Don’t criticise what you don’t understand!

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of positive support my latest anti-Ada polemic received on Twitter, I had expected much more negative reaction to be honest. But I did receive two attacks that I would like to comment on more fully here. The first came from a certain Yael Moussaieff (@sachaieff) and reads as follows:

 

It still blows my mind how convinced mediocre men are that they’re not mediocre and that their opinions are in fact urgent and needed.

I’m not really sure in what sense here I am supposedly mediocre: my intelligence, my expertise, my abilities, all three, in all aspects of my existence? And how does Ms Moussaieff (I assume she is a she) know this, never having met me, on the basis of one, what I consider to be a fairly reasonably argued, blog post on the evaluation of the contributions of one Victorian woman to computer science. If she had brought some counter arguments to demonstrate the mediocrity of my thought processes or the mediocrity of my understanding of the historical period or the mediocrity of my abilities as a historian of computing (and I am one, see the reply to the next comment) then perhaps I could understand the intension or meaning of her criticism but for the moment I remain perplexed. Maybe my inability to comprehend is, in itself, a sign of my mediocrity.

Peter Robinson (@PeterRobinson76) chose a different line of attack:

We also love to put down anyone that dares to have popularity. Even long dead women.

To which I spontaneously responded:

There is a difference between a put down and a reasoned argument based on facts. I formally studied and researched both Babbage and Lovelace long before the current Lovelace hagiography started, as a professional historian of logic and computing. What are your qualifications?

For his benefit I would like to elucidate and explain my claim to professionalism in this matter. Some or even most of what I am now going to relate ought to be already known to those who have been reading this blog for a number of years for newer readers it might prove instructive.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s I studied as a mature student at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen & Nürnberg. The first two and a half years I studied mathematics with philosophy as my subsidiary. I then changed to philosophy with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. The emphasis of my studies was always on the history and philosophy of science. During this time I worked for ten years as a paid research assistant in a major research project into the history of formal/symbolic/mathematical logic under the supervision of one of the world’s leading logic historians. This means that somebody, who is considered knowledgeable in these things, thought me competent enough to appoint me to this position. The fact that I was still there ten years later shows that he still believed in my competence. Possibly because I was the only English native speaker in the research team, my main area of research was nineteenth century British algebraic logics, which means I was researching Boole, Jevons, De Morgan, Venn, Cayley, McColl and others including the Americans working together with Peirce. Because algebraic logic was just a small part of the much wider field of abstract algebras emerging in the nineteenth century, I also researched Peacock, John Herschel, Babbage, Cayley, Sylvester, William Rowan Hamilton and various others. Calculating machines was also a part of our remit so Babbage and his computers along with the good Countess Lovelace came in for extensive study on my part.

Now ten plus years might seem a rather long time to study as a student but as I said I was a mature student without grant or parental support, which meant I had to earn money to do silly things like pay the rent or even on occasions eat and the pittance paid to research assistants in those days did not cover my daily living costs, so I also worked outside of the university. I had virtually finished my studies with just my master thesis to complete and my final exams to write–not a very big deal, as there was in those days a strong emphasis on continual assessment–when I crashed out with serious mental health problems. You can only burn the candle at both ends for a limited period of time until the two flames meet in the middle. Coming out of the loony bin I chucked my studies because being a qualified historian of science was never going to pay those pesky bills.

When I quit I had completed the entire research for both my master’s thesis and my doctoral thesis. I had written about 50–70% of my master’s thesis and a complete, highly detailed outline for my doctoral thesis. Now it might seem strange that I was writing both theses at the same time but my original master’s thesis, a wide-ranging study of the entire English speaking nineteenth century algebraic logic community, had grown far too big to be a master’s thesis, so I had cut out one section, on the life and work of Hugh McColl, to be my master’s thesis and turned the main project into a potential doctoral thesis. I recently, whilst clearing out some old cartons, came across all the material for that doctoral thesis. I was stunned at how far I had got with it, having in the intervening years forgotten most of the work I had invested. I sat and stared at it for three days then threw it all away.

So you see, if I say that I have researched and studied Babbage and Lovelace in a professional capacity it is simply the truth. I should point out that if I write about either of them now, I don’t rely on my memory of work done long ago but go back and read the original sources that I sorted out and studied then, modifying if necessary my views, as my knowledge has grown over the intervening years. In more recent years I have been paid by reputable, educational institutions to hold public lectures on Mr Babbage and his computing engines, so yes through preparing those lectures my knowledge has grown.

Let us return to my critics. Over the years battling the Ada hagiography I have come to the conclusion that the majority of her acolytes don’t actually bother to look at the sources at all. It seems some of them have read a blog post or an article in a non-academic Internet magazine, highly biased and based on dubious secondary sources rather than primary ones (and yes I am aware of the irony of writing that on a blog post). The rest have only ever read a short précis of those blog posts/articles posted on one or other of the Internet’s social media, which parrot the inaccurate accounts of their sources. This majority continue to parrot this ‘fake news’ without bothering to check whether it is historical accurate. The result is that we now have a major Ada myth industry.

If I had the chance to discuss with Yael, Peter or any of the acolytes who have criticised and attacked me over the years I would ask them the following questions:

Which Ada biography have you read?

 I have read five of which I have what I regard as the two best ones standing on my bookshelf.

What about Babbage? Have you read his autobiography?

It’s actually a fascinating piece of literature covering much more than the computing engines for which Babbage is famous.

Maybe you have instead read the more modern and objective biography contained in Laura Snyder’s “The Philosophical Breakfast Club”?

A wonderful book, as I wrote in my review of it for the journal Endeavour

Have you read his 9thBridgewater Treatise, in which Babbage discusses religion and expands on his theory that one could explain miracles by unexpected changes in computer programmes?

An interesting if slightly bizarre  argument.

Or perhaps, you have read his On the Economy of Machinery Manufactures, the result of his extensive research into automation?

Babbage’s interest in automation drove much of his studies including his work on computing and computers. His On the Economy was a highly influential book in the nineteenth century.

Maybe you have read his unpublished writings on abstract algebra, now in the British Library, that are thought to have inspired George Peacock’s “Treatise on Algebra”?

 I will admit that I haven’t but it’s on my bucket list. I have however read Peacock’s book, fascinating and an important milestone in the history of mathematics,

Maybe you’ve read up on the Analytical Society, the student group Babbage and Herschel created in Cambridge to convince the university to introduce continental methods of analysis to replace Newton?

I stumbled across this intriguing piece of maths history during my research; it shows the dynamic that drove Babbage even from an early age.

This might seem like an intellectual pissing contest but if you wish to criticise me and maybe show me that I have erred, that I am mistaken or that I’m just plain wrong then I expect you to at least do the leg work. I actually like being shown that I am wrong because it means that I have learnt something new and I love to learn, to improve and to expand my knowledge of a subject. It is what I live for. I am a historian of science with a good international reputation that I have worked very hard to earn. I also work very hard to get my facts right. If you criticise me and hold a different opinion on some topic that I have written about but treat me with respect then I will treat you with respect even if I know that you are wrong. If, however, you just gratuitously insult me, as, in my opinion, Yael and Peter have done then I will treat you with disdain and if the mood suits me with a generous portion of sarcasm.

 

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical, History of Computing, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Don’t criticise what you don’t understand!

  1. David Wootton

    Thony, You have my sympathies — but the supply of idiots is almost infinite and there is no known cure. The problem of course is that Twitter encourages them to communicate with each other, and with people who know what they are talking about, all best wishes, david

  2. John Kane

    It is always someone with no knowledge who complains. As someone with little knowledge I do my best.

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