Issue 12 Science (of) Fiction

Why are “rational” characters cold, arrogant jerks – and can we do better?

đź•’ 9 min

Sparks are flying everywhere. The ship is shaking from a barrage of enemy fire.

“If my calculations are correct, there is a 0.0243% chance of that plan succeeding!”, the rational character exclaims.

“Never tell me the odds!”, says the charismatic leader. The plan succeeds.

Similar situations happen episode after episode, improbable plans succeeding one after another, and the rational character never seems to think:

“Huh. I am really bad at estimating probabilities.”

You’ve seen it again and again – the “logical” character with a heart of stone, so tied to their “logic” that they frequently make mistakes when not-fully-rational agents, like humans, are a factor in an equation. No sci-fi crew is complete without one of them.

The lesson to take away from stories with characters like these is often framed as “emotion is better than logic”. Oftentimes there’s a protagonist representing Love and an antagonist representing Logic, and in the final confrontation the protagonist says something like “You forgot to factor in the power of Love!”, defeating the antagonist using sheer willpower.

Characters like these are called Straw Vulcans (coined by TVTropes) – a combination of the terms straw man (a caricature of an argument designed to be weak) and Vulcan, the famous Star Trek species from the planet Vulcan, known for eschewing emotion and embracing logic. It’s not a coincidence that the most popular Straw Vulcan is Spock himself, but other examples are Sheldon Cooper, Tuvok and Seven from Star Trek: Voyager, and some renditions of Sherlock Holmes.

There’s also the Insufferable Genius, who shares a lot of characteristics with the Straw Vulcan, but is also a very unfriendly person (think Sheldon Cooper, some renditions of Sherlock Holmes, and Rick from Rick and Morty). Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seems to be a parody of these tropes.

Assuming that everyone else is rational

Often you’ll see Straw Vulcans befuddled by actions of other people which, by the Straw Vulcan’s worldview, seem “irrational”. They often fail to keep in mind that people are, in fact, not all identical. This is a form of the typical mind fallacy.

This often manifests as a Straw Vulcan’s inability to plan in situations where other people are involved. One step of the plan goes horribly wrong because the antagonists don’t commit the “rational” action according to the Straw Vulcan, and the Straw Vulcan has no idea how to deal with it. For some reason, the Straw Vulcan projects their own rationality on their enemies and, one bad prediction after another, never seems to realize that they have a really bad model of other people.

Some shows try to have their cake and eat it too by having the Straw Vulcans say remarks like (imagine a monotone voice) “People are too illogical”, but nevertheless the Straw Vulcan is often surprised when someone acts “illogically”. If you’re constantly getting surprised by the same event, then maybe you have a bad model of the world, and need to update your anticipation of that event.

Repressing emotions and ignoring intuitions

The Straw Vulcan or the Insufferable genius will often say stuff like “Love is just chemical reactions in your brain” or “Art is a waste of time, math is much better”. They seem to forget that pretty much everything we experience seems to be a result of chemical reactions in the brain, and that, again, not all people are the same. They might find the same amount of beauty in math that someone else would find in a painting by Van Gogh.

It’s not useful to be normative about preferences, as then they’re basically saying “The things I like (something I don’t control) are better than the things you like (something you don’t control)” It’s not going to change anyone’s mind, and all it does is make the Straw Vulcan or the Insufferable Genius look smug.

Another manifestation of this trope is that Straw Vulcans often reject gut instincts out of hand. Just because you cannot explain in detail why you think someone is trustworthy, doesn’t mean that you can’t trust them. We are very good at picking up subtle cues, and intuition can be very useful, especially in social situations and/or when we need to decide quickly.

Not acting until 100% certain

Straw Vulcans can be very hesitant when a situation is uncertain. Even in quick life-or-death situations, Straw Vulcans will say things like “But we don’t know for certain what that action will lead to!”, often forgetting that inaction itself doesn’t pause the universe – a lack of action has consequences, which can be worse than the consequences of certain actions.

Straw Vulcans also seem to not understand that it is impossible to rationally be 100% certain in almost anything (I’m 95% certain in that), especially not the results of multi-step plans, where each step has a certain chance of not going as planned.

Eliminating the impossible

The most famous character guilty of this offense is Sherlock Holmes and it is called the Holmesian fallacy after him. It is encapsulated in his famous quote:

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

But this quote makes no sense. For someone to actually use this epistemology (way of coming to beliefs) properly, they’d have to be omniscient. In other words, they’d have to be able to think of every single possibility, which is very hard in most real-life scenarios.

This principle does hold in some very specific scenarios, but not in the way it’s used in media.

Let’s imagine a murder mystery. Your PC has stopped working, and the prime suspects are the RAM and the PSU. If you check the RAM and make sure it’s working, then we can be certain that “the RAM didn’t cause the PC to fail” is true, and the principle holds. Simple stuff.

But this tautology (logical statement which is always true) is the only place where you can consistently apply the principle. For any proposition P, it is either true that P is true or P is not true.

This doesn’t mean that, when you eliminate the possibility of “the RAM is the culprit”, you can be certain that “the PSU is the culprit” is true.

We don’t have the evidence to conclude this, because we might not have thought of every possibility. When I said that the RAM and the PSU are the prime suspects, I could have been wrong and not included the actual murderer in that list, or maybe I really don’t like RAMs and PSUs. Maybe there’s a loose cable, or the breaker shut off the power. As a general rule, it is very hard to think of all the possibilities in any complex situation, and we tend to underestimate the complexity of situations.

Dismissing everyone else’s views

Words are a great tool for communication, and Straw Vulcans and Insufferable Geniuses often underestimate the words of other people. If someone points out a flaw in their argument, they will often say something like “You see, my argument is logical and yours is not”, as if that’s going to convince anyone.

They seem to forget that other people are also (mostly) trying to get to the truth, and that other people’s conclusions can be very useful for double-checking our own conclusions.

Let’s say you’re at your friend’s house putting together a cake mix. Your friend has baked 20 cakes in their life, and you’ve only baked 5 cakes in your life. They think that, for the ingredients you’re put in so far, 300 grams of flour is the right amount. Your own estimate is 200 grams. You’re pretty sure that your friend is better than you at baking cakes, so you should probably weigh more towards their estimate, maybe somewhere around 280 grams.

And sure, sometimes it’s useful to dismiss certain people’s views on certain subjects out of hand (for example, if someone’s really bad at baking cakes), but most of the time it can be useful information. The fact that someone holds a belief can be evidence that the belief is true (most of the time). The better the epistemology of that person (in other words, the better they are at getting to the truth), the better the evidence.

Acting like a jerk

Media often promotes the idea that you either get to be smart or friendly. “Geniuses” are portrayed as selfish jerks who only care about other people insofar as it leads to their own benefit.

The most famous example of this is Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty. He frequently ignores others’ boundaries, acts as a policeman to the rest of the universe, and is generally a very bad person, but this is mostly framed as “he’s too smart to be a good person”.

Not to get too into psychoanalysis, but I wonder if this “too smart to be good” is a way to pander to unfriendly audience members, in order to give them a way to excuse their bad behavior, like “It’s not that I’m a bad person, it’s that I am very smart! I can’t be better to other people because that would make me dumb!”. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that everyone who watches Rick and Morty is unfriendly – I’m just saying that Rick’s character is probably attractive to unfriendly people who want to excuse their bad behavior.

A subcategory of this (which is both a Straw Vulcan and an Insufferable Genius) is the geek misogynist – practically every male character in the main cast of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon in particular, despite his alleged genius, often harasses women, treating them like emotional wrecks with no self-control, and this is played off as “Oh, it’s just Sheldon being too rational about women again”.

Smart and friendly aren’t mutually exclusive. People who think otherwise are probably either deluding themselves into excusing their own bad behavior, or victims of such people.

In conclusion

If you’re wondering where all the actually rational characters are hiding, I’ve got good news for you. There’s a whole genre called rational fiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. If you’re looking for an introductory book, I suggest the amazing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – the defining book of the genre.

If non-fiction is your thing, then I’d suggest taking a look at the Rationality Reading List – the books I’ve read from there so far have all been extremely good, so you probably won’t go wrong picking and reading any of them.

To summarize, people will often pick at flaws in rationality by saying something like “Too much rationality is harmful, it will lead to you making mistakes”, but the whole point of rationality is to get better at not making mistakes. It need not be shortsighted. In the words of Julia Galef:

If you think you’re acting rationally but you consistently keep getting the wrong answer, and you consistently keep ending worse off than you could be, then the conclusion you should draw from that is not that rationality is bad, it’s that you’re bad at rationality.
In other words, you’re doing it wrong!

Can you think of more examples of these tropes in media? ? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these tropes and rationality in the comments!

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