Robert Mercer

Replacement article

Since our debate, Gothmog ripped down the embarrassing article which contradicted all his viewpoints (luckily, I saved it for your viewing pleasure), and he put up a new article about how he thinks everyone should analyze sci-fi. It's interesting that he would try to "dispose of the evidence" rather than owning up to it and explaining why he pulled a 180, but it's becoming more and more clear that honesty and forthrightness are simply not part of his vocabulary.

SF Analysis Methodology

There are a number of ways that SF analysis might be approached. The methodology I outline here relies primarily upon the rhetorical/literary analysis of the texts, supplemented by analysis of evidence from the texts based upon known physical laws and properties. The objective of the method is to provide a coherent description or model of the fictitious realty represented by the text that accounts for the essentially literary/dramatic nature of that text.

I am attempting to provide a general description of the method, that can be applied to a variety of textual forms with minor adjustment. This description is not necessarily exhaustive or complete.

Plain English translation: "I analyze sci-fi using literary methods rather than scientific methods, but then I sprinkle in bits of science wherever it's convenient in order to create a hodge-podge of the two methods. In this document, I'll try to justify that astounding hypocrisy."

There's a fundamental problem here: if Star Trek is literature and not a physical reality for which we suspend disbelief, then what business does he have applying any scientific principles whatsoever to it? Conversely, if he believes he has a warrant for applying "known physical laws and properties" to science fiction, then how can he arbitrarily limit that, ie- decide that certain scientific principles apply, but others do not? His hypocrisy here is astounding; he refuses to pin himself down to a method. Depending on what suits his fancy, he might use either literary or scientific methods, and no one can object!

Why a rhetorical/literary approach?

I have chosen this particular approach for the simple reason that what we are attempting to analyze (texts representing fictional universes) are literary objects, created for the specific purpose of entertainment. What is represented is not real, nor is it likely to become real--I find it rather doubtful that the specific technologies, cultures or occurrences we see portrayed in texts such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, etc. will be created or come into being, particularly with the specific qualities and forms we see portrayed. The purpose of the texts is to tell stories to entertain, not to predict the future (or accurately represent the past or the actual functioning of the physical universe).

Plain English translation: "I refuse to suspend disbelief because Star Wars and Star Trek aren't real. It is impossible to make predictions or figure out how these universes work from the canon sources, because they were not meant to 'accurately represent' their 'actual functioning', thus giving me the flexibility to contradict canon whenever I please."

You can see he's not really trying to describe a method at all. Rather, he is trying to justify an absence of hard method. By stipulating that the canon films are not intended to help us figure out how these universes work, he is essentially saying that it is impossible to figure out how they work. This is not a prescription for a method; it is an attempt to render the entire debate null and void.

Now, I could actually accept that, if Gothmog did not participate in "versus" debates. However, that is not the case. Yet again, he hypocritically attacks a pursuit in which he enthusiastically engages. The "versus" debates are like a game: one which can only be played under certain rules. To ask what would "realistically" happen assumes that there is some "reality" for it to be realistic to! One can deride this as arbitrary if one wishes, but nevertheless, the act of participating in the debate represents tacit acceptance of this condition!

Some will argue that it is necessary to suspend disbelief and enter into the illusion that the representations we apprehend are real in order to effectively describe the fictitious reality. This is a valid approach (indeed, any rational approach is likely to be valid simply because the decision of how to analyze such material is an arbitrary one, dictated by the desires and bias of the persons doing the analysis). Following that method will result in the construction of a coherent model, if the method is followed correctly. However, the model that you arrive at is a description of a reality that operates according to and within particular dramatic and formistic constraints, often unrelated to the constraints or considerations of physics or realistic human behavior. In other words, you are applying a purportedly objective methodology to something that is entirely subjective in nature and that is formed and constrained in very specific ways. This leaves the question of whether or not the model arrived at through this methodology accurately represents the capabilities and phenominological aspects of the fictitious reality open.

Plain English translation: "Star Wars and Star Trek obey storytelling/filmmaking conventions, therefore they are subjective (even though that's not the definition of "subjective"), and it is impossible to generate a scientific model for them. Blah blah blah, lots of unnecessary words."

According to the dictionary, the relevant definition of "subjective" is:

1a. Proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision.
1b. Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.
2. Existing only in the mind; illusory.

Gothmog's own mental picture of Star Trek may be subjective, but Star Trek is a TV show. And like it or not, the TV shows are not subjective! An objective quantity is simply something that exists outside of your mind, which is not particular to a given person, etc. Sorry Gothmog, but a piece of film qualifies. Twenty people can see it and agree on what they saw and what they heard (assuming no dishonesty, of course). It exists outside of any person's mind. It is not particular to any given subject. He is confusing the TV shows and movies with his own personal picture of Star Trek. He made this same point during our debate, I made the same rebuttal, and he clearly ignored it.

More specifically, you are attempting to analyze a subjective object (an object which exists only as a representation and a rhetorical construct) whose qualities and characteristics are not directly accessible for measurement or analysis. The material composition of objects and the qualities of those materials are often not known. The size of objects is often not known and the sizes tend to vary through the course of the representation due to artistic or technical concerns/problems. Technical, dramatic or budgetary considerations determine what can and what cannot be shown. The qualities and capabilities, themselves, often vary with the requirements of the plot (rendering repeatability and consistency of effect somewhat problematic). Because the subject of the analysis is constantly in "motion" (so to speak), the accuracy and meaningfulness of quantitative conclusions drawn from particular examples is severely limited. As the size of the text available for analysis (and the variety of forms that it exists in and the number of different creators who participate in its creation) increases, these problems increase.

Plain English translation: "You can't directly measure things in Star Wars and Star Trek. We can see apparent inconsistencies in lots of areas such as size, budget, FX technology, etc. We're constantly learning more with each new film, so the target is "in motion" and can't be pinned down. And the more data we have, the more of these problems we're liable to have. The fact that all of these criticisms are ill-conceived and could also be applied to certain branches of real science doesn't bother me at all, because I have the scientific knowledge of a turnip."

He's doing the same thing he did during our debate: attacking the use of scientific methods in sci-fi for reasons which would disqualify the scientific method in real life as well! The precise list of reasons is different, but the error is the same. Try to keep the example of astronomy in mind, and we will continue:

  1. Lack of direct measurement: the same criticism has been levelled at astronomy, most notably by creationists (surprise, surprise). Astronomers have used nothing but two-dimensional pictures to determine the size, range, and even certain aspects of material composition for distant planets and stars. By Gothmog's logic, since they can't make direct measurements, they should stop now.

  2. Apparent errors: measurement errors occur in real life all the time. They're called "outliers", and we identify them using numerous criteria. Unless they are so numerous that the entire body of data is arguably irrational and unpredictable (thus rendering "versus" debate impossible), we can identify outliers by their rarity, their sheer distance from the rest of the data, and their non-repeatability. By Gothmog's logic, since there are hundreds of known bad radiometric date measurements, radiometric dating is no good (actually, that's another common creationist argument).

  3. Target in motion: yes, we are always learning new things with each new film. And no, there is no guarantee whatsoever that a new film won't contradict conclusions drawn from previous films. So what? In real life, we are learning new things all the time. There is no guarantee that a new observation won't contradict conclusions drawn from the current body of observations. Does this mean we should discard science in real life?

  4. More data = more problems: this is a leap in logic. At no point does he bother explaining why it's bad to have more data. Is he assuming that it will become so badly divergent that it will impossible to rationalize? Is he assuming that there will be more unsolvable errors, not realizing that a certain ratio of errors is an unfortunate reality in any human enterprise including real science, and it does not necessarily invalidate it?

Also note that he is still using the term "text", even to describe a film. He will argue that "text" is the proper term, but only by squeezing through the narrowest of loopholes. "text" is defined as:

1a. The original words of something written or printed, as opposed to a paraphrase, translation, revision, or condensation.
1b. The words of a speech appearing in print.
1c. Words, as of a libretto, that are set to music in a composition.
1d. Words treated as data by a computer.
2. The body of a printed work as distinct from headings and illustrative matter on a page or from front and back matter in a book.
3. One of the editions or forms of a written work: After examining all three manuscripts, he published a new text of the poem.
4. Something, such as a literary work or other cultural product, regarded as an object of critical analysis.
5. A passage from the Scriptures or another authoritative source chosen for the subject of a discourse or cited for support in argument.
6. A passage from a written work used as the starting point of a discussion.
7. A subject; a topic.
8. A textbook.

Of these, virtually all specifically refer to printed words. Only definition #4 can be interpreted to include film, and I reiterate that this is a pretty narrow loophole. He uses "text" not because it's the best term (certainly not to describe a TV show!), but because the word "text" suggests books and explicitly defines itself in terms of words, so its continuous repetition subtly suggests to the reader that we should be thinking about words, not pictures. This is why he insisted on using the term "text" and "textual" despite agreeing to use other terms during our debate (among other conditions that he ignored).

These problems can, of course, be ignored by common consent--which is the usual case. This is done because it creates the illusion of objectivity (though it is strange how the objective conclusions arrived at are often the focus of furious contention regarding some of the issues I raise above and that consensus is rarely reached in actuality--indicating that the agreement is rather shallow) and is somewhat simpler in that less evidence has to actually be looked at and less analysis has to be done. In other words, its simpler, overall, and it presents an appearance of objectivity, so its a popular method.

Plain English translation: "This is my way of subtly accusing others of dishonestly faking their objectivity, since I don't have the balls to face them directly, name names, or come right out and say what I mean."

Really, I would have more respect for Gothmog if he simply came out and attacked me personally, because that's what he's basically doing. He's just doing it in an oily, cover-your-ass, cloying, indirect sort of way.

The rhetorical/literary approach attempts to actually deal with these problems rather than simply ignore them--sweeping them under the rug in the belief either that these concerns have or should have no impact upon what is represented and the results of the analysis of that representation. The method recognizes the inherently subjective nature of the focus of the analysis and that the justification for the use of any method is simply agreement between the parties involved to use a particular method and to be bound by the results.

Plain English translation: "My method is superior because I openly admit that it's arbitrary and subjective."

Yet again, he repeats his insistence that all methods are arbitrary and subjective, but that is simply not true. The objective method recognizes the object (in this case, the TV show or film), as the ultimate arbiter of "reality". The subjective method, on the other hand, recognizes a subjective concept (Gothmog's internalized mental picture of Star Trek, based on his impressions of the episodes) as "reality", and measures the object (the TV show or film) against that subjective entity.

Clearly, one method is more objective than the other. Is it perfect? No. But it does respect the object. That's why the "suspension of disbelief" method is indeed more objective, and presuming one agrees that objectivity is better than subjectivity, that is also why it is superior. Of course, if one denies that an objective method is superior, then there is so little common ground that one cannot have a discussion at all.

The objectives of the rhetorical/literary approach are: to create a consensus regarding the influence of rhetorical/literary constraints on the texts; to identify instances of those influences on the basis of the available evidence; to determine, through discussion and analysis what the actual capabilities/qualities involved might be; and to assemble the results of the analysis into a coherent and consistent model that is properly warranted and qualified.

What follows is a brief description and outline of the proposed methodology. It is not my intention to discuss the method in detail, due to the fact that the actual details of the method will, in instances, be the result of consensus among those participating.

Plain English translation: "I just love to hear myself talk."

I wish he wouldn't waste time with these kinds of vacuous, meandering statements. He really says nothing whatsoever in the above passage. He could have simply said: "My method accomplishes the task of generating a model of a fictional universe. I will now describe it".

The Method

Step 1

The first step is to survey the available representations. The objective of this step is to identify the types of representations that comprise the text and the relations of authority (if any) that exist among the representations.

The types of representations indicate the rhetorical/literary forms and constraints that may exist. A printed text will possess different qualities and follow different dramatic and rhetorical forms and limitations than a film or TV episode. One reason for this is the effectively unlimited budget that a printed text has for special effects, versus the budgetary and technological constraints of a film or TV episode.

Relations of authority (and the nature of that authority) will determine evidentiary considerations. Some evidence will have more authority than other evidence. If no clear structure of authority exists, the all evidence is effectively equal and preference for one type of evidence over another must be warranted, if such is done.

Plain English translation: "List all sources. Remember that different types of sources should be treated differently. Blah blah blah, trying to make myself sound important."

He still insists that a rational method can be based on authority. Authority is, in and of itself, an irrational method. Scientists try to simultaneously rationalize all accurate observations, rather than deciding which ones have more "authority" and discarding those beneath it. This is no small distinction, and it cuts to the heart of our disagreement; while I try to generate a model which can simultaneously explain everything (dialogue and visuals), he tries to decide whether dialogue or visuals have more "authority", and then ignore the one that loses.

That is a seriously flawed method for the simple reason that it violates canon. By deciding that certain parts of canon have more "authority" than other parts, he claims that we can safely ignore parts of canon. And not just the occasional scene, or the occasinal word, but great swathes of it: visuals everywhere throughout the movies and TV shows. Is that really better than trying to rationalize dialogue to make it agree with visuals, even if we must impugn the intelligence of an onscreen character to do so?

Step 2

After surveying the available representations, it is necessary to identify the particular constraints imposed upon the representations. This becomes easier, in a sense, if the representations exist in multiple forms. This allows comparisons to be drawn across the forms--the discrepancies between the representations will tend to highlight the constraints (or lack thereof) that apply to each particular form. Prominent examples are range and vessel speed discrepancies that often exist between printed and film/video representations.

Plain English translation: "Generate an excuse for ignoring very low onscreen speeds and ranges for Federation ships."

Even though he has never proved to anyone's satisfaction that the TM's are canon, and even though Ron Moore himself explicitly denied that they were canon, he is obviously attempting to use his "TM's are canon" assumption to pit text against TV show, with text winning. This is one of the reasons he quit our debate; I wasn't letting him just walk through his little pre-planned menu. When he claimed that the TM was canon, I contested it. When he claimed that science was inapplicable if certain conditions couldn't be met, I contested it. He seemed to think he could merely set these premises and then move from premise to conclusion, but the premises themselves are massively flawed, therefore his conclusions are flawed.

Experience indicates, by and large, that severe discrepancies often exist between video and printed representations. This often leads to problems of consistency when attempting to construct a coherent model of the fictitious universe that exists in both printed and video forms. A intra-textual comparison between most fictitious universes that exists in both forms generally reveals that the printed version is in most respects far superior to the video version. One prominent example is that of Starship Troopers... a comparison between the book MI and film MI leaves the movie MI severely lacking. In this particular example, however, the book version clearly has a far greater level of authority in representation than the movie--leaving us with, in essence, two separate versions or two separate fictitious realities, each of which must be considered separately. This may be true (and may actually be the simplest solution) in a variety of cases. Such decisions would obviously be a result of consensus.

Plain English translation: "Sometimes, film and book versions can be so different that they should be treated as different universes"

Finally, something I can agree with, particularly in the case of Starship Troopers he mentions. I don't see what this has to do with Trek, though, since the only canon Star Trek is the TV shows and movies. There is no competition between representations.

Step 3

Having identified the particular constraints imposed as a result of form and of the nature of the representations, it is then necessary to rationalize the possible capabilities and limitations of the fictitious universe in order to create a coherent and consistent description. The possession or lack of capabilities must be warranted according to criteria agreed upon. They should also be reasonable in the light of comparison with actual present and past capabilities. The assumption here is that, in a SF setting, one would expect capabilities to at least equal contemporary capabilities, unless there are explicit indicators of why they would not. This is not true in all cases (i.e. post-apocalyptic settings such as Mad Max, for example), but these cases are self-evident.

Plain English translation: "Blah blah blah, assume that every futuristic capability is superior to every present-day capability"

Yet again, he tries to state arguments as premises so that he doesn't have to justify them. In real life, modern machine guns have less range and firepower than their WW1-era predecessors. That seems to neatly disprove his assumption that any futuristic technology must always defeat all older technologies in every conceivable respect.

Capabilities, limitations and other information (i.e. the nature of the particular cultures, sociopolitical information) can be determined in detail with appropriate methods. It is often desired to derive quantitative descriptions of technological capabilities (things such as ship speeds, weapon outputs and ranges, defensive strengths, etc.). In cases where no direct evidence exists (no clearly stated quantitative data exists) it is possible and appropriate to derive these quantities via calculation based upon application of current physical knowledge--should sufficient evidence exist to provide the necessary data. Such quantification should be carefully qualified as to the source (assumptions involved), the potential variance in range (in other words, an estimate based on reasonable hi and low end data) and potential application.

Plain English translation: "When we want hard numbers, we ignore visuals and use the TM or dialogue. If we can't find an answer, we use real science."

When I watch the show, I try to find a way to rationalize the fact that I saw what I saw, and heard what I heard. Even if that rationalization is difficult for some Trekkies to swallow, I fail to see how it can possibly be less acceptable than "I'm going to ignore the creators' instructins and unilaterally declare that the visual part of this TV show is not canon".

Also note how he intends to apply real science in order to fill gaps. How can he apply real science if he refuses to suspend disbelief? How can he say that the scientific method does not apply to sci-fi and then turn around, with a perfectly straight face, and declare that particular scientific principles do apply? Is he even trying to watch himself for self-contradictions?

The final objective of this step is to construct, so far as is possible, a coherent and consistent description of the universe. This description should be free, as so far as possible, of the constraints imposed by form and the nature of the representation. The goal is to provide a realistic description based upon the available evidence.

Plain English translation: "Generate a model based on this arbitrary mixture of literary analysis and real science. Based on the careful elimination of all pollution from visual sources, generate a literary model of the fictional universe (as opposed to a physical, ie- scientific model), which you can then use in the versus debates as if it were a physical model. Make it realistic, even though I deny suspension of disbelief, therefore I deny the existence of a reality for it to be realistic to."

First he says that the canon sources were never meant to be used in the generation of a model. Then, he generates a hypocritical combination of literary methods and applied real-life scientific principles, just after insisting that scientific method is completely inapplicable. And what does he use it for? To generate a model! How many times can one man contradict himself in one article?

Concluding Observations

This method represents a departure and a change in perspective from the current commonly accepted way of doing things. The choice of methodology is the prerogative of those involved in the analysis/discussion. Some might feel that the usual way is best suited to what they want to do, while others might find this approach results in a more realistic (that is, a reasonable, rational and coherent treatment of the subject, taking into account the nature and limitations of the representations) description. Neither way is, in the end better, except as it is better in reaching the particular ends desired by the participants.

Plain English translation: "No method is inherently superior. Each type of method has a different goal. I produce a literary model, while the suspension of disbelief/scientific method crowd produces a physical, scientific model, and each method is appropriate for its goals"

I agree. Does this mean he will stop using his literary model as if it were a scientific model? This is his hypocrisy in a nutshell; he wants to generate physical predictions, but he doesn't want to use the methods appropriate for making a physical model. He wants to use literary methods, but he doesn't want to limit himself to literary predictions. He seems to think you can have your cake and eat it too.

In the end, any description of a fictitious reality is severely constrained due to lack of evidence. If we cannot see or are not told about specific things in the representations, we cannot, with justification, say much about them. Given the nature of the representations, the owner/creator can render moot any model derived from existing representations by simply declaring they are incorrect or by creating a new representation that supersedes previous representations.

Plain English translation: "We can't make statements about things we don't see directly in the canon films. Besides, the owner/creator might make new versions and supersede the old ones"

He made this point earlier, and I already dealt with it. He's merely repeating himself.

The ultimate goal of this exercise is (or should be) entertainment. There is little reason to take the descriptions or anything that arises from them too seriously, given the plastic nature of the representations and the inherent constraints on what exactly may be described with any degree of accuracy or permanency without severe qualification.

Plain English translation: "This should be fun. People shouldn't take it seriously."

Then why does he write these articles as if they're legal briefs? How much fun is that? Whether you agree with them or not, most of my E-mailers tell me that my site is a blast, especially the Hate Mail pages. I have those Hate Mail pages up there precisely because they're not mature; they're not particularly serious; I'm making fun of people, and enjoying myself in the process. If my E-mail is any indication, those who don't find themselves on the receiving end usually seem to find it amusing. But is anyone entertained by Gothmog's painful legalese and pseudo-academic demeanour?

I intend to edit and expand upon this as time passes and further input is received. I welcome responsible questions, commentary and critique on the material contained within this brief essay. Said questions/comments critiques can be posted at the appropriate thread at Spacebattles.com, which is where you probably reached this webpage from.

Plain English translation: "I reserve the right to alter this document as Mike Wong rips it to pieces. If he's going to criticize, he should come to spacebattles.com to do it."

Why? Not man enough to face me alone? I guess we found that out during the debate.


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