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There's No Place for Racism in the Final Frontier: Star Trek's Brilliant Episode on Discrimination

We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. 

This post originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.


Star Trek has ever been a beacon for equality. In the sci-fi show's bold vision for a space-faring future, mankind is united. All of Earth's genders and races step out into the vastness of space together.

When the original series first aired back in 1966, such a future was difficult to grasp. Though the Civil Rights Movement opened a portal to equality through which our country walked, not everyone was transported. Individual minds are not as easily changed as laws. No doubt many were uncomfortable when an African American actress, the stunning and intelligent Nichelle Nichols, appeared on screen, not as a futuristic maid, but as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. No doubt even more people were irked when she and William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk, shared what's popularly considered as the first interracial kiss on television.

Over Star Trek's six television iterations, there have been many episodes dealing with discrimination, but none perhaps so masterful and poignant as "Far Beyond the Stars." Appearing in the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the episode sees Captain Benjamin Sisko, portrayed by Avery Brooks, fall into a coma of sorts. In an altered state of consciousness, he becomes Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer on Earth in 1950s New York City. There, Russell is inspired to write a science fiction story about a futuristic space station called Deep Space Nine, captained by a black man: Captain Benjamin Sisko. At first, the story is rejected by his editor, simply for the reason that the protagonist is black. "People won't accept it; it's not believable," he argues. "For all we know it could cause a race riot." But a compromise is reached: what if the entire story is just a vision, dreamt up by a "poor negro"? Excited to have his story published, Russell celebrates with his fellow writers and his girlfriend. Sadly, the compromise fails when the owner of the magazine decides to scrap the entire issue and fire Russell rather than publish his story.

The episode broke through when it originally aired back in 1998, because unlike other charming Star Trek episodes that dealt with social issues, this one did not employ metaphor. It was brutal, at least as much as primetime television would allow. At one point, Benny Russell is beaten by bigoted white cops, similar to how his story is later pulped. The "N-word" was actually used and uncensored, a rarity for the series and for modern American television in general. Russell's story does not end happily. It ends with him, mentally and physically beaten, breaking down and sobbing among his co-workers.

"You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea!" he cries. "Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT'S REAL!"

Keep in mind, it wasn't the mental beating and anguish of being fired and having his story turned down that spurred Russell's breakdown. Nor was it even the physical beating he endured earlier. No, it was fomented by years of pernicious, prejudiced flogging that, ever so gradually, wore away at his psyche. Ounce by ounce, veiled racism weighed him down, until he collapsed.

“What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious,” Avery Brooks later explained. “It’s in the culture. It’s the way people think." The only overt racism in the episode came from the two intolerant cops that beat Russell, the rest of it was concealed in institution.

"It's not personal, Benny," Russell's editor explained when Russell is told that he can't have his picture appear in the science-fiction magazine. The readers simply can't know he's black. That's just the way things are, and the way things have to be. Sexism also made an appearance in the episode. One of Russell's co-workers, a woman, had to use a man's name just to be published.

It was the same institution portrayed in the episode that -- back in 1967 -- attempted to thwartSamuel R. Delany, a distinguished science fiction writer, and yes, an African American. Just like Russell, when Delany submitted his novel Nova to John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous sci-fi editor for Analog Magazine, Campbell rejected it because he didn't feel his readership would be able to relate to a black character.

"It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket," later remembered. "Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry..."

Too bad for Campbell, because Delany's Nova, would turn out to be a smash success.

Unlike what happened to Russell in "Far Beyond the Stars," Delany's experience ended happily. But, all too often, situations like those do not. We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. Eliminating racism is just as challenging as traveling amongst the stars. But if Star Trek is any portent, those two bright outcomes are inexorably linked. And just maybe, by the 24th century, they'll both be realized.

(Image: Star Trek)

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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

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Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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