Daniel Lemire's blog

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Theoretical Computer Science is Closed Minded?

The Theoretical Computer Science community is raging following an article by Wegner and Goldin. Here’s the gist of what the paper says:

The (Theoretical Computer Science) TCS model is inaccurate because (Turing Machines) TMs express only closed-box functional transformation of input to output.

The point is that you can’t model Microsoft Word using a Turing Machine, because, trivially, Microsoft Word interacts with the user.

I’ve read carefully the reactions of the TCS community, at least those who responded on Lance’s blog, and it did not convince me that this paper was wrong or misleading. Some say, “Go read the papers, it proves that yes, you can model everything with a Turing Machine”, but that’s not an argument I can accept. Go read the papers is a fallacious argument.

Others say that Interactive Computational Models have been done before. Fine, but most research is about rehashing what has been done in the past, in slightly different ways.

Here are some reactions from the community:

  • “they have a grant: NSF CISE/CCF SGER grant, Persistent Turing Machines: Beyond the Turing Thesis, I give up!” (meaning: “how could people who question the foundation of theoretical computer science ever get a grant?”)
  • “I am also very surprised that UConn allows Goldin to teach theory of computation.” (meaning, “clearly, someone who is critical of a field, can’t teach it!”)
  • “Forget incorrect- read any of their articles, and you’ll see that they’re literally cranks.”

To be clear, I’m not defending Wegner and Goldin per se. I don’t know enough about this particular problem to really take sides. Nor do I care enough, really. Maybe Wegner and Goldin are spinning a particular shallow idea in the hopes of becoming famous. Maybe, in the process, they are misleading people. But what I can tell you is that calling them cranks, accusing them of not being aware of the related work, being outraged because they have received a research grant, and so on, tells me that the Theoretical Computer Science is a conservative and closed minded community.

Allow me to quote myself:

Next time you review a paper or a funding application which attempts something fresh, don’t dismiss it because the paper ignores 20 years of research. We need to ignore fashions more, and encourage novel ideas. Don’t reward people because they follow the trends. We are supposed to give people tenure so that they can take risks, say things others don’t want to hear.