Sunday, 9 June 2013

Star Trek and the Death of Expertise

Just a quick head's up, there are spoilers in this blog for Star Trek Into Darkness, so if you haven't seen it yet... well, you've been warned.

Not what I originally wanted for this graphic, but how could I not use it?

I think I've already been kind of vocal (on Twitter) about how disappointing I found Star Trek Into Darkness, the second film in JJ Abrams's rebooted Trek franchise. A lot of it didn't make sense (like why the hell were Kirk and Bones stealing that scroll from the aliens in the beginning?), it messed with old Trek pretty clumsily (the whole Khan thing, the way Kirk saves the ship at cost of his own life and then gets resurrected by that tribble), and it just dragged on.

For the record, there were things I liked about it: the rebooted Klingons were pretty cool, it was big and loud and 'splodey, and the civilian costumes didn't look quite as stupid as they did on the TV shows from the 90s. Although I couldn't help thinking that the grey Starfleet uniforms made Kirk and Spock look like they were Imperial officers from Star Wars.

"It's true, Jim, I'm being assigned to the Death Star."

"I don't recall authorizing that."

But one of the things that lost me early on was how Kirk keeps getting reassigned to command of the Enterprise, despite being clearly unqualified; all he seems to have to do is hang around on the bridge long enough for his commanding officer to get killed. It was kind of silly in the previous movie - Captain Pike goes off to be tortured by Nero, leaves Spock in command, Kirk makes Spock show emotion or something, and quickly deposes Spock as captain.

But if that was ridiculous, then how much more ridiculous is the whole business in STID where Kirk gets reassigned to be Pike's executive officer, and five minutes later Khan slaughters Pike and Kirk is once again in the big chair? It begs the question of whether Kirk's been slipping backhanders to all these bad guys, just to get the ever-unfortunate Captain Pike out of the way.

I understand that the scriptwriters needed to get all of the characters in place for the good stuff. In the TV shows, every single one of the captains is smart, competent, with all kinds of experience that led them to the bridge of their respective ships (or space station, in Captain Sisko's case), but that doesn't necessarily make for a good movie. On the other hand, all I could think here was, what exactly makes Kirk (in these two movies) qualified to command the Starfleet flagship, when he hasn't even graduated from the academy or paid his dues through the chain of command? If Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof are to be believed, it's that he's decisive and not hamstrung by logic or procedure.

Sound familiar?
No! Stop asking!

I doubt the rebooted Star Trek movies had any kind of clever thing to say about the state of world affairs. And that's okay, y'know. I still maintain that Christopher Nolan got it so, so right in the Dark Knight - despite the fact that I never once thought George W Bush did a good job handling the War on Terror. But it feels like part of an undercurrent in the media where we don't trust experts to be good at their jobs.

A lot of economists and authors have made a lot of money in the last decade suggesting that even the smartest experts can't predict big, unexpected events. I haven't read Nassim Nicholas Taleb (but I plan to), but based on what I've heard, I kind of take issue with the idea that nobody in charge could have predicted the massive crash we experienced in 2008 - experts could (and should) have predicted that the massive bubble was coming. That's why they're experts: they're meant to understand what the trends in their respective fields mean.

You might say that hindsight is always 20/20, and you'd be right. The real issue is that these things happen, and so normal people come away with the idea that no expert anywhere can be trusted, in any field. I remember talks with a former work friend, years and years ago, who couldn't be proved wrong; it didn't matter whether you'd studied a subject, or wrote about it for a living, he always knew better. He as much as said on one or two occasions that he never believed what "experts" had to say about anything.

In practice, you see this with how people think and talk about politicians. I read somewhere that the prevailing opinion among the electorate is currently that you only go into politics if there's something kind of wrong with you (like, Asperger's syndrome or something, that being the new vogue diagnosis). Those jerks in Washington are out of touch? Let's toss the bums out every couple of years and get someone new in.

The problem is that you start to run out of people who know how to craft legislation, who know how to build consensus, or work with others of differing opinions to get things done. These aren't skills that people are born with, so the less time elected officials have in office, the less time they have to learn these skills. I'm not saying unequivocally that there shouldn't be term limits, but someone needs to think through, for example, how to avoid lame duck syndrome setting in when a representative or senator or MP is on their last term.

Because you know what the real effect of sowing mistrust of "experts" among the electorate or the wider public is? An unengaged public that doesn't pay attention when actors with bad intentions - such as the Koch Brothers or these think-tanks that run around writing the same legislation for multiple states to use in disenfranchising minorities and the poor or in eroding civil liberties.

And that, to bring things back around, really isn't in the spirit of Star Trek. Just like these two most recent movies.