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A Summary of Polemical Sins

The speculative sections of the book contain numerous dubious little theories, such as this one about the dehumanizing effect of of the invention of the clock: ``The clock had created literally a new reality; and that is what I meant when I said earlier that the trick man turned that prepared the scene for the rise of modern science was nothing less than the transformation of nature and of his perception of reality. It is important to realize that this newly created reality was and remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted the old reality. The feeling of hunger was rejected as a stimulus for eating; instead one ate when an abstract model had achieved a certain state, i.e. when the hand of a clock pointed to certain marks on the clock's face (the anthropomorphism here is highly significant too), and similarly for signals for sleep and rising, and so on.''

This idealization of primitive life is simply thoughtless. Like modern man, primitive man ate when the food was ready, and primitive man probably had to start preparing it even further in advance. Like modern man, primitive man lived in families whose members are no more likely to become hungry all at once than are the members of a present family.

I get the feeling that in toppling this microtheory I am not playing the game; the theory is intended only to provide an atmosphere, and like the reader of a novel, I am supposed to suspend disbelief. But the contention that science has driven us from a psychological Garden of Eden depends heavily on such word pictures.

By the way, I recall from my last sabbatical at M.I.T. that the feeling of hunger is more often the direct social stimulus for eating for the ``hackers'' deplored in Chapter 4 than it could have been for primitive man. Often on a crisp New England night, even as the clock strikes three, I hear them call to one another, messages flash on the screens, a flock of hackers magically gathers, and the whole picturesque assembly rushes chattering off to Chinatown.

I find the book substandard as a piece of polemical writing in the following respects:

  1. The author has failed to work out his own positions on the issues he discusses. Making an extreme statement in one place and a contradictory statement in another is no substitute for trying to take all the factors into account and reach a considered position. Unsuspicious readers can come away with a great variety of views, and the book can be used to support contradictory positions.
  2. The computer linguists - Winograd, Schank, et. al. - are denigrated as hackers and compulsive computer programmers by innuendo.
  3. One would like to know more precisely what biological and psychological experiments and computer applications he finds acceptable. Reviewers have already drawn a variety of conclusions on this point.
  4. The terms ``authentic'', ``obscene'', and ``dehumanization'' are used as clubs. This is what mathematicians call ``proof by intimidation''.
  5. The book encourages a snobbery that has no need to argue for its point of view but merely utters code words, on hearing which the audience is supposed applaud or hiss as the case may be. The New Scientist reviewer certainly salivates in most of the intended places.
  6. Finally, when moralizing is both vehement and vague, it invites authoritarian abuse either by existing authority or by new political movements. Imagine, if you can, that this book were the bible of some bureaucracy, e.g. an Office of Technology Assessment, that acquired power over the computing or scientific activities of a university, state, or country. Suppose Weizenbaum's slogans were combined with the bureaucratic ethic that holds that any problem can be solved by a law forbidding something and a bureaucracy of eager young lawyers to enforce it. Postulate further a vague Humane Research Act and a ``public interest'' organization with more eager young lawyers suing to get judges to legislate new interpretations of the Act. One can see a laboratory needing more lawyers than scientists and a Humane Research Administrator capable of forbidding or requiring almost anything.

I see no evidence that Weizenbaum forsees his work being used in this way; he doesn't use the phrase laissez innover which is the would-be science bureaucrat's analogue of the economist's laissez faire, and he never uses the indefinite phrase ``it should be decided'' which is a common expression of the bureaucratic ethic. However, he has certainly given his fellow computer scientists at least some reason to worry about potential tyranny.

Let me conclude this section with a quotation from Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University, that seems applicable to the present situation - not only in computer science, but also in biology. - ``In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammelled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages my have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and of science''. Substitute morality for religion and the parallel is clear. Frankly, the feebleness of the reaction to attacks on scientific freedom worries me more than the strength of the attacks.

next up previous
Next: What Worries about Computers Up: AN UNREASONABLE BOOK Previous: In Defense of the

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