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Nick Bostrom's pre-emptive apology
Nick Bostrom is a philosopher at Oxford who works on topics like existential risk and human enhancement. I haven’t read much of his work, but people I respect rate it very highly. Anatoly Karlin (whom I had on the podcast recently) considers him “the greatest living philosopher”.
A few days ago, Bostrom posted a document titled ‘Apology for An Old Email’ on his website. The document was subsequently shared on Twitter by his colleague Anders Sandberg, apparently at Bostrom’s request. It begins:
I have caught wind that somebody has been digging through the archives of the Extropians listserv with a view towards finding embarrassing materials to disseminate about people … I fear that selected pieces of the most offensive stuff will be extracted, maliciously framed and interpreted, and used in smear campaigns. To get ahead of this, I want to clean out my own closet, and get rid of the very worst of the worst in my contribution file.
The email in question, which was sent “in the mid 90s” as part of a discussion about “offensive communication styles”, is as follows:
Before getting to Bostrom’s apology and the public reaction that followed, here’s my own take on the email.
While the sentence “blacks are more stupid than whites” could be said to be true, given that black people have a lower average IQ, and “stupid” is often used to mean “has a lower IQ” in everyday language, I disagree with Bostrom that it’s unreasonable for people to be offended by it. (In the same way, “Noah Carl is more stupid than John von Neumann” could be said to be true.)
The sentence “blacks are more stupid than whites” may have the same truth conditions as the sentence “blacks have a lower average IQ than whites”, but it doesn’t have the same meaning. That’s because “stupid” is a pejorative term, whereas “lower average IQ” is a technical phrase. There’s a reason scientists don’t write papers about “group differences in stupidness”. Saying one group is more “stupid” than another implies disdain for that group, which would be inappropriate in a scientific paper.
There may have once been a time when “stupid” had a purely technical meaning (I don’t know anything about the word’s etymology), but it obviously doesn’t in the present day. For this reason, it would not be unreasonable for people to assume that someone who said “blacks are more stupid than whites” actually did dislike blacks, given that he or she could have said “blacks have a lower average IQ than whites”.
Like Bostrom, I appreciate “the uncompromisingly objective” way of speaking, but I would argue “blacks are more stupid than whites” is less objective than “blacks have a lower average IQ than whites”.
Having said all that, Bostrom is clearly not saying anything racist and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise. At worst, he’s making an error in the analysis of language (by suggesting “blacks are more stupid than whites” has the same meaning as “blacks have a lower average IQ than whites”). Mentioning, rather than using, a racial slur is certainly not racist – notwithstanding the various white educators who’ve been fired for doing so.
Consequently, Bostrom has nothing to apologise for (unless he wishes to apologise for making an error in the analysis of language). This is all the more true given that his email was sent to a private listserv as part of a discussion about offensive communication styles!
You don’t have to apologise for saying offensive things in a setting that people have selected into for the specific purposes of discussing offensive things. Stand-up comedians don’t need to apologise for telling jokes at their shows that it would inappropriate for them to tell in church. Moreover, Bostrom made the comments more than twenty years ago, and he “immediately apologised” at the time! End of story.
Yet as you well know, academia is crawling with offence archaeologists – low-lifes who spend their time combing through other people’s writing with the hope of finding something they can use to ruin their careers. They are not virtuous, and they do not care about the downtrodden. Their aim is simply to “take down” someone whose views they disapprove of – usually someone who contributes far more to society than they do.
In light of this, you can understand why Bostrom wanted to “get ahead” of the controversy by saying his piece pre-emptively. Unfortunately, what he said may have made things worse – not only for himself but for others who might find themselves in similar situations in the future.
Rather than making the points I made above (and perhaps apologising for needing to bring the admittedly provocative email to people’s attention), he issued an embarrassingly grovelling apology:
I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago … The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologized for writing it at the time … and I apologize again unreservedly today. I recoil when I read it and reject it utterly.
As for his “actual views”, Bostrom thinks “it is deeply unfair that unequal access to education, nutrients, and basic healthcare leads to inequality in social outcomes, including sometimes disparities in skills and cognitive capacity”. And he wants you to know that he has given to charities “fighting exactly this problem”, including “the Black Health Alliance”.
The one saving grace of his apology – from the perspective of grown-up intellectual discourse – was that he didn’t denounce the hypothesis that genes contribute to group differences in cognitive ability. “It is not my area of expertise”, he wrote, “and I don’t have any particular interest in the question.” Note: the latter claim is likely to be false; how could you not be interested in it?
So why do I say that Bostrom may have made things worse by going down the “grovelling apology” route?
First, it didn’t forestall the chorus of denunciations on Twitter. (Remember that for the most part, the woke don’t actually care about the downtrodden; they just want to “take down” people whose views they disapprove of.) In fact, two survey experiments have found that people are less likely to support someone if they apologise for making a “gaffe” than if they don’t apologise.
Second, Bostrom’s apology hasn’t prevented the University of Oxford – where he earns a living – from launching an “investigation” of the incident. What exactly they’re going to investigate isn’t clear: we can all read the email for ourselves. Presumably they’re just trying to sound officious because academia today is run by HR busybodies, rather than people who care about truth and debate.
Third, Bostrom may have made things worse for others who might find themselves in similar situations by reinforcing the idea that you have to apologise for making provocative arguments in a private setting more than twenty years ago. I happen to think his analysis is wrong for the reasons I gave above, but describing it as “disgusting” just plays into the hands of the woke.
As I said at the start, I’m not closely familiar with Bostrom’s work. But I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that he dislikes black people or that he wants them to be treated badly. (Indeed, he explicitly said the opposite in his old email.) While it was probably wise of him to pre-empt any cancellation attempt, I think the manner of his apology was infelicitous. Let’s hope Oxford doesn’t sanction him.
Image: Michael Beckwith, The Bridge Of Sighs, 2017
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