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It's Hard to Figure Out What He Really Believes tex2html_wrap_inline85

Weizenbaum's style involves making extreme statements which are later qualified by contradictory statements. Therefore, almost any quotation is out of context, making it difficult to summarize his contentions accurately.

The following passages illustrate the difficulty:

``In 1935, Michael Polanyi'', [British chemist and philosopher of science, was told by] ``Nicolai Bukharin, one of the leading theoreticians of the Russian Communist party, tex2html_wrap_inline85 [that] 'under socialism the conception of science pursued for its own sake would disappear, for the interests of scientists would spontaneously turn to the problems of the current Five Year Plan.' Polanyi sensed then that 'the scientific outlook appeared to have produced a mechanical conception of man and history in which there was no place for science itself.' And further that `this conception denied altogether any intrinsic power to thought and thus denied any grounds for claiming freedom of thought.' '' - from page 1. Well, that's clear enough; Weizenbaum favors freedom of thought and science and is worried about threats to them. But on page 265, we have

``Scientists who continue to prattle on about `knowledge for its own sake' in order to exploit that slogan for their self-serving ends have detached science and knowledge from any contact with the real world''. Here Weizenbaum seems to be against pure science, i.e. research motivated solely by curiosity. We also have

``With few exceptions, there have been no results, from over twenty years of artificial intelligence research, that have found their way into industry generally or into the computer industry in particular''. - page 229 This again suggests that industrial results are necessary to validate science.

``Science promised man power. But as so often happens when people are seduced by promises of power ... the price actually paid is servitude and impotence''. This is from the book jacket. Presumably the publisher regards it as a good summary of the book's main point.

``I will, in what follows, try to maintain the position that there is nothing wrong with viewing man as an information processor (or indeed as anything else) nor with attempting to understand him from that perspective, providing, however, that we never act as though any single perspective can comprehend the whole man.'' - page 140. We can certainly live with that, but

``Not only has our unbounded feeding on science caused us to become dependent on it, but, as happens with many other drugs taken in increasing dosages, science has been gradually converted into a slow acting poison''. - page 13. These are qualified by

``I argue for the rational use of science and technology, not for its mystification, let alone its abandonment''. - page 256

In reference to the proposal for a moratorium on certain experiments with recombinant DNA because they might be dangerous, we have ``Theirs is certainly a step in the right direction, and their initiative is to be applauded. Still, one may ask, why do they feel they have to give a reason for what they recommend at all? Is not the overriding obligation on men, including men of science, to exempt life itself from the madness of treating everything as an object, a sufficient reason, and one that does not even have to be spoken? Why does it have to be explained? It would appear that even the noblest acts of the most well-meaning people are poisoned by the corrosive climate of values of our time.'' Is Weizenbaum against all experimental biology or even all experiments with DNA? I would hesitate to conclude so from this quote; he may say the direct opposite somewhere else. Weizenbaum's goal of getting lines of research abandoned without even having to give a reason seems unlikely to be achieved except in an atmosphere that combines public hysteria and bureaucratic power. This has happened under conditions of religious enthusiasm and in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia and in the China of the ``Cultural Revolution''. Most likely it won't happen in America.

``Those who know who and what they are do not need to ask what they should do.'' - page 273. Let me assure the reader that there is nothing in the book that offers any way to interpret this pomposity. I take it as another plea to be free of the bondage of having to give reasons for his denunciations.

The menace of such grandiloquent precepts is that they require a priesthood to apply them to particular cases, and would-be priests quickly crystallize around any potential center of power. A corollary of this is that people can be attacked for what they are rather than for anything specific they have done. The April 1976 issue of Ms. has a poignant illustration of this in an article about ``trashing''.

``An individual is dehumanized whenever he is treated as less than a whole person''. - page 266. This is also subject to priestly interpretation as in the encounter group movement.

``The first kind'' [of computer application] ``I would call simply obscene. These are ones whose very contemplation ought to give rise to feelings of disgust in every civilized person. The proposal I have mentioned, that an animal's visual system and brain be coupled to computers, is an example. It represents an attack on life itself. One must wonder what must have happened to the proposers' perception of life, hence to their perceptions of themselves as part of the continuum of life, that they can even think of such a thing, let alone advocated it''. No argument is offered that might be answered, and no attempt is made to define criteria of acceptability. I think Weizenbaum and the scientists who have praised the book may be surprised at some of the repressive uses to which the book will be put. However, they will be able to point to passages in the book with quite contrary sentiments, so the repression won't be their fault.

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John McCarthy
Tue Oct 17 20:28:09 PDT 2000