I recently asked a question about a scientific paper (Why is the Turing Test really a test about gender?), which got closed for being off-topic.

However, I would argue that the question is on-topic, because it asks answers to analyze an academic article using literary methods.

Is the question on-topic?

  • 4
    Why did you reopen your own question? That seems like a pretty clear conflict of interest, especially when the meta consensus (by votes) is not in favor of reopening here. May 2 '17 at 20:12
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    @ChrisHayes I cast the fifth reopen vote. Four other members of the community also voted to reopen the question. Three cast votes, and one moderator, Mithrandir, told me to cast the fourth vote for him. (There's no way for a moderator to cast a non-binding close vote.) There's no rule that you can't vote to reopen your own question, regardless of whether you're a moderator or not.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 20:47
  • @ChrisHayes people seem to disagree with the rational I've outlined for opening the question, but there also seems to be a consensus that maybe it should be on-topic (given that it was reopened pretty quickly). I'm hoping that someone else will write a different answer explaining why it's on-topic.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 20:49

I was one of the close voters. I thought it was a really interesting question. However, any way I stack it up, it seems to me that it belongs somewhere else.

Let's start with asking about analyzing academic articles with literary methods. And we should be specific here: it's a scientific article. In my view, this is a non-starter, simply being a question of using the wrong tools for the job. Scientific papers are just not written to have literary value and they should present no ambiguity. Any to be found in them is the result of poor authorship, nothing more. You might as well ask whether it's okay to analyse a list of ingredients on the side of a food can with literary techniques.

Moving on to this exact instance, I'm not even sure that "literary methods" is what you're asking for here. You're asking "why" Turing put this ambiguity in his paper. There is no need to turn to literary methods to do this, and many answers have not. This is a question about the history of Turing's work and that is reflected in the answers it has received.

Next, let's consider whether we should consider it in terms how language impacts the scientific method. This is a very interesting field of study and one that's close to my own heart. However, academic treat this discipline very squarely as one of Sociology and Philosophy. There are of course links between social science, philosophy and literature, and authors like Derrida have contributed across all three fields. But most in the field belong to University Philosophy and Social Science departments and would agree that's where this subject belongs. There are already SE sites for those.

Finally, what if we're looking at this as a matter of ambiguous language in a scientific paper, trying to get to the bottom of what an author actually indented? In that case I would argue you were better off consulting experts in the same academic field. There are multiple SE sites dealing with computer science, and one each for the physical sciences.

Questions like this are good questions. But just not for this SE.

  • But this question can be answered using literary methods. No one has done so yet, but it is definitely possible.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 14:45
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    @Hamlet No, but that's my first and second points: there is no value in doing so, and it's not necessary to answer the question as asked. May 2 '17 at 14:46
  • Just because it's not necessary doesn't mean it's not possible or valuable to do so. All of the answers on this site could be answered along the lines of "you're overthinking it, there is no meaning" along the lines of your argument.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 14:47
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    @Hamlet I'd dispute both aspects of that. The whole point of scientific writing is to try and minimize ambiguity and convey direct meaning. Arguably a key point of literary analysis is to try and unpack ambiguity and explore multiple meanings. So it's okay to "overthink" when you look at a piece of literature because there is no "right" answer, whereas a scientist is trying to communicate precisely the opposite. If you're interested in this stuff, look at the work of Prof Harry Collins, especially The Golem. May 2 '17 at 14:51
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    @MattThrower texts have subtext regardless of whether the author intended it, and regardless of the conventions of the genre
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 16:39
  • I disagree with the idea that science is immune from subtext. Science has made political statements many times: google scientific racism. The idea that scientific literature doesn't have political subtexts is bizarre.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 17:58
  • @sdenham this is the actual wording of the test: We now ask the question, "What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?" Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, "Can machines think?" So I think I'm justified when I say that the test, at the very least, involves gender, and that gender is more than just an example to introduce the test.
    – user111
    May 2 '17 at 18:06
  • @Hamlet As we have come to an agreement about the claim made by the previous title, I have withdrawn my comments on that issue. For third parties for whom the remaining comments appear out of context, you can find my take on Hamlet's question under Gilles' reply to the original question.
    – sdenham
    May 2 '17 at 19:18
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    A question like this wouldn't make any sense on a scientific site. The scientific answer to this question is “wtf are you on, this paper is not about gender”. There is a didactic element in the use of gender; this could fit in a science site (such as Mathematics Educators), but the question should focus on that instead of hiding it behind a fig leaf of literary construction and implied political agenda. A political agenda is wholly off-topic anywhere near science. May 3 '17 at 23:11
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    @Hamlet No, scientific literature does not have political subtexts. Scientists' writings can of course have political subtexts, or be outright political: scientists are humans too. But scientific literature does not assume conclusions. It strives to be objective. Injecting political subtext in scientific literature is an act of intellectual imposture. May 3 '17 at 23:13
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    @Gilles I read the question as one about research history: why did Turing make this distinction here and not in previous versions of the test. If so, someone familiar with his personal and academic history might be able to answer and that person would most likely be a scientist. However, it seems that the question was poorly titled (now changed) and was actually asking something else. I still say this it is better suited to Philosophy or Social Science but the community has chosen to reopen it. FWIW I'm a former research scientist myself. May 4 '17 at 7:05

(Background: I'm a former scientist and now an engineer.)

Questions about scientific papers are not prima facies off-topic. Scientific papers are generally not primarily written to have literary value, but to convey an idea. Hidden meanings are mostly antithetic to this. However, it is possible for a scientific paper to have literary value, and questions about this are on-topic here.

This, however, does not settle the issue of your question. The main problem with your question is that you're begging a conclusion. You're clearly seeking to find a particular interpretation of a paper which wildly differs from what the paper means. (Yes, yes, I know, you're going to refute that one can objectively assign meaning to a text. But unless you're following a thoroughly solipsist philosophy, in which case what the particular figment of your mind that I am has to tell you may not matter, you do assume that a text has objective meaning by the very act of reading this answer.)

Your original title was particularly problematic — “Why is the Turing Test really a test about gender?” is just as bad as “Why didn't Turing stop beating his wife”. A more reasonable title would be “Is the Turing Test really a test about gender?”. But that does not invalidate the question — it's still possible to answer, by saying “no, it isn't”. I had to think about it for a while, but I do conclude that the question is not off-topic, and it is answerable, so it should remain open.

I do admit that I have a secondary motive in leaving the question open. You clearly have an answer in mind and I'm curious to see what it is. I fear that it's some kind of imposture, but I'm still willing to assume good faith.

  • Thank you for your support! And actually, no, I would say that you can objectively assign meanings to a text. That's meanings in the plural.
    – user111
    May 3 '17 at 23:24

Although it's been overlooked in the answers so far (in part because the question got on the HNQ), there are a number of literary angles that the question could be approached from.

When you say "Turing's paper may be related to various tropes about AI and gender", are you talking about the trope of AIs being portrayed as female that we see in films like Metropolis or Ex Machina? Because that could indeed be an interesting approach; one (who had more knowledge of the topic than me) could draw a parallel between the mixture of human and "other" inherent to an AI and the way women in some male-authored fiction have been portrayed as a mixture of human and "other". – Torisuda

@Torisuda THANK YOU for engaging with the question. To be honest, I need to do more research myself. But yes, that definitely is one possible approach. If you want more directions to go in, think about how AI has been used to talk about reproduction without sex, or think about how the Turing test, if passed, means that the categories of human and AI have no meaning, because humans can't tell one from the other. There are a lot of interesting angles to approach this question from; here's hoping we get a good answer. – Hamlet♦

If I asked this question on a computer science site, these angles would be ignored and derided as "over-analyzing" (as shown from the comments and answers this question has received so far, in part due to the HNQ). That's why I'm asking this question here, on the Literature site.

Our site's scope is very broad. Let's embrace that and push the boundaries of what people think is literature.

  • 2
    Then why didn't you clarify this is the angle you are looking at it from in your question? While it makes absolutely no sense to me to allow scientific articles to be on topic here, if you choose to do so, then surely you must limit it to analyses of the writing as writing and nothing else. Therefore, asking why a particular scientist made a particular choice when publishing isn't on topic anyway. Perhaps if you rephrased your question to clarify what you're looking for it would make more sense.
    – terdon
    May 2 '17 at 15:09
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    Your reply to Torisuda suggests you are interested in a different question that the one you asked. Perhaps you should ask that question instead, though it would probably fall foul of the Stack Exchange "too broad and speculative" rule. You also seem to expect people to take your assumptions (starting with the title) as givens, but there are several people saying that they are not prepared to do so. You asked, now you should listen.
    – sdenham
    May 2 '17 at 15:10
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    I think @sdenham has got to the crux of the matter here: you seem to want an answer to a different (and also interesting) question to the one asked, one on gender tropes in science fiction and how they may have influenced scientists. I'm not entirely sure how you'd phrase that question but it does seem like one that would fit on Literature SE (although, again, Philosohpy SE might be a better bet). May 2 '17 at 15:21
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    "Let's embrace that and push the boundaries of what people think is literature": if you extend the scope of the site to encompass all cases of written or even spoken/sung (Dylan?) word, it becomes largely pointless. Or as useful as any of the various forums and Yahoo Answers sites that SE is trying to move away from. You need to have some limits on your scope. Are marketing blurbs literature? Street signs? Visiting cards? Or, more to the point, if you consider them literature, are there really users who would be interested in a literature site that allows such a broad scope?
    – terdon
    May 2 '17 at 15:26
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    Could you please tone down your derision towards scientists? Your constant subtext that anyone who doesn't see the same subtexts all over the place is inferior is annoying. May 3 '17 at 23:14
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    I like the concept of subjecting things other than books to literary analysis on this site. When I was a writing tutor I helped students with an assignment where they analyzed magazine advertisements, which was always fun; it was amazing how much cultural insight you could get from an ad for peanut butter, for example. But I think the question as posed is a tough nut to crack. In its original form, I was thoroughly puzzled for what angle to take on it. After the edit that added the "various tropes about AI and gender" line, I started to cotton to it finally.
    – Torisuda
    May 4 '17 at 2:40
  • @Torisuda I agree that it is fascinating to apply literary analysis tools to content and media which are not strictly "literature." The question is whether such questions would be on-topic for this stack. Magazine ads: no. I'm not saying the analysis wouldn't be useful (it would be), but that it would be out of our scope. Scientific papers... possibly. In this case, I think the question was ultimately more about whether Turing intended to make a sociological/cultural judgment with his example. It's an interesting question, but it's out of scope here. May 9 '17 at 12:46

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