Turns Out, Spock Is Kinda Bad at Logic

Julia Galef, host of the Rationally Speaking podcast and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, is not impressed with the hyper-rational Vulcans on Star Trek.

“Spock is held up as this exemplar of logic and reason and rationality, but he’s set up, in my opinion, as almost a weak caricature—a straw man—of reason and rationality, because he keeps making all these dumb mistakes,” Galef says in Episode 462 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “That’s the show’s way of proving that, ‘Aha! Logic and reason and rationality aren’t actually all that great.’”

In the franchise, Spock makes confident predictions based on his superior Vulcan mind. Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

“He’s not a spring chicken,” Galef says. “He’s interacted with non-Vulcans before, and so presumably he’s had lots of opportunities to see that, actually, lots of people don’t behave the way he thinks they—rationally —should behave. And yet he fails to learn from those instances of missed predictions because instead he just shrugs and says, ‘Well, the world didn’t behave the way it should have.’”

Listen to the complete interview with Julia Galef in Episode 462 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Julia Galef on epistemic confidence vs. social confidence:

“We tend to conflate two different things that we mean by the word ‘confidence.’ One of them I call ‘epistemic confidence,’ and that’s how much certainty you have in your beliefs. Are you 100 percent certain your company is going to succeed or are you only 30 percent certain? … And then the other type of confidence is what I call ‘social confidence,’ and that’s about how self-assured you are. Do you have good posture? Do you speak in a confident tone of voice? Do you go out and take charge and make things happen? Are you comfortable speaking in front of groups and putting your ideas out there? And what I learned—both from looking at the few academic studies that I actually thought were decent, and then also looking at real-life case studies, like Jeff Bezos—is that social confidence is what matters for winning people over and getting them to look up to you and follow you.”

Julia Galef on status quo bias:

“Some people will argue, ‘No, it’s good that the human lifespan is only about 85 years. Even if we could find a way to extend that, we shouldn’t.’ And they have various reasons for why that would be bad. ‘If we lived longer, we would get bored’ or ‘If we lived longer, the pace of change in society would be too slow, because social mores and new innovations change by older generations dying out and new generations getting to take their place in society.’ … To test to see whether your motivation to defend the current lifespan is partly the result of status quo bias, you can imagine that an 85-year lifespan was not the status quo, and that instead the status quo was 170 years. Would you then feel like it was a good thing if that lifespan was cut in half—down to 85—by some genetic mutation? Would you say, ‘Yes! Now society will start to change faster’? Or would you say, ‘No, this is such a tragedy that we used to get to live 170 years and now we’re only living 85 years’? So I think flipping that around can really change your intuitions about which lifespan is preferable.”

Julia Galef on the outsider test:

“The thought experiment is to imagine an alien just teleported into your body—into your position—and is now finding themselves in your life, faced with these decisions, but without all of the emotional baggage that you have from the fact that you’ve been doing this for years. So the alien is just asking themselves, ‘Here I am. I’m faced with the decision now of two more years of grad school in exchange for this degree, or doing something else. Which seems better to me?’ Imagining how this alien in your position would choose—or how the choice would seem to them—I think can be a good way to strip away all of that baggage and see what seems like the best thing to do in the situation, setting aside the fact that it’s me.”

Julia Galef on the Batman TV show:

“I was a 17-year-old, and I thought that this was what people in the ’60s considered a serious adventure show, a serious drama. So I just felt very superior to them—’I can see how cheesy this is, because I’m sophisticated, but those people in the ’60s were too unsophisticated to know how dumb this all is.’ And I think I said as much to some people—I referenced how unsophisticated people in the ’60s were—and at some point someone said to me, ‘You know, Julia, it was always intended as camp. Everyone watching in the ’60s saw it in the same cheeseball way as you saw it.’ … And after they explained that, it was obvious to me, and I was kind of shaken that I had assumed that people in the ’60s could be so stupid, and that that didn’t seem surprising to me, and I didn’t question it.”

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