A Reasonable Approximation

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The "Poorly Defined Scotsman" fallacy

If you hang out on /r/scifi for long enough, you'll hear someone say that Star Wars is not science fiction. It's fantasy in space, or space opera, or whatever, but it isn't science fiction.

(The example that inspired this post, nine months ago, was this thread.)

And, well, they're wrong.

I want to call it a "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Unfortunately, there's no good definition of science fiction that I can point to and say "whatever Star Wars has or doesn't have, that you think makes it not science fiction, is not part of the definition".

Worse, the person in question usually has a definition of science fiction. (In this case, "science fiction embraces change".) And indeed, it's a definition that Star Wars does not attain.

But what this should tell us is not "Star Wars is not science fiction". It's "your definition of science fiction is broken". Consider:

"No Scotsman takes sugar with their porridge!"

"But my uncle Hamish takes sugar with his porridge."

"No, sorry, I was unclear. I define a Scotsman as a person of Scottish citizenship who does not take sugar with their porridge."

It's a bit ridiculous, isn't it?

Star Wars isn't as bad as that, for (at least) two reasons. Since there's no agreed-upon definition of science fiction, choosing your own is more reasonable than choosing your own definition of Scotsman. (Though, I wonder just how well-defined "Scotsman" is. Is the important factor citizenship, birth, personal identity? A mix? Is a "Scotsman" actually necessarily male, with "Scotsperson" being gender neutral? Still, it's better defined than science fiction.)

The other reason is that the proposed definition of "Scotsman" is a silly definition even to consider. Why are you talking about the conjunction of "Scottish citizenship" and "doesn't take sugar with their porridge"? Is there anything you can say about "people of Scottish citizenship who do not take sugar with their porridge", that doesn't follow trivially from what you know of "people of Scottish citizenship" and "people who take sugar with their porridge"? Whereas the proposed definition of science fiction is often quite a reasonable definition of something that we might want to talk about.

Just not a reasonable definition of science fiction: it doesn't include Star Wars.

I don't think that it's bad, in general, to take a poorly-defined concept and attempt to give it a rigorous definition. And sometimes we might find that in doing so, there are some things that we've been thinking of as frantles that don't seem to fit in very well with all the other things that we think of as frantles, and maybe we should stop calling them frantles. I think something like that happened with the question of whether or not 1 is a prime number, for example.

But I think that if you do that to science fiction, and eliminate Star Wars, you've done something wrong.

My reasoning for this is basically "Star Wars is obviously science fiction, duh". But a more compelling argument is: if you eliminate Star Wars, you're bound to be eliminating a whole load of other stuff. For example, if the Force disqualifies Star Wars for being too magical, then presumably Stranger in a Strange Land doesn't count either. It's been a while since I read the 2001 series, but I think David Bowman would disqualify those as well.

There are stories that I consider science fiction that I wouldn't make this complaint about. If someone's definition excluded Ted Chiang's 99 Letters, that would be fine. But when you say that Star Wars isn't science fiction, you're no longer speaking the same language as your audience, unless your audience is composed mostly of the sort of people who try to come up with rigorous definitions of science fiction.

It's also important to note that whether or not a work counts as science fiction is fundamentally unimportant. If you read a book, and you're not sure whether it counts as science fiction, it's not because you're ignorant about the book. Learning that it is or isn't science fiction won't teach you anything new.

But still. Communicating clearly is important, and if you talk about science fiction and don't intend to include Star Wars, you're failing at that.

Posted on 22 December 2013

Tagged: rationality