Debate #1: Robert Mercer


Gothmog may be a blow-hard, but if we disregard his scientific ignorance and his ridiculous use of legalistic language (which offends far more people than it impresses), we can see that he's actually an interesting case study in rhetorical debate tactics. If one analyzes his behaviour before and during the debate, we can see that his preferred tactic is redirection and trapping.

In a public debate, it can be very difficult to convincingly declare "victory". If your opponent is foolish, you can hope that he will make a lot of arguments which are clearly illogical, or statements which are blatantly untrue. I expected Gothmog to do this, because from what I'd seen, he was prone to exaggerating his own knowledge, particularly in the field of science. He did as expected, with his ill-advised statements on what makes a science valid or invalid. When I made it clear that his list of reasons for disqualifying science in sci-fi would also disqualify it in real life, he knew he had painted himself into a corner, so he needed a way to back out before taking any more damage. When I caught him cheating and swore at him, he had his excuse (because rude words are worse than cheating, apparently).

His next move was predictable: run back to friendly territory (the spacebattles boards), start over with a fresh argument, and try to avoid responsibility for his mistakes by painting the debate as a complete waste of time (or a vacuous flamewar), in the hopes that he can convince the other board denizens not to bother reading it. He is much more comfortable in that environment than he was in the one on one matchup. Now he's in his element: playing rhetorical games, manipulating public opinion, mudslinging at his opponent's character rather than his knowledge or his arguments, rallying his friends to drown out opposition, appealing to his local popularity, making an argument and then getting his entire posse to shout down anyone who disagrees, etc. It is unfortunate that this seems to work for him, but let's face it: there are places where politics rule.

In any case, I generally wait for my opponents to make the kind of mistakes he made, regardless of whether I am debating Star Wars versus Star Trek, or Evolution versus Creationism. Since their position is weak, they have little choice but to break the rules, and they'll hurt themselves sooner or later. However, Gothmog is a rhetorical debater, not a logical debater. He doesn't particularly care about identifying logical fallacies in his opponent's argument, because his entire strategy is designed to influence public perception rather than prove anything. He would have loved it if I made some huge mistake on a matter of science, for example, but he knew better than to expect it. That's why he tried the "trapping" tactic. The idea is to trap your opponent with his own words. The trick is to get him to agree to something which seems benign, but which is actually the cornerstone of a larger argument. In a debate over subject A, it works like this:

  1. State that you wish to debate subject A.

  2. Before you start, try to get some ground rules out of the way. Get your opponent to agree to B, by stating it in the most benign terms possible (or, as Gothmog attempted, in the most arcane and incomprehensible terms possible).

  3. Show that if B is true, then A must be true.

The technique is simple, but effective. Temporarily redirect the debate to subject B instead of subject A. But if your opponent agrees to B, either out of carelessness or haste, you can show that B leads directly to A. When he objects because A was the original subject of the debate, you launch into full rhetorical mode: "but you didn't seem to have a problem with B yesterday, did you?" Voila! Your opponent is trapped by his own words, and you have won a rhetorical victory.

Note that this is not necessarily a logical victory. The fact that your opponent agreed to B does not actually mean that B is true, or even that he really thinks B is valid; it might only mean that he was careless, or he was just in a hurry to get to the meat of the debate. You have, in effect, proven nothing except that you are a more clever debater than your opponent, or possibly that your opponent is a hypocrite. And that, in the end, is what rhetorical debating is about.


If you look at the debate, he always tried to redirect and/or trap:

  1. Redirection from "Federation could defeat the Empire at even strength" to "ISD vs GCS": he admitted that the Empire could crush the Federation, but he claimed that the real question was how much "force ratio" it would need (implying that it could only do it because of its superior numbers). Rather than debate that issue directly, he wanted to debate a single ISD versus a single GCS in deep space at a range of a million kilometres, saying that this could be scaled up to answer the larger question (even though that's totally unrealistic because it ignores the Empire's advantages in strategy, fleet tactics, hyperdrive, planetary defenses, and ground warfare). If I had agreed to that statement, then he would have won no matter how the ISD versus GCS fight turned out. Even if I successfully showed that an ISD has vastly superior firepower and shields, he could have used stand-off tactics to make it a stalemate; the GCS can't kill the ISD, but the ISD can't catch and kill the GCS either. The end result: unless I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the ISD catches and kills the GCS, it's a stalemate at best, and because he stipulated that it was representative of a larger war, he would use it to show that the Federation could hold its own against the Empire. If I objected, he'd be able to trap me: "you didn't object before!" Deviously clever (which was why I had to object right away, and offer my counter-proposal, still at even odds, but with achievable, realistic goals, thus guaranteeing an Imperial victory and forcing him to concede the point).

  2. Trap: At one point, I used a poor analogy to describe his ISD vs GCS fight scenario: that of an M1 and an F-16. An M-1 would kill an F-16 if both were on the ground, but that would be unfair to the F-16 (I used a better analogy later, but never mind). He tried to trap me with my own words, to make it seem as if I was admitting that a GCS would crunch an ISD. However, it was a weak maneuver, since anyone who had read even a tenth of my website would know that it was utterly preposterous to think that I would remotely entertain the notion of a single GCS actually defeating an ISD in combat (I'll admit it could probably stalemate one by using its sublight maneuverability to keep its distance, but that's not exactly enough to win a war, since the ISD would realistically be on a mission to do something bad, and it wouldn't be enough to simply keep it from killing you).

  3. Redirection from TM's to range: his attempt to declare the TM's canon despite explicit denials from everybody associated with the production of the show was merely a means to an end, as he has made clear in his post-debate articles. His real goal all along was to show that Federation ships have effective weapon ranges of hundreds of thousands of kilometres. If he could get the TM's classified as canon (not just official, like Star Wars books, but canon!), he would then turn around and use them to contradict what we saw in the televised episodes. He tried to slip it by as a mere "example", and not a particularly important part of his argument. However, if I had let it go uncontested, he would have been able to trap me: "you didn't have a problem with the TM's when I mentioned them two posts ago!"

  4. Redirection from philosophy to range: his discussion of philosophy was also a means to an end. If he could weaken my stance on the applicability of scientific methods to sci-fi, suspension of disbelief, or objectivity, he would be able to declare that we should use literary methods, and literary methods have no room for analysis of visuals (indeed, they ignore them completely, as literature is composed only of words). Once again, he would be able to deny the validity of countless scenes in which Federation ships were seen to be much weaker than he claimed, or fight at much closer ranges than he claimed.

When you consider his techniques, it's obvious why he was writing in that ridiculous legalese style. He was hoping that I would grow impatient and skip over so much of his text that I might unwittingly agree to something by virtue of not contesting it. He was also trying to score a rhetorical victory in front of his easily-impressed friends, who take his impenetrable language as proof of superior intelligence.


After Gothmog's embarrassment, he attempted to shore up his claims of scientific aptitude by using the old "if the government trusts me, you should too" argument. As he told it, he taught recruits in the US Navy so he must be an expert. I dismissed it as an appeal to authority and thought little else of it, although I was certainly rather concerned about the safety of US Navy sailors if they were really trusting their nuclear engineering training to people like him!

However, I quickly received some interesting letters regarding the qualifications of which Gothmog spoke. They cleared things up for me quite a bit, and they might clear up some lingering questions you have too:

Date: 2002-01-02
Name: Bryan McNerney

Comments: I was just reading the back and forth with which Gothmog ran from your debate (I admit I haven't read the debate yet). At any rate the thing which jumped out at me was Gothmog's claiming that he had a strong background due to his Naval Nuclear Power background. Well I myself was also in that program and I have several things to say.

First off throughout the entire training program the instructors always went for rote memorization and generally did not like to allow any in depth discussion.

Secondly when any of the students did ask for any in depth discussion they usually had to resort to the book due to the fact that they also learned it from rote.

Thirdly several of the instructors had never actually served on ships they were just good at parrotting back what they had heard.

Finally whenever I talked to any of the senior personnel on the ship it turned out that most of the people who got sent to the school for training got sent there because that was the least dangerous place to stick them. So I guess what I am saying is that as an Ex-naval nuke myself I have an inside view on the authority he was trying to appeal to and I wanted to see that shared to other people on the outside.

Interesting, isn't it? This helps us understand why Gothmog could be a trainer while obviously lacking even the most fundamental comprehension of scientific methods. It also helps us understand Gothmog's odd belief that science is dependent upon authority, since that's the way it was taught to him, and that's the way he taught it to others. And finally, it helps us understand why Gothmog thinks it's acceptable to speak about an idea even when you don't really understand it (and perhaps have never even practiced it), since that was apparently his job in the Navy. This is obviously a technician's training, not an engineer's education. I soon received a second letter from another along the same lines:

Date: 2002-01-09
Name: Chris Rawson

Comments: Regarding Gothmog:

When he listed his "qualifications" in the ultimate downward-spiralling of the debate, I began to suspect the true origins of his "scientific background". When he said he was in the Navy, I immediately knew where his background comes from.

Gothmog was (perhaps still is) what the Navy calls an Engineering Lab Technician. The training he would have gone through breaks down something like this:

For ten weeks (I think it was ten weeks for mechanics), he trained to be a basic Navy mechanic. This meant learning the absolute most basic aspects of mechanical engineering.

For the next six months, he attended Naval Nuclear Power School. During those six months, he would have gained:

- some basic, college-level math (of a complexity somewhere between basic algebra and Pre-Calculus)
- the absolute most BASIC theories of thermodynamics (all of four weeks' worth of instruction!)
- BASIC physics (we're talking Pressure = Force / Area . . . that basic)
- further instruction in slightly more advanced Mechanical Engineering (but here again- only about ten weeks of instruction)
- some basic electrical and electronic engineering instruction (again, only about two weeks of instruction)
- chemistry (again, an extremely basic overview of chemistry, with a very narrow focus on reactor plant chemistry, and again, only a few weeks of instruction)
- Reactor Plant Physics (mostly related to the physics occuring in one single type of naval nuclear reactor)
- Materials Engineering (I think this class was all of a week long)
- Radiological Fundamentals (principles of Radiological Control and basic Radiation Field Theory; about three weeks of instruction)

All told, this curriculum represented, for a Naval Nuclear Mechanic, a little over eight or nine months worth of instruction.

Next, he would have gone to an operational prototype unit.  This is a land-based nuclear reactor, operated by the Navy, where he would have received hands-on training in operation of the plant.  The first month was more classroom instruction (mostly a refresher of things already learned in Power School, as well as a few plant-specific subjects).  From there, he would have gone on to actually physically qualifying on the systems in the plant and the watchstations therein.  As you've worked in a plant yourself, I'm sure you're familiar with this process.

Prototype training took six months. As an ELT, he qualified for six weeks' worth of instruction beyond what most Naval Nuclear Mechanics receive, receiving some more in-depth knowledge of nuclear plant chemistry and radiological controls.

Now, the question is: what does all this highfalutin training actually amount to? Given what classes I've taken in college so far, the training he went through amounts to the equivalent of an AA, at the absolute most.

How do I know this?  I went through almost the same training, except I was a nuclear electrician in the Navy.  While it was a pretty intense program, and while it did help me get a fairly decent job when I got out, it by no means makes me an expert scientist.  I count on college to help me become one of those, which is why I'm there now.  : )

Just thought you'd like to have some background on the guy who's been flinging so much bullshit your way.

This one's even more in-depth than the last one, confirming that Gothmog is a technician, not an engineer or scientist. He was trained, but not fully educated. His attempt to appeal to his authority is even more laughable now that we have a pretty good idea what that authority is, and it clears up the disturbing question of how the Navy might consider someone like him a nuclear engineer: they don't.

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