Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Against Spock

When I used to get into arguments with religious/alt. med./supernaturalist/generally wrong people on the internet* I would often come up against a common TV trope. The Spock. "You want to be so rational," goes the argument, "but have you thought that The Spock is flawed for this reason?" The short answer is yes I have, I'm vastly more intelegent than you, of course I've thought about and dismissed your pathetic argument. But it's not polite to say this. I want to argue that the Spock trope is fundamentally misconceived, and that we perhaps need to alter what we generally mean when we say "rational".

First of, what is The Spock.

For a start it's not quite Mr Spock, it's the misremembered version of him. The Spock has several features:

  • Lacks all emotion.
  • Dislikes others.
  • Does not experience happiness or joy in simple things.
  • Refuses to act contrary to rules, no matter how necessary.
  • Responds to simple questions with numbers accurate to more decimal places than he can possibly have confidence in
  • Assumes all others will be like him.
  • Never uses contractions, loose grammar or slang and is often confused when others do
  • Refuses to accept that a thing shown to him exists if it sounds like a common myth (in a story where magic is real they will refuse to accept the fact)
  • Generally prefers his own idea of what is reasonable to the actual best explanation
Why is Spock a bad thing to be?

He's just flat wrong. He totally miscalculates how others will act by assuming them to be also Spocks. A lot of people who know a little about game theory will play the Spock and assume the right thing to do is what rational agents who know all other agents are rational will do. When playing "guess 2/3 the average" they will say 0. And then they'll loose. Because if you're playing with a pool of people many of whom are insane** (like Danish newspaper readers), playing 0 is a sure-fire way to loose. The sensible thing to do is accept that as a matter of fact most people are insane and try to predict what their crazy brains will do.

He is joyless. This is obviously a big fail. A Spock may be a useful pet. We may well want to design robot servants to be Spocks. But being one personally? Nope, obvious fail, if you're not enjoying life stop doing it, what is the point?

He also totally fails to adapt properly to the physics of the reality he is in. The Spock is not Genre-Savy, ie he acts as he would if the universe he was in were this one. This is universal amongst fictional characters to make them more believable, but the Spock makes it a virtue. Scully is The Spock when she insists "there must be a rational explanation" in fictional universes where the magic is real. Note that this insistence isn't a necessary condition. Velma isn't The Spock because every single time she says "there must be a rational explanation" she's right. In scoobyverse the ghost is *always* the janitor in a mask, to still be scared of ghosts in this universe isn't avoiding Spock, it's insanity. In the X-Files universe thinking that all those aliens are janitors in masks is being the Spock, because never once have you taken off the mask and found the janitor there.

This isn't just a problem in fiction. The problem is that The Spock is being prejudiced and not scientific. If your Captain has pulled off the last hundred "million to one chances" he attempted sooner or later you have to accept that your estimate of what a million to one chance looks like is just flat wrong. If you see aliens on a daily basis sooner or later you have to accept that not all of them are swamp gas. If you keep looking at quantum theory and cant find any experimental holes in it sooner or later you have to stop being wrong and accept that the universe doesn't conform to your idea of rationality.  

But isn't The Spock Rational and isn't Rational good?

First off, we can define words however we like. The only thing words are for is getting ideas across. If we are going to insist that what The Spock is should be called "rational" then yeh, he is. But I'm not rational, I'm trying hard to become less rational and anyone who is rational needs to stop that really really fast. If they dont they will end up somewhere strange and they will get things wrong and people will die.

To me this is an inefficient use of language. If we have to destroy a perfectly nice word which already has good connotations to it by saying "Rational should only be used to talk about Spock, dont ever be rational" that would be inconvenient. Much more pleasant to me is to say "No, rationality is a good thing, only Spock isn't rational, he's just insane." If we go down the second route we need to explain what good thing we want rational people to do so we can point to how Spock fails.

What do I mean when I tell someone to be rational

Either I'm being technical, I'm talking about a game theory situation and I want someone to simulate a "rational agent", then it's just a maths problem. But when I'm telling a person in the real world I mean something different. I mean:
  • Listen when the universe tells you something.
  • Dont think that your thoughts can influence reality without evidence.
  • Dont assume that you have found an exception to general law without evidence.
  • Dont let what you wish to be true influence what you think *is* true.
  • Dont act as though something you think isn't true is.
  • Dont act according to rules that you dont expect to be generally good.
  • Dont act according to a good rule if you know that this cases is an exception to the general logic.
  • Do act according to a good rule if you dont know that this case is an exception to the general logic.
  • No really, the universe doesn't work like that, find out with an actual experiment, dont listen to your common sense because it's just plain wrong.
Less Wrong defines this rather succinctly:
  1. Epistemic Rationality: systematically improving the correspondence between your expectations and what happens.
  2. Instrumental Rationality: Acting in a way that you expect (see above) will make those things happen that you want to see happen.
Or even less jargony
Expect things to happen that in fact will happen, do things that will in fact result in what you want to happen.
This seems to me the right thing to aim for. Notice no reference to emotion. Emotions can certainly make you believe in stupid things like the tooth fairy, homoeopathy or the general virtue of your political party. But emotions can perfectly reasonably be used to produce your values, what you want to see. You're never going to expect people to act in the way they do without understanding emotions. You're never going to care, frankly, if you dont experience joy when things work out right.

Dont be Spock, it's stupid. If you're ever tempted, or told, to do the wrong thing because it's rational dont do it. In that case either the word rational is wrong or being rational is a bad idea. More generally, dont do things because your label tells you to, do things because you honestly think it's the right thing to do.

*I've stopped doing this so much now. Not because it never works, sometimes it does. Not because it's the wrong thing, curing people of bad thoughts is totally the right thing. Just because I've become too cynical to care more about what a lot of people think than the effort it takes.
**It's incredible to think that there are literally hundreds of people out there who would guess more than 66 on "guess 2/3 the average". I just cant make my brain simulate what it must be like to have a mind that could make a decision like that.

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