Robert Mercer

Robert Mercer, aka Gothmog, recently posted a webpage at http://kossomot.tripod.com/observations.htm (since taken down to avoid embarrassment), detailing his criticisms of the prevailing method of analyzing sci-fi. The first and most prominent proponent of the prevailing method (based upon real-life methods for analyzing the physical universe) is Curtis Saxton at the legendary Star Wars Technical Commentaries, but it has since been championed by many others, including myself. I found his attack bizarre at best, and blatantly dishonest at worst. I quoted it (current as of Christmas 2001) here so that I could, well, tear it apart. Please note that this rebuttal was written before our debate; I held this page in reserve until afterwards, under the assumption that it would foreshadow his arguments. Imagine my surprise when he began contradicting it at every turn! Anyway, he started it with a dry introduction:

Some Observations Regarding Reality and Science Fiction
Two of the primary arguments raised against various aspects of Star Trek in debate are: (1) our observations do not match what "real science" indicates that we should see, if certain things were the case; and/or (2) it's technobabble, so it doesn't mean anything and has no bearing on or validity in regards to the point at hand. I wish to make a few observations about these arguments, particularly since these arguments are often implied rather than actually stated in any particularly meaningful or rigorous manner in debate and discussion. This material is, by no means, a complete treatment of the issues in question. I have also attempted to minimize specialist vocabulary and to keep the discussion as clear and as simple as possible--which results in some loss of accuracy/precision.

Note: The term TEXT is used in general reference to representations in various media (print, video, audio, computer animation, and so on), rather than simply printed text using words.

Gothmog tends to write in legalese. He will defend this as a desire to be "precise", just as any lawyer would. However, a lawyer's idea of precision is much different from a scientist's idea of precision. In reality, legalese doesn't express ideas any more clearly or precisely than plain English, but it does cover the author's ass, and that's its real intent. For a lawyer, this is unfortunate but understandable. For anyone else, it's just damned annoying.

Therefore, I find myself forced to translate every one of his statements into plain English in order to discuss them. His webpage is broken up into 3 major sections and a conclusion, each of which will be discussed separately. To be quite frank, every single one of his assertions is nonsensical, betraying a fundamentally irrational approach, and I will debunk every one of them in turn. Worse yet, his arguments tend to rely upon the "begging the question" fallacy, in which the conclusion is built into the premises, as we shall see:

Real Science and Fictional Realities

After examining all of his claims, I can simplify all of my rebuttals into a single statement: his method has no clearly defined rules, and it seems to be defined only by its refusal to obey the rules of science. If you try to apply it in real life, it doesn't work. So if we are to suspend disbelief, why should we apply it to sci-fi?

When dealing with texts such as Star Trek, Star Wars or Babylon 5, we are dealing with texts that are created for specific purposes (generally, to entertain) and which are created within the limitations of various economic, formistic, and technological factors. The specific type of texts under consideration here--science fiction/fantasy--represent explicit fictional realities rather than an image of reality (such as you might find in a contemporary police drama or action/adventure film). One is an image of reality (though it is often skewed and incomplete) while the other is an image of a reality--a reality that is not necessarily our own, though it may be taken, at times, as such.

Plain English translation: "Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5 represent fictional worlds which are not necessarily identical to our own. Their productions were limited by money, the moving picture format, and special effects technology."

In order to figure out legalese, you must think like a lawyer. A lawyer will never come right out and say what he thinks; instead, he will carefully lay out dry, tedious ground rules which you might be inclined to accept simply to get on to the good stuff. But if you've accepted those ground rules by way of not contesting them, he will have already won because those ground rules were carefully constructed so that they would lead directly to his conclusion. In other words, the lawyer seeks to win by setting the rules of the game in his favour (that's the "begging the question" fallacy I was talking about: setting your conclusions as premises).

So what rules is he trying to set up with this paragraph? Look carefully, and you will see. He is careful to state up-front that sci-fi is subject to the "limitations" of storytelling, thus laying the groundwork for subsequent attempts to disregard visual evidence. In short, he rejects suspension of disbelief. Rather than simply accepting what he sees as what really happened (the definition of suspension of disbelief), he refuses to let us forget that these are Hollywood productions, subject to all the vagaries of film and television productions.

Such a fictional reality has its own forms and rules. These forms and rules may not necessarily correspond in any meaningful way to the forms and rules of "real life." There is no law (written or natural) which requires that they do so--indeed, if there was, many of these texts would not exist, since much of what they contain flies in the face of contemporary understandings of the nature and limitations of reality.

Plain English translation: "We see things in science fiction which we cannot explain, therefore the laws of physics do not apply".

This argument will sound familiar to anyone who debates creationists on a regular basis, and it is based upon the "unexplained mystery fallacy". The unexplained mystery fallacy is based upon the following leap in logic: "anything we cannot explain invalidates science". This is a particular example of the "black and white", or "bifurcation" fallacy, in which you are forced to choose between two extremes: "science can explain absolutely everything" and "science can explain nothing". To be quite blunt, if that idea makes sense to you, then you are tragically ignorant of both logic and the scientific method. To avoid repeating myself, I would suggest you take a quick look at my rebuttals to various creationist attacks on science on my other website, at http://www.stardestroyer.net/Creationism/Arguments/AttackScience.shtml.

I grow tired of explaining the same thing over and over, but in case you were too lazy to read the above link, here's how it works: science seeks only to describe the observable universe. It makes no claims of absolute certainty or all-encompassing scope. It does not claim to "know" anything. It is a pragmatic philosophy at heart; if we cannot have omniscience, then we can only strive to form as accurate a picture as possible. Therefore, the scientific method merely formalizes methods for selecting theories based upon accuracy; the "best fit" wins. We make no claims that the current "best fit" theory is correct or proven; we merely state that it is the most accurate theory based on the available information. In order to overturn it, you must provide a better fit. It is not enough simply to show that the current "best fit" is not quite perfect!

Many philosophers (particularly those with religious leanings) have sought to find fault with the scientific method. It is not absolute. It cannot prove any of its claims. It is not perfect. However, these criticisms are irrelevant, because science claims neither absolute knowledge, proof, or perfection. It is entirely possible that we will observe something in real life or sci-fi which appears to violate our current understanding of physics. In both cases, the reaction of the rational scientist is to simply apply scientific methods of observation and analysis to this new phenomenon, in the knowledge that science will grow and improve as a result (indeed, this has happened countless times throughout history, and it is part of the continuous self-improvement cycle of science). However, the reaction of the irrational person is much different than the reaction of the scientist; the irrational person is likely to discard science out of hand at the first sign of trouble, and turn to alternate philosophies such as "personal revelation". By dismissing science at the first sign of any apparent incongruities, Gothmog clearly declares his allegiance to the irrationalist camp.

Many individuals attempt to interpret these texts by the forms and rules of reality-as-we-know-it (that is, "real science" or "real life"). There is nothing to prevent this, nor is it inappropriate within specific contexts--for example, in order to measure the correspondence of a particular fictional reality to "real life." Such an interpretive approach, however, runs counter to one of the central tenets of fiction--the willing suspension of disbelief. Such an approach attacks and subverts the essential nature of the fictional reality contained within the text in question. Such an approach may be a useful and necessary critical tool when used to particular ends (such ends usually being associated or concerned with aspects of literary or dramatic criticism), but inferences and conclusions drawn through such an interpretive approach do not necessarily represent a faithful portrayal of the fictional reality under examination.

Plain English translation: "True suspension of disbelief requires that we completely ignore all of the forms and rules of reality".

He is still attempting to achieve victory through careful definitions. This time, he tries to define "willing suspension of disbelief" as a refusal to apply any principles from real life to fictional events, once again packaging his conclusion as a premise. One small problem: that is not suspension of disbelief! Like the congressman who tries to attach pork-barrel legislation to a popular bill, he is fallaciously attempting to attach his preferred method of analysis to the idea of suspending disbelief, in the hopes that one will sneak through on the other's coat-tails (this is known as the "complex question" fallacy, in which one attempts to sell two separate ideas as one conjoined idea, forcing you to either accept or reject both).

Suspension of disbelief is simply the willing decision to pretend that fictional events are indeed occurring, ie- we cannot question whether the events in question are "realistic", and we certainly can't alter them if we think they're "wrong". How we choose to analyze those events is another matter entirely. The important thing is that we accept that they happened, without question and without altering them to conform to any pre-existing expectations. It is fallacious in the extreme for him to attach his preferred method of analysis to "suspension of disbelief", and I don't see how he could possibly expect an observant person to let this slip by.

 During some debates/discussions some individuals often attempt to utilize the results of such an interpretive approach in counter-argument to points raised by the opposing side. The general form of the argument is:

(1) Real science indicates to us that a if a particular technology functions according to certain principles, we should expect to see certain things;

(2) We do not see these certain things;

(3) Therefore: the particular technology does not function according to those principles.

On its face, this seems to be a good argument--but it rests upon certain assumptions--that the fictional setting in question operates in accordance with "real science," that we fully understand how the principle supposedly being applied is actually being applied (and, by extension, we know how the technology works), and that what we are seeing is necessarily an unvarnished or unmediated view of the reality in question. If any of the above assumptions are not true (and cannot be shown to be true), then the argument fails.

Plain English translation: "we cannot use real science to disprove the occurrence of a real scientific phenomenon in sci-fi, because real science does not apply".

This is just plain perverse. Look carefully at his what he's just done: his argument contradicts itself! If real science doesn't apply, then how can anyone claim that a real scientific phenomenon occurred? If real scientific phenomena are occurring in sci-fi, then how can anyone claim that real science does not apply? How is a real scientific phenomenon defined, if not by real science? This would be funny if he didn't take himself so seriously, but he doesn't stop there. His attempt to show why real science should not be applied is also seriously flawed.

  1. He criticizes the "assumption" that the fictional universe conforms to science. Note that creationists also deride the "assumption" that the real universe conforms to science, and for the same reason: they (and Gothmog) believe that scientists claim the universe conforms to their theories. They both have it ass-backwards; in reality, scientific theories conform as closely as possible to the universe, which follows its own rules. We do not "assume" that real or fictional universes conform to science; we attempt to make scientific theories conform to our observations of real or fictional universes. That is why my own website is full of attempts to rationalize events in sci-fi against known science, because that is precisely what we would do if these things actually happened in real life.

  2. He criticizes the "assumption" that we "fully understand" how things work. Once again, he is echoing a creationist mentality: they are fond of saying that science does not "fully understand" the universe, therefore it's useless. Once again, they are both wrong; science makes no claims of being perfect or complete, yet it still works and it can still be applied. Incompletion does not necessarily infer uselessness!

  3. He criticizes the "assumption" that what we see on film really happened as shown. Take note here, ladies and gentlemen: he has just classified suspension of disbelief as an unjustified "assumption", despite claiming to champion it!

His rules are becoming clearer. He's allowed to say that a real scientific phenomena occurred in sci-fi and we can't refute him with real science ... even though the phenomenon in question is defined by real science. Bizarre ... simply bizarre.

In other words, there must be some valid warrant for the application of actual scientific principles as an interpretive/analytical tool when trying (in good faith) to represent the capabilities and limitations of a fictional reality in a manner that is accurate and in accordance with the forms and rules of that fictional reality. More simply, arbitrarily applying such a methodology does violence to the integrity of the reality in question and results in a representation that bears no necessary correspondence to the fictional reality. You are no longer comparing that reality to another (unless you are drawing a direct comparison to reality-as-it-is), you are drawing a comparison between a particular interpretation of a reality (and not necessarily a particularly faithful one) and another reality.

Plain English translation: "real science should be presumed guilty until proven innocent, when applied to science fiction".

This is the "burden of proof" fallacy, in which a burden of proof is presumed to apply to the wrong side. In reality, the mere fact that humans, planets, and stars exist in a sci-fi show brings with it a huge host of scientific consequences, specifically the validity of virtually all of chemistry and physics. Think about it: if E is not equal to mc^2, then the relationship between matter and energy is different. Nuclear and chemical reactions all change. Gravity changes. And if all those things change, will the delicate biochemical processes in a human body still work? No! All of science is inter-related (in fact, the evidence is mounting that every physical law in the universe stems from a single basic relationship, ie- the grand unified theory that everyone's searching for). In other words, from the simple fact that humans can survive in a fictional universe, we know that most scientific principles apply! Therefore, the burden of proof falls upon anyone who would claim that a particular scientific principle does not apply.

He states it would be "arbitrary" to apply the scientific method to sci-fi (yet again, stating his preferred conclusion as a premise). This is a classic example of someone throwing stones from a glass house; there is nothing "arbitrary" about applying the scientific method to sci-fi. There is, however, something rather arbitrary about declaring the presence of particular scientific phenomena in sci-fi while simultaneously decrying any use of real science! The scientific method is a ruthless discipline, and it is not easy to follow. Some, like Gothmog, prefer the easier path: science applies when and where he wants it to, but if it says something that he doesn't like, then he suddenly invokes his escape clause: "but science doesn't apply!"

What, then, constitutes a valid warrant for the application of actual scientific principles? There are a number of things which would constitute such a warrant, such as: (1) prior agreement that such a methodology is valid on the part of the participants in the debate/discussion; (2) proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the reality in question operates, without exception, in accordance with real-life scientific principles; (3) no statements regarding the nature of the technology in question have been made to establish the principles it operates under and no other way exists to draw a comparison or make a judgment; or (4) the use of such a methodology to draw a direct comparison between the fictional reality and our reality.

Plain English translation: "we can only apply science if 1) everyone agrees to do so, 2) we can prove that it applies without exception, 3) no authority has explained how it works, or 4) the purpose of the discussion is to compare the fictional universe to our own".

As usual, we can see the fallacy of this argument by simply applying it to real life which, if we are suspending disbelief, is no more "real" than the fictional universes under discussion. Let's examine his criteria carefully, as they apply to real life. 1) Not everyone agrees that science works. 2) Science can not be proven accurate without exception (there are still phenomena which we do not understand). 3) We have verbal explanations of how things really work (various mythologies and theologies). Think about it: real-life science fails his requirements for the applicability of science!

He may not be an actual creationist, but in a way, he's just as bad. He is making it abundantly clear that he doesn't really understand the scientific method and philosophy, so his acceptance of real-life science must be based upon the authority of scientists. This makes it nothing more than a religion with a different set of prophets.

The first and fourth warrants are the ones most easily brought into effect. The second warrant is problematic in many cases, particularly where authoritative statements exist in regard to the nature and function of technologies and those statements are inconsistent with the visual representation of the functioning of said technologies. The third warrant is essentially a "methodology of desperation," where you have essentially no information on the issue in question and are attempting (for whatever reason) to draw a comparison--and are not actually concerned about the possible validity of the comparison.

Plain English translation: "#1 and #4 are OK. #2 is no good if dialogue contradicts science. #3 is a worst-case scenario; if no one has explained to us how it works, then we cannot reliably figure it out from logic and observation alone, so it is an invalid methodology of desperation".

Once again, we can see the fallacy of his argument by simply applying this mentality to real life. If science should be assumed inapplicable if an authoritative person contradicts it, then he has just subscribed to the "appeal to authority" fallacy, thus completely supporting the creationist mentality! And if it is an invalid "methodology of desperation" to use logic and observation in lieu of an authoritative statement, then he has just classified science as an invalid "methodology of desperation", thus betraying the mentality of appeals to authority again! In real life, science has nothing going for it but logic and observation. There are no authorities, no formal statements we can use. If we use his logic, we should all throw science to the winds and start asking divine oracles for advice again!

Also notice his careful use of language. I make no secret of my contempt for people who won't stand up, say what they mean, and mean what they say, and my contempt for this guy is growing. Instead of simply saying that it is invalid, he says it is is OK when you "are not actually concerned about the possible validity of the comparison." Same idea, more words, less clarity.

The implication of the above is that, if there is no valid warrant for the application of real scientific principles, no valid comparison has been made nor has any faithful judgment of the interaction of the two (or more) realities under discussion been accomplished. You may have made some sort of comparison or judgment, but it isn't the one that you believe that you have made. Indeed, the comparison/judgment you wish to make may not be possible. This issue does not actually concern most people because they are, in the end, not particularly concerned about comparisons of faithful representations; they are concerned about "winning" the particular argument in which they are engaged.

Plain English translation: "Unless one of the above conditions has been met, we cannot apply real science (yes, he's repeating himself again). Most people who apply scientific methods are merely trying to win an argument".

This paragraph really doesn't make any point at all. It merely draws dire consequences for disobeying his edicts, and paints negative characterizations of those who would attempt to apply the scientific method despite his bizarre criticisms.

Once again, I must note that Gothmog is an expert at saying bad things about people while making it appear as if he didn't really mean it, as you might expect for someone fluent in legalese. Instead of simply coming out and saying "Mike Wong is full of crap", he's the type of guy who will spout some long-winded blather like "people who would apply real science to fictional universes are not being entirely honest, either to themselves or to the particular textual comparisons with which the discussion is primarily concerned". Frankly, I would prefer the straight-forward clarity and honesty of the former, to the "cover your ass" mentality of the latter.

 In order to forestall problems which arise in regard to this issue, one of two things must be done: (1) the participants must agree to operate under one of the warrants listed above--or another warrant that both parties agree is valid; and/or (2) statements made as a part of the debate must be suitably qualified as to their extent and applicability.

Plain English translation: "everybody should cover their asses with agreements or disclaimers".

Spoken like a true lawyer. I don't know what he does for a living, but if he's not in corporate law, then he missed his true calling.

 In the most simple terms, if you are going to indulge in the exercise, you must fully engage in the exercise and not merely pick and chose which aspects of the representation that you will and will not accept.

Plain English translation: "don't discuss sci-fi unless you follow my rules".

Quite an impressive display of hypocrisy, isn't it? He insists upon reminding us that these fictional universes are not real, that they are subject to the limitations of Hollywood productions, but he wraps the flag of "suspension of disbelief" around himself. He insists that real scientific phenomena can occur in sci-fi, but he denies the applicability of the science which defines those phenomena. And now, he accuses others of "picking and choosing" things rather than fully suspending disbelief, even though he refuses to suspend disbelief, he reserves the right to interpret sci-fi with the limitations of Hollywood production in mind, and he arbitrarily picks and chooses which parts of real science can be applied to sci-fi!

Technobabble

Here's where he attempts to defend the use of technobabble. This should be good ...

"Technobabble" is a term used to categorize particular instances of dialog that occur in science fiction/fantasy. The term originated, so far as I am aware, in reference to Star Trek, but has been applied to other fictional settings as well, though not to so great a degree. It is generally used in a pejorative manner.

Within the context of Star Trek, technobabble is used to explain (that is, it is used to indicate particular actions with regard to the operation of and principles of various technologies) technologies without actually explaining them to a degree or extent that would make the technology understandable to a contemporary viewer. This is either because the amount of information given in a particular instance is insufficient for understanding, has no clear relationship to contemporary understandings of physics/technology, or violates contemporary understandings and terminologies regarding technology and/or physics.

Plain English translation: "technobabble is used to explain sci-fi technologies, but not in enough detail to be useful".

I must admit to some curiosity at this point, because I don't know where he's going. I don't see how he intends to defend technobabble if he acknowledges up front that it is deliberately obfuscated.

As an aside, did you notice that he is reading the writers' intent into the use of technobabble? The act of discussing writers' intent inherently violates suspension of disbelief! Who says it's used to explain technologies? If we're going to discuss writers' intent at all, then why not discuss the possibility that it's simply used to fill dead air time? Why not discuss the possibility that it's simply used to generate a false sheen of scientific credibility for Trekkie fanboys who think they can make up for a C in high school physics by watching Voyager? Why not discuss the fact that the writers are ignoramuses? This is the general problem with his entire approach: he refuses to stake himself down to any unequivocal, universally applicable rules, preferring to leave all avenues open. If science looks good, he reserves the right to use it. If literary analysis looks good, he reserves the right to use it. Suspension of disbelief? Only when and where it's convenient.

There is a general tendency on the part of anti-Star Trek debaters ...

Interesting. He makes reference to a group of "anti-Star Trek debaters" (and we all know he's pointing the finger squarely at me, given his habit of joining any thread on his little forum which denigrates my site). But what does it mean to be "anti-Star Trek"? Are we saying that Star Trek sucks? Current Star Trek sucks, but Star Trek is a multi-faceted thing. I liked Star Trek TOS; does this mean I'm a partially anti-Star Trek debater? Is he classifying my technical arguments as "anti-Star Trek"? If so, he's implying that my desire for accuracy is somehow "anti-Star Trek". There are Trekkies who have E-mailed me to say that despite the whole "vs" thing, they thought my discussions of phasers and other Star Trek issues were among the best they'd seen on the Internet, because I made an honest effort to treat them as real phenomena and analyze them objectively. Does that mean that they're "anti-Star Trek" too? If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists?

An accurate picture of Star Trek does not produce the vast overpowering military machine that some fanatical Trekkies would like to see. An insistence upon that accurate picture does not necessarily make someone "anti-Star Trek". Gene Roddenberry would never have supported these bizarre notions of the Federation being an unstoppable military juggernaut; does this mean he was "anti-Star Trek" too?

to marginalize or ignore technobabble. The general arguments against technobabble are based in: (1) the nature of technobabble as dialog vice an observable event (the priority of the visual over the verbal); and/or (2) the "nonsensical" nature of technobabble.

The first argument gives priority to visual fictional representations over verbal fictional representations and is essentially arbitrary and based on the assumption that a visual fictional representation is somehow necessarily more accurate than a verbal fictional representation. So long as this agreed to by the participants in the debate, it is not problematic. An additional, unstated consideration is whether the visual representation (often a product of VFX) is a faithful representation of the phenomenon or event being portrayed, unmediated by concerns of drama, intelligibility or budget. This consideration is generally ignored, by consensus among the participants.

Plain English translation: "It is an assumption that visual observations are more accurate than verbal descriptions. It is also an assumption that the films or TV shows are accurate."

Yet again, his refusal to engage in suspension of disbelief (despite previously claiming to be its standard bearer) rears its ugly head. If we suspend disbelief, then we are voluntarily refusing to question the events we see onscreen. In other words, they are reality. So how can it be an assumption that they are accurate? If we are suspending disbelief, then what are they supposed to be accurate to, if not themselves?

As for the "arbitrary" classification of visual observations as more accurate than verbal descriptions, that is neither arbitrary or an assumption (notice how he doesn't even attempt to explain why it's "arbitrary"; he simply says that it is and expects you to accept that, once again stating a conclusion as a premise). To put it bluntly, seeing is believing. The fictional universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and others were created as films and/or TV shows. If we are to suspend disbelief, then we must treat those films and/or TV shows as if we are standing there on the bridge with those characters, watching events unfold. We cannot question whether they are "faithful" to some other "fictional reality" which is defined in Gothmog's head, because they are reality! Do we ever question whether the real universe conforms to reality? Of course not, so why, if we are suspending disbelief, would we question whether a fictional universe conforms to its fictional reality?

In real science, verbal evidence is utterly meaningless. Only measurable observations matter, and dialogue is neither measurable or an observation (it's an observation of a person talking about an event, not an observation of the event itself). It's the information source of last resort; not as good as seeing, but better than nothing. Pictures, on the other hand, are measurable observations (indeed, the entire field of astronomy is based upon the study of two-dimensional pictures). Gothmog considers this standard of objectivity to be "arbitrary". Perhaps he had better go explain this to all the world's scientists, so they can all stop using this "arbitrary" standard.

The second argument is based on the "throwaway" nature of the dialog and the fact that the statements are essentially a specialized jargon which is unintelligible (and is largely intended to be so) to the average viewer. Several attitudes and assumptions underlie this argument, the two major ones being: (1) the statements are devoid of meaning and are therefore evidence of nothing; and (2) the exterior perception that technobabble, as a deus ex machina dramatic form (which it is often used as), represents a "cheap out."

Wow, a paragraph written in plain English! I'm overcome with joy. Unfortunately, it still doesn't make much sense. He's still firmly straddling the suspension of disbelief fence, admitting that the writers "intend" technobabble to be "unintelligible", "throwaway" dialogue. He then lists the arguments against its use: 1) it's meaningless, 2) it's often used as a deus ex machina.

In my case, I have always employed the former argument. It's meaningless and unintelligible, therefore it's useless. But even if it were completely meaningful, it would still be subordinate to visual evidence; an important point that he glosses over because he believes that he has already disproven the primacy of visual evidence simply by stating his conviction that it's "arbitrary".

In addressing the validity of technobabble as evidence, it is necessary to look at a number of factors--to ask a number of questions. The first of these questions is, how are we treating the material that we are looking at? This touches upon the nature of dramatic representations of fictional realities as being real. Many of the other questions follow upon the issue addressed by this question.

If we are to treat the material as being a representation of a reality, by what warrant are we enabled to accept some aspects of that portrayal while ignoring or denigrating others? By what standard are we justified in accepting a particular mode of representation as being more authoritative as another (i.e. the visual versus the verbal)? If we follow the fiction that what is presented to us is "real" (the willing suspension of disbelief), can we justify a selective treatment of the evidence thus presented?

Interesting. He thinks that it's a violation of suspension of disbelief to treat visuals differently than dialogue, even though that's precisely what we do in real life. Does this mean that we do not completely accept reality? His argument employs the "complex question" fallacy to claim that by suspending disbelief, we implicitly agree to accept a particular mode of interpretation (his mode, naturally), when nothing could be further from the truth. To suspend disbelief is simply to treat fictional events as if they were real. By extension, we must approach fictional universes as if they were real too, and in real life, we use my method, not his.

In real life, pictures can be used as measurable evidence, and as I mentioned before, astronomy is completely predicated upon this practice. In real life, verbal descriptions of events are considered virtually useless because they are subjective and unreliable. Does this mean that we do not completely accept reality? Does this mean that we are being "selective" in our acceptance of the real world? Of course not. One can fully accept that somebody says something (either in real life or in sci-fi) without necessarily accepting that his words are tantamount to a direct observation of the event he is describing.

The only actual justifications that occur to me are when there are situations where verbal statements made are truly (and verifiably) false or situations where it is clear, by additional evidence, that the statement is in error.

Interesting. By what rules are we to determine whether a verbal statement is "verifiably false"? While my rules are clearly stated, applicable without modification to all circumstances, and both rigorous and disciplined in nature, he seems to be angling for as much flexibility in interpretation as possible, so how can anything be confidently verified under his scheme? He expends a great deal of effort to criticize an existing method of analysis, but he provides no clearly defined alternative. Like the philosophers who attack science for being imperfect, he attacks imperfections in science as applied to sci-fi, without bothering to provide an alternative. Is science perfect? No, not in real life or in sci-fi. But it is the best method, and since we are not omniscient, that will have to do.

In other words, if we accept that we are observers of a particular reality (as made manifest in the dramatic representation we are viewing), then we must necessarily accept that the persons we observe have the qualifications, knowledge and skills necessary to their function in that reality and that any statement that they make (that cannot be verified by other means as being erroneous or false) must then necessarily arise from those qualifications, knowledge and skills. While the statements do not necessarily make sense to we, the viewers, and while they do not necessarily conform to our understandings of science, they are nonetheless valid and true.

Plain English translation: "even if a statement doesn't make sense, it (and any conclusions I draw from it, even though I don't understand it) should be assumed valid and true, as long as a fictional character with good qualifications says it".

Three words: appeal to authority.

A case in point, from real life: if you happened to be an observer aboard a contemporary naval vessel, in the engineroom, and an officer or rating working in the engineroom made a statement in regard to the functioning of the engineering plant, would you be justified in ignoring the statement of the speaker--even if you did not understand it?

He asks a rhetorical question, not realizing that the answer is Yes! If you don't understand what someone is saying, then it has no conceivable use to you! The person might as well be speaking in tongues for all the good it would do you. Any attempt to divine its true meaning (or worse yet, its potential application to other situations) without real comprehension would have no more reliability than a damned tarot card reading. In fact, it would be worse, because you would probably try to attach the authority of the speaker to your conclusions, thus giving it a false air of reliability.

In fact, anyone with real technical qualifications will agree that one of the worst things a layperson can do is try to guess what a technical term means without the appropriate education or worse yet, try to apply scientific principles without understanding them first. Yet this is precisely what Gothmog is suggesting! He is saying that even if we don't understand what someone is saying, we can use it in order to form an accurate picture of reality! Quite frankly, I am astounded at his audacity. Yet again, he has just supported a common creationist practice.

The Illusion of Certainty

Simply from the title of this section, we can see where he's probably headed: "science lacks certainty in sci-fi, so it's useless there". Of course, science lacks certainty in real life too, so does that mean it's useless here as well? Remember: science makes no claims of certainty, only a high degree of accuracy. Religion fundamentalistm, on the other hand, does make claims of certainty, based on authority. Yet again, he subscribes to the creationist mentality.

One of the major problems in engaging in an activity such as versus debating is the illusion that certainty in regard to results of comparisons or of capabilities can be attained--or that we can know, outside of direct statement by competent authorities the particular and certain limitations of various technologies and/or abilities. In other words, that it is possible, in most situations, to "win" a debate by any valid and rigorous criteria other than our opponent giving up out of frustration or loss of interest.

Plain English translation: "in versus debating, we don't really know anything without statements from authorities, so there are no valid criteria for debate, and the only way to win is to outlast your opponent"

Again, three words: appeal to authority.

The scientific method is not certain. It is not absolute. It is not perfect. But it is the best way to derive an accurate picture of reality, and it's certainly a hell of a lot better than uncomprehending appeals to authority! In another universe, even with completely different laws of physics, the scientific method would still work, even if particular theories such as E=mc^2 do not. As long as the universe obeys any kinds of laws at all (regardless of what those laws happen to be), the scientific method does apply.

Gothmog wishes to make it seem as if it does not, but he provides no reasoning for this bizarre claim apart from the fact that it is not perfect, not certain, not complete. At the risk of being overly repetitive, if we were to apply his reasoning to real life, we would be creationists.

A participant will often provide a number of quotes from a written text or a still capture from video or other forms of evidence, followed by an assertion that the evidence presented proves something. In a certain sense this is correct, if the term "prove" is not used rigorously or if the proof occurs in a specific, limited context. In a larger sense, it is incorrect, as the vast majority of evidence is of such a nature as to preclude rigorous proof, even before you try and cross fictional reality boundaries and start comparing disparate technologies and capabilities. One case in point is the famous asteroid vaporization scene in The Empire Strikes Back. This scene is often touted as unqualified proof of a particular level of firepower on the part of a particular weapon type mounted on an Imperial Star Destroyer(ISD). This proof is then extended by various means to additionally "prove" other things. I use this particular argument as an example because it should be familiar to most readers.

Plain English translation: "I'm a Trekkie and although this discussion is ostensibly about pure principle, I can't help but take a shot at the TESB asteroid vapourization calculations".

Notice how he insists that all TESB asteroid calcs are "unqualified". In reality, various assumptions implicit in the TESB calcs are almost always explicitly listed. Their status as lower limits is contingent upon acceptance of the assumptions involved, and it is up to the reader to decide whether those assumptions are reasonable. However, since he's already guilty of the unsolved mystery fallacy, the appeal to authority, the burden of proof fallacy, hopeless distortions of the basis of science, the "begging the question" fallacy, and the "complex question" fallacy, why not go ahead and commit the strawman fallacy too?

Without getting bogged down in the specific details (which have been presented multiple times in other forums), the basic argument goes as follows:

(1) We observe (via the medium of film or video) an ISD moving through an asteroid field. The ship fires a number of shots from its weapons, destroying a number of the asteroids.

(2) Various calculations are performed in order to estimate the energy represented by each shot (the energy required to vaporize the asteroid), using various estimated material compositions for the asteroids and entailing basic assumptions about the nature of the weaponry involved.

(3) The resulting number is said to represent the minimum energy required--and, hence, the lower limit output of the weapon.

The above process has several problems, which may or may not be apparent. The first problem is in the nature of the observation--an observation of an event which has not actually occurred, except as simulated or modeled via special effects techniques. This issue is usually dealt with by mutual agreement on the part of participants that the event is "real" rather than visual effects.

Plain English translation: "we can't take the TESB asteroid scene at face value because it's just special effects."

This comes from someone who tried to wrap himself in the flag of suspension of disbelief? He insists on reserving the option to invoke his knowledge of Hollywood production methods whenever something happens onscreen that he doesn't like. In other words, he's saying "I reject the evidence of my eyes, because I have knowledge which transcends this fictional world". Does that sound like suspension of disbelief to you?

The second problem is that there is insufficient information regarding the nature and size of the target to accurately calculate the energy required. Material composition is estimated on the basis of various considerations and this estimated material composition is used. Size has been estimated by a variety of methods and comparisons, resulting in a wide variety of sizes, depending upon who you wish to believe. While the use of materials can be rationalized and agreed to by participants in the debate (removing this consideration for the purposes of debate), the issue of scaling a three dimensional object from a two dimensional representation is problematic, particularly since variations in scaling appear to exist in many VFX shots.

Plain English translation: "there are assumptions about the size and composition of the asteroids. Materials are OK, but size is unresolvable because 2D pictures are bad information sources."

Yet again, he defines the conclusion as a premise. The larger intent of his document is to show that it's wrong to rely upon visual evidence, but he states the unreliability of visual evidence as a premise, thus making his logic wholly circular. In reality, 2D pictures are hardly as useless as he claims; as mentioned previously, the entire field of astronomy is based upon them.

As for the "variations in scaling" to which he vaguely refers, I don't recall a particular incident in which one particular asteroid was seen to have two different sizes in two different shots. It seems likely that he merely refers to the fact that sizes change due to perspective correction as objects move in and out of the screen, or the fact that not all the Hoth asteroids were the same size. Neither is an issue, since the former can be corrected for and the latter is a red herring.

A third problem is the question of whether or not the targets in question are actually vaporized. Two factors come into consideration here: the principles under which the weapon in question operates (which are, to my knowledge, never clearly laid out in an authoritative source); and whether or not the resulting actual condition of the target is that of vapor.

Plain English translation: "we don't know that the asteroids were vapourized because we don't know how turbolasers work, and we don't see any vapour afterwards".

Yet again, the burden of proof fallacy rears its ugly head (and yet again, he attacks a longstanding Star Wars versus Star Trek issue while pretending to be talking about larger philosophical issues). He obviously doesn't realize that since the straightforward energy transfer explanation involves the least unnecessary complexity (see Occam's Razor), it is the best explanation. If he is about to claim that turbolasers use some kind of target chain reaction the way phasers do, then he needs to provide evidence (as I did in the case of phasers), rather than committing the "burden of proof" fallacy and expecting others to disprove his unsupported assertion. If he is about to claim that there was no vapour produced, then he needs to provide evidence (as I did with the example of phasers, by giving examples of phaser operation in atmosphere and in close proximity to humans, where the vapour would have manifested itself in numerous ways), rather than expecting someone to disprove his unsupported assertion.

Given the above considerations (and the fact that no agreement exists, nor is likely to, in regards to this question), it is easy to see why asserting that unqualified proof of a particular capability has been provided is not exactly correct. The best that can actually be said is that, given certain assumptions (and listing the assumptions), that the output of the weapon might be a certain value, which represents an estimation. This particular argument is not unique, a large number of issues in various settings and between various fictional realities rely upon similar arguments. The various positions become locked in stone, with no actual resolution possible other than through browbeating the opposing party into submission by various means--few of which actually rely upon actual proof or argumentation.

Plain English translation: "Every sci-fi conclusion should be surrounded by a mountain of disclaimers, and no one should claim any real validity because it's all a crapshoot."

This is basically a tautology: "nothing is certain, therefore nothing should be stated with certainty". However, as any scientist would point out, it is possible to acquire knowledge and reach useful conclusions without certainty. Yes, assumptions should be clearly stated. Yes, nothing is certain. However, it does not follow that we cannot use logic and observation to reach meaningful conclusions.

Conclusion

This should be good.

I have, by no means fully addressed the issues that revolve around the problem of cross-contextual versus debating in this brief discussion. To do so would likely be extremely boring and result in a fairly long and somewhat difficult (for those who do not have a background or experience in literary criticism, rhetoric and argumentation) to follow. My purpose here has been to point out what appear to be, to me, some major misconceptions and problems involved in cross-contextual versus debate.

Plain English translation: "blah blah blah, I'm so smart, blah blah blah"

Addressing the problems I note is simple in theory, but unlikely to be particularly effective in practice. It is simple, because all that is actually required is agreement among the parties involved in regard to how the particular difficulties will be addressed (i.e. what constitutes warrants for disregarding sources of evidence or particular points of evidence). It is unlikely to be effective because what is actually required is agreement among the parties involved in regard to how the particular difficulties difficulties will be addressed--and anyone who has engaged in this type of debate knows precisely how difficult this can be.

Plain English translation: "I can make any versus debate into a hopeless stalemate by simply refusing to fully suspend disbelief."

The primary root of the difficulties is that the debate is usually not carried on for objective reasons. Few people are actually interested in taking the time and effort required to objectively analyze and interpret the fictional representations of realities involved, within the strict confines of the fictional construct that is represented. What most people are interested in is "scoring points" for the particular side they favor, en route to satisfying their ego by "triumphing" over the obviously clueless and less-than-intelligent people who would dare to disagree that their side would not triumph devastatingly over the opposition. Doing it correctly takes work and a certain level of disassociation from the issue--and the majority of people aren't willing to do the work (because it is supposed to be entertainment, after all) and/or are not capable of the required degree of emotional disassociation. No one, regardless of their native intelligence, education, or skills is immune to these problems.

Plain English translation: "Everybody but me is doing it wrong."

Has this guy ever asked himself what a "versus" debate is? We are attempting to determine what would happen in a hypothetical matchup. If we want to do it in a light-hearted, subjective manner in which storytelling convention and behind-the-scenes facts are introduced into the equation, then we can go visit WWWF Grudge Match. But if we want to do it in an objective manner, we must create a physical model of these fictional universes. There are many methods of generating a model of a fictional universe, but in order to be useful in this situation, the model must have predictive capabilities. And what is a physical model with predictive capabilities? It is a science! We are trying to determine the science of fictional universes, so it is a foregone conclusion that we need to use the scientific method!

If the intent of the serious "versus" debaters was to discuss the literary conventions that might govern a sci-fi universe, or what would happen next according to storytelling convention rather than the physical laws of that universe, then by all means, let's use Gothmog's literary method. But that is not what serious "versus" debates or sci-fi analyses are about. The latter is about determining the science of imaginary universes, and the former is about applying that science to generate predictions (hence the latter is a prerequisite for the former). The notion of using literary methods rather than scientific methods in order to generate a scientific model, even in a fictional universe, is patently absurd.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I have no idea why anyone takes this guy seriously. It's obvious that his background is in literature or politics rather than anything remotely scientific, hence his incredible ignorance of the basic scientific method. Yet he refuses to recognize his limitations, insisting upon leaping into a debate that revolves around matters of science in an attempt to convert it into a literary discussion. His notion of "objectivity" bears no resemblance whatsoever to the correct use of the term (he thinks it is not objective to use the methods of science, for example), and quite frankly, he can't even keep from tripping up over his own claims, contradicting himself repeatedly and transparently straddling the fence on the whole idea of "suspension of disbelief".

When I heard that there was this "Gothmog" character being touted at spacebattles.com as some kind of Great White Hope, I was curious. To be honest, I see now that I shouldn't have been.


One parting note: his entire argument is a huge false dilemma. It's an attempt to justify his belief that Federation ships do battle at huge long ranges of hundreds of thousands of kilometres, despite all those DS9 battles at short range. He wants to make it seem as if dialogue and visuals cannot possibly be made to live together, but that's not true. The prevailing method on the newsgroups is to find a way to rationalize both dialogue and visuals simultaneously, denigrating the intelligence of an onscreen character only as a last resort. The conflict is nowhere near as intractable as Gothmog would make it seem, and in fact, I can't think of a single incident where ships fought at close range on screen and someone called out a long range verbally. There were incidents where someone called out a long range verbally and we didn't see anything onscreen, but these scenes always had something in common: a lone target, moving in a straight line. It has long been my contention that they have better long-range accuracy in such situations for many obvious reasons: no ECM, predictable target velocity, no need to maneuver their own vessel, no confusion of fleet action, etc.

When you read the article which replaced this one, you will see a complete 180 degree turnaround. Instead of justifying everything with suspension of disbelief, he will suddenly deride suspension of disbelief as an arbitrary and unnecessary choice. Instead of trumpeting the importance of objectivity, he will suddenly state that objectivity is impossible, and that the best method is the one that is most proudly subjective (I'm serious; go look at his second article if you think I'm making this up).


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