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Expert says Spock is a 'caricature' of rationality, and has data to prove it

By Matthew Jackson

Spock is famous for logic. Ask anyone, even people who aren't necessarily Star Trek fans, and they'll tell you that the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise is the guy who's always looking for the most logical, rational way to tackle any problem, whether we're talking about discovering new life and new civilizations or just trying to figure out what to have for lunch. But does that approach always serve Spock well? One expert says no, and she has the data to prove it. 

In her new book The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't, Center for Applied Rationality co-founder Julia Galef attempted to tabulate just how successful Spock's "logical" way of living actually is in various Star Trek adventures. To do that, she began by doing what a lot of us have done and essentially set out on a massive rewatch, looking for key terms to define Spock's approach to various problems. 

“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.,” Galef, who also hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast, said on a new episode of Wired's Geek's Guide to the Galaxy. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

We all know this particular setup. Kirk wants to do something, or Bones implores Spock to listen to him, and Spock coolly responds with some version of logic or reason as to why that shouldn't be the approach. So, how often is Spock right? According to Galef, in 83 percent of instances in which Spock describes an outcome as "impossible," the show proves him wrong. 

“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," she said. 

The results, at least for Galef, speak for themselves. Spock is not the model of reason and logic pop culture has led us to believe he is.

“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 said. “That’s the show’s way of proving that, ‘Aha! Logic and reason and rationality aren’t actually all that great.'”

Even if we hold true to the idea that this is some kind of message Star Trek is sending us about logic vs. emotion, what does that say about Spock's development as a character? Even if logic doesn't always serve him well, he's still a demonstrably smart being, so why doesn't he change his approach? Well, there's a reason for that too, and it has to do with how Spock sees the universe.

“He’s not a spring chicken,” Galef said. “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.'”

So, the next time you sit down for a Star Trek marathon, keep this view of Spock in mind, and see if it changes the dynamic of that original Enterprise crew in your eyes.