ChatGPT as an academic writer

I’ve taken the view that the hoopla about ChatGPT is overblown, and that the texts generated by large language models in response to “prompts” are nothing more than strings of sentences, without coherent meaning. But now that I’ve spent an evening playing with the tool, my opinion is changed. I’m frankly amazed at how informative and coherent the responses are that ChatGPT provides in response to moderately difficult questions in philosophy, history, and sociology. I posed questions about Rousseau’s concept of the general will; Peirce’s distinctive philosophy of science; reasons for FEMA’s failure during the Katrina crisis; whether Socrates committed atrocities as a hoplite; and several other topics. In each case, ChatGPT came back with 300-500 words of cogent summary and analysis in just a few seconds. At the same time, none of the texts are documented, and the reader has no basis for evaluating the accuracy of the material contained in the texts. 

Is it possible that we’ve focused on the wrong questions in trying to make sense of these large language models? So far a lot of the discussion about ChatGPT is about the ability of the tool to “write” logically organized and convincing natural-language answers. It is about “intelligent chat”. But maybe the real power of the large language models falls under the description “large-scale knowledge aggregator”. The chat session can quickly provide the human questioner with a mid-level summary of what is known about a certain subject. However, the usefulness of the responses is diminished by the fact that the chatbot doesn’t “show its work”; it doesn’t document the origins of the statements that it makes. (I presume this could be done fairly easily.) 

Lack of documentation is one important flaw. Equally disturbing from an academic point of view, many of these questions I posed in my experiment require judgment and assessment of academic disagreements, and ChatGPT seems incapable of exercising this kind of judgment. Instead, it seems to pick out one line of interpretation of the issue and then sticks with it, ignoring the availability and strength of arguments in the literature to the contrary. In a balanced PhD-student level “literature review” on a topic, we would expect the researcher to arrive at some judgments about the relative strength of the various positions that have emerged in debates over a subject; but ChatGPT appears to lack the capacity to arrive at these kinds of “credibility assessment” judgments by itself.

For me, this experiment has been eye-opening. On the one hand, I am greatly surprised at how coherently and (usually) accurately the chatbot has been able to arrive at informative answers to moderately difficult questions (and questions to which it has presumably never been exposed). And on the other hand, I’m left with a huge epistemic doubt about the reliability of what the chatbot says. How can the reader distinguish between accurate statements about Rousseau or Peirce (based on some kind of reputable academic literature) and wild misconceptions that somehow the bot has been led into? And most puzzling for me: what specifically are the sources of the statements that the bot makes — in just a few seconds — when confronted with a complicated and novel question? Does it do a quick scan of Wikipedia and various other encyclopedias? Does it search through journal articles on the topic, and then arrive at a quick synthesis of several of them? The results would be much more satisfactory if they were accompanied by a specification of the references and sources that were used in compiling the answers. 

Consider this multi-round exchange about Jan Gross’s book, Neighbors. This conversation is fairly substantive, and thanks to a few followup questions (about the number of victims, about the influence of right-wing extremist government, and about sources) it becomes more informative. However, a history professor reading the conversation critically would raise some fundamental questions of evidence and judgment: what are the sources for your statements? Why should I believe your analysis? What is the basis of credibility for your answer? And how should we assess the disagreements that arise in this topic among experts? In short, what is the argument and evidence for the statements you offer? 

In the following I have interpolated some comments and criticisms in square brackets. 

DL: Why has there been controversy in Poland over Jan Gross’s book Neighbors?

ChatGPT: Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” has been a source of controversy in Poland because it deals with the subject of the Jedwabne massacre, which occurred during World War II. In the book, Gross argues that a group of ethnic Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne, rather than German occupiers, were responsible for the massacre of over 300 Jewish residents of the town in 1941. This contradicts the traditional narrative that the Germans were solely responsible for the massacre and has led to a heated debate in Poland about the country’s role in the Holocaust. [DL: the estimate of 300 victims will be questioned below. Otherwise the paragraph is a reasonable opening summary.]

Many Poles feel that Gross’s book is unfair and harmful to Poland’s reputation, as it suggests that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust and it undermines the image of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII. [DL: many Poles? That’s very indefinite, and suggests that there is a lot of public opinion about Gross’s book. What is the evidence for this?]

Additionally, there has been criticism of Gross’s methodology and use of sources in the book, with some arguing that Gross relied too heavily on anecdotal evidence and did not provide enough evidence to support his conclusions. [DL: Who has offered criticisms of Gross’s methodology? Are these legitimate criticisms? What is the balance of opinion among expert historians on this subject?]

Another reason for the controversy is that the book was published at a time when Poland was experiencing a resurgence of nationalism sentiment and the government was trying to promote a more positive image of Poland’s role in World War II. The publication of the book, which highlights the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust, was seen as a threat to this narrative. [DL: this seems accurate. Documentation?]

Overall, the controversy surrounding Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” in Poland is due to the sensitive and controversial subject matter of the Jedwabne massacre, and the fact that it challenges the traditional narrative of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII and highlights the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust. [DL: fair summary of statements made previously in the text.]

DL: How do right-wing nationalist politics affect the reception of Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” in Poland?

ChatGPT: The rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland has affected the reception of Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” in a number of ways.

The book, which deals with the subject of the Jedwabne massacre, in which a group of ethnic Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne, rather than German occupiers, were responsible for the massacre of over 300 Jewish residents of the town in 1941, challenged the traditional narrative of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII and highlighted the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust. This contradicts the narrative of the right-wing nationalist politics that emphasizes the idea of Poland as a victim of WWII and downplays the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust. [DL: the number of Jewish victims will be questioned below. Otherwise the paragraph is a fair summary of the relationship between right-wing politics in Poland and attacks on Gross’s work.]

The right-wing nationalist politics in Poland has led to a strong resistance to criticism of the country and its history, and has created a political climate in which it is difficult to have an open and honest discussion about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. This has led to a hostile reception of the book and the author, Jan Gross, by some quarters of the Polish society and political establishment, who see the book as an attack on Poland’s reputation and an attempt to tarnish the image of the country. [DL: yes, but it needs to be more specific. What is the name of the leading party? When did it take office? Documentation is needed.]

Additionally, the right-wing nationalist politics in Poland has led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism, which has further complicated the reception of the book. This has led to accusations that Jan Gross is promoting anti-Polish sentiments and that the book is an attempt to demonize Poland and its people. [DL: this paragraph makes a substantive causal claim: nationalist politics led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. How did ChatGPT reach this conclusion? Could the causal arrow go the other direction?]

The Polish government at the time also tried to downplay the role of Poles in the Holocaust, which further complicated the reception of the book. [DL: yes. Documentation?]

Overall, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland has affected the reception of Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” in a negative way, as it challenges the traditional narrative of Poland as a victim of Nazi occupation during WWII and highlights the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust, which contradicts the narrative promoted by the right-wing nationalist politics. This has led to a hostile reception of the book and the author by some quarters of the Polish society and political establishment, and has complicated the open and honest discussion about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. [DL: balanced conclusion given claims made previously.]

DL: I’ve read that the number of Jewish victims in Jedwabne was over 1000, but you quoted 300 dead. Can you explain the discrepancy?

ChatGPT: I apologize for the discrepancy in the number of Jewish victims in the Jedwabne massacre that I quoted in my previous response. The number of Jewish victims in the Jedwabne massacre is estimated to be between 300 and 1600. [DL: we would like to know why the lower estimate was used in the original response.]

The number of Jewish victims in the Jedwabne massacre has been a source of debate and controversy. The initial investigation by the Polish government in 1949, put the number of victims at around 300. However, more recent scholarship, including Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors”, have suggested that the number of victims may have been much higher, possibly as many as 1600. [DL: yes; documentation needed.]

The discrepancy in the number of victims is due to a lack of reliable records and the passage of time, which has made it difficult to accurately determine the number of victims. Additionally, the massacre was carried out by local ethnic Poles, not by the Nazis and the Polish government of the time might have wanted to downplay the extent of the crime, so the numbers were not accurately reported. [DL: these are fairly lame efforts to explain uncertainty about the facts of the killings. “Might have wanted …” — that is plainly speculation; what does ChatGPT depend on in order to offer that hypothesis?]

It is important to note that the exact number of victims may never be known with certainty and that the focus should be on the fact that a horrific crime was committed against the Jewish community in Jedwabne, regardless of the exact number of victims. [DL: there is an element of “who knows?” in this reply; where does that come from? There is also a prescription: “focus should be on the fact that a horrible crime …”; where does this come from? This is a judgment; but by stipulation, ChatGPT does not make judgments.]

DL: What can you add concerning the situation of Holocaust historians in Poland as a result of the slander and libel laws created by the nationalist government recently?

ChatGPT: Recent changes to the laws concerning slander and libel in Poland have caused concern among Holocaust historians and other scholars who study the Holocaust in Poland. The changes to the laws make it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation or state of being complicit in the Holocaust, with penalties of up to three years in prison. [DL: good. Documentation?]

Critics argue that these changes to the laws have a chilling effect on the ability of historians and scholars to study and discuss the Holocaust in Poland, as they may now be afraid of being accused of defaming the Polish nation or state. This can limit the free exchange of ideas and the ability to have an open and honest discussion about the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it. [DL: yes; but give examples. Whose work has been attacked? What historians have suffered the chilling effect?]

Additionally, the laws have been criticized for being vague and open to interpretation, which can lead to an inconsistent enforcement of the laws and a lack of clarity about what constitutes a violation. [DL: documentation? Who offers this criticism?]

Furthermore, the laws have been criticized for being in violation of the freedom of speech and academic freedom, as they restrict the ability of historians and scholars to express their opinions and conduct their research freely. [DL: yes. Sources? Does Polish constitution protect freedom of speech and academic freedom?]

Holocaust historians in Poland have also reported facing harassment and intimidation by the government and nationalist groups, this further limits their ability to conduct their research. [DL: examples?]

In summary, the recent changes to the laws concerning slander and libel in Poland have caused concern among Holocaust historians and other scholars who study the Holocaust in Poland, as they may now be afraid of being accused of defaming the Polish nation or state. This can limit the free exchange of ideas and the ability to have an open and honest discussion about the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it, and also restrict the ability of historians and scholars to express their opinions and conduct their research freely. [DL: good summary of preceding statements.]

DL: Can you give me some citations on the libel and slander laws in Poland that are of concern to Holocaust historians?

ChatGPT: The libel and slander laws in Poland that have caused concern among Holocaust historians are the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) passed on February 1st 2018. The amendment made it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation or state of being complicit in the Holocaust, with penalties of up to three years in prison. [DL: adequate summary. The penalties that have been discussed have not involved prison sentences.]

This legislation has been widely criticized by scholars and academics, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. [DL: how about the European Union?]

One of the sources that reported on the situation is the article “Poland’s Holocaust Law Has Chilled Research into the Holocaust”, written by Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian historian and published on the New York Times on March 2019.

Another source is the article “Poland’s Holocaust Law: How it threatens freedom of speech”, written by Bartosz Staszewski, a journalist and historian, and published on the BBC News on February 2018.

Also, the article “Poland’s Holocaust law: a dangerous attempt to rewrite history” written by Antony Polonsky, an American historian and published on The Guardian on February 2018.

These articles provide information on the context and the concerns of the scholars and academics regarding the recent amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and how it affects the freedom of speech and the ability of historians to research and write about the Holocaust in Poland. [DL: the sources mentioned here are from reputable historians. However, only media accounts are mentioned. What about academic literature? What about other books?]

DL: Were there other massacres in Poland that were committed by Poles rather than German soldiers?

ChatGPT: There were several other instances of massacres committed by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust, in addition to the Jedwabne massacre.

One example is the Kielce pogrom in 1946, in which 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors were killed by a mob of Polish residents in the city of Kielce. This event is considered one of the worst post-war pogroms against Jews in Poland.

In addition, there were several other instances of violence and murders of Jews in Poland during and after WWII, committed by ethnic Poles, often in situations of powerlessness and competition over scarce resources. [DL: examples?]

It’s important to note that these acts of violence were not representative of the Polish population as a whole, but were committed by a small group of individuals or groups of individuals who carried anti-Semitic attitudes and were encouraged by the atmosphere of the time. [DL: this is surprisingly judgmental on the part of ChatGPT. What is the evidence for the claim? What is the “atmosphere of the time” that is mentioned?]

It’s also important to note that many Poles also risked their lives to save Jewish lives during WWII, and that Poland was the only country in Europe where the punishment for helping Jews was death for the helper and their family. [DL: this is a common recourse in efforts to minimize or excuse events like Jedwabne. It is an ideological appeal. Why did ChatGPT make this assertion?]

It’s also important to remember that Holocaust was a complex and multifaceted event and that the study of the Holocaust should be done in a scholarly and nuanced way, taking into account the different perspectives, experiences, and actions of different groups of people, including Poles, and should avoid any form of broad generalization. [DL: this is a strongly judgmental set of statements. How does ChatGPT arrive at them? Why are they included? What do they derive from?]

Three observations seem important in considering this impromptu discussion with ChatGPT about one terrible event in European history. First, historical errors find their way into these answers, along with reasonably accurate statements. So the reader must make vigilant and critical assessments about the various claims, and generally there is little evidence provided for the claims. If this series of exchanges were a student paper, the professor would be asking repeatedly, “what is the source for this claim?”. 

Second, the texts describing the events in Jedwabne are offered as being neutral statements of facts, “taking all perspectives” into account. But a human historian would insist on sorting out the validity of the competing perspectives, including especially the perspective of the academic historian researching the Holocaust and the nationalist politician determined to sanitize the reputation of the country. Good academic writing requires assessment of the relative credibility of competing interpretations.

And third, this even-handedness about perspectives leads in this case to a willingness to adopt a “people will differ” stance towards the Holocaust, which in the end sounds a bit apologist. When it comes to the Holocaust and genocide, the bromide that we “should avoid any form of broad generalization” is morally bankrupt. And why does ChatGPT itself occasionally fall into exactly the kinds of unsubstantiated judgments that the methodology seems to prohibit? In response to one of my other questions, ChatGPT began by saying, “as a language model AI, I do not have personal opinions, preferences or feelings”. True enough — but in that case, why is ChatGPT offering the bromides like “don’t generalize about peoples”? 

We don’t want AI bots to be making our ethical judgments for us; and yet we also don’t want to arrive at a telling of history that treats good and evil with strict value neutrality. Is this perhaps the deep question about AI ethics that we should be concerned about? As these paragraphs show, judgments creep into the ChatGPT text; what is their basis? 

The photo: Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto

Here is one more focused historical exchange that also seems diagnostic of the strengths and weaknesses of ChatGPT. In this case the prompt is a little vague, and ChatGPT makes a plausible effort. But it appears that the answer ChatGPT provides is incorrect. As above, it would be very interesting to know what the sequence of events was from receiving the prompt to identifying the photograph to gathering background information about the photo.

DL: What can you tell me about the photograph, “Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto”?

ChatGPT: The photograph “Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto” is a iconic image of the Holocaust. It was taken in 1942 by Jewish Polish photographer, Henryk Ross, who was a member of the Jewish Fighting Organization and was active in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The photograph depicts a Jewish boy, wearing a cap and a coat, with a look of fear and despair on his face, standing in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was established by the Nazis in 1940 as a confined area for the Jewish population in Warsaw, Poland.

The photograph was taken at a time when the Warsaw Ghetto was under strict Nazi control, and the living conditions were extremely harsh, with widespread starvation, disease, and death. The photograph captures the dire situation and the suffering of the Jewish people in the ghetto.

After the war, Henryk Ross managed to save many of his photographs, which were later donated to the State Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The photograph “Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto” has become one of the most iconic images of the Holocaust and has been widely reproduced and used in books, documentaries, and exhibitions on the Holocaust. The photograph serves as a powerful reminder of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime.

It is important to remember that behind this photograph, there is a person who suffered, a life that was lost, and a family that was broken apart. It is also important to remember that behind the photograph, there is a photographer, Henryk Ross, who risked his own life to capture this image and preserve it for future generations.

DL: I’m confused, since I thought this photo was taken by German army public relations photographers under command of Jurgen Stroop.

ChatGPT: I apologize for the confusion in my previous response. You are correct that the photograph “Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto” was not taken by Henryk Ross but by a German army photographer under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop.

Jurgen Stroop was a senior SS commander who was appointed by Heinrich Himmler to lead the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. He ordered the destruction of the Ghetto, and the SS and German police units under his command killed thousands of Jewish people, and deported many others to concentration camps.

The photograph was taken by a German army public relations photographer and it was meant to document the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a propaganda tool for the Nazi regime. The photograph was taken after the suppression of the uprising and the destruction of the Ghetto, it shows the devastation of the Ghetto and the suffering of the Jewish people.

The photograph is a powerful and haunting reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, and it stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people who fought against overwhelming odds to resist the Nazis.

Again, I apologize for the confusion in my previous response and any inaccuracies it may have contained.

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