The Straw Vulcan: Julia Galef's Talk at Skepticon 4

I know, I know. I keep saying “This was one of my favorite things from Skepticon 4.” That’s just how it is. Skepticon 4 was loaded with awesome. And Julia Galef’s talk on “The Straw Vulcan” was one of the awesomer pieces of awesome. She talks about pop- culture depictions of skepticism and rationality, especially in movies and TV — and how the form of rationality that’s depicted by Hollywood as hyper-rational is actually not rational at all. It’s a caricature, a straw-man version of rationality.

Galef’s talk is funny, smart, informed, informative, and highly engaging. It’s an excellent exposition of common myths about rationality — myths that even many rationalists and skeptics sometimes hold. It gives us excellent ammunition in debates and conflicts about the value of rationality with people who want to dismiss it. And it has lots of funny clips from “Star Trek.” How can you go wrong? You totally want to check it out. Enjoy!

The Straw Vulcan: Julia Galef's Talk at Skepticon 4

13 thoughts on “The Straw Vulcan: Julia Galef's Talk at Skepticon 4

  1. 1

    I’m gonna love this. It’s one of those topics I rarely see discussed despite being in my mind the thing that influences the worlds view about atheism/skepticism the most.

  2. 5

    I would also like to propose another explanation for one of her examples.

    When encountering phenomena like a dark blob, Star Trek makes the “James T Kirk” character respond intuitively correctly in every situation, but that kind of intuition is a device. I doubt that sort of intuition exists in reality. In my experience, making the right decision in a snap is mostly about luck.

    It then seems absurd for Spock to say, in effect, “I don’t know,” but admitting you know nothing is sometimes the most rational response to uncertainty, even if it’s life or death.

  3. 6

    A very interesting talk indeed. Very useful insights into what might be going on when people say tell me they dislike rationality — a discouragingly common occurrence.

    One minor quibble regarding her theory about the origin of the “only rational things to value are quantifiable things that don’t have to do with love or joy or beauty”, that it might come from “the way that economists talk about rationality, where a rational actor maximizes his expected monetary gain” (46:10 – 46:35):

    Modern microeconomics (partly) defines a “rational actor” as someone who maximizes his or her (expected) utility. The definition most certainly does not rule out the possibility of gaining utility from love, joy or beauty.

    It is true that any sort of mathematical solution requires these things to be quantified in the form of a Utility Function which may be optimized, with certain constraints, to provide an optimal course of action for any particular rational actor. This allows us to state, for example, that 15 minutes of watching a beautiful sunset is valued the same as being given $50, by someone in some situation.

    This means that, when it comes to economics, it is perfectly rational for a person to decide not to do any work or otherwise gain any sort of income, if said person would gain greater utility from (i.e. places greater value on) taking walks across the countryside, spending time with loved ones, etc.

    (Which is not to say that people actually are, on average, rational in the economic sense. They definitely are not, any more than they are rational in the sense used by Julia Galef.)

  4. 7

    Re: the segment from “The Galileo Seven,” there is an obvious problem with McCoy’s argument. McCoy asserts that the reason Spock’s plan of deterring the locals with a display of superior firepower failed because he didn’t take into account that the locals might react emotionally; but deterrence works by instilling fear in one’s opponent (specifically, a fear of being injured or even killed), and fear is no less an emotion than anger. So the flaw in Spock’s plan was not that he failed to take into account that his opponents might react emotionally, but that the emotion he counted on them to succumb to was a different one from (namely, aggression) what he expected (namely fear).

    And insofar as this is a flaw, it’s an understandable one, in that it’s well supported by evidence from all quarters. The idea that a display of superior strength will only make the target angry, rather than scared, is a common myth among humans. This ranges from the idea that swatting at a wasp will “only make it angry” to the idea that a show of strength in the face of some thug (from a mugger to an entire faction in a civil war) will “only escalate the situation.” In practice, however, all these ideas invariably do turn out to be myths, because the urge towards self-preservation generally overrides the urge to inflict harm on one’s enemies; “fighting to the death” only occurs when the individual believes he has nothing to lose and/or believes he will avert at least some harm to his “in group.”

    Thus, a wasp will sting only if it cannot flee, either to create an opportunity to flee, or to hurt the entity in order to hinder or deter it from presenting a threat in future to other wasps from the wasp’s nest. A parent may fight to the death to avert harm from his or her child. Soldiers may undertake actions which are extremely likely to get them killed if they believe doing so will result in fewer deaths among their fellow soldiers, or will prevent the enemy from threatening the homeland, or whatnot.

    But conversely, one can swat at a wasp buzzing around a picnic hamper and it will leave if it has an avenue of escape. In Bosnia, threats and displays of force by UNPROFOR troops invariably resulted in compliance, not escalation, by local paramilitary thugs.

    What I’m getting to, in a roundabout way, is that by any measure, Spock’s plan should have worked, and the only reason it didn’t was because the scriptwriter made the locals behave in an implausible way.

  5. 8

    In addition, Ms Galef’s points can’t possibly be valid because her knees are too sharp for her to be pretty, though if she were pretty, she would ipso facto be too dim to make a coherent argument. In short, “she’s a woman, she can’t possible be right about anything.”

    (And lest I invoke the wrath of Poe’s law, I was being sarky.)

  6. 9

    As Grim Redeemer points out, we can get ‘Utils’ – a unit’s worth of utility – from things that are less tangible and not able to be quantified. This is part of the Myth of Spock – that to be unemotional is rational. That which seems emotional and perhaps irrational makes sense to when viewed in terms of Utils.

    The idea of Utils is very helpful in answering a lot of questions we encounter every day, especially those of the “Why does he/she…” nature.

  7. 10

    Ver’ nice.

    A related peeve o’ mine is not so much in the ‘Straw Vulcan’ category, exactly…

    … it’s more an argument about rationality I seem to keep encountering.

    That being: since people are not perfectly rational, they shouldn’t even try. Might as well just go with ‘faith’, see, since the human mind is so fallible.

    I find this one at the root of the arguments of folk arguing for religion a lot. One of those fallback things you get to, after you point out to ’em an iron age text of suspect provenance isn’t really what you’d normally consider an unimpeachable source. Often see it running in company, in my observation, with that equally silly ‘since you cannot have purely/mathematically final proof my invisible sky fairy does not exist, my position is no worse than yours (and never mind the balance of evidence, and the fact that there aren’t a lot of things in the real world for which such an artificially silly standard of evidence is even possible, never mind in the company of my probably deliberately poorly-defined claims about my probably deliberately poorly-defined deity)…’

    That relation aside, I find this ‘since you cannot be perfectly rational you probably shouldn’t bother trying’ thing roughly as sensible as saying to a swimmer trying to make it to shore ‘since you aren’t a perfect swimmer, you should probably just give up now’.

    I do kinda wonder, tho’, if this, attitude, too, has something to do with the Straw Vulcans of the world. People get this notion that rationality is something only aliens and artificial intelligences concocted by aliens could get ‘right’, something other, and–apart from the fact that in the movies and on TV it never looks like much fun–if you’re not one of those aliens or AIs, well, hell, you’re not going to get anywhere close, anyway, so why bother trying.

    Oh, right, and speaking of Straw Vulcans: peeve number two, more actually in that category: the frequent insinuation that being rational/scientific actually just means being closed-minded, doctrinaire, dogmatic, closed to evidence as opposed to rigourous about things.

    Exhibit A, and one I do bang on about now and then: Scully from The X-Files. Doesn’t matter what she sees*, what happens, this couldn’t be a conspiracy or aliens… And never mind that if anyone actually sane were actually in the world the special effects people are rendering all around her, an actually rational person would rather quickly be conceding, fine, yeah, there’s somethin’ pretty damned otherworldly up, here, all right.

    … see, no, scientists aren’t actually evaluating evidence. They’re just blindly and stubbornly adhering to some conventional wisdom. There’s any number of creationists could have written the meta-script, here.

    (*/Oh, and of course, unrelated, but every bit as problematic, she almost inevitably sees that little bit less than Mulder… shows up five seconds later, gets knocked down before the saucer flies overhead, y’know… So, clearly, these are the real reasons people don’t Believe™–this peculiar combination of rather incredibly improbably consistent bad timing and mere doctrinaire bullheadedness.)

  8. 11

    AJ, thank you for mentioning Scully; she is the archetypal (but by no means the only) example of a supposedly skeptical character whose “skepticism” consists primarily of being, as you say, “closed-minded, doctrinaire, dogmatic, closed to evidence as opposed to rigourous about things.” During the 1990s, before I self-identified as a skeptic (though the seeds had been sown by Stephen Fry), I had some blazing rows with my flatmates because I thought The X-Files was massively overrated and its treatment of conspiracy theories stretched my willing suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. In particular, I get so bored with sooper-sekrit conspiratorial organizations within the government managing to influence events without leaving a trace because nobody every questions their phony credentials but immediately and unquestioningly carries out their bidding, instead of saying “this isn’t your bailiwick, and I’m not doing squat for you until I get independent confirmation that you do actually work for the NSA/CIA/DIA/DoE.”

  9. 12

    I think a lot of the problems Galef pointed out boiled down to the simple misconception that “rational” is interchangeable with “unemotional.” She got there eventually, but a fair number of words were spent dancing around it before and after. Most Straw-Vulcan writing comes, I think, from treating rationality as an affect instead of a process. Probably the most compelling thing in her presentation was the bit about the brain-damaged people who could barely function because their capacity for emotion was so far reduced. I’d heard about that before, and it’s such powerful evidence against Straw-Vulcanism that it practically stands without comment.

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