## Just some prizes

Oded Goldreich is a theoretical computer scientist at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. He’s best known for helping to lay the rigorous foundations of cryptography in the 1980s, through seminal results like the Goldreich-Levin Theorem (every one-way function can be modified to have a hard-core predicate), the Goldreich-Goldwasser-Micali Theorem (every pseudorandom generator can be made into a pseudorandom function), and the Goldreich-Micali-Wigderson protocol for secure multi-party computation. I first met Oded more than 20 years ago, when he lectured at a summer school at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, barefoot and wearing a tank top and what looked like pajama pants. It was a bracing introduction to complexity-theoretic cryptography. Since then, I’ve interacted with Oded from time to time, partly around his firm belief that quantum computing is impossible.

Last month a committee in Israel voted to award Goldreich the Israel Prize (roughly analogous to the US National Medal of Science), for which I’d say Goldreich had been a plausible candidate for decades. But alas, Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu’s Education Minister, then rather non-gallantly blocked the award, solely because he objected to Goldreich’s far-left political views (and apparently because of various statements Goldreich signed, including in support of a boycott of Ariel University, which is in the West Bank). The case went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court (!), which ruled two days ago in Gallant’s favor: he gets to “delay” the award to investigate the matter further, and in the meantime has apparently sent out invitations for an award ceremony next week that doesn’t include Goldreich. Some are now calling for the other winners to boycott the prize in solidarity until this is righted.

I doubt readers of this blog need convincing that this is a travesty and an embarrassment, a shanda, for the Netanyahu government itself. That I disagree with Goldreich’s far-left views (or might disagree, if I knew in any detail what they were) is totally immaterial to that judgment. In my opinion, not even Goldreich’s belief in the impossibility of quantum computers should affect his eligibility for the prize. 🙂

Maybe it would be better to say that, as far as his academic colleagues in Israel and beyond are concerned, Goldreich has won the Israel Prize; it’s only some irrelevant external agent who’s blocking his receipt of it. Ironically, though, among Goldreich’s many heterodox beliefs is a total rejection of the value of scientific prizes (although Goldreich has also said he wouldn’t refuse the Israel Prize if offered it!).

In unrelated news, the 2020 Turing Award has been given to Al Aho and Jeff Ullman. Aho and Ullman have both been celebrated leaders in CS for half a century, having laid many of the foundations of formal languages and compilers, and having coauthored one of CS’s defining textbooks with John Hopcroft (who already received a different Turing Award).

But again there’s a controversy. Apparently, in 2011, Ullman wrote to an Iranian student who wanted to work with him, saying that as “a matter of principle,” he would not accept Iranian students until the Iranian government recognized Israel. Maybe I should say that I, like Ullman, am both a Jew and a Zionist, but I find it hard to imagine the state of mind that would cause me to hold some hapless student responsible for the misdeeds of their birth-country’s government. Ironically, this is a mirror-image of the tactics that the BDS movement has wielded against Israeli academics. Unlike Goldreich, though, Ullman seems to have gone beyond merely expressing his beliefs, actually turning them into a one-man foreign policy.

I’m proud of the Iranian students I’ve mentored and hope to mentor more. While I don’t think this issue should affect Ullman’s Turing Award (and I haven’t seen anyone claim that it should), I do think it’s appropriate to use the occasion to express our opposition to all forms of discrimination. I fully endorse Shafi Goldwasser’s response in her capacity as Director of the Simons Institute for Theory of Computing in Berkeley:

As a senior member of the computer science community and an American-Israeli, I stand with our Iranian students and scholars and outright reject any notion by which admission, support, or promotion of individuals in academic settings should be impeded by national origin or politics. Individuals should not be conflated with the countries or institutions they come from. Statements and actions to the contrary have no place in our computer science community. Anyone experiencing such behavior will find a committed ally in me.

As for Al Aho? I knew him fifteen years ago, when he became interested in quantum computing, in part due to his then-student Krysta Svore (who’s now the head of Microsoft’s quantum computing efforts). Al struck me as not only a famous scientist but a gentleman who radiated kindness everywhere. I’m not aware of any controversies he’s been involved in and never heard anyone say a bad word about him.

Anyway, this seems like a good occasion to recognize some foundational achievements in computer science, as well as the complex human beings who produce them!

### 96 Responses to “Just some prizes”

1. Bob meets Alice Says:

Great Post. I completely agree with your words. Though slightly deviate from Shafi’s words. We should not stand behind Iranian or American students or any other students of any nationality. We should simply detach completely politics from science. No ‘diversity’ politics, no ‘inclusion’ or ‘exclusion’, no universalism or patriotism. Nothing. Just science. “And the prize goes to the person who has done this great science”, irrespective of their personality, politics, ethics, morality, actions. Pure science.

2. Mahdi Says:

Very well said, Scott. I think the timing of these two awards coinciding is remarkable. In fact, the two awards are in so much contrast and the two stories are so much opposite to each other that it weirdly becomes easy to confuse the two. You put it in perspective perfectly. In one case, Oded is being canceled. In the other case, I can argue that Iranian students are the ones being canceled, and, for the good of the community, we need to be careful and work hard not to let that happen any more (and not let anyone who is rightfully concerned about this fear of expressing concerns either).

When the 2011 controversy became public, many Iranians didn’t say anything for the fear of being canceled (I was myself a vulnerable postdoc and guilty of not saying anything back then). He doubled down on his beliefs over the years, on email and also social media (when Google+ was a thing, for example), and last I checked, he still maintains those beliefs. In retrospect, the Iranian community should have done better to raise awareness on this issue and I feel guilty about that as well. Not that it matters when those events occurred or how many times (after all, the Turing Award isn’t for recent contributions either!), but there is no dispute that the issue here is the violation of academic values (as well as ACM’s own Core Values) and not freedom of speech or expression (which of course he is entitled to, as Oded is).

Thank you for bringing more visibility to this important issue. The most important thing is that the community is entitled to know about the issue and that this has to be discussed freely. The second important thing is the path forward, and how we can protect the community to make sure that abuses of this kind won’t happen again, and what checks and balances we have in place, including with the ACM. We want to protect the academic values and community, but don’t want to give a free ticket to future abusers by being dismissive at this point either.

3. Mahdi Says:

Bob meets Alice #1: With all due respect, you’re promoting a dangerous idea. This is NOT about politics, it’s about academic values as well as the explicitly-stated Core Values of ACM (even Stanford’s own rules on tenure protection and academic freedom, if you look, don’t seem to protect going against academic values, but that’s a different story). Defining a policy of having nothing to do with students from Iran based on your presumed assumption of their political beliefs or based on natural origin is not just a belief, it is action. An action which at the very least is in violation of the advancement of education, and this time it seems like the educational impact is indeed included in the award citation (for the second time, the first being Knuth).

4. Doug Says:

#1 Bob not Alice:
“Pure science.”

Minsky then shut his eyes.
“So that the room will be empty.”
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

5. Scott Says:

Bob meets Alice #1: Thanks! But I don’t think it’s realistic to “detach completely politics from science,” if nothing else because you need to decide what to do when someone else entangles them. Clearly, if one’s scientific colleagues were being arbitrarily arrested or murdered or whatever, then silence itself would be a political stand.

Still, I strongly endorse an ethical code for science based around intellectual honesty, the free exchange of ideas, proper sharing of credit, and the breaking down of all barriers to individuals’ participation in the scientific enterprise based on merit. I’d like to see scientists reprimanded or denounced as scientists only to the extent that they violate that code.

6. fred Says:

It’s also interesting to remember what happened to Heisenberg during the war (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Heisenberg#SS_investigation ):

“During this time, Heisenberg came under vicious attack by the Deutsche Physik supporters. One attack was published in “The Black Corps”, the newspaper of the SS, headed by Heinrich Himmler. In this, Heisenberg was called a “White Jew” (i.e. an Aryan who acts like a Jew) who should be made to “disappear”. These attacks were taken seriously, as Jews were violently attacked and incarcerated. Heisenberg fought back with an editorial and a letter to Himmler, in an attempt to resolve the matter and regain his honour.
[…]
The three investigators who led the SS investigation of Heisenberg had training in physics. Indeed, Heisenberg had participated in the doctoral examination of one of them at the Universität Leipzig. The most influential of the three was Johannes Juilfs. During their investigation, they became supporters of Heisenberg as well as his position against the ideological policies of the Deutsche Physik movement in theoretical physics and academia.”

7. DR Says:

I love this post. The human stories, great achievements and a stand against thinking about human beings in categories.

8. Shai Ben-David Says:

Scott, you seem to be drawing a symmetry between acts of racism (Ulman’s blancket rejection of studets based on their nationality) and an attempt to raise awarness against racism (Oded criticizing war crimes of the Israeli army), alas, in a way that seems “extreme” to you. I am not aware on anywone in our scientific community that expresses support to Ulman’s actions, while many of us, including many Israelies support Oded’s actions. There is no symmetry!

9. Scott Says:

Shai Ben-David #8: I specifically highlighted what I saw as the fundamental differences between the situations — namely, (1) that Ullman took discriminatory actions rather than just expressing his views, and (2) that Gallant actually blocked Goldreich’s prize rather than just criticizing him. I did discuss, in one post, the two prizes to famous theoretical computer scientists in recent weeks that attracted controversy because of the recipient’s views regarding Israel (!) — but beyond that, how did I imply symmetry? Maybe there’d be a partial symmetry if Goldreich had refused to work with students who grew up in settlements, or refused to condemn settlements, etc., but I haven’t heard any accusations to that effect.

10. Shai Ben-David Says:

Scott #9, I do realize that you make a distinction between the two, thus breaking the symmetry. However, you draw the line between expressing views and taking actions. What I wish to say is that the lack of symmetry is already at the level of their views. Ullman expressed racist views – generalizing his contempt of actions of the Iranian leaders to all Iranian people. To me this is fundamentally immoral. It is not a legitimate political view. In contrast, the views Oded expressed are well within the range of legitimacy. I oppose to equating expressing those views of Ullman with expressing condemnation to acts of some government (the Israeli in this case).

11. James Gallagher Says:

Oded Goldreich says something pretty profound (and imho correct) on that page you linked to about his QC scepticism:

The probability space of the execution of a probabilistic algorithm is a mental experiment taking place in the analysis (not in reality).

Quantum Computing is really driven by the idea that a pure Copenhagen-type Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics describes reality.

There is no good reason for this to be the case, and there are plausible models of our universe which have randomness and unitary evolution but don’t have the measurement problem of the Copenhagen approach.

eg. Universe is seeded by discrete time random events (at ~planck timescales) which cause a unitary rotation of the entire universe state vector every time they occur (so rest of universe knows what happened, otherwise you’d have chaotic random evolution)

Why unitary? Well otherwise universe would most likely explode or shrink, anthropic reasoning requires something close to a rotation (doesn’t have to be exact, just enough to allow something like Kane West to exist after 13 Billion years)

Such a universe would still allow small-scale quantum computers to function (maybe that’s what Nature has achieved with photosynthesis etc) and I would hope the big players do not lose focus that small-scale quantum computers could offer huge technological benefits if they can be made on mass-scale like laser technology made its way into consumer electronics, medicine etc

12. Oliver Luebbert Says:

> That I disagree with Goldreich’s far-left views (or might disagree, if I knew in any detail what they were) is totally immaterial to that judgment.

Honest question: would you have written a similar sentence if it was “far-right” instead of “far-left”? Just curious to what extent the views are totally immaterial for you.

13. Rahul Says:

Shafi says: ” Individuals should not be conflated with the countries or institutions they come from.”

I love the intent of a statement like this. But I think it’s somewhat hypocritical and completely dissonant with reality.

I’ll try to remember this every time I have to apply for a bloody visa in India to have a reunion with my university friends in EU whereas colleagues from Australia, US etc can just hop on a plane and wave their passports to enter.

Not sure whether I should be happy about the purity of intent or sad about the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of reality. Maybe “should” is the operative word.

Theres no escaping being conflated with my country. Money or education didn’t change that. The system keeps reminding me of this at every step.

So file this away in the drawer of happy myths we like to keep believing.

14. Richard Gaylord Says:

scott:

you say that you are a zionist but apparently you don’t believe that what we always said at the end of Passover Sedar

L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim ( לשנה הבאה בירושלים‎). “Next year in Jerusalem”,

applies to you or your family. so why do you self-identify a zionist?

15. Scott Says:

Shai #10: Of course there are differences in the content of their views! But if we enter into that, we’ll have to hear out not only what Goldreich has to say about the injustice of the settlements (and of course there’s plenty) and why it means we should boycott Ariel University, but also what Ullman has to say about the evil of the Iranian regime (no shortage of material there either), its annihilationist intent regarding Israel, and how regrettably and unfortunately, some students from this hostile enemy nation will go back there and work on its nuclear program or whatever, so even if most of them are wonderful people he can’t take the risk. While we could debate both of these things, what I wish to say is that there’s an ethic of science—an ethic worth defending—where we simply refuse to make judgments of this kind, and say: faced with a brilliant student whose passion is SQ-learning or separations between randomized and quantum query complexity or whatever, if it’s logistically possible, then we figure out a way to admit that student and give them an opportunity, no matter who they are or where they come from, period, end of story.

16. Scott Says:

James Gallagher #11:

Quantum Computing is really driven by the idea that a pure Copenhagen-type Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics describes reality.

No, that’s incorrect. QC would work just fine not only under the Copenhagen interpretation, but also under the many-worlds interpretation (naturally!), the deBroglie-Bohm interpretation, or anything else properly called an “interpretation of QM” at all. What it would take to make QC impossible is not an interpretation but a rival physical theory—e.g., one that denies the universal validity of the principle of superposition—or perhaps some new thermodynamics-like principle, on top of QM, that “screens off” or “censors” QC. Either discovery would itself be a momentous development for physics—even to the point of making a mere success for scalable QC look boring and conservative by comparison!

17. bertgoz Says:

Scott, in your post you label Goldreich as “far-left”. Then go on to claim that you are not aware in detail what is political ideas are. The only mention to some of his political ideas is the boycott of a university in the (internationally recognised) occupied West Bank.
Can you clarify why are you labelling him as such while as the same time claiming total ignorance of his views?

18. Scott Says:

Oliver Luebbert #12:

Honest question: would you have written a similar sentence if it was “far-right” instead of “far-left”? Just curious to what extent the views are totally immaterial for you.

The sentence might have come out similar or different, but if I thought that the far-right views in question didn’t infringe the ethical code that I outlined in comment #5, my bottom-line judgment would be the same. (And I do think I’ve “put my money where my mouth is” more than most of my colleagues, in terms of taking public flak to defend the intellectual freedom of right-leaning or anti-woke academics!)

19. Scott Says:

Rahul #13: Alas, we academics don’t get to dictate national policy and hand out visas to whomever we want! What the ethical code I outlined entails is simply doing whatever is in our power—including advocating the loosening of travel restrictions, and strongly supporting the visa applications of specific scientists who we’ve decided to admit or hire on “nationality-blind” intellectual grounds. And whatever American academia’s other failings, I actually think it does reasonably well with these specific ethical obligations—but it can only do so much without convincing the wider society!

20. Scott Says:

Richard Gaylord #14: I like the modern (pre- and post-covid) version, “next year in Jerusalem … and then the year after that, what about Hawaii?” 🙂

I’m a Zionist in the sense that I think the Holocaust amply demonstrated the need for a country that places the physical survival of the world’s remaining Jews as a central part of its mandate, and that I’m glad that such a country exists. And I value that country immensely—I have lived there, I have family there—and it’s because I value it that I’m so dismayed by the direction it’s taken in the Netanyahu era.

Anyway, do you live there? Are you a Zionist? Why am I the only one who has to defend and explain himself? 🙂

21. Scott Says:

bertgoz #17: I claimed partial ignorance of Oded’s views, not total ignorance. I described him as I did only because I believe he himself would readily agree that, in an Israeli (or an American) context, he’s on the leftmost fringe of the leftmost fringe. But if anyone knows of a public link where he explains his views in more detail, I’m now sort of curious!

22. Boaz Barak Says:

There is no symmetry between Goldreich and Ullman, and that would stay the same even if the ACM rescinds Ullman’s award. (Which I am not at all sure that they should, but also am not sure they should not. I am sure that, despite his great technical achievements, Ullman should not have been given the Turing award in the first place.)

Ullman is free to express his opinions, sign petitions, refuse to lecture at Iranian universities. However he repeatedly and continuously, over many years, taken his positions on individual students. At some point he claimed that by the fact that all Iranians (a country of 80M people) have not left the country after the revolution, they (and students born after it) are responsible for all the actions of their regime. To quote Ullman:

“ I think we need to distinguish between Americans of Iranian descent, who have chosen to cast their lot with the United States, and Iranians who did not leave Iran when the religious fanatics took over, and who may well be sympathetic to Iran’s desires to build a nuclear weapon and to Iran’s support for terrorists throughout the world.”

There is a red line between having strong opinions and even boycotting countries and institutions and discriminating against people merely based on the country of origin. For example, while I personally oppose BDS, I think it’s OK for people to support BDS and decide not to visit Israel or collaborate on grants etc with Israeli institutions, but it’s not OK to discriminate against Israeli students as was done for example here:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/oct/28/internationaleducationnews.accesstouniversity

Ullman crossed this line.

P.s. I wrote about Oded vs some past winters of the Israel prize here

23. Scott Says:

Boaz Barak #22: Wow, I didn’t know about the cases you listed in your Twitter feed! That’s pretty blatant hypocrisy. (Though some might say there are already some inherent difficulties with a prize that has both a math/CS category and a theological category…)

Having said that, when it comes to the idea of revoking Ullman’s Turing Award because of his behavior toward Iranian students, I confess that I can’t think about it outside the context of today’s Twitter-mobs who, once they saw that such a thing was possible, would immediately demand the revocation of Turing Awards, Fields Medals, Nobel Prizes, etc. from anyone who said or did anything that they even slightly disagreed with. I don’t want to open that box. And I feel like publicly shaming Ullman’s discriminatory behavior, to the point where almost anyone who reads about his Turing Award is also reading about that, as many Iranians did and as I did in this post and as you did on Twitter, is a suitably proportionate response.

24. Rahul Says:

I think a related issue this debate brings out is whether it is OK to criticize someone for a failing that does not impact his ability to perform his primary job.

E.g. say an excellent heart surgeon also happened to be a bigot or an anti semite. Or a great engineer says something misogynist. Et cetra.

Should such people suffer professional repurcussions or boycott due to their loathsome views?

25. Luca Says:

The outrage over Oded’s treatment might be an occasion to recall how support for BDS is treated in the United States.

The State Department has designated BDS, even if targeted only on the settlements in the occupied territories, not on Israel as a whole, as antisemitic, and it is taking steps to sanction companies and individuals that support it.

In 2015, the University of California debated the introduction of a new statement on tolerance, deploring various forms of discrimination. Richard Blum, the husband of Diane Feinstein, as a regent of the University of California pushed for the State Department definition of antisemitism to be including in the statement; this could have caused students speaking up in favor of BDS to be expelled. Blum made a memorable (public) speech in a meeting of the Regents in which he invoked his wife’s power and said more or less “nice university you have here, it would be a pity if something happened to it.” This was one of the low points of the University of California central campus administration, even by its own sorry standards. Like 46% of Californians, I voted for Diane Feinstein’s opponent (also a Democrat, because of California’s open primary system) in the 2018 Senate elections.

26. Scott Says:

Rahul #24: In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade, 🙂 we’re in the midst of a massive shift in the mainstream view on precisely those questions, from “no, obviously you shouldn’t fire them for their private belief,” to “yes, obviously, fire them, shame them, make sure they can never hold another job anywhere ever again.” Which might be fine, actually, if it didn’t also coincide with an astronomical expansion in the definitions of terms like “misogynist” and “racist,” to far beyond what even the Civil Rights heroes of the 1960s would have understood them to mean. For myself, I simply continue to draw the ethical line at the same place I think it should always have been drawn: namely, is this person speaking or acting in a discriminatory way toward their colleagues, or potential colleagues?

27. Rahul Says:

Scott #26

I agree with you.

I didn’t get the concession you make in the later part of your comment though. The “which might be fine….” bit:

So what you are saying is that it’s ok to use that line of argument to fire the egregious (say) anti semites but spare the milder variants?

28. Doug Says:

Rahul #24
> I think a related issue this debate brings out is whether it is OK to criticize someone for a failing that does not impact his ability to perform his primary job.

How a professor treats students is not incidental.

29. Scott Says:

Rahul #27: I thought I was pretty clear about where I draw the line!

Yes: concrete, documented behavior with discriminatory intent.

No: “giving off a bad vibe,” cultural appropriation, other modern charges that can be weaponized against anyone disliked.

30. Scott Says:

Luca #25: On the one hand, there are elements of the BDS movement that I’d regard as just straightforwardly antisemitic. I witnessed some of those elements with my own eyes when I (and you) were at Berkeley in 2002: the disruption of a reading of names of Holocaust victims on Yom HaShoah by an anti-Israel rally (which included, e.g., an American flag with the stars replaced by corporate logos and Stars of David), vandalism of the Hillel building, shouting down of even moderate or left-leaning pro-Israel speakers, etc. (I won’t include the beating up of several identifiably Jewish students in the street at the height of the divestment rallies, which I didn’t see for myself.) On the other hand, I completely agree with you that a distinction needs to be drawn between the wing of BDS focused on settlements, and the wing that won’t be satisfied as long as a Jewish state exists, and I regard it as a major failing of legislation in the US (including in my adopted state of Texas) that it doesn’t make that distinction.

31. bertgoz Says:

Scott #21, thank you I am also interested in knowing more about the political ideas that have earned him the badge of “far-left”. A quick search on the internet leads me to this page:

http://www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/politicsJan03.html

Which seems to advocate for an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories and for a more human-driven (socialist) capitalism. I am still puzzled by the “far-left” label. Maybe I am missing something. Happy to learn more!

32. AS Says:

Scott, please consider signing this statement (https://csforinclusion.wordpress.com). I am generally against revoking awards based on Twitter mobs (in this case also). Ulman’s award seems to have been as much about his educational impact as anything, and I must say that his parallel discriminatory statements and actions should have been taken into account before awarding him the Turing.

33. Nick Says:

Is there any kind of correlation between leftist political views and QC skepticism? Are QC skeptics more or less likely to be leftists than non-skeptics? What about other kinds of philosophical orientations? For example, I identify (with lots of asterisks, of course) as both a leftist and a constructivist. Is that an expected or unexpected pairing, or is there no correlation at all?

34. Scott Says:

Nick #33: I can’t say I’ve noticed any such correlation. On the other hand, maybe not surprisingly, I have noticed a strong correlation between QC skepticism and just general contrarianism, about politics, climate science, high-energy physics, or whatever else.

35. Scott Says:

AS #32: Thanks for the link. While I agree with most of that statement, on reflection, I cannot endorse the idea of making “compliance with Diversity and Inclusion policies” an explicit condition of the Turing Award. It’s not that I think a candidate’s horrible behavior should never factor into the decision—sometimes maybe it should—it’s just that I think that if so, the behavior should be so horrible that no policy is needed! And moreover, given the social media witch-hunt dynamics that we’ve seen in recent years, I worry that a policy would create too much leeway for unscrupulous actors to make these things factors when they shouldn’t be. The other consideration is simply that, since I already wrote this post that’s a 100% match with what I think, I don’t need to sign a statement that’s only a 90% match with what I think. 🙂 Thanks again though!

36. AS Says:

Hi Scott, thanks for considering the petition. I actually agree with you on the wording of point two, I wish they had been more thoughtful about that.

I have two honest questions for you. Had Prof Ullman won the Turing award after a widely documented pattern of public expressions and claims of discrimination against African American, Israel or Jewish, Chinese, etc would you have not supported revocation of their award? (specially if the awarding body claimed to have not heard this history despite it being well-known and prominently displayed on their Wikipedia page.) Would he have even won the award in that case?

This whole thing has been specially painful because it reinforces for me that there are different levels of acceptable discriminatory behavior against different segments of our community. We live in a world where micro-aggressions against certain communities are seriously considered and dealt with (and maybe overzealously as you state), but then naked and open aggression against Iranian students seems to be acceptable by Stanford for a decade, and now the ACM.

37. Scott Says:

AS #36: I can’t speak for what the Turing Award committee (I’m not even sure who’s on it) would’ve done in a hypothetical scenario, but speaking for myself—your excellent questions were in the back of my mind this entire time. E.g., what would I have said if Ullman had been an antisemite, or if he’d refused to work with Israeli students until the Israeli government met his demands? The post that you now see was the output of those reflections.

38. Jon Tyson Says:

I’d like to see a moratorium of using scientific awards as an occasion to pick apart the award winners publicly, if only out of consideration for the people and organizations who fund the prizes, especially in cases where news of the controversy eclipses the award itself. If I were some billionaire philanthropist, such recurring controversies about award winners would make me hesitate to fund scientific prizes, especially if the “winners” come to view the award as a big public headache because it painted a big target on them for attacks by people who rightly or wrongly think the award was undeserved.

39. Scott Says:

Jon Tyson #38: Alas, any social mechanism whatsoever that relies on everybody politely agreeing not to bring some topic up (because of, e.g., the likelihood that that topic will eclipse everything else the moment it’s mentioned) is an unstable equilibrium that no longer has a chance in the social media age. The only option now is to try to get in front of the topic, hash it out, articulate the relevant nuances, and hope it has at least some impact. That’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn over the last decade!

40. Boaz Barak Says:

I tried to write some of my thoughts here https://twitter.com/boazbaraktcs/status/1381028064352743424?s=20

Scott: I didn’t know about these occurrences at Berkeley! I agree completely that these are absolutely anti-semitic!

Thanks for this post, and a long over due thanks for your other post https://scottaaronson-production.mystagingwebsite.com/?p=3167 when it did matter.

Regarding comment #35:

The letter under discussion does not ask for “making compliance with D&I an explicit condition” — period.

It asks for either doing so, or “transparently state that such behavior is not relevant in the criteria for this award”.

In summary, it is asking for clarity, which can prevent things like this mess in the future.

42. tas Says:

I have not followed this closely at all, but is there any evidence that Jeff Ullman has actually discriminated against Iranians? This seems to be an assumption, but I haven’t seen anything to support it.

You say “Apparently, in 2011, Ullman wrote to an Iranian student who wanted to work with him, saying that as “a matter of principle,” he would not accept Iranian students until the Iranian government recognized Israel.”

But I follow the link and it does not say that. In fact, he seems to make it pretty clear that he has no say in the matter one way or the other.

I don’t agree with the comments I have seen from Ullman. But I also haven’t seen anything that crosses the line that you are trying to draw here.

The worst I have seen is a comment by him supporting the official policy of the University of Massachusetts to not admit students from Iran. I totally oppose such a policy, but any anger or “canceling” should be directed at the university officials that actually created and enacted the policy, not someone who posted on Google plus in support of it.

43. Anon93 Says:

Perhaps also relevant is http://www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/P/on-bds.html where Oded talks about his feelings around BDS. He DOES NOT support BDS.

Anyway, it’s not hard to just follow the basic principles:

(1) It is immoral to discriminate against scientists based on their nationality. Obviously sometimes this is not practical because of visa issues and because of various political conflicts.

(2) It is immoral to revoke prizes or not award them because the awardee has some political view. Even if this political view violates (1) that should be addressed on its own terms, since prizes should be given for scientific merit.

(3) If you are going to give a prize based on some non-scientific metric and/or say that this should be reflected in awarding the prize it is just going to be gamed, and probably taken over by administrators and/or woke people. Therefore, it’s good to resist such tendencies.

On a more object-level note let me say that some media have characterized Goldreich as pro-BDS. This is fake news. See https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/high-court-revokes-israel-prize-in-math-to-pro-bds-professor-664538 and https://hamodia.com/2021/04/08/math-prof-loses-israel-prize-bds-support/ . It is totally wrong to conflate boycotting the West Bank settlements, which is a movement started by pro-two-state Israeli peaceniks like Shalom Achshav and Gush Shalom, with BDS which seeks the elimination of Israel and thus supports the political goals of Hamas and the PFLP.

44. Anon94 Says:

I find the statement by Shafi a little broad: “[I] … outright reject any notion by which admission, support, or promotion of individuals in academic settings should be impeded by politics”. So does that mean Shafi is calling for the abolition of affirmative action? That is politics right?

45. James Gallagher Says:

Scott #16

Well, if you’re gonna say QC works in deBroglie-Bohm scenario then you might as well include Harry Potter universe too.

Many-Worlds is just a mathematical statement of Unitary Evolution which happens all at once, and our Universe has a speed of light limit, so it’s not a description of our reality.

Anyway, sorry you didn’t agree that Goldreich’s observation on difference between randomness in a mentally constructed model and randomness existing reality was interesting…

46. LK2 Says:

If I understand wel, the Goldreich critic to QC is that it could not work because QM might not be the “true” description of nature. Besides incredible precision of experiments, it looks like a very weak argument.
I’m more afraid of Kalai’s critic which looks incorporating some real physics argument: noise. All the TCS one can do cannot solve this issue, which requires the physics of the concrete devices people is building. It might be possible that the current technologies will not be able to scale (we will see), but I find hard to deny that QC is “impossible” yet.

47. Paul Beame Says:

Oded is one of the most intellectually rigorous people one I have ever met. You get a real sense of this rigor in his textbooks on cryptography, where he carefully examines every definition and weighs the potential alternatives in detailed footnotes – and sometimes footnotes on footnotes. Oded applies a similar approach to take principled stands on a variety of issues that many of us would ignore – though heart and intuition also play more of a role than he might acknowledge – as it did when both he and Avi Wigderson strongly advocated for core values in theoretical computer science in the mid 1990s at a time of crisis in confidence in the field.

However, for all this intensity, one thing that I also think about with Oded is his keen and mischievous sense of humor. Talking with Oded, one cannot always tell where on the spectrum between joke and seriousness a particular conversation is heading. I can certainly imagine a conversation about the Israel Prize controversy with Oded having elements of both!

Oded Goldreich and Jeff Ullman have both already received the Knuth Prize (given for contributions to the foundations of computer science over an extended period of time): https://sigact.org/prizes/knuth.html. Jeff Ullman won in 2000. Oded Goldreich won in 2017. The two prize lectures were memorable for different reasons:

Ullman’s talk was in Redondo Beach, CA with reminiscences over a conference dinner. However, the part I most remember is that it was interrupted by an hour-long power outage, one of the many rolling blackouts in California that fall that “smoking gun” audio tapes later showed were engineered by Enron to artificially jack up electricity prices.

Oded’s talk was in Montreal at the first Theoryfest to a packed plenary conference room. Its dry humor had members of the audience in stitches and its heart-felt thanks made it feel great be a member of a community that has people like him.

48. Anatoly Says:

I have to admit that after reading these comments and following the links to Ullman’s now-offline page on Iran, I was struck by how milder it was than I’d expected.

Ullman evidently has strong opinions about the Iranian regime and about the hypocritical, according to him, accusations against Israel and the US coming from supporters of the regime. He expressed these opinions while strongly emphasizing that he’s not in a position to act upon them because he has no influence whatsoever on student admission. I understand how it may rankle to read these strong opinions, but is there any evidence that he actually engaged in any discrimination?

What’s more, I don’t even see any signs that he’s fought for any discrimination to happen. He seems to think that admitting citizens of oppressive and dangerous regimes is bad, but he hasn’t written op-eds about it, he hasn’t given interviews about it, the work he’s known for has zero intersection with this issue, and his views have not apparently informed any actual policy anywhere. All there’s to accuse him, apparently, is a personal curmudgeonly webpage, some emails and an archived comment thread from an extinct social network platform (Google Plus). Should that really be enough to override professional recognition over a lifetime of work?

Why shouldn’t a sane reaction to being exposed to his views be “Hmm, I understand his argument, but both moral and pragmatic upside of not burdening citizens of oppressive regimes with their regimes’ sins should by far outweigh the downsides he’s describing, so I think I’ll just disagree”? What causes people to feel such a strong need for public moral condemnation? Over a view that apparently was never popular or consequential in the community, was not championed publicly and has zero relevance to the work in question?

49. Scott Says:

Anatoly #48: I think the argument would be, unlike with many episodes of woke language policing, there were some actual identifiable victims here, namely those Iranian students who read Ullman’s responses and might have reasonably gotten the impression that, at least in the eyes of one prominent faculty member (Ullman), they’d be unwelcome in Stanford’s CS department because of their nationality.

A good test for whether this is a “real answer” or a “woke answer” is whether it could generalize to any professor who ever expressed a strong opinion about anything. Let me jump immediately to the case my worst critics would put to me: not to put too fine a point on it, but what if someone accused me of discouraging women from CS by writing about certain problems faced by shy male nerds?

In such a case, I think I’d be within my rights to respond: no, after careful consideration of this matter, screw you actually, some of my best friends are women in CS (not even counting my wife, and my daughter who I tutor in math, physics, and CS), I’ve been not just an “ally” but an ally to numerous women in CS for a quarter century now, none of them have had any problem with a guy in CS who’s also a human being and who wrote honestly a few times about entirely human problems that he overcame, if you have a problem with it then with all due respect maybe this is more about you, and find me the actual quote where I tell a woman who wants to do quantum computing research that she belongs in the kitchen making me a sammich, or any moral equivalent, you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist because I wouldn’t say such a thing in my most unguarded moment because it’s not who I am or what I believe.

Whereas … what was I saying again? Oh yes: if someone asked the corresponding question about Ullman, the issue would be those actual emails that he sent to the Iranian students. If I try to imagine myself in his shoes, having sent those emails, I … whatever my other flaws as a human being, I immediately apologize to the students because I think about the effect it would’ve had on me when I was a student.

50. JoshP Says:

Scott: So an Iranian student of Nuclear Physics should get the best available education? Do your parents in law have a good atomic shelter? I don’t.

51. Scott Says:

JoshP #50: Three responses.

1) Alas, the Iranian government already has all the expertise it needs to build nuclear weapons, and has had it for a long time. The only thing that’s kept it from going all the way is various political and military calculations.

2) Theoretical CS is not nuclear physics. I find it implausible, verging on humorous, that anything Jeff Ullman or I could teach would be of much use to the Iranian military.

3) I pay tax dollars to support thousands of analysts at the State Department and the CIA whose job is to make determinations exactly like these! It shouldn’t fall to a CS professor to decide and implement their own national security policy.

52. Rahul Says:

Scott #51

1. Thats a cop out. Ok, hypothetically had this happened a long time ago when Iran was still a baby in the nuclear program. What then would your answer be.

2. What if now we are talking about a physics or chemical engineering program. Would they be valid to say no to Iranian students

3. Would you say the same about the FDA. I pay tax dollars to have analysts decide vaccine policy so I am going to not make my own choices which may at times be at odds with the policy reccomendations or beyond the mandates?

53. Mayer Says:

54. Scott Says:

Mayer #53: The issues are entangled, of course, but I don’t think they’re interreducible. If you take me, for example, yes I’m maximally opposed to denying Goldreich this award, and yes I’ve also long been in favor of a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but those who are close to Goldreich politically might consider me some kind of soulless and bloodthirsty right-wing fascist 😀 … and that’s OK, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether Goldreich deserves a math/CS prize or not.

55. Andrew Erickson Cornish Says:

Is there any hint of when part 2 (of <=Aleph_0) of the complete idiot's guide to the continuum hypothesis might come out? Part 1 was almost 6 months ago! Give the people what they want!

56. Boaz Barak Says:

This is the petition Goldreich signed btw: https://noarielties.org/2021/03/23/ariel-university-and-horizon-2020-the-eu-is-legitimizing-israels-illegal-settlements/

Interestingly, I think the Israeli right wing and BDS agree on a crucial issue. Both want to erase the distinction between the settlements and Israel proper, and insist on treating both the same way. BDS wants to boycott both and the Israeli right wing wants to annex the territories, with steps such as making Ariel University being progress toward this goal. I think that the only hope for any kind of peace is to maintain this distinction.

Prof. Aaronson,

Thanks for standing up for Iranian students. I’m about as vocal a critic of the Iranian regime as you can find, but I completely agree with you that Iranian students should not be held responsible for the actions of their government.

58. Richard Gaylord Says:

scott:

“Anyway, do you live there? Are you a Zionist? Why am I the only one who has to defend and explain himself? ????”

i live in Chicago. i have visited Israel twice (the last time was long ago in 1988). i am not a zionist but i’m glad the’s a place that jews can go to when (not if) other countries expel or mistreat us as they invariably and inevitably do (notwithstanding the extremely problematic history of its creation and its ongoing mis-treatment of non-jews, as well as of non-orthodox jews). your last sentence doesn’t make any sense to me.

59. Anonymous Says:

Boaz #56: Have you seen a map of the settlements? Just looking at how geographically mixed up are the settlements and the palestinian villages you will realize there is no cheap geographical separation.

Minewhile real estate prices in Israel are pushing more and more politically neutral people into buying houses in settlements. Good luck buying a house with sensible drive time to your work in the center, with insane house prices, while just crossing the line and having another ten minutes drive makes the house affordable.

Everyone is pretending settlements are purely political issue but they are economical issue and geographical issue and to be honest they don’t have a solution the left pretends they do.

60. Anatoly Says:

Scott #49: There are three elements central to, as you called it, “woke language policing”.

1. Obsession with identity politics. Note how it’s all about the *regime* for Ullman – but it’s all about the *nationality* for his critics (I mean, not all critics – I don’t agree with him so I guess I’m a critic, but you know what I mean). Note how he’s always at pains to emphasize the difference. Sure, one can argue that Ullman’s focus on the former can harm the latter, but it’s wrong to pretend – as the petition and the Twitter diatribes do – that he’s just personally bigoted against Iranians as ethnicity/nationality.

2. Absurd levels of imagined sensitivity. A random recent example is when a deputy editor of JAMA, the Journal of American Medical Association, questioned the “structural racism” narrative on a podcast, a petition was circulated, the editor-in-chief was placed on leave, and media erupted with articles saying the podcast “caused an incalculable amount of pain and trauma to Black physicians and patients” (an emergency physician quoted in NYTimes).

In Ullman’s case, he wrote kind-of ranty replies to some unknown number of Iranian students who cold-emailed him seeking to gain patronage with their Stanford applications. He seems to have always emphasized that his personal opinions have no bearing on Stanford admissions. So the worst that could have happened is that those students got the impression that *one* CS professor in *one* top CS department in the US was uninterested in working with them because of their citizenship and the actions of their government.

I mean, I don’t want to say it’s nothing. It sucks! It’s unpleasant to get a hostile email from someone rejecting the idea of working with you due to circumstances about you that are beyond your control. I know the feeling. But is that anything close to “incalculable amount of pain and trauma”? Do you think that maybe some of those students… just applied to Stanford anyway?

3. Complete loss of any sense of proportion. Anyone who offended some identity-based sensitivity (absurdly enlarged through 2) is thereby condemned with no amount of positive qualities able to overweigh the flaw. As a slight becomes “a harm”, a surly email to a specific person “harms against the group”, and a curmudgeonly rant on a personal webpage “pushing a whole group out of the field”, kind and honest people are giving in to this sense of moral panic and join petitions written in this sort of appallingly dishonest language.

Suppose for a second that Ullman had been a lousy PhD advisor (as some scientists are, alas) and thereby delayed or even derailed the careers of several promising PhD students. In that hypothetical world, would people circulate petitions condemning his Turing award because of this? To ask the question is to realize how ridiculous it is; of course not. That’s not what the Turing award is about and even though it’s “harm” and to be deplored, it cannot outweigh the lifetime of distinguished work the award *is* coming to celebrate. But what I just described is surely much more harmful, in very specific ways, than a number of upsetting personal emails that clearly distance themselves from any real-world consequences! (no influence on admission, etc.)

Somehow, when the flawed behavior can be seen in an identity-group perspective, no matter what level of actual harm is there, no matter what nuances are there, no matter what relevance to the positive work and the amount of it, we’re zooming in, laser-focused just on that idendity-group aspect, losing all sense of context and proportion, unable to look away. And we feel we must condemn, we must maintain our moral purity, we must get away from such… horrible… things…

This is how moral panics operate.

61. The Big Red Scary Says:

Scott #15: “how regrettably and unfortunately, some students from this hostile enemy nation will go back there and work on its nuclear program or whatever, so even if most of them are wonderful people he can’t take the risk.”

Bad strategy on Ullman’s part. He should be recruiting all the Iranian students that he can, and making sure that all his female Iranian students get intensive training in intersectional feminism. This is forward looking, since not only does it depress Iranian industrial capacity now, it depresses high IQ Iranian fertility in the future.

62. Jo Says:

Why can’t we say
“Ullman, you have been kind of a jerk, as a “punishment” you will not get such and such prize. Actions have consequences, buddy”.
and
“Goldreich, sorry mate, this prize where the government has apparently a say in, you won’t get. You may get it in a few years when/if Israeli politics/government changes”.
I don’t think these scientists need these prizes to put food on the table or produce new knowledge for humanity. They are grown people, they will get through it.

These prizes don’t exist in a vacuum. Somebody floated the idea of prizes-with-criteria only to outright reject it as it could be “gamed”. But the “hierarchy” in science itself is “gamed” ! Better to have been born from white rich parents in the US than in a Nairobi shantytown if you wan to succeed in a scientific field and be in a position to win a so-called “purely scientific prize” (prize that does not matter anyway to the science, putting a prize on a peer reviewed paper won’t make it magically better) Prizes are social constructs and our society is far from flawless, question is do you think that “tinkering” with the prize-attribution process might make society better or not.

As for BDS. Some people float here the idea that its goal is the destruction of Israel. That is not its (stated) goal if the intro in the wikipedia page is correct. No sure of my own analysis of what BDS wants/does but presenting as fact that it wants to destroy Israel may be a bit quick.

In the same vein. Various Iranian authorities have stated (I think) over time that they want to destroy Israel. This is obviously the kind of threat that must be countered, but realistically. From the moment Iran has the bomb (and small enough to put it on top of a Scud derivative), what happens? I think (and hope!!) that there will be no movement against Israel. Usually countries do not build the bomb to use it. They use the bomb to gain influence. So, Saudi Arabia (exporter of petroleum products and fanatical terrorism) loses influence, probably the USA loses influence in the middle east, various countries re-align, but I don’t see the point for Iran to be attacking Israel. And I don’t think they are madmen. Of course if I’m wrong it’s catastrophic, but frankly. Does anybody think that Iran won’t get the bomb sooner or later? Better to think of what happens then, maybe?

63. Boaz Barak Says:

Anatoly #60: You have it backwards. The issue with Ullman is exactly that he conflates the regime with the people in it. Separating them is a core value for science. Otherwise we could never have Russian students in the US, American students in China, or even Texan students in Massachusetts 🙂

In fact, you and everyone else on this thread seem to agree that he’s wrong.

Indeed, I would have never gotten involved in it if when called out on this, Ullman said something like “sorry, I think the Iranian regime is terrible and evil, but we should not take it out on students from Iran that are as welcome by me and Stanford as students from any other country”. However, when confronted in 2011 he only doubled down saying (according to the Chronicle article) that Iranians need to know that “nobody’s going to treat them very kindly if the country behaves the way it does.”

At this point, giving him the field’s highest award makes it seem that the ACM agrees with him.

64. fred Says:

Seems like a subset of the general ethical question of whether the artist and his/her art should be treated separately.

Maybe the real issue lies with the concept of awards and prizes.
Pride and hate is what happens when one listens too much to the ego.

65. Scott Says:

Rahul #52: I pointed out three factors that to me seemed extremely relevant to the case at hand. Yes, if we’d been talking about MIT training A. Q. Khan in nuclear physics in the 1970s, at least two of those factors would not have applied—but I feel like mapping out the whole contours of this issue is a project for another time.

66. Scott Says:

Boaz Barak #63: The only sentence of your comment that I disagreed with was the last:

At this point, giving him the field’s highest award makes it seem that the ACM agrees with him.

I think that in this case, the appearance is neither more nor less than the reality: that as a scientific society, ACM is still willing to overlook political stances and behavior that almost everyone in it finds objectionable when handing out a scientific award.

67. AS Says:

Scott #66:

I would agree with you, had the ACM not declared the importance of diversity and inclusion to their organization’s mission. Taken together, it seems like a discriminatory stance is unacceptable, unless its targets are Iranian students.

68. Elias Says:

Hey Scott. I’m a huge fan of you. I was reading about recent controversies on Richard Stallman (free software advocate that is being cancelled for defending a MIT professor associated to Epstein) and he recently published an open letter about this

He seems a bit like you.

69. Scott Says:

Elias #68: Having met and spoken with RMS several times—mostly, iirc, about an idea of his (whose details I forget) for how to use quantum mechanics to resolve the abortion debate—I could articulate many points of difference between him and myself, but yes, I’ll accept that there are also some similarities. 😉 I just read the new statement of his that you linked to and thought it was quite beautiful. I hope he continues to learn and to contribute to nerd discourse.

70. Scott Says:

Jo #62:

1) I do think it might be useful to spend a moment reflecting, a la Steven Pinker, on how we’ve progressed as a civilization, in that neither Goldreich nor Ullman risks being burned at the stake or imprisoned. Both, even if denied an award, would remain financially comfortable and free in their respective countries to work on and write about anything that interested them. On the other hand, it’s good that our standards nowadays are higher! 🙂 More importantly, I think that arguments about scientific prizes are really proxies for arguments about bigger issues. For example: to what extent should science be subordinated to the values of the wider society, and what extent should it be suffered to exist as an autonomous enterprise with its own somewhat different values?

2) As someone who rejects all conspiracy theorizing, I don’t think there’s any “truth to be uncovered” about what all BDS activists secretly believe. The slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is pretty on-the-nose (don’t you think?), but the more popular “end the occupation!” wisely leaves wiggle room about what exactly “the occupation” means. My guess would be that there are some BDS activists who won’t be satisfied as long as Israel exists at all (just like their forerunners weren’t satisfied between 1948 and 1967), but others who’d be happy (as would I) with a Palestinian state next to Israel, something that the two parties repeatedly came within a hairsbreadth of achieving before it slipped away.

3) I do see how the Iranian regime going nuclear could be a geopolitical disaster, even assuming (as I do) that they’re not suicidal and won’t immediately attack Israel. But I think there can be value in delaying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, just kicking the can further and further down the road, until—one can hope!—the millions of pro-democracy young Iranians finally manage to topple or at least seriously moderate a regime that doesn’t represent them.

71. Nick Says:

Just a heads up to everyone, another unarmed black man was killed by police yesterday (April 11) in a suburb of Minneapolis. The bodycam footage is here:

The official police response is that the cop who shot him thought her gun was a taser. Whoopsie!

A protest quickly formed in that suburb, and police responded with tear gas and a declaration of unlawful assembly. Today 7 PM curfews are in effect throughout the Twin Cities region. Sound familiar?

I don’t know if this one will grow into something larger. The weather is pretty crappy right now, cold and drizzly, and that puts a damper on things.

If they let Chauvin walk, things are going to get ugly.

72. HASH Says:

I love “far LEFT” Scientists/ Philosophers and most of them (my top 10) are Jew (I think they are Atheist or agnostic). I loved Scott’s videos (on YouTube) and blog even I knew he is a Zionist. Who cares? As a (ex) Muslim I like what Shia Imam Ali says ” “I am the slave of the one who teaches me a single word”. Real Scientists are precious gems.

73. Raoul Ohio Says:

Nick #71:

Hard to think of more different situations.

74. fred Says:

“No matter the self-conceited importance of our labors, we are all compost for worlds we cannot yet imagine.

75. Raoul Ohio Says:

Elias #68:

Stallman saga — today’s instalment: https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2021/04/free-software-foundation-and-rms-issue-statements-on-stallmans-return/

Anyone working on a book or TV series on this?

76. Scott Says:

Incidentally, Andrew Erickson Cornish #55: It’s a-comin’.

77. Man To Research Says:

Other than yourself who would you consider Turing level worthy (perhaps in theory and outside theory) in the current generation?

78. Scott Says:

Man To Research #77: Sorry, I don’t mind if others spitball, but I’d prefer to expend mental energy on such things if/when I’m actually on a committee or writing rec letters 🙂

79. bertgoz Says:

Scott #54 “I’ve also long been in favor of a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank”
Would you mind referring me to a link where I can understand better your position on the matter and how it differs from Goldreich position?

Many thanks

80. Scott Says:

bertgoz #79: We’ve surely debated such things on this blog before, but I don’t have a link handy.

In general, Israeli leftists are used to arguing with ultra-Zionists whose starting position is that the Arab states launched multiple wars to wipe out Israel, they lost, so now Israel can do basically whatever it wants in the West Bank. Whereas non-Israeli Jews like me, even if progressive, are used to arguing with anti-Zionists whose starting position is that modern Israel’s whole creation was illegitimate and should ultimately be reversed, with dismantling the West Bank settlements just a first step toward that. Thus, it’s conceivable that the differences between us merely boil down to differences of emphasis. Probably there are substantive differences as well, but I’d want to talk to Goldreich about this subject (something I’ve never done) or at least read something he’d written about it before trying to articulate what they were.

81. bertgoz Says:

Thank you Scott, really appreciate your openness.

82. Nick Says:

Raoul Ohio #73

It looks like you are exaggerating to make a point. Could you please state your position clearly?

83. Raoul Ohio Says:

Nick #82:

The word “another” indicates you are comparing two events:

1. A taser/pistol mixup during conflict, which unfortunately happens a lot.

2. Standing on someone’s neck for about 0.2 Hr (under no duress), including several minutes after death.

If you want to argue, find someone else. I got a job.

84. Anonymous Says:

I think the fact that he has taken down the letter is a sign that he has finally got the message.

Whether ACM should have awarded him? Probably not. Should it be taken away? Probably not.

For the future, I think it is important for ACM to also do a background check on behavior in addition to quality of scientific work. Turning award is not just for technical work but contribution to society and setting an example for others.

I share your concerns about woke, but I think asking ACM to be more careful in future in selecting who to award a Turing award is important.

To go a quite a bit further to demonstrate the rational, we would not want a participant in holocaust to receive something like a Turing award even if they proved P=NP.

85. Alexander SHEN Says:

Some comments: 1) there are obviously cases when just the scientific/economic development of some type in some country is dangerous, and this is reflected sometimes by government policies (embargo on some technologies, sanctions, etc.) On the other hand, such a development could gradually change the situation in the country. This is a very delicate balance, and I cannot even say for sure where the boundary was for Nazi Germany, Soviet Union or where it is for China and Russia – even being familiar with two of the four cases, but obviously both concerns are valid. So different opinions are natural. 2) One can argue that one should delegate such decision to the government instead of “one-man foreign policy”. One could also expect people to obey the government policie (except for some extreme cases with compelling moral reasons), but IMHO one should not expect people to agree with it. And website opinions are just opinions. IMHO even some actions could be sometimes considered as acceptable: if someone stands for a boycott of some institution (e.g., Ariel univeristy) and the current government policy is different, should (s)he be forced to cooperate with it? 3) More general: IMHO any diversity and inclusion policy that is worth the name, should include diverse people,in particular, people that disagree with it.

86. The establishment man Says:

Politics and science have virtually nothing in common. The one is an antithesis of the other. At least this is the case with any science worth pursuing (this refers also to what seems like politicized science that we’re now witnessing).

I support both Oded’s and Jeff’s right to obtain their prizes based solely on their scientific contributions, and I congratulate both of them for their scientific achievements!

87. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » The ACM Prize thing Says:

[…] The Blog of Scott Aaronson If you take nothing else from this blog: quantum computers won't solve hard problems instantly by just trying all solutions in parallel. Also, next pandemic, let's approve the vaccines faster! « Just some prizes […]

88. H. James Hoover Says:

Ah the human condition. Flawed people can achieve great things, for some value of flawed and great. As long as we insist on giving awards to Someone for Something we risk controversy by conflating the two: That was a great result, but can we really give it to someone who likes garlic that much?

Perhaps we need the notion of an ego-less award. It recognizes the Something as being important, without assigning credit or blame to those behind it. It is usually the Thing that merits the award. Often there are many people who contribute to, or independently discover, the Thing, so why do we single out a small subset of these people for the award?

Recording the history of the Thing, who was involved and the dependencies on other Things, is probably a good idea as it captures its intellectual development. Think of the story of reductions, completeness, feasibility, and NP. As far as I’m concerned, cataloging the flaws and virtues of the contributers to the Thing is entertaining but not really relevant in the long run. But the catalog can be maintained by those who care about such stuff.

89. Nick Says:

Raoul Ohio #83

Okay, the specific mode of killing is different. What other differences are there? You said that it was “hard to think of more different situations”, so it sounds like you should be able to list lots of differences. I’ve mentioned a few obvious similarities, so I’m really not sure what you have in mind.

90. Devdatt Says:

Scott calls Oded “far left” perhaps because in Israel, Bibi might soon represent “left”, currently he seems to be considered to occupy the respectable “center” given all the crazy loonies on his “right” …

91. Sergei Yakovenko Says:

In the Goldreich case one should be attentive to details. Initially the Minister refused to sign on the award to Oded on the grounds that Oded supports BDS, citing a yesteryear’s petition to Bundestag. Careful reading of the text of that petition does not allow to infer that the signatories support BDS, it rather calls for the freedom of speech in Germany (!) that would suffer if BDS is recognized as an antisemitic organization. The decision to deny the prize to Oded was obviously an outstretch on behalf of minister. His decision should be overturned and the prize awarded.

Unfortunately, in the rhetoric rage that ensued (just a few days ago), Oded signed another petition, this time calling to the boycott of the Ariel University on the grounds that its campus is beyond the “Green line” considered by some as the border of the State of Israel. This is exactly the same sin as committed by the minister: mixing academic research with politics is inadmissible in the eyes of the majority of scientists, except for fringe groups. The only difference is that in the petition to the Bundestag Oded was one of many signatories and the German lawmakers were probably unaware of his career and achievements. The petition to exclude Ariel University from the EU Horizon 2020 grants, on the other hand, is addressed to the community of peers in which Oded’s stature is very prominent and his opinion carries a (deserved) weight, much exceeding the weight of an “ordinary person”. Wielding such power should impose more self-constraint in voicing clearly politically motivated opinion with academic consequences.

Thus, very sadly, it is impossible now to side completely with each side in this obsolete and artificially created standoff.

92. AnonFromMars Says:

Are we sure that we should even be naming CS awards after Alan Turing? Sure, he founded the field and made decisive wartime contributions, but can any of us be 100% confident that he never made an offensive joke?

Maybe he was a bad tipper? A double dipper? Did he hang toilet paper rolls the wrong way?

When did we forget that awards for CS or math or art or movies are awards for excelling in those fields, not being a good person 100% of the time?

93. Rodog Says:

Of course it’s a great ideal to distinguish people (careers, scientific achievements, etc.) from their political opinions. It is also impossible to achieve, in our non-ideal world. Professors Ullman and Goldreich themselves fail to make this distinction — Prof Ullman’s actions harm Iranian students (irrespective of the latter’s political opinions) and Prof Goldreich’s actions harm* students and faculty at Ariel University (irrespective of the latter’s political opinions). Maybe making the distinction and awarding public prizes to fantastic researchers who themselves do not make this distinction…is not ideal?

*Prof Goldreich’s actions do not cause harm as directly as Prof Ullman’s, but I think this is a difference in degree and not in kind.

94. Alice Says:

Rodog: This can be seen as a trolley problem. Any choice may harm some people, and arguably the right decision is to make the choice that harms fewer. In this light I’m not sure what you said is entirely correct (that “*Prof Goldreich’s actions do not cause harm as directly as Prof Ullman’s, but I think this is a difference in degree and not in kind.”)

95. Suni Says:

Dear Scott, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your book “quantum computing since democritus”. As a computer scientist of Sunni Muslim background, I found Ullman’s statement on Iranian students and Native Americans appalling. However, I think he seem to be an intellectually honest person who is just espousing his views, apparently influenced by his own ethnic background.

As for whether an award should be revoked to a person with those kind of views, I believe NO. Computer Science field has been pioneered by Jews (though if you stretch your imagination, you could acknowledge also contributions from Arabs w.r.t. Algebra and Algorithms). So unsurprisingly, around a quarter of Turing Award winners are Jewish. Based on that, it is not surprising that some of them will also hold a staunch pro-Zionist and anti-Iranian view. His views on ethnic cleansing of Native Americans is not an uncommon rationalisation from those who defend Israel either.

Unlike Jews, we Muslims are used to a somewhat false assumption that everyone should be politically neutral and welcoming etc. Once we correct that false belief, this world offers vast opportunities for learning and doing. Many Iranian students thrived in US despite Ullman I believe. And like I stated, Ullmans do exist and they can be otherwise highly contributive to the field.

As this thread also contains a general discussion on Zionism – Israeli policies on Palestinian (occupied) land have very little bearing on the lives of Muslims elsewhere. Despite what the critics says, we are not anti-Jewish either. But creation of Israel and successive defeats with the support of Western powers represent immense shame and embarrassment for Arabs and it symbolises their powerlessness. So Arabs made Palestine a very emotional issue and a political wild card.
In my opinion, it was right to oppose Israel, but getting fixated on this one issue and exaggerating the impact of Israel caused immense harm to the wider Muslim world.

96. Suni Says:

Mahdi Says:
Comment #3 April 9th, 2021 at 2:15 pm
Bob meets Alice #1: With all due respect, you’re promoting a dangerous idea. This is NOT about politics, it’s about academic values as well as the explicitly-stated Core Values of ACM (even Stanford’s own rules on tenure protection and academic freedom, if you look, don’t seem to protect going against academic values, but that’s a different story). Defining a policy of having nothing to do with students from Iran based on your presumed assumption of their political beliefs or based on natural origin is not just a belief, it is action. An action which at the very least is in violation of the advancement of education, and this time it seems like the educational impact is indeed included in the award citation (for the second time, the first being Knuth).

@Mahdi

Associations like ACM claim to be universal – but in fact they wouldn’t be in practice. Organizations are made up of people and people do not exist in vacuum. FIFA – another supposedly universal organization with high ideals (at-least on paper) – usually treat cases of racism against Black players with a slap on the wrist.

ACM also is made up of people and based on their ethnic, political and religious backgrounds, it will have a view which aspects to take seriously (see my previous comment). When Ullman’s award became a scandal, ACM award committee decided that they’d rather be accused of incompetence than that of awarding bigotry. A casual look at Ullman’s wikipedia page would have made someone aware of his views against Iranians and Arabs/Muslims. If he were to make similar comments against Blacks or Jews, Stanford would have fired him.

But what I am worried about is not Ullmann or his view, but lack of clarity of thinking among us when it comes to these kind of issues.
Are we expecting a Computer Science professor who is very unlikely to have diplomatic skills to behave in a better way than Donald Trump? What Ullmann said is rather mild when compared to what Trump declared in his manifesto – which was an outright ban of Muslims entering his country. If Ullmann were to run as a Republican candidate, he may not win, but only because his views may be seen as too mild by the voters.

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