Content warning: discusses race, links to a piece that contains an unredacted racial slur, written while I am very angry
Nick Bostrom is not a person I have ever spent much time thinking about and is a person I’ve never interacted with. I am grateful to him for his role in thinking through and popularizing a lot of topics related to longtermism and existential risk that I continue to find important, but my thoughts about him never went beyond that.
Unfortunately, I have been spending a lot more time thinking about Bostrom because it was revealed that 26 years ago he published an offensive email where he stated his view that black people are stupider than white people and contrasted this with a more offensive statement he never believed that contains an unredacted use of the n-word.
On 2023 January 9th, Bostrom published a pre-emptive apology for this email after learning that the email was planned to be published. (He also apologized for the statement shortly after it was made.)
The original email itself was terrible, racist, and offensive.
I think – I sincerely fucking hope – that everyone else also agrees the original email was terrible, racist, and offensive.
Bostrom agrees the email was terrible, racist, and offensive. I don’t agree with Anders Sandberg’s characterization that this email was somehow less terrible, racist, and offensive in its cultural context, but I think Sandberg does at least agree the email was terrible, racist, and offensive.
So I don’t think that Bostrom secretly hates black people. The email is in the long past and Bostrom has completely repudiated it. So we should let it go, right? Surely being an insufferable edgelord is not a crime, right?
I actually would leave it here… I’d honestly really love to leave it here… if it weren’t for the fact that the email wasn’t the end of it. Instead, the apology itself was also a huge fuck up and is a much larger part of what makes me so angry right now.
Bostrom’s apology was garbage.
Bostrom’s apology was absolutely idiotically executed and showed a stellar amount of indifference to the harm that his original email and expressed views caused. Lilly captures my views well: “I was dismayed by Bostrom’s racist email, more so by his apology, but most of all by many EAs' reactions to both.”
I’ve noticed some people saying they don’t understand why Bostrom’s apology was bad. It’s one thing to disagree about the quality of the apology, but I think not understanding why some people would be upset about this apology shows an important blind spot that is worth correcting. So if people who don’t understand why the apology was bad were genuine in wanting to know, I think it’s hard to get better at explaining it than EA Forum user titotal does:
Taking a statement like "there are currently differences in average IQ test score between races, for a variety of reasons, primarily racism and it's legacy", and reducing it to "blacks are stupider than whites" is not brave truth telling. It's stripping away all the context from a complex issue into a gross simplification with a negative spin that furthers a racist narrative. The original email was not racist because it used a slur, it was racist to the core, and very idiotic to boot.
Titotal than follows this up with a post “Does EA understand how to apologize for things?”:
Well, I object to it because it was an apology. And when you grade an apology, you don't grade it on the factual accuracy of the scientific claims contained within, you grade it on how good it is at being an apology. [...]
Okay, let's go over the rules for an apology to be genuine and sincere. I'll take them from here.
1. Acknowledge the offense.
2. Explain what happened.
3. Express remorse.
4. Offer to make amends.
Notably missing from this list is step 5: Go off on an unrelated tangent about eugenics.
[...] In Bostroms email of 9 paragraphs, he spends 2 talking about the historical context of the email, 1 talking about why he decided to release it, 1 actually apologizing, and the remaining 5 paragraphs giving an overview of his current views on race, intelligence, genetics, and eugenics.
What this betrays is an extreme lack of empathy for the people he is meant to be apologizing to.
This part is key:
Imagine if he was reading this apology out loud to the average black person, and think about how uncomfortable they would feel by the time he got to part discussing his papers about the ethics of genetic enhancement.
I also find myself in strong agreement with Habiba:
I think that being deliberately offensive to make a point is gross. When people in positions of privilege use or mention slurs lightly they are able to do so because they are blinkered to the lived experience of others and disengaged from empathy with those different to them.
Note that I’m not generally in the business of picking people apart for small one-off past infractions. But I do think it would be virtuous to apologise for and to truly take responsibility for one’s past actions.
Bostrom’s apology is defensively couched - emphasising the age of the email, what others wrote on the listserv, that it would be best forgotten, that fear that people might smear him. I think that is cowardly and shows a disappointing lack of ownership of his actions.
So even if Bostrom has sincere beliefs on (or at least a sincere desire to remain agnostic about) genetic IQ differences, his response showed strong social incompetence in how he decided to discuss the issue. Being smart about an issue also includes being smart about how your discussion of the issue will come across to others, and Bostrom turns out to be shockingly bad at this. For me, the core issue is about Bostrom being very tone-deaf and dismissive, not about having views I don't like.
And worse – Bostrom doesn’t seem to care at all about why people are mad at him!
After this incident, Bostrom updated his website to reference people being mad at him as mere distractions that are “buzzing menacingly around our ears like a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos”:
(Confirmed via archive.org – compare archive.org for January 14th to January 1st. Highlighting added by me for emphasis.)
This is insulting.
While I’m not calling for Bostrom to be fired, Bostrom’s smug and arrogant social ineptitude and flagrant dismissal of this incident gives me genuine questions about whether he has the skills needed to play an important public-facing movement building role for existential risk reduction.
(Update 2023 Jan 19 – the insulting phrase has now been removed from Bostrom's homepage without any comment)
Look - I think I get why some people are worried about “cancel culture”.
I do understand that there are some people out there not acting in good faith when making demands for apologies.
I am not one of those people.
I hope that I have cultivated a reputation for being a careful and thoughtful person who only argues in good faith, and that this fact makes you more willing to listen to me on these views in this piece.
I do find that being able to come up with important and useful ideas requires feelings of safety and for this reason and others I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt when they express themselves.
Moreover, I understand that in a social movement made up of thousands of people, you are not going to be able to find common agreement on every issue and in order to make progress we need to find some way to deal with that.
If one of my employees disagrees with me on this piece and argues with me about it, I’m definitely not going to punish them. An important part of resisting “cancel culture” is to engage in intellectual empathy.
But this intellectual empathy is exactly what Bostrom is not demonstrating here. Showing a callous indifference to how you caused harm to others isn’t intellectual empathy.
I’m lucky to be in a social position where I can be free-flowing with my ideas. While I have managed to make it through multiple decades of life without ever using the n-word, I recognize that I may accidentally offend some people.
When I do, I try to sincerely understand their viewpoint.
I do not dismiss them as a “bloodthirsty mosquito” or double down on the offense.
Doing so is the exact opposite of the rationality that many anti-”cancel culture” people espouse and it is not the views I want to be associated with.
Another problem I hear is a question of whether censuring Bostrom means that we have to insist that people who hold unpopular opinions must lie about those opinions (or deceive themselves), and that this is bad epistemics. I disagree this is what censuring Bostrom implies. I personally would really like it if Bostrom didn’t talk about race and IQ because I find such discussion personally to be upsetting and the association with EA to be upsetting – but I still think Bostrom should be allowed to talk about it and not be fired from his academic role.
I think if Bostrom had stopped his apology on the first page right before he derails into “What are my actual views?“, it would have been fine enough to me and I wouldn’t be writing about this. (I really don’t want to be writing about stuff like this.) I’m not looking for him to lie about his views.
My problem is the lack of empathy and emotional / social awareness employed when thinking through what was said, showing that Bostrom is really fundamentally unskilled at the various things I want from a public-facing thought leader who is actively writing books for widespread public consumption aiming to promote views I find important (the views about existential risk, not the views about racism).
Also, I don’t mean that being socially unaware is bad or makes you a bad person. I certainly have struggled with this myself a lot. But when you end up offending people, I think that you should engage in self-reflection, not engage in being obtuse. I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone who isn’t aware of what is going on but then understands and acknowledges the offense, decides if it is something they regret and apologize if so, and aim to move on from there. For more depth on this particular point, I think Richard Chappell does a good job of empathetically capturing what social/psychological phenomenon might be explaining some of the different reactions to Bostrom’s apology.
To be clear, this also means I do agree that you shouldn’t apologize for things that you aren’t genuinely sorry for. Remorse means nothing if it isn’t genuine, and you gain nothing if you don’t actually realize why people are upset at you and whether they may have a point. I’m not looking to force an apology from anyone. But I do think if you persist in being a jerk and show no desire to change, you’re not someone I particularly want to spend my limited time with.
Lying about what you believe is bad, but saying things out loud where people will hear them will predictably have consequences and you should understand those. Freedom of speech does not require freedom from criticism, and academic freedom does not automatically imply academic respect. While Bostrom has freedom of speech and association, I also have the freedom of speech to call Bostrom out and the freedom of association to not want to associate with Bostrom.
As they say in Glass Onion:
Disclaimer: This is a personal statement written entirely on my own on my own personal blog. It does not necessarily reflect the views of other staff or executives at Rethink Priorities.