ASH: Superscientist Taxonomy - Mage vs. Savant

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Fri Jun 18 19:42:29 PDT 2010

                          Superscience Paranormals
                An Academy of Super-Heroes Information File
                    copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

INTRODUCTION - Where are you, Reed?

     After posting ASH #107, I was involved in a discussion that attempted to
answer the question, "Who is ASH's Reed Richards?"  In other words, a
superscience paranormal who isn't just a Super-MacGyver gadgeteer type,
someone who also understands all the cutting edge theoretical science too.
In the end, the consensus was that while one of the characters in The Reverse
Engineers had the potential to fill that role, there really wasn't a Reed
Richards type, whether prominent or obscure.

     On the one hand, no big deal, right?  A lot of iconic Marvel and DC
characters have no obvious analogues in ASH (in part because when I turned
the ASH Champions campaign into the ASH fictional universe I ripped out a lot
of Hero System characters who filled those roles and I didn't replace all of
them).  There wasn't anyone even remotely like Captain America for the first
several years I wrote in ASH.  There's no Superman.  No unequivocal Batman.
So if there's no Mr. Fantastic, that's just another of those roles that we
haven't gotten around to casting, right?

     But as I thought about it more, I realized that the very nature of
Violation Physics makes it very difficult for a Reed Richards to exist.  And
by Reed Richards, I mean someone who has superhuman powers, but can advance
the frontiers of normal science in meaningful ways.  And it all comes down to
something called "confirmation bias."

CONFIRMATION BIAS - Not so fast, buddy!

     In real science, confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on results
that agree with your theory or your worldview, while overlooking, ignoring or
downplaying anything that is contradictory.  It's often cited to explain why
people believe patently absurd things like "you're safer being thrown free of
a car than you are wearing a seat belt."  People have heard of one case that
supports their view, and ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

     But it's not limited to untrained non-scientists.  Even notoriously
methodical scientist Robert Millikan would tend to check his equipment more
carefully for flaws if the result he got didn't agree with theory, than when
the experiment matched theory.  And if Robert Millikan can make up excuses to
toss out data that looks fishy, what happens when the scientist in question
can actually alter reality to make those negative results go away entirely?

     As a result, even a very careful and conscientious superhuman scientist
will tend to get irreproducible results if their powers lend themselves to
fudging reality.  This makes it very hard for a superscience paranormal to
make meaningful progress in advancing "real" science.


     It's useful to split superscience endeavors into two "tracks", although
very few paranormals are purely on one track or the other.  These two major
types of parascientist are the Mage and the Savant.


     A Mage is just what it sounds like.  Someone who is pretty much just
doing magic with technology, science or mathematics as a pretext.  This can
range from subtle effects like making a car work 5% better than it should to
blatant magic like making a quantum teleporter out of coathangers.  The
effect being generated violates natural law to some degree, though.  The
scientific trappings serve the same purpose that ritual magic does for a more
traditional sorceror, helping focus the mind and minimize how much natural
law needs to be broken.

     For example, pure Magene willpower could make something suddenly split
in half.  But it's a lot easier to forge a sword with a "monomolecular blade"
and use that to sunder the target.  It takes more time, but the real world
doesn't have to be shouldered aside as roughly.  An intermediate-difficulty
method might attach a scalpel to an electric toothbrush and invoke
technobabble about precise molecular bonding frequencies to let the blade
slide through a vault door.

     Most Mages, be they Technomages, Mathemages or Alchemists, will tend to
believe on some level that what they're doing really should work.  That
they've found the "truth" of the world and know better than those fools at
the University, or maybe they just trust their gut and lack a formal
education to tell them any different.  A number of "shadetree technomages"
can make the impossible happen only as long as they don't understand how it
really IS impossible.  If you explain carefully how changing the pitch of a
riding mower's blades and cranking up the RPMs isn't enough to let it fly,
their flying lawnmower may well stop working.

     Other Mages accept that they're really doing magic, and that their
scientific trappings are no more or less valid than poetic spells in dead
languages or strange sigils or esoteric meditation practices.  The Third Age
mathemagician Aleph Null earned a PhD in Mathematics before discovering his
mystic powers, but he never claimed that the magic came from the mathematics
itself.  The formalism simply helped him focus his will.  Similarly, Essay of
the Fourth Age Academy of Super-Heroes is well aware that much of what she
makes is impossible, although it took a lot of careful training to let her
learn real science without losing her edge.

     In any case, Mages definitely have powers that let them change the way
physical laws work.  Aleph Null's most devastatingly destructive spell, for
instance, changed a small region of space so that 2+2=4.000000001 within that
volume, which caused the complete breakdown of physics, space and time.
Fortunately, reality "cauterized" around the hole made by his spell.  But the
upshot of this is that anyone with significant "Science Mage" powers will
find it very difficult to avoid confirmation bias and other strangeness in
their experiments.  A Mage wishing to work on real science has to stick to
purely theoretical pursuits, and even then should have someone as far away as
possible double-check the results of any calculations, just in case.


     A Savant is someone whose power lets them understand the rules of the
game at a superhuman level.  Savant abilities on their own are purely
interpretive, and often intuitive, meaning that the Savant may get the
desired answer but have difficulty explaining why it's right.  After all,
it's all fine and dandy knowing that the ultimate answer to life, the
universe and everything is "42", but not too useful without knowing the
ultimate question.  Still, knowing what you're working towards is rather
useful in science, so superscience Savants are much in demand even if they
can be frustrating to work with.

     Unfortunately, a Savant who is also a Mage will learn the rules of a
slightly different game than normals.  Their own ability to warp natural law
will tend to get factored into their intuition even if they're really careful
about trying to avoid that result.  Savant/Mage superhumans can become
frighteningly effective at creating useful supertech because they're good at
understanding why the things they make work the way they do, despite reality
insisting they shouldn't work at all.  But a Savant/Mage "dual class" won't
be very good at doing real science, because it's too hard for them to isolate
their own "super observer effect".

     Pure Savants are exceedingly rare, and not all of them even have a
talent for "hard science", instead having superhuman understanding of
language or music or social interactions.  And even those with an aptitude
for hard science tend to be steered into theoretical fields rather than risk
that they have an as-yet-unrevealed Mage power.  So, while there certainly
are Savant Super-Scientists in 2026, they tend not to show up in stories
because they're doing deep-background Basic Research rather than running
around in self-made power suits or even working on plot devices that might
let them get a speaking line or two in a story.

     Gimble (Macy Graves) is the only known TechnoSavant, who can intuitively
find ways to make devices that do astounding things without violating natural
law.  But she can't explain why they work, and a number of laboratories
funded by various governments and corporations exist solely for the purpose
of trying to reverse-engineer Gimble inventions.

     Warden is a kinesthetics Savant.  While many telepaths can quickly or
even instantly absorb skills from other people, most of them require
extensive practice to use those skills to full effect.  But Warden has a
Savant's grasp of how the humanoid body works, and can immediately put new
skills to good use.  (He still benefits from training, of course, just as a
science savant will benefit from traditional study.)

     Scarlet of The Reverse Engineers is a Technomage/Technosavant, with
Doctor Developer's influence being a big part of why she's nurtured her
Savant side rather than simply being a Technomage.  But even focusing on
"paratech" (see that her
adoptive father can use isn't enough to let her be a Reed Richards type who
can simultaneously advance real science and still throw around weird cosmic

     There may be a few other previously-seen ASH characters who would
qualify as more Savant than Mage, but they're a rare breed even among
supernormals, and the setting encourages them to be behind-the-scenes


     When you come down to it, the very nature of the ASH setting makes it
hard to be a proper Reed Richards type of character, specifically because I
declared most superhuman powers to be explicit violation of natural law
rather than trying to handwave a different set of laws that would let
superhero stuff happen (which is how most superhero settings work...they
simply say that things like causality and conservation laws aren't actually
true, even though the world as we know it couldn't work if they weren't).
So, by making super-technology easier to swallow, I excluded actual super-
science from the mix.  Ah well.

     Ironically, if there's going to be anyone who can successfully take
advantage of Violation Physics to advance Real Physics, it'll be a normal or
even an Anchor.  They'd be able to sort out the replicable results of the
Savant work from the lunacy of the Mages, and they'd be forced to figure out
a Savant's results in a way that others could understand.

     In other words, the closest the ASH Universe has to Reed Richards may
be...Doctor Developer.  Who just happened to be on a four-person team with
his wife.  ;)


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