Thursday, May 10, 2007

Theist Crackpottery Invades CACM

Communications of the ACM (CACM) used to be an interesting publication. Back when I was a teenager, I remember reading articles such as Ritchie & Thompson's on UNIX, and Aho & Corasick's on string matching using automata. Later, CACM published breakthroughs like RSA, and the Turing award lecture of Kenneth Iverson.

Now, however, I barely find CACM worth reading. True, occasionally the "Inside Risks" column has something interesting to say, but most of the articles seem to be about software systems. For example, the April 2007 issue has articles entitled "Consumer Support Systems", "Designing Data-Intensive Web Applications for Content Accessibility Using Web Marts", and "Managing Risk in Offshore Systems Development". Long gone are the days when one could actually find an algorithm or a proof in CACM.

However, the April 2007 issue did carry one item of interest: a long, rambling, and incoherent letter to the editor from one Tim Croy of Houston, Texas, entitled "Stop Chasing the AI Illusion".

Croy starts by praising the Turing award lecture of Peter Naur, an embarrassingly cranky piece of work. Although Naur won his award for "fundamental contributions to programming language design and the definition of Algol 60, to compiler design, and to the art and practice of computer programming", he chose instead to talk about artificial intelligence (AI) and its perceived inadequacies. Naur has been apparently peddling these ideas for some time, but hasn't been able to get them published in a reputable venue, so he put them in his Turing award lecture.

Next, Croy goes on to say that AI "is based on an article of faith (held by atheistic materialists) that the human person is merely a highly evolved biological machine it is theoretically possible to replicate as an electromechanical machine, or computer". (Note the terminology shared with intelligent design crackpots.) I don't see why this is "an article of faith"; I see it as a working hypothesis that seems to be widely supported by our current knowledge of neuroscience, physics, and computer science.

Croy then goes on to claim that dropping a pencil is proof of the existence of God. (I kid you not.) Here's what he says:
"We have discovered the `what' and the `how' (description) but not the `why' (cause). Forgetting this distinction, when someone asks why the pencil falls to the table, we mistakenly answer `gravity'. In the realm of description (physical science) the experiment is a demonstration and confirmation (proof) of the theories of motion and gravity. But in the realm of causes it is a proof for the existence of God."


Croy concludes that "Naur also aimed much-needed light on the dishonesty, not to say totalitarianism, of the American academic-scientific establishment."

Whenever you hear anyone raving about the "dishonesty" and "totalitarianism" of the "scientific establishment", better get out your crackpot-o-meter. "Dishonesty" here appears to mean "they refuse to publish drivel in their journal".

CACM has really jumped the shark with the publication of this letter.


Anonymous said...

Croy then goes on to claim that dropping a pencil is proof of the existence of God. (I kid you not.)

I can top that: I just dropped five pencils at once, thus proving polytheism.

Blake Stacey said...

A few days ago, I managed to drop my cell phone down the office stairwell. I think this proves the existence of Eris.

Theo Bromine said...

Last weekend, I managed to drop my Blackberry in my fishpond. Perhaps this proves the existence of Loki? (Fortunately, I had a trauma team (an assortment of tiny Torx screwdivers) at the ready, and an available bed in the ICU (the dashboard of a sunny car), and the patient made a full recovery. Perhaps I ought to attribute this to some other god to whom I must now make appropriate sacrifices.)

Anonymous said...

CACM has been worthless for a long time now - once in a blue moon they publish an interesting article, but the signal to noise ratio is so low that it's not worth your while to look for it. I don't know when it became a journal of software engineering lite and software systems fluff, but it's certainly been that way as long as I've been a member of the ACM.

Anonymous said...

"Long gone are the days when one could actually find an algorithm or a proof in CACM." Exactly why I canceled my membership of 25+ years a few years ago. I think Dijkstra complained of that trend many years ago, though I can't find the reference now.