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On 9th January 2023, Nick Bostrom posted this apology for an email he sent on the Extropians listserv in the 90s. On 11th January 2023, Anders Sandberg linked to it on Bostrom's behalf in this twitter thread.

I recommend you read those first as I don't summarise or explain the contents below.

This is my personal response to reading Bostrom's apology and email and is (bar some minor changes) a cross-post of my tweet thread.

As a meta-point I would like to flag that I do find discussion of the topic to be incredibly stressful. I have almost never posted here on the forum about even straightforward things. And debating race and IQ is something I find exceptionally emotionally tough. So I don't plan to participate in any extensive debates in the comments, hope that you understand why.

My thoughts

In my view, Bostrom's email would have been offensive in the 90s and it is offensive now, for good reason. His apology fails badly to fully take responsibility or display an understanding of the harm the views expressed represent.

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.

But I don’t just care about the inclusion of a slur in the email. I am deeply uncomfortable with a discussion of race and intelligence failing to acknowledge the historical context of the ideas’ origin and the harm they can and have caused.

To be clear, I think the view Bostrom expressed was wrong, and wrong in a harmful and reckless way.

When you argue a point like this without addressing the context of how those ideas came about you will likely be missing something important we should learn from history and be badly wrong.

When you are willfully disengaged from the empathy that underlies common decency you will have a massive blindspot in your reasoning and you will likely be badly wrong.

I do not think that there is only one acceptable way to express thoughts about this issue, nor do I think this issue could never be discussed sensitively. And I do think it is okay for people to sometimes say things online that I think are plain wrong.

But we all know that this issue is high stakes - ideas about racial superiority in the UK, America, and Germany led to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. And eugenists historically espoused utterly wrong views on race and intelligence wearing the guise of science.

There were c.60,000 sterilisations in US eugenics programmes - focused on women of colour. Including those who were young, poor, victims of sexual abuse, labelled “feeble minded” (allegedly inherited via a recessive gene), and had their fates decided by committees of white men.

Hitler was a fan of eugenicist Madison Grant. And at the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi defendants entered Grant’s book - The Passing of the Great Race - in their defence tracing the lineage of their genocidal ideas to a popular American author. 

And we know now there are very good reasons to think that scores on IQ tests are affected by cultural factors, that global IQ databases are poor sources to draw conclusions from, that differences in attainment are much better explained by environmental differences etc. etc.  [1]

So while it would be okay to say something wrong one time on the internet. It is also okay for me and other people to be upset, uncomfortable, angry, disgusted, or even scared that someone who looks at questions about the future of humanity and writes about morality does not and did not display a sensitivity to this context.

It is pretty reasonable to be mistrustful when someone espouses views (whether callously or even in polite language) that were espoused in much the same way by people throughout history who used those views to justify terrible things.

I would be uncomfortable and upset to be part of a community where discussing issues like race/intelligence was not carried out with the empathy and rigour that the subject requires or where people commonly held views on race/intelligence that I consider to be wrong and extremely harmful.

Short footnotes

[1] I'm not going to pretend to be able to give a robust overview of the evidence in this footnote but here are a few sources to show you the kinds of things on my mind.

https://www.adamrutherford.com/race or his recent BBC radio 4 series  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001fd39

https://twitter.com/RebeccaSear/status/1526655743407099904

https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2018/may/02/why-genetic-iq-differences-between-races-are-unlikely

Comments55
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:18 AM

For context, I'm black (Nigerian in the UK).

 
I'm just going to express my honest opinions here:

The events of the last 48 hours (slightly) raised my opinion of Nick Bostrom. I was very relieved that Bostrom did not compromise his epistemic integrity by expressing more socially palatable views that are contrary to those he actually holds.

I think it would be quite tragic to compromise honestly/accurately reporting our beliefs when the situation calls for it to fit in better. I'm very glad Bostrom did not do that.

As for the contents of the email itself, while very untasteful, they were sent in a particular context to be deliberately offensive and Bostrom did regret it and apologise for it at the time. I don't think it's useful/valuable to judge him on the basis of an email he sent a few decades ago as a student. The Bostrom that sent the email did not reflectively endorse its contents, and current Bostrom does not either.

  I'm not interested in a discussion on race & IQ, so I deliberately avoided addressing that.

What about the consequentialist case that in practice, talking about these ideas is probably hurtful to other black EAs, probably promotes racism and makes things more difficult for the EA movement, reducing impact?

Is all of this worth one guy’s sense of epistemic integrity?

I don’t think Bostrom prioritising his sense of epistemic integrity ahead of children being saved from malaria and existential risks being tackled is worthy of admiration at all.

I think your consequentialist analysis is likely wrong and misguided. I think you're overstating the effects of the harms Bostrom perpetuated?

I think a movement where our leading intellectuals felt pressured to distort their views for social acceptability is a movement that does a worse job of making the world a better place.

Bostrom's original email was bad and he disavowed it. The actual apology he presented was fine IMO; he shouldn't have pretended to believe that there are definitely no racial differences in intelligence.

"I think a movement where our leading intellectuals felt pressured to distort their views for social acceptability is a movement that does a worse job of making the world a better place."

Putting aside my view that Bostrom is wrong anyway and more generally putting this specific incident to one side, I think this is too strong a view - it very much depends on what the specific views are. I think veering too far from Overton Windows too quickly makes it harder to have an impact - there is a sweet spot to hit where your reputation is intact, where you are taken seriously, but where you are still having impact.

 

Here's a very unrelated example of how ignoring social acceptability could make it harder to have impact:

If you were an atheist in a rural, conservative part of Afghanistan today aiming to improve the world by challenging the mistreatment of women and LGBT people, and you told people that you think that God doesn't exist, even if that was you accurately expressing your true  beliefs, you would be so far from the Overton Window that you're probably making it more difficult for yourself to improve things for LGBT people and women. Much better to say that you're a Muslim and you think women and LGBT people should be treated better.

 

I've written elsewhere about how EA undervalues optics - I think the reverance of this virtue of disregarding social acceptability has been absorbed from the rationalist community, but will frequently make it harder to improve the world from a consequentialist view. 

For what it's worth, my parents still think I'm Christian.

[comment deleted]1y-10
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Hamp
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It lowered my opinion of him in terms of character. Not sure by how much but it definitely didn't raise it for me.

Valid!

It's definitely valid to lower your opinion of Bostrom's character because of this.

I was merely presenting my own opinion because I was persuaded it needed to be heard.

I guess I prioritise somewhat different things from you.

Given that debating race and IQ would make EA very unwelcoming for black people, probably has the effect of increasing racism, and clearly does not help us do the most good, we shouldn’t even be debating it with ‘empathy and rigour’.

EA is a community for doing the most good, not for debating your favourite edgy topic

Yeah, I agree here. We shouldn't discuss that topic in community venues; it doesn't help our mission and is largely counterproductive.

Given that debating race and IQ would make EA very unwelcoming for black people

Or white people.

lepidus
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We aren't debating race. We are debating whether it is Bostrom's job to lie about his view of an ambiguous evidence base as a response to something he said twenty five years ago in a totally different community with different standards and goals.

Was responding to

“ I would be uncomfortable and upset to be part of a community where discussing issues like race/intelligence was not carried out with the empathy and rigour that the subject requires”

From the post

In my view, Bostrom's email would have been offensive in the 90s and it is offensive now, for good reason.

Agree.

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.

I think these details are important context. I disagree with the final sentence.

When you are willfully disengaged from the empathy that underlies common decency

I don't see grounds for describing Bostrom in such harsh terms.

Yeah, I disagree with the final sentence as well.

I think that there's an unfortunate social dynamic where it is difficult in today's climate for people to take full ownership of their mistakes because sadly there are some people who would simply see blood in the water and pick it up and use it as a club to beat you around the head with.

So while I'd like people to take more ownership of their mistakes then they do, I see it more as a matter of "Don't hate the player, hate the game".

[anonymous]1y32
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This might just be wishful thinking on my part, but the version of Bostrom in my head agrees with most if not all of these points, and wishes he wrote his apology differently. Maybe an important takeaway here is that apologizing well is actually pretty hard, and it's good to get feedback on your apology from a variety of different people before publishing it?

I can see why seeing this email would be upsetting and I agree it is okay to feel upset about it and I wish Bostrom had enough sense to never have written it.

However, and I admit this is something of a quibble, I think we should take a nuanced position on the use-mention distinction, firstly because there’s a serious question about how much collapsing this distinction makes and secondly since norms around this seem to now be different from the time when this email was written.

I observed many people(including other Transhumanists) feeling scared when they see the topic of race and IQ being discussed because they want to avoid more atrocities like in the past.

I do understand though that people of the transhumanism crowd generally think of increasing human genetic capabilities as a good thing.

I think they mean well and want to avoid accidently promoting harmful views by speaking with empathy and compassion on the topic

Not a question specifically for OP, but in general what does it mean to speak with rigor and empathy on the topic? (I think many people not used to thinking with empathy would assume "it would mean every few minutes going on a tangent about an atrocity and clarify that bad thing is bad". I am embarrassed to say that I also have an underdeveloped ability to talk about sensitive views with empathy and am not sure how to do so)

I tend to agree with freedomandutility here that it's much better not to discuss such things at all. But to discuss them with empathy and rigour would be to, for example:

  • think about what it would make readers and EA newcomers feel
  • think how it would help us to make the world a better place, if at all
  • think whether the focus on race division is scientific (well defined and makes sense to use for this) or whether it just comes from racist wishful thinking
  • not treat easily measured proxies as the same thing as what we actually care about, and think why those might differ

I'm not sure piling up on a guy for something he said 26 years ago is helpful in achieving most good.

Dismissing all of the direct, thoughtful critique of Bostrom's current letter as just "piling up" about something else is, I am sure, not helpful.

There's hotheads on twitter cursing at him & hotheads cursing in his defense.

You seem to be implicitly lumping OP here in with that. If that's not your intent, great, please do say so.

I've struggled to find the right words in all this. I'm deeply upset and disappointed – not just at Bostrom (then and now) but also at the way many people have responded.

Thank you very much for writing this, I deeply appreciate it and know it mustn't have been easy.

Thank you for this very sensitive post Habiba. 

This issue has clearly caused a lot of division in the community which is sad. I think the differences between the two sides do not have to be as great as they appear.

You mention Adam Rutherford as a good source, and I agree he has done some good work. I think it's interesting to note that he probably actually agrees with Bostrom on many things here! Here is a quote from Adam's book (p166);

When it comes to looking at IQ scores around the world and between different populations, the picture is far from clear, but there are some undeniable differences. The most up-to-date meta-analysis suggest that countries in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to score in the eighties,* as compared to US IQ standards, though these results are not universally accepted. This, obviously, is significantly lower. Interpreting these results is not easy at all, and while it is not possible to fully exclude genertic factors, these seem unlikely owing to the immense genetic diversity that is now well established across that continent.

Thanks for this comment :)

For what it's worth, if people want to see what Adam Rutherford himself thinks of this, he has been fairly forthright in his response on his twitter see:

https://twitter.com/AdamRutherford/status/1613534548779843588?s=20&t=3cy41nQ9L-8MvljHAn9Fog

https://twitter.com/AdamRutherford/status/1614239120552857600

Thanks for your reply. :)

For what it's worth, if people want to see what Adam Rutherford himself thinks of this, he has been fairly forthright in his response on his twitter see:

Yes, he's been very forthright in his opinion of Bostrom! But on the broader issue he has not been straightforward on Twitter, but rather has been intentionally vague (as many would in his position).

As far as I can see, there are three main issues:

  1. Are their racial IQ differences?
    1. Bostrom and Rutherford agree yes.
  2. Are these differences caused by genes?
    1. Bostrom thinks maybe yes, Rutherford thinks probably no (though it can't be fully ruled out).
  3. Whether and how it is appropriate or harmful to discuss the topic.
    1. Clear disagreement between Nick and Adam.

They disagree about 3), and this is what Nick's most sophisticated critics criticize him for, like you in this post.

But I think most readers don't realize they agree on 1). If you look at the headlines, there are a bunch saying 'racist Oxford professor thinks Blacks are less intelligent than whites/asians'. For the majority of normal people, 1) is very suprising. Rutherford is strategic in not revealing that he also aligns with 1), thus utilizing emotive language to critique Nick instead of clearly articulating what they disagree and agree with.

Rutherford says he is distributing a copy of his book to Bostrom. As far as I can see, the logical conclusion for Nick (if he reads it) is to update to increase his credence that 1) is true. After all, if even an anti-racist biologist ally thinks there are racial IQ gaps, that seems like strong evidence it is true.

I just want to add that I can't think of anyone denying (1) - that there are actual observed differences in IQ tests between races. None of the people ragging on Bostrom are denying this. So the fact that Rutherford and Bostrom agree on (1) is entirely irrelevant and unsurprising. I think the main disagreement is on (2) and way more importantly (3).

I personally agree with titotal that 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 - in titotal's words "stripping away all the context from a complex issue into a gross simplification with a negative spin that furthers a racist narrative". I don't really see what we gain from doing that or why that somehow is cool / should be protected / should be celebrated. I think that's the main crux.

I just want to add that I can't think of anyone denying (1) - that there are actual observed differences in IQ tests between races.

I think you're mainly correct about individual EAs (though there are exceptions). People's general policy is not to explicitly deny it, it's just to ignore it, and shun those who mention it with a vague accusation of racism. But on a systematic level we clearly do deny it. For example, disparate impact tests, which punish firms for discrimination, assume equal levels of aptitude by race. Racial IQ gaps is not an acceptable defense in US civil rights lawsuits, nor in the court of public opinion if your group is accused of lacking diversity!

I don't think this is a good way to think about it. I do actually think this is a pretty racist way of thinking about it. I guarantee you 100% that the reason wherever you are "lacks diversity" is not because minorities "lack the relevant level of aptitude". And I think disparate impact tests are pretty clearly a good thing.

Paraphrasing a tweet from Priyamvada Gopal that I think makes the point eloquently:

These people say “Who can say for sure whether non-white people are less intelligent or not, the jury is out”, then act surprised when black students & or academics don't apply in droves.

Thank you for writing this.

I agree with those who say it is better not to discuss the issue of whether some races are, on average, more academically successful or of higher IQ than others. It is better that each person is treated as a unique individual, and they should ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ – and of course their suitability for the job or educational course place.

 

However, there are those who promote racial discrimination in favour of blacks – this is particularly the case in American universities, but not uncommon here. 

https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/access/academic-futures#:~:text=The%20Black%20Academic%20Futures%20Scholarships,pursue%20graduate%20study%20at%20Oxford.

And the argument they commonly use is that blacks have the same average ability as other races, therefore any difference in outcomes is due to racism, therefore blacks should be favoured in job and educational course applications in order to equalise outcomes (because otherwise, when candidates are accessed as individuals on their merits, they do less well on average). So they are the ones bringing up the topic of whether blacks have the same abilities, on average. That this is discussed is to everyone’s disadvantage. But it isn’t the fault of people like Bostrom.

I agree with those who say it is better not to discuss the issue of whether some races are, on average, more academically successful or of higher IQ than others.

 

I disagree with the assertion that it is better to avoid these discussions. A better understanding of the forces underlying intelligence, and its correlates of socioeconomic status and wellbeing, are potentially incredibly valuable to the mission of doing the most good. 

 

As Scott Alexander concludes in his article about why Jewish overachievement is interesting[1]

But maybe the Jewish advantage will turn out to be cultural. If that's true, I think it would be even more interesting - it would mean there's some set of beliefs and norms which can double your income and dectuple your chance of making an important scientific discovery.

In the United States, the government spends billions of dollars on education, and increasingly focuses on closing racial achievement gaps. This effort plateaued decades ago, and the gaps remain massive.[2]  This is not without costs. For example, many universities have abandoned standardized testing that have been proven predictive of student performance[3][4]. Discovering more effective methods, or that no environmental intervention would close these gaps, is of critical importance both in the United States and in altruistic efforts abroad. 

We need to understand the tractability of the problem, as we try to with other interventions. 

  1. ^

    https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/contra-smith-on-jewish-selective

  2. ^

    https://reasonwithoutrestraint.com/the-scope-of-racial-disparities-in-test-scores-in-the-united-states/

  3. ^

    https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/we-are-reinstating-our-sat-act-requirement-for-future-admissions-cycles/

  4. ^

    https://senate.universityofcalifornia.edu/_files/underreview/sttf-report.pdf

When people want an apology, they expect you to say that you're sorry and you were wrong. But I have also read in response of every apology ever written or said in the history of the internet that the wrong doers in question don't actually take responsibility for their actions and I never understood what they meant for that. Do they expect the person to punish themselves? To say "I take responsibility for my actions"? To not express their reasoning behind their actions? I honestly don't know.

[anonymous]1y0
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"He wants to explain his views and publicly apologize for an old email that somebody might put out to damage him..."

Though these words aren't Bostrom's, they create the impression that the apology is motivated by self-interest. Not a good start. The fact that Bostrom's statement comes 26 years after the post in question does little to support the idea that the apology might be motivated by genuine remorse. Instead, it appears to be triggered exclusively by the fact that "somebody has been digging through the archives... finding embarrassing materials".

Consequently, to me, the apology appears to be Bostrom's signal that he is jumping before being pushed, all while suggesting that he's a victim of being pushed.

"It does not accurately represent my views, then or now."

In the email, he writes: "I like that statement and think it is true... I think it is probable that black people have a lower than average IQ in general..." . He's explicitly endorsed his statement at the time, so how are we meant to take his claim seriously? For Bostrom to claim that he did not endorse the content of his email even at the time of writing is frankly ludicrous, and it's doubly disappointing that he – influential academic that he is – expected people to believe him.

This abuse of logic is a stain on the apology, both to its sincerity and its credibility. This is the background on which I read the whole thing.

I think there might have been a successful way to apologise for the email, but this – in both presentation and content – isn't it. I am so angry, and disappointed.

The fact that Bostrom's statement comes 26 years after the post in question does little to support the idea that the apology might be motivated by genuine remorse.

Did you miss the fact that he also apologized within 24 hours of the original email?

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