The Alan Turing Apology — Why?

Posted on September 7, 2009

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Not so long ago, we celebrated the posthumous birthday of Alan Turing, who has achieved heroic status in the computing field. He made critical contributions to algorithms, computation, computer design and artificial intelligence, and famously played a role in the efforts to break the German codes during the Second World War. However, his story does not end well. Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal and considered an illness. He was forced to undergo humiliating “treatment” in the form of oestrogen injections, and had his security clearance revoked, leaving his life and career in ruins.

Recently, a petition has been raised on the Downing Street petition website demanding an apology from the UK government for this. I have not signed this petition, and I do not plan to, because I cannot see what it would achieve. (This seems to put me in opposition to many eminent people, not the least of which is Prof. Richard Dawkins.) For one thing, who is the apology from? The gross mistreatment of Alan Turing occured in 1952 — a great many people in government today were not even born then, and anyone in authority at the time has long since retired or died. An apology would be curiously hollow.

The present government’s position on gay rights is quite clear from their actions over the past ten years, which far outweigh any apology or affirmative statement they could make; the government’s opinion on the injustice meted out to Turing can be easily deduced from those. And surely much better ways exist, as lead petitioner John Graham-Cumming puts it, for “people [to] hear about Alan Turing and realise his incredible impact on the modern world, and how terrible the impact of prejudice was on him.”

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