot was to Google “Lars Andersen hoax.”
My instincts said something wasn’t quite right about the claims being made, and though the video doesn’t seem to use CGI or other trick photography, I found several critiques of the videos illuminating. Moreover, I have much more faith in these other sources when it comes to the subject of how archers used to shoot. I’ll elaborate more, below, on where my instincts are coming from, as they’re rooted in some real principles not related to archery, but first, let’s look at Andersen, and then at a few critiques of his arguments about the history of archery.
Lars Andersen, Trick-Shooting
Scholagladiatoria addressed much of this stuff more than a year ago when the first videos were being posted. Here are two of Matt Easton’s responses. What I’m going to encourage readers to pay attention to is this: How complicated does Easton get? How often does he talk about multiple possibilities, multiple ways of doing things, different scenarios, competing benefits or drawbacks, and so forth?
Here’s another video, specifically addressing which side of the bow the arrow is held on.
If you were thinking about my questions, you may have noticed that Easton’s lesson about archery is complicated. That’s generally how experts sound. Reality is complicated and those who try to understand it end up having complicated things to say.
Here’s another archer whose writing shows hallmarks of expertise: Anna Maltese, whose Facebook post on the subject is illuminating. Her response is complicated, but well worth a read. It’s even funny at times. (I cracked up at “The second arrow then buys breakfast for the first arrow the next morning.”) Update: On Feb. 6, 2015, Maltese posted a funny, thorough, and well-documented YouTube video of her own, taking on the stunt shooter. It’s more thorough than any other rebuttal discussed here and well worth a watch. Be prepared to hit pause, though, because some of the funnier jokes are visual and fly by faster than Lars’s trick shooting.
While we’re reading critiques, Snopes.com provides some very useful details about how much Andersen had to mess with his equipment to make some of those stunts work. If you’re wondering, for instance, about how he could split an arrow when Mythbusters said it couldn’t be done, Snopes provides an answer. (So does Maltese.) And Jim MacQuarrie at GeekDad has written a pretty thorough fisking of the Andersen videos that is worth reading, too. For now, though, I’m just going to focus on Andersen, Easton, and Maltese.
Before I continue, I should probably define what I mean by authentic expertise: I’m not just referring to how much the person knows but to how they behave–how they approach knowledge. Experts tend to adopt particular patterns of behavior that help reduce the odds of catastrophic error. Those behaviors make their material more reliable. Two people might both have doctoral degrees in physics, but one might adopt expert practices while the other does not. Both might be referred to as authorities in their field, but I would only refer to the former as an expert.
Maltese and Easton share a number of characteristics typically associated with this kind of expertise:
- Both have complicated things to say and seem comfortable with complication.
- Both, for instance, talk not about one old art of archery but about many, and Easton allows that there may be some lost arts out there (even if Andersen’s isn’t one of them).
- At about 2:45 min into the first video, Easton talks about different kinds of arrows for different tasks like hunting and war. He talks about Turkish flight arrows. Even the equipment is complicated.
- Easton sets aside talking about draw weights “because it’s a fairly big topic by itself.”
- Maltese talks about problems splitting arrows if the arrows are wood and how the result can differ with carbon shafts. See? Complicated.
- Even if they argue with someone (or critique Andersen), they also both are happy to give credit or praise. (Both seem okay with some aspects of the videos.)
- Both are comfortable admitting to lack of experience in speed and trick shooting — an admission that might seem to undermine their credibility on this subject.
All three of these features and more tend to go hand-in-hand with authentic expertise. Experts tend to have complicated things to say. They have a good sense of what they know and don’t know. They tend to care more about knowledge than ego; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t likely develop expertise in the first place because developing expertise often requires a parade of humbling experiences. (Now I’ll be complicated: I’m not saying that experts don’t have egos. They do. Often large ones. But they tend to be more willing than propped-up or non-genuine authorities to suck it up and deal with the facts at hand if those facts undermine their assertions.)
All of these signs of expertise can backfire, undermining an expert’s ability to persuade amateurs that he or she knows the subject. Because experts tend to embrace complication, they can seem long-winded or tedious. Complications, after all, require elaboration. They can sometimes seem indecisive or overly inclined to hedge. Witness Truman’s famous quip about wanting a one-armed economist. They are often willing to acknowledge when other speakers (even amateurs) are right, which can sometimes seem to endorse the opposition, while also admitting their own weaknesses or errors, with adversaries often seizing on such admissions as being more significant than they are.
True, there are experts like Neil Degrasse Tyson who are quite good at boiling down complicated ideas into simple lessons, but they are unusual and often have twin areas of expertise: first, expertise in their subject matter; second, expertise in communication. Most of the time, however, authentic experts tend to be ignored by the masses. They are most often appreciated by readers and viewers who are themselves experts in other things, and who thus can recognize those telltale signs. Experts will work for years to get 50,000 viewers on YouTube (often real aficionados rather than casual browsers) or to sell a few thousand books while someone else with less expertise ends up with millions of hits in two days or with a best-seller.
In contrast, the Andersen videos had the following qualities that made me wonder how much I could trust his work:
- Andersen seems to present a single, lost, historic truth — one that would seem to simplify rather than complicate. That’s not usually the direction that expertise leads.
- He seems to dismiss whole battalions of experts and enthusiasts. His secret appears to be one that all of the other archery enthusiasts, military historians, and reenactors have missed over a period in which 1) lots of people have played D&D and been enthusiastic researchers of such subjects, and 2) a wealth of historical records, artwork, documents, and other clues has never been more accessible. The narration implies strongly that other archers had all this time ignored historical documents and art work. That seems unlikely. That Andersen presents himself as a lone scholar is really weird. Most experts are building on the work of others, know it, and make it clear they are doing so. MacQuarrie at GeekDad, for instance, acknowledges Maltese at the end of his own piece.
- He doesn’t seem willing to qualify his statements or acknowledge weaknesses to his argument. For instance, he didn’t address the equipment alterations until he had to respond to critics. The narration proclaims, without any hedging at all, that back-quivers are a Hollywood invention, and that this style of shooting has been forgotten until now. The text below the video uses the verb proving, a verb that many authentic experts avoid in favor of suggests and other better-hedged choices.
- The way that Andersen and the narrator describe his exploits is clearly aimed at a mass public, and there’s no sign he brought his work first to other experts for any kind of feedback from the expert community. The video is published by “larsandersen23,” so even though it’s narrated by someone else, it appears to be self-published. In the sciences, one of the well-known characteristics of hoax science is that other experts first hear about a “discovery” through a press conference instead of through peer-reviewed publication. The headlines appear before any experts can see the ideas up close, so the experts lag behind the journalists in reviewing the matter. For a famous example of this sort of thing in the sciences, read about the cold fusion experiment of 1989, which started with a press conference (prior to peer review) and unraveled from there. Experts do, of course, self-publish; Scholagladiatoria does. The scientists behind the climate blog Realclimate.org don’t peer review that site. But those channels and sites don’t distribute new discoveries. They explain old ones. Experts rarely release groundbreaking “new” discoveries without some review by other experts.
To clarify, I’m not saying that Andersen is perpetuating any kind of a hoax. He really seems to be firing those trick shots. But I’m not at all surprised that the history and practice of archery are more complicated than he has portrayed, that archers are already familiar with many of the ideas he is drawing on, and that Andersen has had to use a combination of narrow draws, low draw-weight, tweaked equipment, and multiple takes to achieve what he does in the video.
I’m also not at all surprised that archers with considerable experience and research behind them might find the current enthusiasm over the videos frustrating. †