Richard Stallman and John McCarthy

After blogging on quirky software pioneer Richard Stallman, I thought it appropriate to write something about recently deceased quirky software pioneer John McCarthy, who, with the exception of being bearded, seems like he was the personal and political opposite of Stallman.

Here’s a page I found of Stallman McCarthy quotes (compiled by Neil Craig). It’s a mixture of the reasonable and the unreasonable (ok, I suppose the same could be said of this blog!).

I wonder if he and Stallman ever met and, if so, whether they had an extended conversation. It would be like matter and anti-matter!

P.S. I flipped through McCarthy’s pages and found one of my pet peeves. See item 3 here, which sounds so plausible but is in fact not true (at least, not according to the National Election Study). As McCarthy’s Stanford colleague Mo Fiorina can tell you, otherwise well-informed people believe all sorts of things about polarization that aren’t so. Labeling groups of Americans as “tribes” is amusing but shouldn’t really give you license to make stuff up. On the other hand, social science research is hard. Delia and I only published our paper on constraints in issue attitudes in 2008, many years after McCarthy wrote this document. I would not expect him to have gotten this right, but I think it was a mistake for him to make a claim about “strongly correlated” without even looking at the data.

This is all irrelevant to McCarthy’s work on Lisp; still, I find it interesting, partly because of the retro nature of his 1960s style of pro-rationality, pro-science politically conservative techno-optimism. It’s like a trip back in time to Tomorrowland.

9 thoughts on “Richard Stallman and John McCarthy

  1. “Here’s a page of Stallman quotes…”

    Your link is to a page of McCarthy’s quotes, apparently, not Stallman.

  2. Just having taken a quick glance at your linked paper, one statement surprised me: “There is virtually full agreement among scholars that political parties and politicians, in recent decades, have become more ideological and more likely to take extreme positions on a broad set of political issues”.

    I’m not sure this is correct, or maybe even if it is meaningful. To take just one example, in the early 1970s, lots of people thought wage and price controls were a great idea. That to my mind is an extreme (and extremely incorrect) idea that doesn’t seem to be popular any more. Could there be a biased assessment here, in which you look only at current extreme ideas, and find them less prevalent in the past, simply as a result of (backwards) regression to the mean?

    • Radford:

      “A broad set of political issues” != “all political issues.” See the McCarthy, Poole, and Rosenthal reference for a more detailed discussion of this scholarly consensus.

  3. McCarthy was both hard right and hard left in his life. While more conservative in the latter portion, I believe he was actually involved with the american communist party in the 60s

  4. I’m with Radford — what’s considered extreme is a very fluid and relative notion. How is it defined so that it can be measured and compared over time. It seems at least as hard as comparing Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds (American baseball stars of different eras). For instance, how do I compare the 9/9/9 tax plan to introducing federal income taxes in the first place? How do we compare the abortion debate to civil rights or the abolition of slavery? How do we compare the current “war on drugs” to prohibition?

    So if there aren’t strong correlations among baskets of beliefs, what do people mean when they call themselves “conservative”? How do poli sci researchers think of “conservative” (if at all)? Is someone in Russia in 2011 who’d like to see the return of the USSR considered conservative?

    I don’t know anything about McCarthy other than LISP and old-school artificial intelligence, but when I hear “pro-rationality, pro-science politically conservative techno-optimism” I think Robert Heinlein, especially his later writing.

  5. The following site is superinteresting:

    and certainly shows an extreme form of techno-optimism!
    A few quotes: “With the development of nuclear energy, it became possible to show that there are no apparent obstacles even to billion year sustainability.”

    “The present solar system is good for a few times 10^9 years, but new stars, not too different from our own may be forming up to 10^20 years from now. ”

    “However, even within the solar system, there will be other gardens. For example, both Mars and Venus can be moved into the earth’s orbit and given earthlike atmospheres and climates. Some people already have figured out how these things can be done.”

  6. Some years ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled Some Heroes:

    John McCarthy

    John McCarthy invented [the programming language] Lisp, the field of (or at least the term) artificial intelligence, and was an early member of both of the top two computer science departments, MIT and Stanford. No one would dispute that he’s one of the greats, but he’s an especial hero to me because of Lisp.
    It’s hard for us now to understand what a conceptual leap that was at the time. Paradoxically, one of the reasons his achievement is hard to appreciate is that it was so successful.

    Practically every programming language invented in the last 20 years includes ideas from Lisp, and each year the median language gets more Lisplike.
    In 1958 these ideas were anything but obvious. In 1958 there seem to have been two ways of thinking about programming. Some people thought of it as math, and proved things about Turing Machines. Others thought of it as a way to get things done, and designed languages all too influenced by the technology of the day. McCarthy alone bridged the gap. He designed a language that was math. But designed is not really the word; discovered is more like it.

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