Every Trekkie knows that the people most likely to die on any given episode of the original Star Trek are the Starfleet crew members wearing red. But, mathematician James Grime wants fans to realize that the assumption that a redshirt has a high probability of dying has been convoluted by a few misconceptions. In reality, he explained to Inverse, it is the goldshirts that are more likely to die.
Grime started this controversial discussion on April 6, at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, when he delivered a lecture called “The Math of Khan” about statistical probability as it relates to the deaths of redshirts in the classic Star Trek. His contentious conclusion — that being a redshirt probably wasn’t so bad after all — set the internet on fire. But Grime is adamant that people understand the purpose of the exercise. “The point is to teach people to be careful with conditional probability, which has real-world applications in DNA testing, criminal prosecution, and medical trials,” Grime says.
Conditional probability refers to the chance that one event will happen given that another event has occurred. In the case of Star Trek, the central question is: If one character is a redshirt (event A), what’s the likelihood he or she is going to die (event B)? However, fans seem to be confused about which event to consider first.
The assumption that redshirts were the most likely crew to die on Enterprise represents a misunderstanding of probability in general, he says. “Of the 43 deaths we saw, 25 of them were red shirts. That’s 58%. This has led people to believe that redshirts are the most likely to die, but this is wrong,” Grimes explains.
“This is the probability you are a red shirt if you die. What we want to know is the probability you will die if you are a red shirt. And that’s a different question.” It is, incidentally, a question Grime tackled by looking at the only available data.
Grime got his numbers by analyzing only the 79 episodes of the original series and using fatality numbers from Memory Alpha and crew numbers from the StarFleet Blueprints. “This is all an excuse on my part to teach people statistics,” Grime says. “Some people argue my figures, like it’s real!”
In the original Star Trek, the in-universe reason why we think those wearing red are killed more often is because red is the color worn by security officers — characters more likely to be put in dangerous situations on landing parties. But Grime has thought about this too. “Some people say, no, the red shirt thing is only for landing parties. Considering landing parties only, red shirts are indeed the most likely to die. But if we exclude the regular cast of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu, who we know will not die, then gold shirts again become the most likely to die, with red shirts becoming the least likely to die.”
In the Star Trek films, starting with The Wrath of Khan, everyone wears red, and in The Next Generation, the department colors have different denotations. But Grime hasn’t tackled that yet. “I’ve not extended those calculations to the movies or TNG-era,” he says.
So, on the off chance you are beamed up to the USS Enterprise circa 2264, remind your fellow crew members that the redshirt curse isn’t supported by real math. It’s superstition.