Debunking Straw Vulcan Rationality

The Straw Vulcan is a nice trope for Hollywood to use such that Captain Kirk can save the day, but in reality we can't be emotionless.

It's a common belief about rationality that being rational means being emotionless, being stiff, unable to appreciate beauty in the world, unable to love or even just have fun on a summer day.


In large part I blame Hollywood for this misconception because it is commonly how rationality is portrayed in Hollywood. And in particular I blame Mr. Spock on Star Trek for being the poster child for this caricature of rationality. This caricatured vision of rationality has a name, which I didn't come up with, although I wish I had.  It's called the Straw Vulcan.  This was coined by the website TV Tropes.  It's a play on the expression "a straw man," which is like a weakened caricature of your opponent's argument that's easy to knock down.  

So this vision of rationality as being stiff and wooden and emotionless is a caricature because that is not what real rationality looks like. But Hollywood likes narratives where the passion-driven, intuition-driven, spontaneous, flawed, yet endearing hero like Captain Kirk rushes in to save the day when rationality fails.  

So the Straw Vulcan is a nice trope for Hollywood to use such that Captain Kirk can save the day, but in reality there is nothing about viewing the world accurately and making effective decisions that naturally implies being emotionless. In fact, if you look at people like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, the science guy, all of whom are passionate advocates of a rational worldview, none of them are lacking joy or excitement or passion.

So I blame Hollywood in large part for this, but there are other misconceptions about rationality beyond the idea that you would have to be emotionless if you reason accurately about the world.  So for example, Spock tends to assume that other people will make decisions rationally and that's one of the reasons that he ends up getting into trouble, because of course people don't behave rationally.  T

The human brain is not wired to be rational.  We make great decisions in a lot of cases.  Our intuition is often very reliable, but as cognitive science has learned there are systematic ways and systematic situations in which human brains make mistakes. And Spock has repeated data about this, which he fails to update his views on, which is actually a case of irrationality, not rationality.

In Their Own Words is recorded by experts in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy fo Shutterstock. 

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less

Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…