Just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite

Friday, June 11th, 2021

In The Scout Mindset Julia Galef argues that Star Trek’s Spock is a “Straw Vulcan” — a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish — but Tim Hartford sees him as a rather typical economist:

There is another way that we economists might learn from observing Spock’s mistakes. He is a truly terrible forecaster. Galef, rather delightfully, has gone through the full catalogue of Star Trek, finding every occurrence she could of Spock making a prediction.

“[There’s] only a very slight chance [this plan] would work,” Spock tells Captain James T Kirk at one stage. The plan works. “Intercepting all three ships is an impossibility,” he warns Kirk during another adventure. Kirk intercepts all three ships. The chance of a daring escape? “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to one.” They escape.


Yet this sort of overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry. We seem to have an unslakable thirst for knowledge about the future. Sadly, knowledge about the future is not easy to acquire, so we satisfy ourselves with the pretence of knowledge. If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured. Spock does, every time.

“My choice will be a logical one,” he upbraids a subordinate, shortly before making another fatal error, “arrived at through logical means.”

Well said. But his record is not so good. According to Galef’s tally, when Spock says something is “impossible” it happens 83 per cent of the time, and when he gives something more than a 99.5 per cent chance, it happens just 17 per cent of the time. (He does OK with his forecasts of “likely”.) This makes him a reliably contrarian indicator, as Kirk seems to have realised — just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite.

Failing that, if you want to become a better forecaster, do what Galef did: look back at old forecasts and keep score.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    I always joke that when a liberal looks in the mirror, they see pointy ears. Mirror mirror on the wall, who has the pointiest ears of them all?

  2. Nels says:

    Spock was set up to fail? Or Kirk to succeed?

    Really, attempting to do rational analysis on a scriptwriter’s imagination is just stupid.

  3. Altitude Zero says:

    “Really, attempting to do rational analysis on a scriptwriter’s imagination is just stupid.”

    Yeah, when I was reading this, I was thinking, “Does this person really not understand that Star Trek was a TV show and not a documentary?” I mean, it’s most certainly true that rationality has its limits (fairly narrow, in fact), and may be impossible anyway… but to use a 1960s space opera as an example? Words fail me. Anyway, as any SJW will tell you, all the writers on the original Star Trek were human, and hence were racist against Vulcans and their Ways Of Knowing.

  4. Goober says:

    Anyone with even a tenuous grasp on reality will understand that calculating probability amongst the chaos of reality is a fool’s errand.

    You see this a lot in quite a number of current debates. Probably the most obvious is the creationist “debunk” of naturalism and science, essentially saying that if you take into account the probability of all of the things that they claim are “necessary” for life to exist on Earth, that the “odds” of all of that happening naturally are so slim that, they argue, there absolutely must be a creator out there that put all those things in place.

    Jupiter’s gravity protecting us from asteroids. The magnetoshpere. The exact positioning of Earth. The sun being just right. Etc, etc.

    The problem is that they are misunderstanding probability and odds, versus the actual naturalistic argument.

    In much the same way as the example of ten people in a room… The “odds” associated with those ten people having the exact set of birthdays that they have have on the order of trillions to one. The probability of that is almost insurmountable, and yet…

    …there they are, with that exact set of birthdays.

    That happens literally every time ten people walk into a room together.

    The absolute chaos of reality doesn’t really subscribe to odds. To “calculate” the probability of something happening in the future is just completely impossible. The fact that Spock consistently tried to do so paints him as more of a hubristic fool than a wise sage.

    As for naturalism vs creation, the fact is that they’re getting it entirely backwards. They look at the situation where life must always ascribe to the conditions here on Earth, so it’s a miracle that Earth has the absolute perfect conditions for life, but fail to recognize that EARTH WAS HERE FIRST, and life evolved to survive in the conditions that Earth offered.

    There’s no reason to think that if any one, or even any number, of those variables that they tout to create their “probability” were completely unnecessary for life to thrive here. However, the life that evolved on a theoretical “different” Earth would just be different than what we see, because it would have evolved to survive the different conditions that it was presented with. Assuming that that life eventually reached sentience, they might go on about how THEIR conditions were perfect and make the same argument.

    Earth, for instance, wasn’t even remotely close to as docile an environment when life first appeared. There were even periods in Earth’s history, after life appeared, when it became even more hostile to the life that lived there. Original life on Earth was anaerobic, for instance, and oxygen was completely toxic to it. There was even a “crisis” once the oxygen levels got high enough, requiring life to evolve to live and even capitalize on an oxygen rich environment.

    Earth without a magnetosphere? Life exists that could easily deal with the solar radiation that would occur.

    Life without Jupiter? Earth has been hit by multiple extra-terrestrial objects and life lives on.

    Etc, etc. Reality doesn’t subscribe to probability. It does what it does.

  5. Purpleslog says:

    Star Trek portrayed Vulcans as overconfident and as looking down on other other species. Recall in ST: Enterprise the female Vulcan science officer proclaiming that “the Vulcan science academy has proven that time-travel is impossible” when the subject of time-travel is raised.

  6. Bile Jones says:

    The magic number for spurious forecasting is 40%. “I think it has a 40% chance…” If it happens, you were right to raise the topic. Iit didn’t you were still right because you said it was not likely,

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