Thursday, July 30, 2009

STbtM 033: Why Spock Never Made the Debate Team 1

Previous: James T. Kirk, Step Forward

The Kobayashi Maru win and academic inquest is our first chance to see the adult, alternate timeline Spock in action since his absolutely fabulous line at the end of his meeting with the Vulcan Academic Council (see STbtM 018). This council leader gives Spock, now at a lectern opposing Kirk's the floor with: "Commander." Spock: "Cadet Kirk, you somehow managed to install and activate a subroutine in the programming code, thereby changing the conditions of the test." The problem with this statement is that the conditions of the test are identical; it is the test itself that was changed, because it went from a test of crew response with certain failure to a showboat of Kirk being clever with his instructors and using the simulator to make an emotional and philosophical statement. This should have been explored, but either the writers did not understand the underlying dynamics, or any clue we may have that they do understand and have something to say was not included in the film. The only reason I can imagine that Spock is using the term "conditions" is to match Kirk's description of the event from Wrath of Khan, but regardless of the reason for this line coming out as weak as it did, it is just the start of a bad spiral. Only the general weakness of the entire script keeps the exchanges appearing below from really standing out.

Kirk asks: "Your point being?" "In academic vernacular, you cheated" announces the council leader. Kirk responds with "Let me ask you something, I think we all know the answer to: the test itself is a cheat isn't it? I mean you programmed it to be unwinnable." Here he is attacking the assumption underlying the complaint against him, suggesting that the structure of the test is inappropriate for the standard regulation to apply. The counter to this approach is to explain why Kirk's assumption is a special pleading fallacy, and that an exemption from the regulations is not justified, but that would be logical – something which is largely beyond the film.

"Your argument precludes the possibility of a no win scenario." This language must be either vague or inaccurate. "Win scenarios" and "No win scenarios" are easily excluded from the realm of possibility. If win/loss categories are concepts which someone decides, then scenarios upon which someone is making that judgment are tenuously related to it, but it does not make that scenario intrinsically "a win" or "a loss". Categorizing an action or event within a scenario is not part of that scenario, regardless of what some versions of the Copenhagen Interpretation propose. This dialogue is a case where they could have read Shakespeare, or watched TNG, or Kenneth Branagh (my favorite Hamlet) and recalled "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Kirk very appropriately responds that "I don't believe in no-win scenarios."

This comment by Kirk was a great opportunity to argue that StarFleet and the Federation are dedicated to improving society due to a belief that this commitment will make things better. It is an optimistic worldview and, Kirk could argue, it would be unethically pessimistic not to attempt to overcome our limitations, and that his intention was to demonstrate that to his instructors. However, this film is written to portray not that effort, hard work, and compassion lead to success, rather it is "destiny", "faith", prayers, aggression, and a series of miracles that carry us to "winning", which seems a very small, sad view of life… and dangerous in the long term for any just, cosmopolitan society.

Spock replies, "Then not only did you violate the rules, you also failed to understand the principal lesson." Ridiculous in three ways: first, categorizing this statement we cannot even call it a "response" to Kirk's comment but rather it is a Red Herring fallacy changing the subject from the matters at hand: Kirk's apparent violation and claim that test conditions offer a justification. Second, the content of Spock's reply is defective as well, in that whether Kirk did actually violate the rules is in question and has yet to be decided, so stating this as an established fact is an error that perhaps might be made by a freshman debate team member, but the best mind that Vulcan has to offer? No. Kirk seems interested in Spock's fallacy detour, "Please, enlighten me," he encourages. "You of all people should know, Cadet Kirk, a captain cannot cheat death," says Spock. Ridiculous. Spock is going after Kirk's family in an appeal to tradition and/or authority fallacy? The film already repeatedly established his distaste for argument based on parental decisions, and his proper rejection of this tactic, but now he is shown trying to beat Kirk over the head in the same way. This strikes me as inconsistent with the character as portrayed, unless we are blessed with divine creativity and have faith that can make black white. Also completely silly is the term "cheat death", a meaningless phrase within the context of a logical argument, and such a character in this situation would never utter such flippant clich├ęs in support of a conclusion.

Kirk repeats "I of all people…," to which Spock non-sequiturs "Your father, Lt. George Kirk, assumed command of his vessel before being killed in action, did he not?" Perhaps this detour would eventually weave back toward some dialectic progress, but Kirk (in front of the council) ignores this question from one of the most distinguished graduates at SFA and the highest achieving graduate on Vulcan so that he can try to change the subject to an ad hominem fallacy against Spock by offering "I don't think you like the fact that I beat your test." Spock then says, "…Furthermore you have failed to divine the purpose of the test," a ridiculous non-sequitur. It also makes no sense to ask a question and link it with "furthermore" unless one is asking a clearly related follow-up question, and asserting a statement afterwards without clear relation to the preceding. It is also completely inappropriate to design communications that require students to resort to "divination" in order to gain the target understanding. This almost looks like a shooting or editing error where several scenes were filmed and then spliced together in a way that seemed to make sense at the time.

Kirk says "Enlighten me again." Spock replies, "The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death." Even if "inflicting fear of certain death" was possible in a simulator, would that not criminally violate laws against torture? Before I get emails on this, I realize it is not torture according to the Bush/Obama administrations (when the U.S. does it), but is our time not better spent developing scenarios which training officers to make the best possible choices? Overlooking that, isn't it more likely that the fear cadets face is fear of performing poorly? No one on the simulator during Spock's test gave any impression they experienced ANY real fear, much less that of "certain death". Spock appears to be the most deluded and unaware test designer ever.

Spock continues "…to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew." Well, it seems Spock can't count either, because he just named off at least three purposes to the test, four if you want to count general fear and fear in the face of certain death.

Only men speak in this segment.

Next: Distress Call from Vulcan


muser said...

When Wesley was tested for admission to Starfleet Academy, he DIDN'T KNOW the test was a test -- he thought it was a real accident, and so his reaction was valid. As you so accurately point out, everyone in the Kobayashi Maru simulator KNOWS they are in a simulator. The most the test can do, therefore, is to test the cadet's reaction to frustration. Kirk's reaction to frustration is to cheat, and to use whoever he has to to do it. In that sense the test was revealing. I wonder, is he the first one to try to cheat the simulation, or simply the first one to SUCCEED? In most situations of hierarchical authority that I have encountered, it is his success at cheating that would irk the authorities more than anything else.

BurntSynapse said...

I once won a physics competition by following the rules and instructions of the test precisely. The administrators wanted to disqualify me afterward because I did not answer any of the 6 questions, judging them not to be answerable within the 30 maximum allotted for completion of each.

We were told to skip any question that we felt we could not answer in 30 sec or less, and the lowest time would win. 3 minutes (my time) was the fastest by far, and I was accused of cheating - but I think my smug celebratory dancing around the other students may have had a greater influence than anything except perhaps the organizers realizing that I spotted a big screw-up on their part, and gleefully rubbed the faces of their star pupils in that error.

That schadenfreude was not my finest moment...

muser said...

Maybe not, but you were "technically correct, the best kind of correct."

BurntSynapse said...


The Wizard said...

I belive that Spock's non-sequiter was in response to how his "cheating death" speach was relatable to by Kirk.

BurntSynapse said...

Hi Wiz!

Yeah, I didn't list all the logical problems with the conversation simply out of not wanting to beat the horse that far in the afterlife.

Anonymous said...

Well, "to divine" also has the secondary meaning of "to guess."

But it was still an odd word choice.

Maybe it could be attributed to growing up on a planet where English was not the first language. (Yes, even though his mother was a native-English-speaking human; I have noticed odd usage of their parents' language by the children of immigrants in real life, especially when speaking more formally)


John C. 'Buck' Field said...

Very good point man...FromTaco!