Confirmation Bias IN SPACE

So, there’s this episode of Star Trek TOS called “The Galileo Seven”. It’s not about a space probe Galileo VII, but seven people stranded in a shuttle craft on the surface of a planet while the Enterprise has lost all its sensors and has an ironclad deadline it must depart the system by in order to prevent a disaster elsewhere. The plot that gets these officers—which include several members of the ship’s essential personnel—onto the planet in order to create this situation is so absurd that I’ve incorporated it into my general dystopian Federation headcanon, but if it’s totally an excuse plot, it’s forgivable because the situation it sets up makes for a good story.

See, for the Enterprise to find the shuttle on the ground, they have to search the entire planet on foot. They have no way of finding it from orbit. And the planet is inhabited by space ogres, complicating things for both the search parties and the stranded crew. Spock, commanding the shuttle, fully realizes the futility of waiting for the ship to find them. His one goal is to get the shuttle into orbit, where it will the only thing in orbit, and they have a chance of signaling the Enterprise.

The time constraint and the Space Ogre attacks add a lot of tension in and of themselves, but there’s another element. As soon as things get tough, the crewmen of the week and Dr. McCoy resent Spock’s cold demeanor towards the situation at hand and the casualties they suffer. At every point along the way, Spock acts as though nothing concerns him except getting the shuttle off the ground and rendezvousing with the Enterprise. Which is a fair assessment, because that’s all he cares about. Except it’s not fair, because the survival of each and every remaining member of the party depends on that.

When it becomes clear how badly damaged the shuttle is, Spock calculates that they won’t be able to achieve lift-off with everyone on board. The humans immediately cry about how unfair it is that he (as commanding officer) gets to choose whether they live or die, and agitate for drawing lots. Spock insists on making the logical choice as to who gets left behind.

Now, this is a tangent, but I’m pretty sure that from the moment he made that announcement, he was planning on staying behind himself. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” was not yet an articulated part of the Vulcan ethos at that point, but the logic that leads to it is. None of the rest of the party seemed to consider it a possibility worth thinking about that the people on the shuttle could direct a rescue party to the coordinates they’d taken off from. Spock most assuredly would have, and would also have considered that his Vulcan physiology gave him a one-up when it came to surviving the harsh conditions of the planet and dealing with the locals.

The end of the episode is pretty brilliant except for badly misunderstanding what “logic” means. I know it’s decades old but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But spoiler warning: they do get off the planet.

The thing is, watching this episode for the first time as an adult, I noticed something that I’d never noticed before.


Mr. Scott.

Now, this is likely to be because his personality hadn’t really been that established much yet—this might have been the largest on-screen role he’d played in any episode at that point—but the thing is that for the entire episode, he is right there with Spock, working away with an even greater single-mindedness on the problem of fixing the shuttlecraft (which makes perfect sense, as he’s the one fixing it).

When a crewmember dies, he doesn’t stop to mourn any more than Spock does.

He’s the one who makes the determination of how much lift they’ll have, which is what results in the grim calculation of how many bodies they can carry aboard the ship.

He’s the one who comes up with the plan to use the power from the hand phasers to kickstart the shuttle’s engines, which results in the crew being disarmed.

Throughout the whole drama, nobody says a word against Scott. But for each of the points above, they blame Spock.

There’s a really deft point being made here, incidentally or not, about how confirmation bias intersects with just regular type bias.

Spock in this episode is cold, distant, and utterly fixed on the practical solution to the immediate problem at hand. These are seen as “Vulcan things”. When he does them, he’s “Acting Vulcan” in the eyes of the humans around him.

Scotty in this episode is also cold, distant, and utterly fixed on the practical solution to the immediate problem at hand. But that’s okay! He’s human. Nobody even notices it.

This is how it goes in real life, with any group that suffers stereotypes and caricatures: people’s perceptions and memories emphasize the things that confirm their prejudices, while ignoring the same behaviors in people outside the stereotype. It’s not a conscious choice, any more than anybody from the shuttlecraft took an objective look at the situation and said, “Now, Scott and Spock are acting the same, but I’m going to give Scott a pass because he’s human and I don’t have any particular stereotype for my own kind.” But it happens.

And so even though Spock’s solution to the final problem of the episode is in fact eminently logical, it might be that he didn’t correct the impression that it was an irrational reaction that saved everyone simply because he reasoned it was better—safer—if people thought that his human side had saved the day.