Summary of “The Straw Vulcan”

Fol­lowup to: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing ra­tio­nal­ity to the pub­lic: Ju­lia Galef’s “The Straw Vul­can”

The Straw VulcanI wrote a sum­mary of Ju­lia Galef’s “The Straw Vul­can” pre­sen­ta­tion from Skep­ti­con 4. Note that it is writ­ten in my own words, but all of the ideas should be cred­ited to Ju­lia and her pre­sen­ta­tion (un­less I un­in­ten­tion­ally mis­rep­re­sent any of them!).


The clas­sic Hol­ly­wood ex­am­ple of ra­tio­nal­ity is the Vul­cans from Star Trek. They are de­picted as an ul­tra-ra­tio­nal race that has es­chewed all emo­tion from their lives.

But is this truly ra­tio­nal? What is ra­tio­nal­ity?

A “Straw Vul­can”—an idea origi­nally defined on TV Tropes—is a straw man used to show that emo­tion is bet­ter than logic. Tra­di­tion­ally, you have your ‘ra­tio­nal’ char­ac­ter who thinks perfectly ‘log­i­cally’, but then ends up run­ning into trou­ble, hav­ing prob­lems, or failing to achieve what they were try­ing to achieve.

Th­ese char­ac­ters have a sort of fake ra­tio­nal­ity. They don’t fail be­cause ra­tio­nal­ity failed, but be­cause they aren’t ac­tu­ally be­ing ra­tio­nal. Straw Vul­can ra­tio­nal­ity is not the same thing as ac­tual ra­tio­nal­ity.

What is real ra­tio­nal­ity?

There are two differ­ent con­cepts that we re­fer to when we use the word ‘ra­tio­nal­ity’:

1. The method of ob­tain­ing an ac­cu­rate view of re­al­ity. (Epistemic Ra­tion­al­ity) — Learn­ing new things, up­dat­ing your be­liefs based on the ev­i­dence, be­ing as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble, be­ing as close to what is true as pos­si­ble, etc.

2. The method of achiev­ing your goals. (In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity) — What­ever your goals are, be them self­ish or al­tru­is­tic, there are bet­ter and worse ways to achieve them, and in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity helps you figure this out.

Th­ese two con­cepts are ob­vi­ously re­lated. You want a clear model of the world to be able to achieve your goals. You also may have goals re­lated to ob­tain­ing an ac­cu­rate model of the world.

How do these con­cepts of ra­tio­nal­ity re­late to Straw Vul­can ra­tio­nal­ity? What is the Straw Vul­can con­cep­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity?

“Straw Vul­can” Ra­tion­al­ity Principles

Straw Vul­can Prin­ci­ple #1: Be­ing ra­tio­nal means ex­pect­ing other peo­ple to be ra­tio­nal too.

Galef uses an ex­am­ple from Star Trek where Spock, in an at­tempt to pro­tect the crew of the crashed ship, de­cides to show ag­gres­sion against the lo­cal aliens so that they will be scared and run away. In­stead, they are an­gered by the dis­play of ag­gres­sion and at­tack even more fiercely, much to Spock’s dis­may and con­fu­sion.

But this isn’t be­ing ra­tio­nal! Spock’s model of the world is severely tar­nished by his silly ex­pec­ta­tion for ev­ery­one else to be as ra­tio­nal as he would be. Real ra­tio­nal­ity would re­quire you to try to un­der­stand all as­pects of the situ­a­tion and act ac­cord­ingly.

Straw Vul­can Prin­ci­ple #2: Be­ing ra­tio­nal means never mak­ing a de­ci­sion un­til you have all the in­for­ma­tion.

This seems to as­sume that the only im­por­tant crite­ria for mak­ing de­ci­sions is that you make the best one given all the in­for­ma­tion. But what about things like time and risk? Surely those should fac­tor into your de­ci­sions too.

We know in­tu­itively that this is true. If you want a re­ally awe­some sand­wich you may be will­ing to pay an ex­tra $1.00 for some cheese, but you wouldn’t pay $300 for a small in­crease in the qual­ity of a sand­wich. You want the best pos­si­ble out­come, but this re­quires si­mul­ta­neously weigh­ing var­i­ous things like time, cost, value, and risk.

What is the most ra­tio­nal way to find a part­ner? Take this ex­am­ple from Gerd Gigeren­zer, a well-re­spected psy­chol­ogy de­scribing how a ra­tio­nal­ist would find a part­ner:

“He would have to look at the prob­a­bil­ities of var­i­ous con­se­quences of mar­ry­ing each of them—whether the woman would still talk to him af­ter they’re mar­ried, whether she’d take care of their chil­dren, what­ever is im­por­tant to him—and the util­ities of each of these…After many years of re­search he’d prob­a­bly find out that his fi­nal choice had already mar­ried an­other per­son who didn’t do these com­pu­ta­tions, and ac­tu­ally just fell in love with her.”

But clearly this isn’t op­ti­mal de­ci­sion mak­ing. The ra­tio­nal thing to do isn’t to merely wait un­til you have as much in­for­ma­tion as you can pos­si­bly have. You need to fac­tor in things like how long the re­search is tak­ing, the de­creas­ing num­ber of available part­ners as time passes, etc.

Straw Vul­can Prin­ci­ple #3: Be­ing ra­tio­nal means never rely­ing on in­tu­ition.

Straw Vul­can ra­tio­nal­ity says that any­thing in­tu­ition-based is illog­i­cal. But what is in­tu­ition?

We have two sys­tems in our brains, which have been un­ex­cit­ingly called Sys­tem 1 and Sys­tem 2.

Sys­tem 1—the in­tu­itive sys­tem—is the older of the two and al­lows us to make quick, au­to­matic judg­ments us­ing short­cuts (i.e. heuris­tics) that are usu­ally good most of the time, all while re­quiring very lit­tle of your time and at­ten­tion.

Sys­tem 2—the de­liber­a­tive sys­tem—is the newer of the two and al­lows us to do things like ab­stract hy­po­thet­i­cal think­ing and make mod­els that ex­plain un­ex­pected events. Sys­tem 2 tends to do bet­ter when you have more re­sources and more time and worse when there are many fac­tors to con­sider and you have limited time.

Take a sam­ple puz­zle: A bat and ball to­gether cost $1.10. If the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

When a group of Prince­ton stu­dents were given this ques­tion, about 50% of them got it wrong. The cor­rect an­swer is $0.05, since then the bat would cost $1.05 for a to­tal of $1.10. The wrong an­swer of $0.10 is eas­ily gen­er­ated (in­cor­rectly) by our Sys­tem 1, and our Sys­tem 2 ac­cepts it with­out ques­tion.

Your Sys­tem 1 is prone to bi­ases, and it is also in­cred­ibly pow­er­ful. Our in­tu­ition tends to do well with pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions or other choices about our per­sonal lives. Sys­tem 1 is also very pow­er­ful for an ex­pert. Chess grand­mas­ters can glance at a chess­board and say, “white check­mates in three moves,” be­cause of the vast amount of time and men­tal effort spent play­ing chess and build­ing up a men­tal knowl­edge base about it.

In­tu­ition can be bad and less re­li­able when based on some­thing not rele­vant to the task at hand or when you don’t have ex­pert knowl­edge on the topic. You opinions of AI may be heav­ily in­fluenced by scifi movies that have lit­tle ba­sis in re­al­ity.

The main thing to take away from this Sys­tem 1 and 2 split is that both sys­tems have strengths and weak­nesses, and ra­tio­nal­ity is about find­ing the best path—us­ing both sys­tems at the right times—to epistemic and in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity.

Be­ing “too ra­tio­nal” usu­ally means you are us­ing your Sys­tem 2 brain in­ten­tion­ally but poorly. For ex­am­ple, teenagers were crit­i­cized in an ar­ti­cle for be­ing “too ra­tio­nal” be­cause they could rea­son them­selves into things like drugs and speed­ing. But this isn’t a prob­lem with be­ing too ra­tio­nal; it’s a prob­lem with be­ing very bad at Sys­tem 2 rea­son­ing!

Straw Vul­can Prin­ci­ple #4: Be­ing ra­tio­nal means not hav­ing emo­tions.

Ra­tion­al­ity and emo­tions are of­ten por­trayed in a cer­tain way in Straw Vul­can ra­tio­nal­ists, such as when Spock is ex­cited to see that Cap­tain Kirk isn’t dead, and then quickly cov­ers up his emo­tions. The sim­plis­tic Hol­ly­wood por­trayal of emo­tions and ra­tio­nal­ity is as fol­lows:

Note that emo­tions can get in the way of tak­ing ac­tions on our goals. For ex­am­ple, anx­iety causes us to over­es­ti­mate risks; de­pres­sion causes us to un­der­es­ti­mate how much we will en­joy an ac­tivity; and feel­ing threat­ened or vuln­er­a­ble causes us to ex­hibit more su­per­sti­tious be­hav­ior and and likely to see pat­terns that don’t ex­ist.

But emo­tions are also im­por­tant for mak­ing the de­ci­sions them­selves. Without hav­ing any emo­tional de­sires we would have no rea­son to have goals in the first place. You would have no mo­ti­va­tions to choose be­tween a calm beach and a nu­clear waste site for your va­ca­tion. Emo­tions are nec­es­sary for form­ing goals; ra­tio­nal­ity is lame with­out them!

[Galef noted in a com­ment that the in­tended mean­ing is in line with “Emo­tions are nec­es­sary for form­ing goals among hu­mans, ra­tio­nal­ity has no nor­ma­tive value to hu­mans with­out goals.”]

This leaves us with a more ac­cu­rate por­trayal of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween emo­tions and ra­tio­nal­ity:

How do emo­tions make us ir­ra­tional? Emo­tions can be epistem­i­cally ir­ra­tional if they are based on a false model of the world. You can be an­gry at your hus­band for not ask­ing how your pre­sen­ta­tion at work went, but then upon re­flec­tion re­al­ize you never told him about it so how would he know it hap­pened? Your anger was based on a false model of re­al­ity.

Emo­tions can be in­stru­men­tally ir­ra­tional if they get in the way of you achiev­ing your goals. If you feel things are hope­less and there are no ways to change the situ­a­tion, you may be wrong about that. Your emo­tions may pre­vent you from tak­ing nec­es­sary ac­tions.

Our emo­tions also in­fluence each other. If you have a de­sire to be liked by oth­ers and a de­sire to sit on a couch all day, you may run into prob­lems. Th­ese de­sires may in­fluence and con­flict with each other.

We can also change our emo­tions. For ex­am­ple, cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy has many ex­er­cises and tech­niques (e.g. Thought Records) for chang­ing your emo­tions by chang­ing your be­liefs.

Straw Vul­can Prin­ci­ple #5: Be­ing ra­tio­nal means valu­ing only quan­tifi­able things, like money, effi­ciency, or pro­duc­tivity.

If it isn’t con­crete and mea­surable then there is no rea­son to value it, right? Things like beauty, love, or joy are just ir­ra­tional emo­tions, right?

What are the prob­lems with this? For starters, money can’t be valuable in and of it­self, be­cause it is only a means to ob­tain other val­ued things. Also, there is no rea­son to as­sume that money and pro­duc­tivity are the only things of value.

The Main Takeaway

Galef finishes off with this fi­nal mes­sage:

“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!

You're Doing It Wrong!

First three images are from mea­sure­of­ > The Straw Vul­can: Hol­ly­wood’s illog­i­cal ap­proach to log­i­cal de­ci­sion­mak­ing.
You’re Do­ing It Wrong image from