Friday 14 December 2012

Asking for a pardon for Alan Turing alone is a shameful act

Today, a number of famous scientists have published a letter in the Daily Telegraph  requesting a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing's conviction of homosexuality. I think this is a shameful act, and these great scientists should have known better.

A picture of Alan Turing running.
Turing once outran an Olympic Silver Medal runner
I have very mild tangential connections with some of them, very very mild.  I met Doug Gurr a few times while he was doing his PhD at the same time as me, before he moved on to greater and better things.  Tim Gowers is a friend of a friend.  And my father Hubert Gent and Martin Rees were in the rather small UK Radio Astronomy community in the 60s and 70s.    Oh, and Lord Grade worked with Morecambe and Wise, who both I and my daughter love.   But I hope that if I had very close connections with all these people, it would not stop me criticising them for asking for a pardon for Turing.

You might think I'm against retrospective pardons and apologies, but that is not my point at all.

And before I go on, let me say I am a huge fan of Alan Turing.

I work in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science. When lecturing on Artificial Intelligence, I often give my reasons for regarding Turing as my hero.   He was a key founder of theoretical  computer science with the Universal Turing Machine.  He was a key founder of practical computer science, with his work on the Bombe during the war and on the ACE machine afterwards.   He was a founder of theoretical Artificial Intelligence when he wrote about what became known as the Turing Test. And he was a founder of practical Artificial Intelligence when he wrote the first chess program for the full game of chess, which in fact had to be run using pencil and paper as it was too sophisticated for existing computers.  Oh, and in between all these things, he played a major part in winning the war with his codebreaking.

I regard him as one of the three greatest British scientists of all time.  I think Newton and Darwin and him are the great three, and would not wish to choose between them.   There have been many other great scientists, but these three essentially founded major world disciplines, as well as having the most astonishing scientific insights.   When I became professor at St Andrews, the University gave me a book as memento, and I asked for Turing's collected papers on Artificial Intelligence.

If you still don't believe I'm a Turing-fan, let me tell you my one and only twitter username is turingfan.

After all that, why do I think nobody should ask for Alan Turing to be pardoned?   Actually, I don't think that.  I believe - very strongly - that it is shameful to ask for a pardon for Alan Turing alone.   Alan Turing was convicted of what was then a crime, and I don't believe there is doubt that he was guilty.   Many many other people were convicted of similar crimes which would not be crimes now.  All of them deserve pardons or none of them do.

Why should Turing benefit from a pardon and none of the others? Because he was famous?  Because he was a great scientist?  Because he helped win the war?  Are any of these reasons for pardoning somebody for a real crime?  Of course not!

The reason to pardon Turing is  that we now believe homosexuality is not criminal and that it should not have been in the past.   If we believe that - and if we believe that retrospective pardons are useful - we should pardon everybody convicted of crimes of homosexuality which would not now be criminal.   To single out Turing to benefit is shaming, and I'm sorry to say that with most of the signatories of the letter being scientists, it is shaming to the scientific community.  

If you must ask for a pardon for Turing, there is only one way to do it. Ask for a pardon for ALL those convicted of similar offences, Alan Turing and many many others.   Use Turing as a poster boy example if you wish, but never ask for a pardon for him alone.

There must be many people alive now who were convicted of offences related to homosexuality.  They all deserve a pardon.  They would even benefit from one.  Ignoring them and asking for a pardon for Alan Turing is shameful.


  1. No it is not shameful to ask for a pardon for Turing. This argument is analogous to "it would be useless for only me/my city/my country to cut greenhouse gas emission without a binding cut for the entire world". In practice this only leads to the preservation of the status quo.

    A pardon and apology for Turing can be a stepping stone for a pardon and apology for everyone who were convicted of offences related to homosexuality. On the other hand, denying such a pardon for Turing would not further the cause of the entire group.

  2. I agree it's not shameful to ask for a pardon for Turing. I DO think it is shameful to ask for a pardon for Turing and NOT to ask for a pardon for all others affected. This is what the letter did.

    The reason is that asking for a pardon for Turing and no others implies somehow that he deserves it because he was somehow better than the others. Which is certainly true as a scientist, possibly as a war hero, but not at all as a gay man, which is the only relevant factor.

    I see the analogy of course, but my worry is that focussing on Turing alone - not as a prime example but on him alone, which is what the letter does - does disadvantage others. It has the danger of making the status quo "you can get a pardon if you are a famous scientist and war hero, otherwise forget it."

  3. I like your thinking. No one who was convicted of this ridiculous supposed crime should be pardoned alone. If the conviction was wrong for one it was wrong for all!