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A Response to Lars Andersen: A New Level of Archery – Interview with Anna Maltese

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

March 6, 2015

Earlier this year, Lars Andersen–a self-described painter and writer from Denmark who first became interested in ancient archery practices about ten years ago–produced a video that quickly gained close to thirty million views on YouTube: “A New Level of Archery.”

However, Andersen’s high-speed stunts and even faster claims about archery were not left unchallenged. Snopes.com soon posted a summary of just how many tricks were repeatedly filmed (although not digitally manipulated)–but that wasn’t quite the full story.

Anna Maltese, an artist, digital painter and archer, joined forces with long-time skeptical filmmaker John Rael, to produce A Response to Lars Andersen: a New Level of Archery. With 450 thousand views and climbing, it is a measured and not-without-a-sense-of-humour researched response to a number of odd claims in Andersen’s video.

The video is written and narrated by Anna Maltese, produced and edited by John Rael, with videography and photography by Matt David.

Anna Maltese: I’m an animator, or I was up until a couple years ago.

I was an animator on The Simpsons for over ten years, and I left because I wanted to devote more time to archery, kung fu, and digital painting. I’ve been an archer for the better part of a decade now, and I’ve been an archery instructor for about four or five years, I think. I am a bow maker, as well. I compete sometimes, and my stage performances started from working at Burning Man.

photo of Anna Maltese

As a performer, I’m part of a fire archery group that was born out of an idea from Burning Man. We burned down, on cabled arrows, a five story, many ton Trojan Horse, packed with explosives, packed with pyro. Basically, we were a crew of about nine people, and we developed a fire arrow that could be reused safely.

It took about eight months to develop a working prototype for that, but luckily my partner is a project manager at JPL, as well as being president of our archery club, and someone who shoots at an Olympic level, so I had some good resources to draw upon!

It’s a lot of fun. We perform it at different events, and we practice out at a dry lake bed about once a month. It’s a good crew, dedicated people; we always have a crack safety team. We abide by a lot of archery rules, and a lot of fire safety rules.

Kylie Sturgess: Have you noticed a boom in archery due to pop‑culture? Hunger Games is one of those films that seems to sell toy bows in toy stores all the time. Is it good for the sport?

Maltese: Calling it a boom is kind of an understatement…

Sturgess: Really?

Maltese: Yeah, it’s kind of nuts! Yes, I have noticed a boom, and yes, it is good for the sport.

Where I teach, at the Pasadena Roving Archers, we have beginning classes every Saturday morning that are totally free. You can come down and at about 7:15 in the morning, the line really starts getting long, very quickly. We had to completely readjust our teaching schedule and our classes.

We normally have to turn away about thirty to forty people each morning, but after the boom–after Avatar came out, and then Hunger Games, and Avengers–we have to start turning away more than that! It’s been incredibly good, although it has come with its downside. Just as a result of its popularity, the weekend before Brave came out, our storage bin was broken into and all of our teaching equipment was taken.

It was enough to completely create a whole new archery program for someone, and that week, we were freaking out. But thanks to the generosity of people all over the country–from the Eastern Sports Foundation, and from Samick, which makes excellent bows­ the donations came pouring in, both in money and equipment. And the Saturday after the movie opened up, we were right on all new equipment.

It was really, really thanks to all of them, but the reason why that happened, of course, was because the sport has become so popular. It’s a wonderful thing for archers; it’s a wonderful thing for ranges and for the sport; and it makes you feel good to go out there and shoot, it’s a fantastic experience.

Sturgess: How did the video, “Lars Andersen: A New Level of Archery” come to your attention? People were tagging you on Facebook, you mentioned that at the start of the video… Do you often come across information about archery that deserves a closer look, or was this one particular out there example?

Maltese: I was tagged in the video about thirteen times, and I’m not the only one! Every archer I know and every archery instructor I know has been tagged in this video, multiple times.

Each of them was just getting rather exasperated, because it’s like, “There’s so much to unpack in this video.” It’s primarily on social media, but that’s the same way with a lot of extraordinary or exaggerated things.

As to the second question, I do occasionally come across information about archery that needs a little bit of re‑examination. A good example of this is what’s called “the bow finger,” where I get told from people who generally aren’t in archery, “Oh, did you know where the middle finger gesture for ‘fuck you’ comes from?” The middle finger claim is that, in warfare in Western Europe, and specifically in Britain, archers captured on the battlefield would have their middle fingers chopped off, and that would make it impossible to shoot anymore.

That’s the claim that’s been debunked several times. The middle finger gesture is obviously just a phallic gesture, but regardless, even though it is the weight‑bearing finger in archery, there’s no real reason why an archer would not be able to shoot afterwards.

We have people in the Paralympics who don’t have hands actually shooting with their teeth and specialized bows. I’ve got to give a shout out to the Paralympians on this; it’s amazing what these people can do. We have people that work with the Wounded Warriors project, who are working with vets, rehabilitating them in sports and in life, and giving them something to do. They’re shooting with specialized release triggers that they hold between their toes. They’ll still be shooting out there every day–it makes me feel that I’m not doing enough with my life!

You occasionally come across odd claims–getting back to what we were talking about–but unlike martial arts, there aren’t as many odd beliefs about archery. This is a particularly–how to put this?–This is a particularly viral example.

Sturgess: Is archery prone to having fads or claims made about the practice in the same way as… I don’t know how much you know about martial arts and some of the claims made about their practices? Is there a similarity, you think?

Maltese: I would say that archery does not have as many fads or claims made about it, but there’s a couple. The bow finger one that I referenced is one, but mostly archery is about what works.

There are so many disciplines in archery, so many different techniques, and it really just comes down to where the person was born, and what surrounds them in their environment, and what the dominant discipline is in their day.

In California, we’re lucky in that the range that I go to, the Pasadena Roving Archers, and the range where I teach, you find compound shooters. You find Olympic recurve shooters, you find a lot of traditional shooters, and there are a lot of different disciplines to draw upon.

Basically, archery is about what works for you, and there is a lot of networking that goes on in the archery community, so there’s a load of things that people try out differently to fit what works for them. I do martial arts; I’ve been in it for a few decades; I do kung fu. Yes, I’ve heard a lot of claims about it, and it’s kind of wacky sometimes. I don’t see that as much in archery. Archery is a very practical sport.

Sturgess: Do you ever get people who use superstitions in archery? They might have certain rituals that they engage in.

Maltese: I haven’t noticed that at all, actually. Yeah, it could be just who I’m around, I guess, but for the amount of time that I’ve been in it–it’s been for the better part of a decade­–I haven’t really seen anybody using any kind of ritual to fix. I guess I’m not sure; could you clarify it a little?

Sturgess: For example, someone might have a lucky charm, or “I always use this particular stance,” because that works for me. Particularly with sports–sports superstitions are one of the most studied forms of superstitious behavior–you have certain people that have lucky socks, or say no, that’s my bow, or “I only use the red arrow.” I’m only using examples off the top of my head, but we can also see that in cricket or dance, those sorts of things.

Maltese: Yeah. I think I know what you mean. In baseball, apparently, baseball has many very superstitious things?

Sturgess: Absolutely.

Maltese: Yeah, I haven’t actually seen or heard anybody using a lucky charm or trinket in archery! That’s a good question though. That’s interesting, because I’ve never even thought about that, actually. It’s just something people don’t do.

Sturgess: “You have to put on the red wig and the green dress, otherwise, you’re not going to hit the target!”

Anna: “You have to wear your shoes backwards, on the wrong feet! That really makes for the best stance!” Well, I don’t know if it counts, but it is a very mental sport. Ninety-nine percent of it is just your mental state; you can have a really bad day, get to the range, and do everything technically right, as far as you know, but have a really bad shooting day.

That goes for all sports. It’s about disciplining your mind to not listen to all the chatter that’s going on, regardless of what kind of day you’re having, and just go through the nock and draw and release sequence.

Like I said, it’s very based on mental discipline. There are tricks we do to fool ourselves into not giving into that mental chatter.

One of the things that my archery club president always says is, “Feast or famine.” If you have a really good shot, take a moment and just feel how that shot went. Why does that shot feel good in your muscles, in your tendons and alignment? And then shoot another arrow, and then shoot the next arrow.

If something goes way off, if you take a bad shot, don’t dwell on it. Just go right back to shooting. The most that I can say in terms of things like superstition, for sports superstition, is they’re just the little tricks that we do. There are little tricks that we do to discipline our minds like that. Don’t focus on what went wrong, focus more on what went right.

Sturgess: From Facebook posts to video, how did that happen?

Maltese: You mean the rebuttal?

Sturgess: Absolutely, how did that come to be? It’s one thing to say to thirteen people who are tagging you: “Right, here’s a Facebook note, this is what I think they are saying,” to then go: “this deserves to be filmed.” How does that happen?

Maltese: I did a Facebook post just because so many people had been tagging me, and I couldn’t reply to all of them. On that Facebook post, I had a couple of requests, most notably from my friend Christina, to do a YouTube video on it.

My boyfriend, John Rael, has a web series called “Skeptically Pwnd,” where he, in a comedic way, goes about debunking claims that people make. I approached him about doing it and he was more than happy to. I began writing up a response, the rebuttal. There was a lot to unpack and I was not sure if it would be too long.

He was hoping to keep it down to below five minutes; then he read it and he said, “Actually, we’re going to include all of this. It’s going to be long, but I don’t care; content is good. This is good content.” I think this was the longest video he’s ever made, and I broke it down into twelve different items. I actually ended up cutting some things out, just for time, and we put it up, and that was that.

Sturgess: How have people responded?

Maltese: Overwhelmingly positively, actually. It’s been interesting. Not having a web series, I didn’t know what to expect! I didn’t know how far it would go but apparently, it got a little more viral than we thought it would be. The response has been wonderful, especially from other archers, from other archery instructors, from archery equipment distributors.

The Facebook post that I wrote up originally ended up being the inspiration for my fellow instructor and coach, Jim MacQuerrie, who runs the GeekDad blog. He wrote up the response, as well, and it’s from other archers especially, it’s been very, very positive.

I have a lot of people private messaging saying, “Thank you very much for writing this up,” because so many people are tagging me in this, and I just don’t have the energy to go through this again and again. I have a couple of people saying, “You are more polite than you could have been.” I’m like, “Yeah, I like being polite!”

Again, archery is about what works. The criticisms that other archers have had for this particular individual–involving his relative consistency, or questions of sloppiness or what have you–I don’t really feel like addressing those.

Because if it works for him, then, it works for him; archery is about what works. The things that I wanted to focus on in the video were simply the historical claims, and that’s what I pretty much did.

Sturgess: Actually, here’s another question. Has Lars Andersen himself responded?

Maltese: No, I have no idea. I don’t think so. I doubt I would even show up on the radar!

Sturgess: Really? Even with the viral video? Wow.

Maltese: I guess it depends on how viral the video gets. Again, I’m new to this kind of thing. I don’t know. I don’t go out and try to make a lot of viral videos.

I enjoy helping John on his video series, but I doubt that I would come up on the radar. It’s just one video, and there are a couple of other response videos out there.

Sturgess: When it comes to investigating claims like these, do you have any suggestions about approaching them or communicating them in a skeptical manner?

Maltese: I can’t claim to know what works best. I guess skepticism is about what works for people in terms of their approach. You have a lot of different, you have the more–I don’t want to say aggressive but–proactive, maybe, approaches. Like yourself, and then, you have people who just pretty much gravitate to their interactions with other people.

Sturgess: I know what you mean; you can’t get much more obvious than having a site which says “token skeptic” in the title!

Maltese: I just mean proactive. Like getting a podcast out there and addressing issues. Even with that, you have different approaches. You take a very friendly and continual way of doing it, someone like Richard Dawkins has a bit more of a… how do you say it?

Sturgess: He takes it to a different level. Dawkins is quite willing to go out and challenge creationists to their faces, for example. At one of the last conventions, he marched outside the venue and walked straight up to a whole bunch of them who were proselytizing and was quite happy to discuss religion to their faces. I, on the other hand, would be less willing to do that!

Maltese: Right. Both of those approaches speak to different audiences, in a sense. I guess it really depends on what audience you want to speak to, honestly. For me personally, I tend to try a more conversational method, and that’s what works for me.

I got a little more snarky in the video than I usually do, but that’s as a result of the fact that I am on a web series that’s called “Skeptically Pwnd,” where the logo is one character kicking another in the nuts! That’s sort of the format. I was actually going to go through a much more dry and analytical approach, and that wasn’t what we ended up going with in the end. Basically, I like to do a lot of homework, I like to do a lot of research, and I like to be exceedingly careful–I like to double and triple check. I can’t just have one data set that I use!

That’s one of the criticisms that a lot of other archers have, about Lars Andersen, is that first of all, the claims that he was making were very vague about which historical documents he was using. The one that he points to in the video is an example; it’s a data set of one, actually.

Sturgess: That’s not very good, is it? No, even if you’re not particularly scientific!

Maltese: The methodology is not that sound. Another source that he uses is another book called, “Saracen Archery,” but he doesn’t make that statement. He didn’t bring that up in that video, and it’s hard to dissect and address claims when the person who’s making the claims doesn’t back it up with their research or with specifics.

You really need to be specific about this. I guess what suggestion I would have is use more than one data set, rely on multiple sources, and do good skepticism. There are basic rules within skepticism. As for the approach, that’s really up to you. Like I said, I favor a more conversational approach, and that someone else might favor a different one.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.