Dishonest Sci-fi Debating Tactics

Written: 1999.07.27
Last revised: 2000.07.10

"All of your calculations are a waste of time because Star Wars doesn't conform to the laws of physics. Face it- forget all of your calculations and accept that the Death Star uses nuclear primitive fusion, so it is therefore inferior to Star Trek ships which use matter/antimatter."

This is an example of someone changing the rules in the middle of the game, with a conveniently timed reshuffling of the evidence. This tactic takes advantage of the fact that we are talking about sci-fi worlds, rather than the real world. Any time one starts talking about fictional universes, one has to concoct rules for determining how to determine what is real or unreal in those universes. However, if we want to lay claim to intellectual honesty, we must use the same method all the time. We can't throw real science out the window one minute, and then suddenly bring it back a minute later.
In this example, our opponent wants to throw all pro-SW calculations out the window because real science is inapplicable to SW and ST, but his temporary case of science amnesia seems to miraculously disappear moments later, when he suddenly remembers the scientific differences between nuclear fusion and matter/antimatter reactions. Wait a minute- what's he basing his comparison on? We just threw real science out the window, remember? How convenient that it comes back when needed!
As an aside, I could delve into the whole contentious question of whether the Death Star actually uses nuclear fusion, but that's not the point I'm trying to make here. The point I'm trying to make is that it is impossible to completely throw science out the window- without science, how do we know that you can't make artificial gravity by rubbing two watermelons together, and how do you know that a star can't be 500 kilometres from the surface of an inhabited planet? People who claim that they aren't applying science are always lying. Out of all the people who have E-mailed me complaining that I shouldn't use science, I have never once encountered someone who wasn't applying science himself (but only when convenient to his cause).
Remember: the instant that someone performs calculations relating to joules and watts, he is applying science. If he claims not to be applying science, then he is simply trying to deceive you in order to cover up his hypocrisy.

"How can you claim to be using real science, when you accept ridiculous things like Death Stars and hyperdrives? The Death Star's power generation is impossible, and hyperdrive is impossibly fast. If you want to use real science, you should apply it all the time, not just some of the time."

This is another example of someone changing the rules in the middle of the game, but this time, from the opposite direction. In the previous example, our opponent insisted that there was no reason to use science at all, but then quietly snuck it back in when convenient. In this argument, our opponent insists the exact opposite: science should be placed above everything else, even canon events and objects like the Death Star. However, for the argument to take place at all, he will be forced to violate science at some point.
If he is a Trekkie, then he will somehow find a way to pretend that warp drive and subspace fields and transporters can all coexist with real science, while Death Stars and hyperdrives cannot. I have said this before, and I will say it again: there is no difference in the level of scientific realism between Star Wars and Star Trek. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to hypocritically use real science to declare certain canon objects and events invalid while quietly allowing other canon objects and events to override science when convenient.
Real science cannot be placed above all else or behind all else, otherwise it is impossible to have any sort of debate on what constitutes "reality" in a fictional science fiction universe. If science is above all else (ie- applied "all the time"), then nothing is possible- no warp drives, Death Stars, hyperdrives, light sabres, phasers, transporters, high-sublight drives, shields, Jedi Knights, Q, subspace sensors, etc. If science is behind all else, then anything goes- we are essentially saying that each universe has its own bizarre laws of physics and it is impossible to do a direct comparison because the laws of physics won't even match. The most deadly weapon in one universe might be a useless pinprick in the other universe, and vice versa. Either way, it is impossible to compare a pair of fictional science fiction universes without invoking real science whenever and wherever possible, to the fullest extent possible.
This doesn't mean we go berserk and declare that everything is impossible- it means that we apply real scientific principles unless canon events (not just dialogue) leave us absolutely no choice. And even when they do that, we always continue to apply the scientific method. Other policies (such as Graham Kennedy's policy of applying science sometimes and totally ignoring its most fundamental principles other times) are designed for the purpose of leaving trapdoors open for the author to manipulate his conclusions to his liking. An inflexible policy does not give the author the luxury of such trapdoors, and it therefore leaves little opportunity for the sort of hypocrisy that is endemic to treknobabble-dominated discussions.

"Where do you get off saying that warp drive and transporters are impossible? Did you know that Lord Kelvin said 'heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible' back in 1895? We all know today that he was wrong, so obviously, you can be wrong too. You're just too arrogant to admit it, and you have far too much faith in modern science."

This argument is an example of attacking science. Arguments along this line of thought are all based on the notion that if you can poke a hole in the credibility of science (or its applicability in a specific situation), then you "open the floodgates" to essentially throw all science out the window, even its most absolutely fundamental concepts. In this case, our opponent tries to discredit the entire field of science with a famous quote from Lord Kelvin. There are two problems with this argument:
  1. The argument is essentially saying "I have found an example of a scientist who made a mistake. Therefore, you can't trust any scientific predictions." That's frankly a moronic way to think- can any intelligent person seriously think that the entire body of work of all scientists throughout history and up to the present day should be discounted if a single mistake is found?
  2. Sir William Thompson Kelvin (1824-1907) is often quoted by anti-science fanatics, and for good reason. Although he was a brilliant physicist in his younger years (responsible for many developments in electromagnetics and thermodynamics), he accumulated vast wealth in his career and became something of an irascible eccentric in his later years. He was more than 70 years old at the time of this famous quote, and it is obvious that his famed sharp wits had been dulled somewhat by age and complacency. This quote hardly disproves the validity of all science, nor does it even disprove the validity of his own earlier work.

"It is scientifically impossible for the Death Star to produce 1E38 joules of energy, therefore it must have used some kind of trick to do it with a small amount of energy."

In this example, our opponent tries to discredit Conservation of Energy, by abusing principles which are subordinate to Conservation of Energy. Conservation of Energy is the most fundamental concept in all of science- each and every scientific theory (yes, including every quantum mechanics theory) is formulated using Conservation of Energy as one of the assumptions. It is impossible to attack Conservation of Energy without, in effect, attacking the very foundation of science itself. Our opponent claims that it is impossible to generate 1E38 joules in a moon-sized structure based on various power-generation ideas, and he tries to use this claim to "prove" that Conservation of Energy can be thrown out the window (along with the Death Star 1E38 joule figure). Apart from this central problem, there are other problems with this argument:
  1. It is not scientifically impossible for a moon-sized structure to produce 1E38 joules, although it requires an extremely dense power source (eg. a singularity or extremely dense form of antimatter). Therefore, the destruction of Alderaan (and the enormous velocity imparted to its mass) cannot be rationalized with the notion that the Death Star runs on deuterium fusion. The only logical conclusion is that the non-canon "fusion" idea (from the old Tech Journal, and recently refuted by SWICS and SWVD) is simply wrong. Any other conclusion means that we are discarding science and canon in favour of a non-canon official text like the old SW Tech Journal.
  2. What about our opponent's suggestion that the Death Star might have used some kind of "trick"? Well, any "trick" would require violating Conservation of Energy. This, as I have already mentioned, constitutes an attack on the foundation of science itself. You can only violate fundamental laws when you have absolutely no choice (for example, we all accept impossibly high speeds for sci-fi starships- near lightspeed or even beyond lightspeed).
In the end analysis, the specific flaws in this argument (and the preceding argument) are interesting but secondary to the fundamental flaw, which is that our opponent is essentially attempting to deny the validity of the entire field of science.

"A Federation ship could use a static warp shell to collapse the hull of an ISD. A Federation ship could use <technobabble> to beam a bomb through an ISD's shields into its reactor chamber. A Federation ship could remodulate its shields to make plasma weapons useless by <technobabble>. A Federation ship could use the Genesis Device to wipe out entire Imperial fleets. Oh wait, I've got another idea ..."

This is the O.J. Simpson defence. Do you remember the O.J. Simpson defence? His "dream team" of lawyers concocted a seemingly endless stream of unsupported theories and then challenged the prosecution to prove that each and every theory was impossible. Of course, the prosecution could not conclusively disprove such a huge volume of ridiculous theories, due both to the sheer number and the practical difficulty of finding evidence to disprove an ethereal theory.
In sci-fi debates, this tactic has three basic components:
  1. "Shotgun approach": Your oppponent will spray you with large numbers of simultaneous theories. He will attempt to force you to waste time and effort painstakingly explaining, describing, and then debunking the logical and scientific errors in each and every theory one at a time. If you skip one, he will loudly declare that the omission is a tacit admission of defeat.
  2. "Innocent until proven guilty": Your opponent will provide no evidence whatsoever to support these theories. He will assume that the validity of the theory is self-evident (eg- "the Borg can obviously adapt to any weapon of any power- just watch the shows"), and that the onus is on you to disprove it. See the Leap of Logic fallacy for a more thorough explanation of this technique.
  3. The so-called "complex question" fallacy, in which multiple unrelated points are conjoined as a single argument, so if you fail to disprove any one of the individual points, then you fail to disprove all of them.
A debate is not a criminal trial. In a debate, the two sides are on equal footing. In a criminal trial, one side (the defense) has every conceivable advantage granted to it while the other side has its hands tied at every turn. The defense is permitted to propose countless wild theories with zero supporting evidence, while the prosecution is often prohibited from discussing actual pieces of evidence that would have weighted the trial in its favour. Similarly, Star Trek fans often propose theories about unseen capabilities with no supporting evidence, while insisting that the observed capabilities of the Death Star are "inadmissible".
These unsupported leaps of logic and extrapolations are unreasonable. There is only one reasonable rule to follow when asking ourselves what people in a sci-fi universe can do: "if they've done it before, they can do it again." We simply don't understand this fictional technology well enough to extrapolate. An example may be helpful:
If a medieval knight saw a helicopter, he would correctly conclude that it can fly. He might also incorrectly assume that it can fly to the top of the highest mountain. A helicopter cannot fly to very high altitudes because the thin air affects its rotor lift and engine performance, but a medieval knight wouldn't know this (indeed, many people today don't know this). Even if the knight were to ride with the pilot and pick up some of the terminology, he still might not figure it out, and it might not occur to the pilot to bring it up. That is why he would not be justified in extrapolating any capabilities for the helicopter beyond what he's actually seen, and that is why Trekkies are unjustified in extrapolating new, heretofore unseen capabilities for Star Trek ships.
Returning to the quoted examples, they are all based on unsupported Leap of Logic and unsupported extrapolation theories. No static warp shell has ever been used as a weapon in Star Trek. No bomb has ever been transported onto a shielded or maneuvering enemy vessel in Star Trek (it was done once, to a stationary, unshielded Borg vessel in "Dark Frontier"). No Federation ship has ever demonstrated complete immunity to any form of energy or matter. Even the Genesis Device, every Trekkie's favourite ace-in-the-hole, has never actually demonstrated the ability to affect a shielded vessel.
This fictional technology is not understood well enough to extrapolate- if they haven't done it before, then there is no evidence that they can do it at all. Their ability to perform a given feat is not evidence that they can perform a greater feat of the same nature, or a different feat of the same magnitude. If your opponent decides to spray you with a lot of unsupported theories, demand that he or she provide evidence to support these theories rather than expecting the validity of the extrapolation to be "self evident." Don't let your opponent force you to waste time and effort disproving them all, one at a time, when he or she has done no work to prove their validity in the first place. This is not a criminal trial.

"In the films, we never see starfighters being targeted by capital ships at ranges greater than a couple of kilometres. This is also the case in the computer games and the X-wing novels. Therefore, capital ship weapons have a range limit of a couple of kilometres".

This is an example of the "all weapons are the same, all targets are the same" deception. It is based on logical "errors of categorization", which are found in several variations:
  1. If the parts of a whole have a certain characteristic or property, then the whole is assumed to have that characteristic or property.
  2. If the whole has a certain characteristic or property, then the individual parts of the whole are assumed to share that characteristic or property.
  3. If one of the parts of the whole has a certain characteristic or property, then all of the other parts of that whole are assumed to share that characteristic or property.
This example uses the third variation: if capital ships are never seen shooting starfighters at ranges greater than a few kilometres, then that must be the maximum range of their weaponry, right? Wrong. A World War 2 battleship like the USS New Jersey could only engage attacking fighters at ranges of a few hundred metres with its defensive machine guns and a few kilometres with its flak guns, but it could pound warships and ground targets from ranges of more than 30 km. Even its smaller weapons could actually lob a bullet or shell much farther than their effective combat range against incoming fighters. Modern warships can only target and engage incoming missiles at ranges of a few kilometres, but they can launch missiles at targets which are hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.
There is no intelligent reason to assume that a warship's anti-starfighter targeting limitations dictate the maximum range of its light weapons, or the maximum range of its heavy weapons. Of course, many people have made this assumption anyway, but remember: there is no intelligent reason to make this assumption. There are a lot of unintelligent reasons, as many have demonstrated.

  1. "Federation ships look more advanced than Imperial ships. Just look at the big, primitive looking engines on the Star Destroyers as opposed to the sleek warp nacelles and miniaturized impulse engines of a Federation ship."

  2. "Imperial walkers are tactically worthless. Just look at them- they are ridiculous and clumsy."

  3. "Federation computers are obviously more advanced than Imperial computers- just look at the fancy displays and consoles on the Enterprise, compared to the primitive consoles and push-button controls of Imperial ships."

  4. "Data is obviously more advanced than Imperial droids- just look at him! He looks almost human, while Imperial droids are clunky and funny looking."

  5. "Phasers are more advanced than Imperial blasters- look at how big and clunky the Imperial blasters are, and how small and sleek the Federation phasers are."

Why are all of these different arguments lumped together? Take a wild guess- they all belong to the "looks are everything" school of thought.
Why worry about a ship's acceleration, speed, shielding, armour or weapons when you can simply compare smoothness with blockiness, or compare the aesthetic merits of a wedge-shape with a catamaran-shape? Why worry about firepower or armour when you can simply say "it has legs! It's funny looking!"? Why worry about computational power or storage capacity when you can just say "the interface isn't like Microsoft! It must be inferior!"? Why worry about the computational power, storage capacity, miniaturization, or sentience of an android brain when you can just look at whether his makers chose a human-looking form for him? Are modern store mannequins more advanced than C3PO? Why worry about weapon firepower, storage capacity, durability, range, or ergonomics when you can just ask which one looks more like your Braun electric shaver?
A Mazda Miata is not more advanced than a blocky, ugly M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. A Gulfstream Learjet is not more advanced than a blocky, ugly AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship. A Pentium PC with Windows 98 is not more advanced than an ugly CRAY supercomputer running text-mode FORTRAN programs. A Bang & Olufsen interior-decorator stereo is not more advanced than a pair of ugly, blocky Krell monoblock power amplifiers driving monstrous Martin-Logan electrostatic speakers.

"Imperial warships only have shields and turbolasers, but Federation ships have phasers, quantum torpedoes, metaphasic shielding technology, and subspace technology. With technology like that, they're obviously going to win."

This kind of argument belongs to the "duuhhhhh .. the name sounds cool, so it must be better" school of thought. It is people like this who eagerly buy an expensive hair conditioner because it has "provitamins" in it, and who buy Bose speakers because the ads tout their "acoustimass technology" (the Bose jazzy name for an ordinary Helmholtz resonator). Marketing gurus love people like this, because you can sell them any line of bullshit as long as you peg a cool name to your product.
An old marketing adage goes like this: "sell the sizzle, not the steak". The unspoken addendum is that this only works because a lot of people are too simple-minded to notice the difference. If you believe in buying the sizzle instead of the steak, you may notice that your wallet mysteriously gets lighter whenever a salesman walks by. Don't worry- you'll get used to it :)

"Don't you realize what a turbolaser is? The turbo prefix stands for the fact that it is based on gas pressure, and the laser suffix stands for light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation", so a turbolaser is just a gas laser. On the other hand, "phaser" stands for phased energy rectification, so phasers are phased and therefore superior to turbolasers."

This is the name game, part 2 (and yes, this is an exact quote from an E-mail I received). I'm tempted to say that the weakness with this argument is the author's stupidity, but that wouldn't be very illuminating. The true problem is over-analysis of the name (see the main Myths pages for more discussion of people who over-analyze names of devices).
Real names of real devices often have very little to do with their true function- for example, an automobile shock absorber would be more accurately called a mass-spring oscillation damper. But in real life, we don't hyper-analyze the names of devices because names are often inaccurate methods of determining precise function, and also because frankly, most people know better.
As an aside, lasers are already phase-coherent, so phase-coherence wouldn't exactly be an enormous leap forward for phasers vs lasers.

  1. "Captain Picard once said 'lasers won't even penetrate our navigational deflectors'. This is canon proof that no laser, even a laser of infinite power, could possibly penetrate the defenses of a Federation ship. Subspace technology is the key to making this possible, through <technobabble technobabble technobabble>. I defy you to disprove that theory."

  2. "In 'The Omega Directive', Harry Kim found out that Captain Janeway wanted an 83 isoton warhead prepared, and he asked 'what's she planning to do, blow up a small planet'? This is canon proof that an 83-isoton photon torpedo can destroy a small planet."

  3. "In ST6, Scotty shouted 'shields collapsing' just before the Klingon photon torpedo struck the Enterprise saucer. Notice that he said 'shields collapsing' instead of 'shields collapsed'. His precise choice of words indicates that the shields were still in the process of collapsing instead of having already collapsed, so Star Wars fans are wrong about the ST6 photorp hit being an unshielded hit. His console readout indicates that the shield strength is zero, but it probably incorporates a large safety factor which Scotty knew about, hence his precise choice of words. Remember, English is his first language so he wouldn't choose an inappropriate word."

Yes, these are all genuine arguments, made by real people who expected to be taken seriously. Now, I could spend a lot of time breaking down each specific example and identifying weaknesses therein, but that's not the point and besides, I expect any intelligent reader to see through such obvious deceptions. The point is not to specifically attack these arguments one at a time, but to note that all of them fall into the "dialogue is everything" school of thought (the first one is a 2-for-1 deal, because it also includes the O.J. Simpson defense).
In real life, dialogue is utterly worthless as a source of scientific or engineering data. You can look through the entire width and breadth of serious scientific and engineering papers throughout history (not counting papers from diploma mills or from pseudo-science faculties like "social science"), and you will never see "so-and-so said this, and he happened to choose this particular set of words" as a piece of supporting evidence for a theory. You will find photographs, and you will find calculations, but you won't find any discussion of what anybody says or thinks. That's why I find it so amusing when people accuse me of over-analyzing screenshots and calculations instead of heavily analyzing dialogue- pictures and numbers are found in real-life scientific and engineering papers, but no one ever talks about dialogue.
It would be nice if we could ignore dialogue completely, but we are talking about science fiction television shows and movies after all, and there isn't a whole lot of empirical evidence to go on. As a result, we are forced to fall back upon dialogue in spite of its many weaknesses, but that doesn't give us a blanket authorization to ignore those weaknesses (see my Canon page for more discussion of this). At no time is there any justification for basing a theory about unseen capabilities exclusively on dialogue, nor is there ever any justification for microscopically analyzing someone's choice of words. Furthermore, when dialogue and visuals explicitly contradict one another, there is no reason to ever choose dialogue because that is not how it is done in the real world, and with good reason.

  1. "The Death Star is powerful but it's huge. If the Federation made something that big, it would be more powerful."

  2. "The Death Star is pretty big but do you realize how big a Borg cube is? A Borg cube is three kilometres wide, and the original Death Star was only 160 kilometres wide- that's just 80 times bigger. The Borg have thousands of cubes, so they have far more industrial capacity than the Empire."

These quotes are both fine examples of the no math mentality. It doesn't take a university-trained mathematician to recognize that you can't make comparative statements of size or power without bothering to measure and quantitatively compare them. Let us examine the two preceding quotes numerically, to see just how much a proper quantitative comparison differs from worthless qualitative comparisons:
  1. To compare DS1 firepower to Alpha Quadrant ships, we should use the most outstanding example of each: the destruction of Alderaan in ANH vs the DS9 episode "The Die is Cast:"
    • Firepower: DS1 imparted 1E38 joules of kinetic energy to Alderaan's mass with a single shot. The TDiC fleet of 30 warships supposedly vapourized 30% of the crust of the Founders' homeworld with a single volley (I say "supposedly" because such an event would have exposed glowing mantle over 30% of the planet's surface, and it did not). Even if we ignore the contradictory visual evidence and any NDF-related mitigating factors, we end up with an energy estimate of roughly 1E28 joules- one ten billionth of what DS1 did.
    • Size: DS1 had a volume of roughly 2.1 million km³, while a GCS has a volume of roughly 0.0065 km³. That's a size difference of roughly 300 million times, so a 30-ship fleet (assuming the average Rom/Card ship was the same size as a GCS) would be roughly one ten millionth of the size of DS1.
    • Conclusion: DS1 is 10 million times larger than a 30-ship Fed fleet, but at least 10 billion times more powerful. In other words, even if the Federation could build a warship the size of DS1, it would have only 1/1000 of DS1's firepower, even after granting several unnecessarily optimistic assumptions to the Federation.
  2. How did these people pass high school math? Don't they realize that volume is based on the cube of one-dimensional width? The volume of DS1 was roughly 2.1 million km³, the volume of DS2 was roughly 380 million km³, and the volume of a Borg cube is only 28 km³. Do the math- DS1 was equivalent to more than 75,000 Borg cubes, and DS2 was equivalent to more than 13 million Borg cubes. DS2 was 60% built in just six months (ref. SOTE), while the Borg needed 100,000 years (ref. "Q Who") to build up their fleet of thousands of Borg cubes.
As usual, you can get a much different picture by actually crunching numbers than you can by simply making a qualitative guess. That is true in these hypothetical science fiction debates, and it is also true in real life.
One of the great developments of science was the recognition of the importance of quantification and observation. Before the birth of modern science, philosophical ramblings were taken on equal weight with observation. Qualitative, subjective impressions were taken on equal weight with numbers. It wasn't until scientists recognized the primacy of quantification and observation that the field of science began to move forward in earnest. That mentality has served scientists well- why are so many science fiction fans so eager to discard it?

"It isn't fair to use NDF theory for phasers but not for blasters and turbolasers."

This is an example of a Trekkie blaming his opponent for something the writers did. It isn't our fault that the Trek writers chose to make phasers into physics-ignoring disappearing-act weapons instead of scientifically rational heat transfer weapons like blasters, lasers, Babylon 5 PPG's, etc.

"Picard said that lasers can't even punch through a ship's navigational deflectors but you won't accept that ST ships are immune to lasers of any power level. You are ignoring canon evidence because it says things that you don't like."

This is an example of a Trekkie confusing evidence with interpretation. Captain Picard, while looking at a pair of tiny ships on the viewscreen, heard that they were armed with lasers. He responded that "lasers won't even penetrate our navigational deflectors." The evidence is that Captain Picard uttered that line. The interpretation is that Federation ships have a technology which makes them immune to lasers regardless of power level. I can argue with this interpretation all day, and many others have.
However, the point of this particular note is simply to explain that we should remember to distinguish evidence from interpretations of that evidence. The author of the quoted argument feels that his interpretation of the evidence actually is the evidence, so if I ignore his interpretation, I am in fact ignoring the evidence itself. It is possible for Captain Picard to utter those words without our opponent's interpretation being valid, therefore it is logically fallacious to claim that one must accept his interpretation or be guilty of "ignoring evidence".
This tecnnique is used very heavily by newspeople, who confuse evidence and interpretation on a regular basis. For example, a medical researcher might find that there is a weak statistical correlation between childhood leukemia and living near electrical power transmission lines. A news reporter might find out about this study and declare on national television that "there is new scientific evidence that your chance of getting cancer will increase if you live near power lines." That would be incorrect- there is new scientific evidence of a statistical correlation between childhood leukemia and living near electrical power transmission lines, but the assumption that one causes the other is an interpretation (an unsupported one) rather than a piece of "scientific evidence."
I could go on at length about the specifics of the "power transmission lines causing cancer" health scare, listing objections such as the fact that the magnetic fields from the power wiring in your own house are more intense than the magnetic fields from power lines in an adjacent field, or the fact that people living near "power towers" tend to have lower incomes and accordingly different lifestyles, but I only wish to describe it as an example of journalistic incompetence and sensationalism, and how it relies on the same tricks often used by Trekkie "vs" debaters.

"There are some incidents in the official literature which suggest very high upper limits for turbolaser firepower, such as incidents in which cities were reduced to molten lakes or giant mushroom clouds were created by turbolaser impacts in the ocean. But those incidents are contradicted by TESB, which establishes that turbolasers are only in the half-megaton range at best."

This is an example of a Trekkie who enjoys misinterpreting limits. I have noticed that a lot of people simply assume that small numbers are lower limits, and high numbers are upper limits. This is not the case- an upper limit is defined as such because of its nature. It is derived in such a manner that if the underlying premises of the analysis are true, then it is impossible for the true figure to be larger than the upper limit. A lower limit is derived in such a manner that if the underlying premises of the analysis are true, then it is impossible for the true figure to be smaller than the lower limit.
In this particular argument, he assumes that various planetary bombardment incidents in the official literature are upper limits because they are high. This is untrue- in both of the cited cases, energy requirements based on estimated energy state changes would be lower limits for those situations. The nature of lower limits is such that if one accepts the validity of the underlying premises (ie- the figures and mechanisms proposed, and the premise that the event in question actually occurred as described), then when confronted with multiple lower limits, the largest lower limit is the correct one. One cannot take a group of lower limits derived from various incidents and then arbitrarily describe the largest numbers as upper limits.
Furthermore, a small lower limit does not contradict a large lower limit. A lower limit, by definition, merely indicates a threshold below which the true figure cannot possibly be. It does not preclude the possibility that the true figure is much larger than that threshold, and it therefore is not incompatible with much higher lower limits. If I fire a bullet through a sheet of paper, analysis of the damage to the paper would establish a very small lower limit for the kinetic energy of the bullet. If I fire a bullet through a brick wall, analysis of the damage to the brick wall would establish a much higher lower limit for the kinetic energy of the bullet. Both lower limits are compatible- the lower figure does not contradict the higher figure.

"The Nkllon incident contradicts Imperial shielding estimates because the Judicator took some damage, therefore its shields must have been knocked out by the stellar radiation bombardment. The quantity of radiation bombardment was nowhere near as much energy as some would claim that Imperial shields can withstand."

This example is not as easy to identify because it doesn't foolishly misuse the actual word "limit". But it is still based on the same sort of flawed reasoning. The Judicator began to take damage as soon as it emerged from hyperspace. It continued to take damage at a steady rate for the entire duration that it was exposed to the radiation bombardment. This indicates that its shields were either knocked out immediately (the same shields which can withstand a direct hit from a thermonuclear weapon as described in the canon ROTJ novelization), or that they were allowing a portion of the radiation bombardment to enter on a steady-state basis. In other words, either one deliberately chooses an interpretation which contradicts canon, or some proportion of the stellar radiation was penetrating the shields without knocking them out (note that the latter interpretation is supported by the fact that we can see the ship and its crew can see external objects with the naked eye through windows even when shields are up, so the shields must permit some fraction of visible-spectrum electromagnetic radiation to pass).
In either case, the amount of energy absorbed during the Judicator's operation near the Athega star would not constitute an upper limit for shield energy handling capabilities. In order to derive an upper limit, we would have to be sure that the shields were actually knocked out by the bombardment (an event which should have coincidede with a sudden, sharp increase in damage level, which never occurred). Our opponent's claim that the Nkllon incident contradicts other estimates is based on the assumption that the Nkllon incident defined upper limits for Imperial shielding. It did not.
To review, we must remember what upper and lower limits are, and not allow them to be confused for one another. We must also not permit debaters to describe incidents as upper or lower limits when they are in fact neither.

  1. "We've never seen SW shields stop phasers, so they probably can't."

  2. "We've never seen SW shields stop transporters, so they probably can't."

  3. "We've never seen ion cannons disable ST technology, so they probably don't."

    There are hundreds of variations upon this theme, some of which go so far as to claim that a SW ship venturing into our galaxy would be shieldless, blind, and trapped at sublight speeds, and that any Jedi Knights on board would lose their powers, by virtue of the fact that they've never demonstrated any of their capabilities in our galaxy. They are treating all unobserved phenomena as impossibilities. You could also call this a "false limit" fallacy if you wish. The problem is that although the observation of a phenomenon can conclusively prove that it is possible, the failure to observe a phenomenon does not prove that it is impossible. It leaves open the possibility that it is impossible, but it does not act as proof. It would be unwarranted to assume that it is impossible, and it would also be unwarranted to assume that it is possible, in lieu of any supporting evidence either way. To make projections either way, we would need more information.

    For example, if someone claims that it is impossible for a 30mm shell to punch through the armour of a main battle tank, we can easily disprove him by observing the infamous A-10 "Warthog" in action. However, if someone notes that we've never seen an M-1 Abrams' armour stop a projectile made entirely of Play-Doh, this would hardly constitute proof that an M-1 cannot survive Play-Doh shells! Although it is true that the observation of an event is the only absolutely conclusive proof that it can happen, it is wrong to assume that everything we have failed to observe is impossible (particularly when we are limited to a less than ten hours of observations, as is the case with Star Wars).

    If you're going to make the claim that something can or can't happen, you have to quantify energies and/or describe mechanisms. You can't simply say "we've never seen this particular event, so it's not possible." In the case of the Play-Doh shells, we've never seen an M-1 Abrams survive a hit from Play-Doh weaponry but the kinetic energy and thermomechanical properties of a reasonably-sized Play-Doh projectile should make it less dangerous than other weapons which the M-1 has been observed to easily shake off. Therefore, there is no justification for claiming that the M-1 would be helpless before attackers armed with Play-Doh.

    Similarly, although we've never seen SW shields stop phasers (for the obvious reason that we've never seen a crossover SW/ST movie or television episode), we have seen them survive attacks from energy weapons of similar or greater energy yield. And although we've never seen SW shields stop transporters, we have seen that transporters are actually very easy to stop (having been stymied by everything from radiation to the presence of certain minerals, or by "inhibitor fields" which are so weak that they stop nothing else). And although we've never seen ion cannons acting on ST technology, we know that they disrupt electrical equipment, and we've seen enough arcing and sparking components on the bridge of the Enterprise to know that electricity is still being used heavily. So we don't have conclusive proof that these things can happen (since we would need direct observation for that), but we certainly don't have any grounds for stating that they are impossible.

    Another problem with this type of argument is that it's mindlessly one-sided. One could just as easily take all of those arguments and reverse them: "we've never seen phasers knock down or penetrate SW shields, so they probably can't", or "we've never seen transporters go through SW shields, so they probably can't", or "we've never seen ST technology withstand an ion cannon attack, so it probably can't." If you're going to claim that one technology will be unstoppable against another technology, you have to provide better reasoning than "we've never seen it, and any unknown should always be assumed to go in the direction most favourable to my side".

    At some point, we have to concede the importance of fair play. After all, we're talking about a pair of fictional universes, and even the most objective analysis must contain some underlying assumptions related to fair play. I have noticed that a common thread among Trekkie debaters is to spend all their time trying to tip the playing field to their advantage, by inventing technobabble reasons why SW technology would be useless against unfamiliar ST technology (but of course, ST technology will be omnipotent against unfamiliar SW technology). I hope it should be obvious why such tactics are blatantly one-sided and unreasonable. A debate about sci-fi is virtually impossible without the following assumptions:

    1. The laws of physics are constant, and shared between both universes in the crossover (ie- no silly claims about subspace not existing in the SW galaxy, or hyperspace not existing in the ST galaxy).

    2. Canon events really happened (ie- suspension of disbelief).

    3. Both sides' technology performs normally (ie- a shield designed to stop energy weapons will stop energy weapons even in another galaxy, a weapon designed to disrupt electrical systems will disrupt electrical systems even in another galaxy, a superluminal propulsion system will move the ship at superluminal speeds even in another galaxy, etc).

    Yes, these assumptions are just that: assumptions. But if you refuse to accept them, you're basically throwing the rulebook in the garbage, and saying that "anything goes." The assumptions are designed for the simple sake of fairness; remember fairness? Some people don't.

Valid HTML 4.01!Valid CSS!This website is owned and maintained by Michael Wong
This site is not affiliated with Lucasfilm or Paramount
All associated materials are used under "Fair Use" provisions of copyright law.
All original content by Michael Wong is copyrighted © 1998,2004.
Click here to go to the main page