Take for example the following sentence: “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” I like that sentence and think that it is true … based on what I have read, I think it is probable that black people have a lower average IQ than mankind in general, and I think that IQ is highly correlated with what we normally mean by “smart” and stupid”.Nick Bostrom, email to Extropian listserv
I was scheduled to post a discussion of existential risk from climate change today. I must confess that I have lost my desire to talk about climate risk.
To begin, I want to apologize for the somewhat rushed and haphazard nature of this post. My usual practice is to shape my ideas and their exposition over a period of weeks or months. I wrote this post in the span of a single day, while traveling on very little sleep and while still in the grip of some difficult emotions regarding the incident that I am about to describe. Given the nature of the issue, I think it is important to write up my thoughts now while the discussion is still fresh. I hope that these thoughts will prove useful, if a bit underdeveloped.
Nick Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford and a leading intellectual figure within the effective altruism movement. Recently, Bostrom recruited Anders Sandberg (senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute) to post the following apology to Twitter.
Fair warning: this apology contains explicit racism, a redacted slur, and a failure of repudiation.
“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. The Extropians mailinglist was a forum in the mid-90s where people had conversations about science fiction, future technologies, society, and all sorts of random things. It was not moderated, so the noise level was very high—occasional interesting ideas but also large quantities of silly, mistaken, or outright offensive stuff. For a few years, while I was a student in London, I occasionally posted to this mailinglist, contributing postings in all of these categories.”
“The best thing would probably have been for all of those words to have been buried and forgotten. Good ideas have been taken up in other contexts, further developed, and written up in more readable formats; and the no-good stuff deserves to rest in the great ash heap of history. The mailinglist served a useful function at the time, as a place where people from around the world could have freewheeling conversations about wild ideas. Nowadays the Internet offers many other forums that better serve those functions.”
“But 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. I should warn that this is unpleasant business; read on at your peril.”
“So here goes. (The context was a tread about offensive content and offensive communication styles.)”
I have always liked the uncompromisingly objective way of thinking and speaking: the more counterintuitive and repugnant a formulation, the more it appeals to me given that it is logically correct. Take for example the following sentence: “Blacks are more stupid than whites.”
I like that sentence and think that it is true. But recently I have begun to believe that I won’t have much success with most people if I speak like that. They would think that I were a “racist”: that I disliked black people and thought that it is fair if blacks are treated badly. I don’t. It’s just that based on what I have read, I think it is probable that black people have a lower average IQ than mankind in general, and I think that IQ is highly correlated with what we normally mean by “smart” and stupid”. I may be wrong about the facts, but that is what the sentence means from me.
For most people, however, the sentence seems to be synonymous with: “I hate those bloody [redacted slur]”. My point is that while speaking with the provocativeness of unabashed objectivity would be appreciated by me and many other persons on this list, it may be a less effective strategy in communicating with some of the people “out there”. I think it is laudable if you accustom people to the offensiveness of truth, but be prepared that you may suffer some personal damage.
“I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago. It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologized for writing it at the time, within 24 hours; and I apologize again unreservedly today. I recoil when I read it and reject it utterly.”
“What are my actual views: I do think that provocative communication styles have a place – but not like this! I also think that 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. This is a huge moral travesty that we should not paper over or downplay. Much of my personal charitable giving over the years has gone to fighting exactly this problem: I’ve given many thousands of pounds to organizations including the SCI Foundation, GiveDirectly, the Black Health Alliance, the Iodine Global Network, BasicNeeds, and the Christian Blind Mission.”
“Are there any genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities? It is not my area of expertise, and I don’t have any particular interest in the question. I would leave to others, who have more relevant knowledge, to debate whether or not in addition to environmental factors, epigenetic or genetic factors play any role.“
“What about eugenics? Do I support eugenics? No, not as the term is commonly understood. Some of the most horrific atrocities of the last century were carried out under the banner of eugenic justifications and racist rationalizations. In contemporary academic bioethics, the word “eugenics” is sometimes used in difference and much broader sense, as including for example the view that prospective parents undergoing IVF should have access to genetic screening and diagnostic tools (as is currently the established practice in many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom). There is a rich bioethical literature on these issues (see i.e. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/eugenics/) and it cannot be captured in a single word or a slogan. I would be in favor of some uses and against others. Broadly speaking, I’m favorable to wide parental choice in these matters, including for some applications that would qualify as “enhancements” rather than “therapies” – to the extent that this distinction makes sense. I have written several papers about the ethics of enhancement […]”
“I think for people interested in the societal consequences of genetic medicine, or in the ethics of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, selection, or engineering, or in human enhancement ethics more generally, either on the side of pro or con, we are more likely to improve our collective understanding and wisdom by open-minded and thoughtful engagement with the arguments and the existing literature, rather than by name-calling and sloganeering – let alone by idiotic and offensive emails like the one I wrote 26 years ago, and for which, again, I truly and sincerely apologize.”Nick Bostrom, “Apology for an old email“
I will do my best to contain my own emotions in discussing this passage. This is not because I am not angry (I am), or because I deny that anger can be an apt response to injustice (It is apt here), but simply because I think I am more likely to be heard if I explain, coldly and clearly, what was offensive about this email, what was wrong with the apology, how both fit into a wider systematic context, and how this should inform our thinking and actions going forward.
2. What’s wrong with this email?
Among the many things wrong with the original email, three stand out.
First, the email directly uses a racial slur. Racial slurs serve to denigrate and marginalize their targets. They are a central tool in a longstanding system of racial segregation, discrimination and control. There is never any excuse for the use of racial slurs. This behavior was wrong (and known to be wrong) in the 1990s, just as it is wrong, and known to be wrong today.
Second, the email explicitly endorses a racially charged ideology on which people of color are less intelligent than white people. Bostrom says all of the following about the claim that “blacks are more stupid than whites”.
- “I like that sentence and think that it is true.”
- “It is logically correct.”
- “I think it is probable that black people have a lower average IQ than mankind in general.”
Nick Bostrom, “Apology for an old email“
These views are widely repudiated, are based on a long history of racist pseudoscience and must be rejected, especially given their recent rise in popularity. By contrast, we will see in our examination of Bostrom’s apology that Bostrom not only endorses these views, but also leaves room for exactly the sort of pseudoscientific explanation that the rest of us have learned to condemn for what it is: scientific racism.
Third, the email endorses hiding racist views as a strategy for avoiding criticism.
- “While speaking with the provocativeness of unabashed objectivity would be appreciated by me and many other persons on this list, it may be a less effective strategy in communicating with some of the people “out there”. I think it is laudable if you accustom people to the offensiveness of truth, but be prepared that you may suffer some personal damage.”
- “I like that sentence and think that it is true. But recently I have begun to believe that I won’t have much success with most people if I speak like that. They would think that I were a “racist”: that I disliked black people and thought that it is fair if blacks are treated badly.”
Nick Bostrom, “Apology for an old email“
The trouble with modern racism is that it has gone underground: nobody wants to be thought of as a racist, and most people don’t want to think of themselves as racists either. This makes it very difficult to trust explicitly stated repudiations of racist views.
When someone (Bostrom) gives good evidence of endorsing a number of racist and pseudoscientific claims (calling them “unabashed objectivity”), then speaks at length about the need to hide those views so that the rest of us “out there” will not take them to task, this gives us good reason to mistrust their later apology. They may well be telling us what they think we want to hear, or may be deceiving themselves about their own racist views.
3. What’s wrong with Bostrom’s apology?
Bostrom’s recent statement did one thing right: he apologized for his use of a racial slur.
I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago. It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologized for writing it at the time, within 24 hours; and I apologize again unreservedly today. I recoil when I read it and reject it utterly.
This apology is welcome. It is unacceptable to use racial slurs, and Bostrom was right to apologize for that. However, there are at least four important things that Bostrom’s apology gets wrong.
First, Bostrom apologized only for the use of a racial slur. He did not apologize for the view that “blacks are more stupid than whites”. Indeed, Bostrom explicitly refuses to repudiate this statement:
Are there any genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities? It is not my area of expertise, and I don’t have any particular interest in the question. I would leave to others, who have more relevant knowledge, to debate whether or not in addition to environmental factors, epigenetic or genetic factors play any role.
If Bostrom takes seriously the belief that people of color are genetically inferior to white people, that belief may have a serious impact in his hiring decisions, his interactions with others, and in the policies that he recommends. For example, Bostrom has explicitly defended the use of embryo selection for enhanced intelligence. Combined with the view that people of color are genetically disposed to have lower intelligence than others, this risks collapsing into the eugenicist’s view that people of color should be preferentially selected against in procreation. That is a view that must be unequivocally rejected, in public, right now.
One way to understand what Bostrom did not repudiate is to consider his remarks about racism in the original email. When explaining why he is not a racist, Bostrom writes:
[People might] think that I were a “racist”: that I _disliked_ black people and thought that it is fair if blacks are treated badly. I don’t.
Here, racism is equated with dislike of people of color and the belief that it is fair to treat people of color badly. Left out of this discussion are racist beliefs: for example, the pseudoscientific belief, which even Bostrom admits he is not in possession of solid evidence for, that people of color are genetically disposed to be less intelligent than white people.
In his later apology, Bostrom laments that people of color are treated unfairly by society:
I also think that 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. This is a huge moral travesty that we should not paper over or downplay.
But Bostrom continues to focus only on fairness. There is no repudiation of the underlying beliefs that both result from, and fuel the patterns of discrimination that Bostrom expresses concern for.
A second problem with Bostrom’s apology is that he characterizes legitimate scrutiny of racial animus as a maliciously-motivated witch-hunt. Bostrom begins his apology by telling us why he is writing it:
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.
Bostrom closes his discussion by suggesting that he is the target of “name-calling or sloganeering” and calling for his opponents to take up “open-minded and thoughtful engagement with the arguments and the existing literature”:
We are more likely to improve our collective understanding and wisdom and by open-minded and thoughtful engagement with the arguments and the existing literature, rather than by name-calling or sloganeering.
Here Bostrom, who refuses to repudiate the pseudoscientific belief that people of color are genetically inferior to white people despite admitting that he does not have scientific evidence for this claim, aims to paint himself as the victim of name-calling or sloganeering, and his opponents as unreasonable witch-hunters who refuse to engage in open-minded and thoughtful engagement with the arguments and the existing literature. That is the exact opposite of what has happened here: the scientific community clearly and unequivocally repudiates Bostrom’s claim, but Bostrom refuses to give it up.
What might motivate Bostrom’s critics? We’ll discuss this question more below, in the section “Why it matters”, but roughly the concern is this. Effective altruists are tremendously influential in society today. They control large pots of funding used for hiring decisions, political lobbying, and the allocation of public goods. It is very important that these decisions are made in a fair and equitable way, and would be extremely concerning if these decisions were in any way influenced by racial animus or discredited racial pseudoscience. When critics of effective altruism find evidence that racial animus may lie behind the views of a key leader in the movement, they find themselves justly concerned that this leader may not be acting in a fair, equitable, or for that matter value-promoting way.
The third problem with Bostrom’s apology is that he is not taking the issue especially seriously. His apology is riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes. It was posted unceremoniously on his website, then delegated to a colleague to drop onto Twitter without explanation. It has clearly not been workshopped widely, since any sensible reader would have prevented Bostrom from posting this document.
While Bostrom correctly recognizes the need to make a public apology (of some sort) for (some of) his behavior, there is no evidence that Bostrom recognizes the seriousness of his mistake, the harms done by it, or the need to make meaningful change in response.
Indeed, one remarkable feature of Bostrom’s apology is that it promises no change of any kind. Bostrom shows no desire to educate himself on the racist and discredited science driving his original beliefs or on the full extent of the harms done by these beliefs. He does not promise to read any books, have hard conversations, or even to behave better in the future. If Bostrom is not planning to change, then why are we to believe that his behavior will be any better than it was in the 1990s?
Instead of pledging to change, Bostrom tells us that he has no need to change: even in 1996, let alone at the time, the views he expressed were not his own: the email “does not accurately represent my views, then or now.” Recognizing the problem is the first step to healing. Committing to change is the next step. Without recognition of the problem and a commitment to change, there can be no healing, and there can be no acceptance of Bostrom’s apology.
A final problem with Bostrom’s apology is that he casts the issue as an isolated incident.
- “For a few years, while I was a student in London, I occasionally posted to this mailinglist.”
- “Selected pieces of the most offensive stuff will be extracted.”
- “The very worst of the worst in my contribution file.”
Nick Bostrom, “Apology for an old email“
Boys will be boys, we are told, and sometimes the boys get wild:
The Extropians mailinglist was a forum in the mid-90s where people had conversations about science fiction, future technologies, society, and all sorts of random things. It was not moderated, so the noise level was very high – occasional interesting ideas but also large quantities of silly, mistake, or outright offensive stuff.
Unfortunately, Bostrom’s email was not an isolated incident. The Extropians were widely involved in a number of explicitly racist, sexist and otherwise lamentable incidents that Bostrom cannot possibly have failed to be aware of at the time, and many of their former members occupy high positions within the effective altruism movement today.
Let’s talk a bit more about the Extropian movement, looking at who they are, what they believe, and how bigotry has manifested itself within the movement. This will help us to understand Bostrom’s original email in a broader systemic context, and to see why the simple apology for the utterance of a racial slur is insufficient even to distance Bostrom from a set of lamentable views and practices that society at large should want nothing to do with.
4. Who are the Extropians?
Extropianism is a branch of transhumanism founded by the philosopher Max More. More’s work, The Principles of Extropy, sets out a number of principles including Perpetual Progress (“growing in healthy directions without bound”), Practical Optimism (“fueling action with positive expectations”), and Intelligent Technology (conceived “as [an] effective means for improving life … to transcend `natural’, but harmful, confining qualities derived from our biological heritage, culture and environment’”).
Extropians were also quite often fierce libertarians. Ben Goertzel writes:
In point of fact, the vast majority of Extropians are radical libertarians, advocating the total or near-total abolition of the government. This is really what is unique about the Extropian movement: the fusion of radical technological optimism with libertarian political philosophy. With only slight loss of meaning, one might call it libertarian transhumanism.Ben Goertzel, “The Extropian creed: Can high technology and libertarian politics lead us to a transhuman golden age?“
By way of illustration, Goertzel relates a conversation with the extropian Sasha Chislenko.
Once he told me, tongue only halfway in cheek, that he thought air should be metered out for a price, and that those who didn’t have the money to pay for their air should be left to suffocate! I later learned this was a variation on a standard libertarian argument, often repeated by Max More, to the effect that the reason the air was polluted was that nobody owned it – ergo, air, like everything else, should be private property.
What came of the Extropian’s fusion of transhumanism with libertarianism? For one thing, they developed an Extropian Institute, a series of conferences, and of course a listserv.
This is the same listserv to which Bostrom sent his original email. How did Extropians behave on this listserv? Was Bostrom’s behavior unprecedented or unusual for this group?
Unfortunately, Bostrom’s behavior was not quite unprecedented. Extropians have run into similar trouble on their own listserv, as well as on campus, before.
5. Previous incidents: The MIT Extropians
In 1997, the Extropian Society at MIT submitted a pamphlet to a summer mailing list for distribution to all incoming freshmen at MIT. The pamphlet was rejected, in the words of Dean Rosalind Williams, because “it was an extraneous sort of essay on why many of the freshmen who are receiving this package are not welcome at MIT”. The Extropians, apparently unable to contain their hatred for affirmative action, distributed the pamphlet anyways, causing MIT to strip the Extropian Society of all University recognition.
The original pamphlet directly attacked the standing of women and members of underrepresented groups at MIT, claiming that many had been admitted only on the basis of affirmative action and therefore did not belong at MIT. They wrote:
MIT certainly lowers standards for women and “underrepresented” minorities. The average woman at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average man at MIT. The average “underrepresented” minority at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average non-“underrepresented” minority.
Sometimes, their arguments for this conclusion are merely horrible: women are overrepresented in “architecture, biology, management, or brain and cognitive sciences, obviously the less rigorous majors”.
Sometimes the Extropians’ arguments are downright appalling:
Ask upperclasswomen, better yet ask a sorority, how often a group of women will sit down on the weekend to discuss what Bell’s Theorem and the Aspect Experiment imply for a hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanics. Such women are so rare here that these scenarios never happen. (What some men would do for intellectual women who are serious about living the exalted life).
[Edit: A reader raises some questions about the authenticity of the version of the pamphlet that I linked to in this section of my original post. Until I can settle the matter, I have removed the second half of this section, which references the linked pamphlet. (My apologies for the error). All of the above material is quoted directly from The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, and will remain up as I have few doubts about its authenticity. In the meantime, I want to add some comments at the close of this section about how MIT students reacted to the Extropians’ behavior. All have been verified by reputable, mainstream news outlets, or are quoted from the archives of the Extropian listserv. Second edit: A reader proposes that this may be the 16-page pamphlet that was ultimately distributed. Please contact me if you can help to confirm or disprove this.]
How did MIT students react to the Extropians’ behavior? Some offered a qualified defense, while criticizing the Extropians for stealing a mailing list to disseminate their materials. But many were intimidated, threatened and felt unable to belong. Here is how Annmarie Thomas, a member of the targeted MIT class of 2001, looks back on the Extropians’ mailing for The Chronicle of Higher Education:
I spent the remaining days before my departure for college questioning whether I deserved to go. Why hadn’t they accepted a smarter woman who wouldn’t let down her gender by proving that women didn’t belong at MIT? Once I arrived, I worked as hard as I could, spending nearly every waking moment in class, doing homework, working on research projects (at times more than one concurrently), and going to professors’ office hours. The entire time, I was terrified that I just wasn’t good enough. Every time I got a less-than-stellar grade, I worried that I was proving that that early letter was correct.Thomas, “You don’t need to be superwomen to succeed in STEM“
How did the Extropians react? I hope that some reacted well. Here is one worrying reaction from the Extropian listserv:
This is not a statement of racist hate (though it does seem that Anders [Hove, an MIT Tech reporter] and company do have some hatred toward white males), but of facts about MIT policies … This is the standard reaction you see in Boston among protected groups, if you try to point out
that the playing field is slanted, its you who gets labeled a racist.
What we see here is a clear refusal to understand and appreciate the pain, self-doubt and struggle to belong of those students directly intimidated by the Extropians’ mailing. Instead, the author of this comment brings the conversation back to the purported struggles of white men at MIT, seemingly unable to understand why someone would be worried about a mailing which directly intimidated a large portion of the incoming MIT class of 2001.
I have nothing further to say about the behavior of the Extropians at MIT. But could this be an isolated incident? Alas, it was not.
6. Previous incidents: “Racism pollutes the Extropian list”
(Fair warning: this exchange contains directly expressed views and language that are at least as bad as anything in Bostrom’s original email).
A rather stunning exchange took place on the Extropian listserv in 1999 – the same listserv to which Bostrom’s original email was sent.
A user known as “Den Otter” closed a message by quoting, seemingly out of nowhere, some unforgivable words of Abraham Lincoln: “What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races”.
Damien Broderick called him out: random quotations of racist remarks are not an acceptable way to close an email. Surely the community would join with Broderick in denouncing Den Otter’s behavior? Unfortunately not.
Den Otter was joined by a comrade in explaining that he had been misunderstood: the quote (dropped with no context into an irrelevant discussion) was “an ironic example of historical revisionism or perhaps cultural license.”
Not content to `explain’ their original intention, Den Otter contended that they were the aggrieved party here, as the notion of racism had been stretched to include the act of randomly dropping racist quotations into the closing of an email:
People such as Mr. Broderick have devalued the term “racism” to a point where it has become little more than a brainless, meaningless knee-jerker. A word used by bullies to quickly stigmatize people & subjects and to stem all meaningful discussion (like “witch” in the Middle Ages and “communist” in the fifties). It’s sad to see this kind of vile crap on a list that allegedly promotes intelligent, open-minded discourse.
Broderick called him out again. A warning – the quoted remarks are quite shocking.
Yeah, right. There’s a context here, which the archives show plainly enough. In July 97, someone suggested that genetic engineering might permit people to alter skin colour and other `racial’ characteristics … Here’s what Mr. Den Otter posted in response: “Underneath that aryan exterior there still will be a negro soul … people will still hate eachother, just not at first glance. The change of skin won’t solve the problems of unevenly distributed intelligence (in the broadest sense of the word), the real cause of racism.”
At this point, after falsely (and without evidence) denying his racist intent, the user known as Den Otter has endorsed the appalling idea of a tainted “negro soul” which is responsible for “the problems on unevenly distributed intelligence”. Den Otter has gone further to claim that the root unevenly distributed intelligence, and not prejudice, is “the real cause of racism”.
Surely, surely the list must have turned on Den Otter at this point. Quite the opposite: yet another commentator joined the fray to attack Broderick, expressing some startling views of his own:
Damien, you seem to repeatedly possess rather knee-jerk responses to mere words. Recall that you took offense once to my use of the term [redacted slur for Aboriginal Australians]. As someone who is not only Scottish and Swedish, but Italian along with some Jewish ethnicity in the family, I for one cannot afford to be a bigot, and take personal offense to anyone who would insinuate that I am in any way bigoted. … On a similar note, that it is racist for a white person to use the [redacted slur for people of color] while it is quite alright for an African-American to use the same word is an attitude that, in my own opinion, is itself racist.
The discussion continues, at which point one of Den Otter’s defenders becomes incensed at the idea that white Americans could owe some apology, let alone reparations, for centuries of slavery.
I was talking with some friends the other day about this, and we were mocking the demands of a few years ago for apologies to the african americans. At the same time their ancestors were getting enslaved by the British, my Scottish ancestors were getting exterminated by the British. Why the hell should I, or my representatives, have to apologize to them? None of my ancestors even came to the US until after the civil war. One of my buddies noted that his danish ancestors were held under martial law by the Swedes way back when, so I summarily apologized to him for the actions of my Swedish ancestors on his Danish ancestors.
Now I suppose if you REALLY stretch it, I would have to apologize for my Roman Empire ancestors and what they did to the Carthaginians, the Egyptians, the Jews, the French, and the British. Let me say right here: I am truly sorry people I never met or gained an ounce of benefit from oppressed people you never met or gained an ounce of benefit from. Happy now?
The thread continues, but I think we have seen enough. Bostrom’s (earnest, and to this day non-retracted) claim that “blacks are more stupid than whites” was expressed on a mailing list prone to overt racism, and to the mobbing of anyone who dared to call it out. The view that racial differences in intelligence exist, have a genetic basis, and in fact explain racism was openly expressed by at least one other commentator, who was defended rather than attacked for expressing it.
Bostrom’s comment was not an isolated incident.
7. Reflecting on history: An isolated incident?
Bostrom asks us to view his 1996 email as an isolated folly. The Extropian listserv was just “a forum in the mid-90s where people had conversations about science fiction, future technologies, society, and all sorts of random things”.
As we have seen, that is not a fair characterization of the Extropians’ activities. Extropians at the time were actively involved in expressing and disseminating a range of offensive, racist and bigoted views. Bostrom’s email from 1996 should be read in the same context as any of these other expressions, as part of a movement suffused with bigotry that took its activities from the internet onto college campuses with a direct intention to intimidate almost half of the incoming MIT freshman class and cause them to feel unwelcome and undeserving of their status on campus. And it should be read in exactly the same context as Den Otter’s remarks on race and intelligence three years later on the same listserv.
Now you might say: “this is just Nick Bostrom. Most effective altruists are not racists.”
It is (I hope) true that most effective altruists are not racists. If I thought these views were the norm within effective altruism, I would have spoken about them long ago.
[Edit: A previous version of this post mentioned some other figures associated with the Extropian listserv. I think that this was unfair, and their names together with the surrounding passage have been removed. I hope that individuals associated with this community will publicly and voluntarily distance themselves from racist scientific beliefs, but I will not name any specific names without very good evidence.].
But it is important to cast a critical eye towards the ways that race informs discussion and policy within the effective altruism community.
8. Why it matters
Why does it matter what leaders of the effective altruism movement believe? Beliefs are harmless, right?
There is a great deal to be said about why racist beliefs are not harmless. One point that has recently been stressed by philosophers is that racist beliefs commit epistemic injustice by refusing to accord appropriate status to their targets.
Today, I want to focus on the downstream policy implications of racist belief. To a biased mind, discriminatory and unfair policies can seem the height of reason, logic, evidence and objectivity. Indeed, it is no accident that Bostrom’s discourse and the discourse of other Extropians is shot through with talk of rationality and objectivity.
However, although discriminatory decisions may seem objective and unbiased, they are anything but. They cause direct and devastating harm to their targets by excluding them from social benefits conferred on other groups.
The turn to longtermism has brought a shift of funding away from causes such as global health and poverty which greatly benefitted the residents of nonwestern nations, including many women and people of color, towards funding research in North America and Western Europe, to the benefit of a small number of highly-educated and highly-paid researchers, often white men. While I would not go so far as to allege that this shift is driven by direct and intentional racial animus, it is worth thinking about the ways in which reason, evidence and objectivity are selectively wielded in favor of certain causes, and against others within the effective altruism movement.
It is by now well known that effective altruists are often critical of causes meant to address existing forms of racial injustice. When Animal Charity Evaluators urged changes to hiring and charity evaluation practices in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a highly-upvoted EA Forum Post took aim at Animal Charity Evaluators for the sin of showing support for anti-racist efforts.
Other efforts to improve the lives of people of color were met with similar criticism. A large funding commitment by Open Philanthropy to criminal justice reform in the United States was again the target of a highly upvoted criticism on the EA Forum in June 2022, and the criticism was awarded a $5,000 prize in the EA Forum Criticism and Redteaming Contest.
One cannot help but get the impression that interventions that benefit people of color are disproportionately singled out for criticism. That impression shared by many in the movement. Here is an excerpt from a reddit thread by a concerned effective altruist in 2020, during a period of active protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement:
I have a lot of EA friends on Facebook, many of whom hold high positions in EA organizations, and overwhelmingly they have spent the last few days shaming the protesters for demanding equal rights. The most common refrain is, “Why do they need to be violent?” as if non-oppressed people have the right to tell oppressed folks how to protest. Facts speak for themselves: effective altruism is almost entirely white. Contributions from people of color are routinely dismissed, and nearly all the most popular writings have racist undertones, such as the white savior complex. Black people are actively discouraged from joining EA because they are focused on survival, while people here seem to care more about hypothetical non-existent problems. EAs worry about a hypothetical AI takeover scenario, when black bodies are suffering here and now due to systematic oppression, but I guess that’s easy to overlook if you’re privileged. It is extremely telling that EAs would focus on the very minor looting and vandalism, and don’t care at all about the fact that there is an organized genocide against black people, carried about by the police in the United States. How the [expletive removed] has this been ignored?EAs need to recognize racism as more urgent than the other problems discussed here, /r/effectivealtruism
The most upvoted comment on that thread? “It seems like that this is a call to local altruism, not effective altruism”.
Are such reactions driven by logic, evidence, and reason? It is hard to tell. Often there is very little argument offered in support of them. Given the risk of mistaking received beliefs, prejudices and patterns of reasoning for deliverances of pure reason, it would seem prudent to pay special attention to the formulation and evaluation of detailed, fair and well-evidenced arguments to guide cost-effectiveness estimates in areas where we have good reason to suspect that some of our judgments may be colored by prejudice and other distorting factors.
9. What must not be done
What must not be done is to forget this incident and move on without discussion, learning or change. Bostrom suggests that we should do just that:
Good ideas have been taken up in other contexts, further developed, and written up in more readable formats; and the no-good stuff deserves to rest in the great ash heap of history.
This is an opportunity for learning, healing and change. I hope that the community will take this opportunity to understand what went wrong, to explore the depth of the problem, and to explore meaningful solutions to ensure that effective altruists take adequate accounts of the needs, interests and perspectives of all.
10. (EDIT) Comments are closed
A user recently submitted a comment which drew on the racist and scientifically dubious writings of Dr. Philippe Rushton and Dr. Arthur Jensen to argue that we should leave open the possibility of a significant IQ gap between racial groups grounded in underlying genetic causes.
Rushton’s own department issued the following statement characterizing his work:
Although Rushton published on a variety of topics in the field of personality and individual differences, much of his research was racist, and attempted to find differences in intelligence between racialized groups and to explain them as caused by genetic differences between races.
Although Rushton ceased teaching for the Department of Psychology in the early 1990s, he continued to conduct racist and flawed studies, sometimes without appropriate ethics approval, for two more decades. There are other ethical concerns surrounding Rushton’s research. In particular, much of this research was supported by the Pioneer Fund, a foundation formed in 1937 to promote eugenicist and racist goals. The fund was headed by Rushton himself for many years (2002-2012). Indeed, Rushton was the largest recipient of Pioneer Fund grants at the time of his death. Further, he directed funding from this foundation to editors of some of the journals in which he published. Rushton also created an offshore private promotional organization called the Charles Darwin Institute to promote his writings.
In addition to ethical concerns about the nature and funding of his research, Rushton’s work is deeply flawed from a scientific standpoint. Crucially, Rushton’s works linking race and intelligence are based on an incorrect assumption that fuels systemic racism, the notion that racialized groups are concordant with patterns of human ancestry and genetic population structure. This idea is rejected by analysis of the human genome: racialized groups are not distinct genetic populations. What Rushton described as “races” are socially created categories that do not reflect patterns of human inheritance or genetic population structure. In an effort to explain putative differences in parental care between racialized groups, Rushton also inappropriately applied an ecological theory developed to explain differences between species’ reproductive strategies (r/K selection theory), an approach that has since been thoroughly debunked. Moreover, Rushton’s work is characterized by a complete misunderstanding of population genetic measures, including fundamental misconceptions about the nature of heritability and gene-environment interactions during development. His work has been criticized, often by other Western University faculty members, on many other grounds. In some cases, Rushton’s work has failed to replicate or stand up to reanalysis. In other cases, his papers ignored alternative explanations or competing evidence that did not support his racist hypotheses.
Despite its deeply flawed assumptions and methodologies, Rushton’s work and other so-called “race science” (currently under the pseudonym of “race realism”) continues to be misused by white supremacists and promoted by eugenic organizations. Thus, Rushton’s legacy shows that the impact of flawed science lingers on, even after qualified scholars have condemned its scientific integrity. Academic freedom and freedom of expression are critical to free scientific inquiry. However, the notion of academic freedom is disrespected and abused when it is used to promote the dissemination of racist and discriminatory concepts. Scientists have an obligation to society to speak loudly and actively in opposition of such abuse.Statement from the Department of Psychology regarding research conducted by Dr. J. Philippe Rushton, University of Western Ontario
The article by Rushton and Jensen cited by this commentator (to which I will not link) was immediately repudiated by the scientific community. A response by the eminent psychologist Richard Nisbett showed:
J. P. Rushton and A. R. Jensen (2005) ignore or misinterpret most of the evidence of greatest relevance to the question of heritability of the Black–White IQ gap. A dispassionate reading of the evidence on the association of IQ with degree of European ancestry for members of Black populations, convergence of Black and White IQ in recent years, alterability of Black IQ by intervention programs, and adoption studies lend no support to a hereditarian interpretation of the Black–White IQ gap. On the contrary, the evidence most relevant to the question indicates that the genetic contribution to the Black–White IQ gap is nil.Nisbett, “Heredity, environment, and race differences in IQ: A commentary on Rushton and Jensen (2005)“
This blog is not, and will never become a forum for airing discredited scientific theories in the support of racist ideology.
It looks like the time has come for me to introduce a comments policy to prevent future misbehavior. Comments are closed on this thread. If you want to discuss the content of this post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.