It is a common misunderstanding of science that it all works out really neatly. A hypothesis is generated. An experiment is built. It is switched on. Lights blink. Things hum. All the white coated scientists stand around, white knuckles gripping their clipboards. Lights flash. Suddenly something goes ‘bing’, there is much applause, mutual back slapping and the chisel chinned hero scientist embraces the pretty female one as the frontiers of human ignorance are rolled back a notch or two.
Actually, as I am sure you know, or at least could guess, science is not like that at all. By definition, more or less, research experiments are at the outer edge of what is actually possible. Bits of kit that go ‘bing’ when the correct answer is obtained are not purchasable off the shelf from any reputable manufacturer. And, in all my years at the sharp end of science, I only ever wore a white coat once (it didn’t help; I still burnt acid holes in my trousers) and never used a clipboard.
Science, like any other human activity, is driven by a number of things, such as technological possibility, fashion, opportunities for funding (see previous item) and, from time to time, the burning desire to get the answer first. Richard Feynman (the Nobel prize winning theorist) waxed eloquent about being the only person in the world to know something that he had just worked out. Science is not all about cold eyed and cold hearted rationality.
Feynman also has an interesting description about two laboratories he considered working at. The first one was pristine, with white coated technicians moving quietly about their work, directed by besuited scientists in the control room. The second, and smaller laboratory (I forget where they were), had technicians and scientists all in the same room, scratching their heads over leaks and electronics. It had wires strung from the ceiling, drops of vacuum grease on the floor and was, frankly, a mess. Nevertheless, this was the laboratory that was producing the interesting results.
Feynman, of course, opted to work at the latter laboratory. The people worked as a team, solving the problems together as they went along. If the cyclotron sprang a leak, they all worked to fix it, pooling knowledge of the device (which they had built) to fix the thing and get back to producing science as soon as possible. The fact that the laboratory was a mess was actually a sign that things were going rather well. A tidy laboratory is often the sign of either an imminent health and safety inspection or a lack of creativity.
Now, what, you might be asking by now, has this got to do with wargaming. The point I want to make is that the environment made no difference to the science. Modern science, to be modern science, actually ignores a whole lot of stuff, as it could not cope otherwise. Science abstracts away and ignores issues such as the time of the experiment, the place the experiment was conducted, and the people who conducted it, and so on. These are of no interest to the science or scientist and are usually left in what can be called the ‘empirical residue’.
Modern science, of course, developed when the existence of the empirical residue was recognized. Some things are important, and some are not. Some things (like the number of Volts generated per Amp) are significant. Some things (like the colour of the experimenter’s underwear) are not. The latter are ignored as not being interesting or useful. The former are not.
Wargames, like it or not, are an attempt to produce a model of a battle, and hence, with our language of shooting and morale, close combat and rout, we are trying to reduce a complex system to one that is tractable and intelligible. We create, one way or another, ways of classifying what is allowed and what is not, what is within an acceptable manifold of outcomes and what is not.
The thing is about a battle, of course, that we cannot separate out an empirical residue very easily. We might argue, for example, that the colour of the soldier’s coats is part of that residue, but then some bright spark is likely to come along and point out some of the occasions upon which a unit’s coat colour has led to misidentification of the unit, often with serious consequences to one side or the other.
The separation out of the empirical residue is one of the triumphs of modern science; as I have mentioned, science would not really get going without the ability to separate out the important and the trivial. But in battles we cannot achieve that. What might be important in one battle is not important in another.
In terms of writing wargame rules, therefore, the author is left with an almost impossible task. We have a whole bunch of battles in which different things appear to be important. How do we tell which is which? How can we unscramble whether or not we need rules to cover mistakes revolving around coat colours?
Despite the attempts to cover most wargame rules with fig leaves of respectable models and understood dynamics, there is this rather unpalatable truth: we cannot identify the empirical residue of a given battle.
What we can and do do is to extract the things that we think are important. For example, we know that troops advanced, and so we can create a rule for that. But do we know at what speed they advanced? Is it important? Should they have different speeds, or is one quite sufficient? One decision, such as ‘the troops will advance’ has thrown up three more questions. On the face of it, this is not going to end well.
Of course, we do escape from the trap, because the human mind is very adept at dealing with this sort of thing, and just inserts a ‘good enough’ cut off. But the cost is, of course, having to accept that we cannot define a ‘scientific core’ to the rules, except what we have decided is core. Everything else is a residue, but not a well defined one.