With apologies, I would like to share some rather lengthy comments on the present controversy. My sense is that they likely express a fairly conventional reaction. However, I have not yet seen any commentary that entirely captures this perspective. Before I begin, I perhaps also ought to apologise for my decision to write anonymously. While none of my comments here are terribly exciting, I would like to think, I hope others can still empathise with my aversion to becoming a minor character in a controversy of this variety.
Q: Was the message in question needlessly offensive and deserving of an apology?
Yes, it certainly was. By describing the message as "needlessly offensive," what I mean to say is that, even if Prof. Bostrom was committed to making the same central point that is made in the message, there was simply no need for the point to be made in such an insensitive manner. To put forward an analogy, it would be needlessly offensive to make a point about free speech by placing a swastika on one’s shirt and wearing it around town. This would be a highly insensitive decision, even if the person wearing the swastika did not hold or intend to express any of the views associated with the symbol. Furthermore, it could also be regarded as a reckless decision, in that the cavalier use of the symbol may, at least in some small way, needlessly contribute to the degradation of the protective taboo around these views. It would therefore be entirely reasonable for others to feel discomforted and disrespected by this decision and regard it as atrocious. Self-reflection, an apology, and a serious commitment to act differently in the future would all be more than warranted. Prof. Bostrom was certainly correct to apologise for causing needless offense with his words. Indeed, in my view, he ought to have apologised for this offense more thoroughly, with a note that more clearly displayed an empathetic understanding of why the rediscovered message was likely to be so upsetting for many. However, as others have noted, apologising for causing needless offense is not the same as apologising for the views that one actually holds.
Q: Were the actual views expressed in the message beyond the pale?
I do not believe this is as clear. As far as I can understand the message, at least on a charitable reading, it expresses the following views:
A. It is praiseworthy to try to acclimate people to engaging with discomforting ideas, even when these ideas are presented in blunt and provocative ways.
B. However, the professional costs of trying to foster this kind of intellectual culture are too high. It is not wise to express discomforting ideas in provocative ways, since people are liable to misunderstand and assume that you believe something worse than you in truth do.
C. (To provide an example of a discomforting idea that the author believes to be true) Black people have lower average IQ scores than white people do. Furthermore, IQ scores serve as a valid measure of intelligence.
D. (To provide an illustration of the communication style and reaction that the author advises against) If you express the above view bluntly, then people will assume that you dislike black people or believe they ought to be treated poorly.
The first claim is, in my own view, wrong and crucially misguided. Although it is often important to discuss upsetting ideas, it is simply unproductive and unkind to rub upsetting ideas in others’ faces rather than taking care to accommodate their reactions and feelings. Even putting aside the implications for one's own reputation, opting for this approach typically does not accomplish much beyond causing hurt. Furthermore, one ought to be cognisant of the fact that provocative presentations of ideas are, in many relevant cases, rather more likely to be misunderstood in ways that support harmful behaviours. This often-greater potential for harm to others is an important additional consideration against presenting discomforting ideas in maximally provocative ways. Fortunately, Prof. Bostrom’s later comments suggest that he, at least, no longer believes in the first claim to the full extent he once did.
Of course, the third view is the central one that has attracted censure. Some have criticised Prof. Bostrom for not apologising for holding it. From what I understand, however, this view was in fact the mainstream view among psychologists at the time and, if it is fair to judge from the relevant Wikipedia page, likely still is. The same year the e-mail was sent, an American Psychiatric Association taskforce released a high-profile report on the state of the science of intelligence, with the title “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns.” The report claimed:
"African American IQ scores have long averaged about 15 points below those of Whites, with correspondingly lower scores on academic achievement tests. In recent years the achievement-test gap has narrowed appreciably. It is possible that the IQ-score differential is narrowing as well, but this has not been clearly established…. The differential between the mean intelligence test scores of Blacks and Whites (about one standard deviation, although it may be diminishing) does not result from any obvious biases in test construction and administration, nor does it simply reflect differences in socioeconomic status. Explanations based on factors of caste and culture may be appropriate, but so far have little direct empirical support. There is certainly no such support for a genetic interpretation. At present, no one knows what causes this differential."
While it is certainly possible for mainstream academics in a field to be wrong, trusting in an apparent academic consensus should not be treated as beyond the pale or interpreted as a serious indictment of one's character. In my view, the fact that Prof. Bostrom has held this belief does not, in itself, warrant condemnation.
Q: Should Prof. Bostrom face significant professional repercussions for his message?
I do not personally believe so. Individuals are of course free to choose not to associate with Prof. Bostrom. That is each individual’s own choice. However, there is the additional question of whether this kind of past behaviour warrants professional sanctions, such as removing some of the person’s institutional affiliations or professional titles, electing not to invite the person to professional events to which their expertise is relevant, or refraining from citing the person’s work when it is relevant to one’s own. This would seem excessive to me.
If an individual callously makes a needlessly offensive statement twenty-five years prior, apologises at once, and does not to one’s knowledge exhibit any equivalent behaviour in the subsequent twenty-five years, I do not view this as sufficient grounds for professional sanctions. I am conscious, of course, that others may disagree about the appropriate policy for responding to such cases. Some commentators also hold that Prof. Bostrom ought to be sanctioned for his views, not just for being needlessly offensive. However, as explored above, and unless I am mistaken, none of the views expressed in the message appear to have fallen outside of the range of mainstream academic debate. Enforcing sanctions for holding views within this range would seem to violate the traditional norms of an academic community.
Q: Have public statements condemning the message been beneficial?
I do believe it was reasonable for groups to release statements condemning the message. The message was highly insensitive and disrespectful, was sent by a prominent figure who is often held as a role model for junior researchers in his field, and has recently been seen by many people, even if it was sent many years prior. Acknowledging and affirming the message's offensiveness was a signal of concern and respect for anyone who had been affected by seeing it. It is good for institutions that are influential within relevant professional communities to be able to say, "We care a great deal about having a culture where people take their colleagues’ comfort seriously and do not engage in needlessly offensive speech. We want to make sure that everyone understands that it truly is not acceptable to behave this way within our professional community."
However, I found the statement released by the Centre for Effective Altruism to be fairly flawed. It did not describe what Prof. Bostrom’s message said, but, I believe unintentionally, implied that the message contained or stemmed from a view that black people count less than white people. Prof. Bostrom did not express that view, and, to my knowledge, there is no reason to believe he holds it. It is a significant mistake to put out an official statement that wrongly suggests a colleague holds an abhorrent moral view of this kind. The Centre for Effective Altruism should strive to avoid this suggestion in any future communications.
I have also been disappointed by the content of the university’s statement and by a number of individuals’ statements on the matter. Many appear to be condemning Prof. Bostrom either for views he has never expressed or for empirical views that, although they are discomforting and although they were discussed with deep carelessness and insensitivity, did correspond at the time to the mainstream academic consensus. I believe that one also has a professional responsibility to be careful in one’s condemnations. It is possible to care about sensitivity and inclusivity without sacrificing intellectual carefulness, precision, and integrity.