Nick Bostrom wrote an email


Two of them, actually, the second to repudiate the first. They’re both pretty bad.

One of the world’s most celebrated philosophers has apologized for writing a racist email in which he used an appalling racial slur and said he believed it was “true” that “Blacks are more stupid than whites.”

Before we get to the flaming racist bits, I have to question that. “One of the world’s most celebrated philosophers”? Nick Bostrom? Seriously? He’s a bloodless weirdo who writes bizarre fantasy stories about the world being a simulation that seems to be mainly taken seriously by Libertarian Silicon Valley tech-bros. Is he really a celebrated philosopher? Or a fringe goofball who caught the imagination of a tiny group of rich dudes? Let me know, philosophers. And if that’s true, you all have some in-house cleanup to do.

Anyway, snapping back to the content…Bostrom was dismayed to learn that someone was snooping around in the archives of an old listserv he participated in, and was rushing to pre-empt the disclosure of some ugly things he shared 26 years ago. Among these unpleasant exposed bits of rubbish, which he’d intended to share with only the cozy fellow white dudes of this listserv, was this bit about “offensive communication styles,” where, as an example, he wrote:

Blacks are more stupid than whites.

I like that sentence and think it is true.

He then goes on to say that he thinks it probable that black people have a lower IQ than mankind in general (which is weird in itself — aren’t black people part of mankind?), and throws in a racial slur. He then explains his point:

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.

Please note precisely what he is saying: here is what he really believes, but it wouldn’t be expedient to say it in public. Honesty is admirable, but only if it is strategic, and otherwise, DON’T SAY THE QUIET PARTS OUT LOUD. But now, uh-oh, the normies are uncovering the stuff they weren’t supposed to here, and it’s time to cover his butt.

That was the message a quarter century ago. Now that it’s being exposed, yeah, it’s butt-covering time. That’s the whole point of Nick Bostrom’s new email, which you can read at the link. It’s an interesting exercise in loudly repudiating your old views while not actually repudiating them. He announces in bold:

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.

OK, good, now stop. Stop, I said. Shut up! Dear god, why do you have to keep on babbling on, undercutting your own repudiation? Yeah, he did not shut up. After listing all the charities he donates to (see? He really is a good person), he decides to expand on that black IQ business.

Are there any genetic contributions to differences between groups in cognitive abilities? It is not my area of expertise [So shut the fuck up already!], and I don’t have any particular interest in the question [So disinterested he can’t shut up about it]. I would leave it to others, who have more relevant knowledge, to debate whether or not in addition to environmental factors, epigenetic or genetic factors play any role.

That’s how he “rejects utterly” his racist ideas from 26 years ago…by saying, oh gosh, I don’t really know, maybe my more racist friends ought to talk about it a lot more.

Then he goes on to ask, What about eugenics? Do I support eugenics? Hold on there. The old email doesn’t say anything about eugenics — why do you suddenly feel the need to go on and on about it? Are there some other emails you haven’t told us about where you talk about policy to take care of inferior races that you’re feeling guilty about? Really, you should definitely shut up.

If you’re curious about his position on eugenics, he is in favor of some uses and against others, which fits perfectly with his declaration of complete repudiation and utter rejection. It’s just more waffly shit.

So we’re now left to make a choice: should we believe his old email, which argues that you should like to hide your offensive views from us people “out there,” or should we believe his new email that claims his offensive views are totally false while being unable to simply say so?

It’s like a philosophical dilemma that is trivially easy to solve!

Comments

  1. numerobis says

    black people have a lower IQ than mankind in general (which is weird in itself — aren’t black people part of mankind?)

    The logic is fine: a subset has more average R than the average R of the entire set.

    It’s probably even true, since IQ has a lot to do with what well-off white Europeans think is important and makes them look superior.

  2. John Morales says

    Vaguely amusing/revealing that he’s ostensibly worried about superintelligent AI making people obsolete.

    (Do I need to elaborate?)

  3. consciousness razor says

    Before we get to the flaming racist bits, I have to question that. “One of the world’s most celebrated philosophers”? Nick Bostrom? Seriously?

    Okay, but take a step back for a minute. You’re quoting the Daily Beast with regard to who is or is not a celebrated philosopher. Seriously? Why not consult an astrologer or something?

    Of course, most are not “celebrated” at all by most people around the world anyway. However, if you were some kind of transhumanist freak who might celebrate the (to most of us, totally unremarkable) fact that there is a philosopher saying things that you find appealing, you don’t really have many other options. I mean, perhaps those folks are just doing a lot more philosopher-celebrating than the rest of us, and perhaps it’s also true that we should try to do a little better….

    For instance, on Edmund Burke was born January 12, 1729. Or maybe on a completely different day, but that’s what wikipedia is saying. So … Hooray?

    Okay, I get it. That’s not so great. I’ll work on it….

    On the 14th, it will be the anniversary of Berkeley’s death in 1753. If it’s not worth celebrating the fact that he’s not still existing even today as a leading exponent of idealism (and I guess some kind of undead, a vampire, a lich, or whatever), then I don’t know what is.

    He’s a bloodless weirdo who writes bizarre fantasy stories about the world being a simulation that seems to be mainly taken seriously by Libertarian Silicon Valley tech-bros. Is he really a celebrated philosopher? Or a fringe goofball who caught the imagination of a tiny group of rich dudes? Let me know, philosophers. And if that’s true, you all have some in-house cleanup to do.

    Sure, I bet they’ll get right on that. Most of them would probably say something roughly like this: “Wait, what made you think this guy wasn’t a fringe goofball? Ah, I see, somebody wanted to make things sound a little more important in their article…. Okay then.”

  4. hemidactylus says

    Was Bostrom influenced by The Matrix movies in concocting the simulation argument? Surely the movie led to the idea’s popularity, though it had some distant input from Descartes, Bishop Berkeley, and Schopenhauer. And the movie name-drops that other simulation guy Baudrillard. It tickles me to think Muskrat may have indirectly channeled some French post-structural eccentric’s ideas on media representation when he pontificated his own pseudo-profound brain droppings about our fictional simulated existence. Baudrillard didn’t think the movie did his ideas justice. The movie was more a Plato’s cave thing.

    Per racism vs eugenics, there’s obvious overlap (eg- Madison Grant and his ilk) yet I’ve gotten some notions that an antiracist like WEB DuBois had eugenic leanings. Kinda hard to escape at the time. And Grandpa Huxley may have had the typical racial biases of his time (or worse?) but not the love for eugenics his grandsons would develop. Julian basically coined transhumanism no?

    Ernst Mayr wasn’t racist but disturbingly flirted with eugenics:
    https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/document/101584582X183/PDF/101584582X183.pdf

  5. raven says

    I have to question that. “One of the world’s most celebrated philosophers”? Nick Bostrom? Seriously?

    That was my reaction.

    Who is Nick Bostrom and why should I care?

    Now that I read the OP, Nick Bostrom is nobody, another rather stupid white racist.
    We have millions of them holding down the bottom quarter of our society.

  6. raven says

    Bostrom:

    My point is that while speaking with the provocativeness of unabashed objectivity would be appreciated by me and many other persons on this list,

    OK.

    Speaking the objective truth about Nick Bostrom, he is a failed human being, taking up space better used for grass for cows to eat and using oxygen better spent on mushrooms.
    To be fair, it is hard to really express my contempt for him due to the limitations of the English language.

    So we’re now left to make a choice: …

    It’s like a philosophical dilemma that is trivially easy to solve!

    There are more than two choices. The is another False Dilemma.

    We could just point out the dozens or more places where Bostrom is wrong, laugh at him, and then forget about him and spend our time on better things to think about and do.

    He is nobody but he does make a good example of somebody getting by on an accident of birth, his skin color, because he has nothing else going for him.

  7. John Morales says

    hemidactylus, the idea has been around for ages.

    I can’t think of it right now, but there was a story where simulated people (on a tabletop, IIRC) were just there for marketing research, where their days began anew on a regular basis. Greg Egan wrote about those, too.

    (Besides, The Matrix itself rips off Dark City)

  8. raven says

    but there was a story where simulated people (on a tabletop, IIRC) were just there for marketing research, where their days began anew on a regular basis.

    LOL.
    I read that one also, back in the Dark Ages.
    The tabletop city was owned by a marketing company who used the people to test out advertising.

    From Google, it might be this one.
    …while Frederik Pohl’s 1955 short story “The Tunnel Under the World” told the story of a man who relived the same day over and over, only to discover that he was trapped in a cruel marketing simulation.

  9. John Morales says

    And, of course, Scientology holds that observed reality (what they call the MEST reality) is a consensual yet inadvertent melange of what Thetans imagine.

    (Quite the celebrated philosopher, was Elron)

  10. raven says

    It is Pohl’s story from 1955.

    Wikipedia
    “The Tunnel under the World” is a science fiction short story by American writer Frederik Pohl. It was first published in 1955 in Galaxy magazine. It has often been anthologized, most notably in The Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by Kingsley Amis (1981).

    Contents
    1 Plot
    2 Radio, TV, and film versions
    3 References
    4 External links
    Plot
    Guy and Mary Burckhardt wake up in their house in Tylerton on June 15, having both had terrible nightmares, but they cannot recall the events of their dreams. Guy dismisses the dream and goes to work as usual, the downtown offices of Contro Chemicals, which operates a highly automated and robot-staffed petrochemicals plant. But something is not right; he is surrounded everywhere by loud and all-pervasive advertising jingles for everything from cigarettes to freezers.

    He proves to be incorrect. In actuality, the chemical plant had exploded, killing all the inhabitants of Tylerton. A ruthless advertising executive, Dorchin, took over the ruins and rebuilt the town in miniature.

    The story is available online.

  11. consciousness razor says

    John Morales, #8:

    [cr @3, pretty sure PZ is being sarcastic there]

    I don’t think he was sarcastically asking for input from philosophers or sarcastically wondering about whatever rot there may be within academic philosophy, if that’s what you’re suggesting.

    As I said though, for whatever it may be worth coming from a non-philosopher, I don’t think it would be especially implausible that Bostrum is indeed more celebrated by his cult following than the vast majority of other philosophers and their respective audiences, who don’t tend to have such fanatical dispositions. That doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, although it’s not typically what one would be trying to convey with something like “one of the world’s most celebrated X.”

    I was by the way being somewhat sarcastic about Berkeley, not that it really matters. However, if somebody did decide to blow out a candle or whatever on Saturday in order to commemorate the event, I don’t think I would hold it against them. It would after all just be a feature of my mind, since there isn’t anything else, so I would only have myself to blame. But I don’t know…. Maybe I would still hold it against them anyway. No telling what may happen.

  12. StevoR says

    @ ^ raven & John Morales : Thanks.

    Studied a little philosophy here albiet many years ago & never heard of this Nick Bostrom person .. who is this clown?
    Wikichecks :. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Bostrom

    Isn’t the whole concept of IQ debunked or at least seriously flawed and problematic as, for instance, written about by Stephen Jay Gould in his ‘The Mismeasure of Man’? Intelligence is also hard to define and to me, there’s aspects that can vary greatly i.e. education, “wisdom”, problem-solving ability, maths and puzzle solving versus emiotional intelligence, etc..

    Certainly seems very much like a waffling notpology from the description here and like someone embarrassed to be exposed a racist but still a racist & unwilling to question and confront their racism to me.

  13. John Morales says

    [semi-OT]

    StevoR,

    Isn’t the whole concept of IQ debunked or at least seriously flawed and problematic […]

    Yes, and no.

    No, in that it somehow reflects overall intelligence, nous, and success at life.
    Yes, in that it measures competence at a particular set of tasks within a particular framework.
    No, in that IQ scores can be improved with a bit of practice and feedback; no-one really imagines that one’s innate intelligence increases by practicing it.
    Etc.

    As others have noted, it was originally designed (as the very name suggests!) to measure relative competence at particular tasks given a particular framework.

    When it comes to social intelligence, emotional intelligence, resilience, and other factors that affect one’s success at life, it’s severely limited.

    (And it’s very silly to extrapolate it beyond its bounds; fictionally, old-timey SF writers such as Van Vogt just plunged in numbers in their stories — as if one could measure that sort of thing on a linear scale)

  14. says

    I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago. It does not accurately represent my views, then or now.

    “THEN or now?” That completely undercuts whatever credibility he may have had. He seems to be saying that his previous statements “did not accurately reflect his views” when he wrote them. So why the f00k did he say any of it at all to begin with?

  15. captainblack says

    Philosophy (Plato at least) has the concept of the “Nobel Lie”, that is something the “elect” (people who agree with one) know to be untrue, but is publicly espoused since the plebs “can’t handle the truth”.

    In this case Bostrom may be in the position of trying to distance himself from what he supposed a private conversation with the “elect” about what they believe to be the true state of the world, which contradicts, what they think, a “Nobel Lie” that they wish to appear to support in public.

  16. chrislawson says

    This attempt at damage control would have been a lot more convincing if he hadn’t claimed the email didn’t represent his views “then or now”. Apparently he was in the habit of making definitive statements and calling them “offensive truths”…because he didn’t agree with them???

  17. chrislawson says

    StevoR–

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with testing cognitive ability, and there are good reasons for doing so. (The original developer of IQ testing, Alfred Binet, was trying to identify schoolchildren who would benefit from remedial education.) The problem is that (1) too many proponents do not understand the limitations and biases in IQ testing, and (2) it is easily abused to justify racism, sexism, and classism.

  18. Erp says

    I would say he is a known philosopher, gets a moderate number of cites in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is at Oxford University
    https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/people/nick-bostrom
    The position is described as “Fixed-Term Tutorial & Research Fellows” though he has the title of professor (regular professors are listed as faculty members).
    However, he does seem to like to beat his own drum, and, it seems he knows what appeals to people outside philosophy.

  19. says

    Also, Bostrum’s latest kinda-sorta-notpology doesn’t really imply his views have changed much since that last infamous message, whether or not they’re accurately reflected by his words. He certainly doesn’t say he’s “grown” or “evolved,” or specify what’s changed from then to now.

  20. chrislawson says

    @22–

    Exactly (and PZ’s point). This is a bit different to the classic notpology (‘I’m sorry if I caused any offence”). It’s more of an evasion (“I’m sorry people think I mean what I say” — a defence of merit only for satirists and undercover agents).

    …for real satirists that is, not people who pretend their bullshit was satire when caught out

  21. chrislawson says

    Reading this, I sometimes wonder if we should set up an encyclopedia of common destructive misuses of science just so that we don’t have to repeat the same old rebuttals time and again.

  22. Dunc says

    Is he really a celebrated philosopher?

    Well, that depends – celebrated by whom? He certainly seems to be popular with some influential people in tech and journalism. You know, the sort of people who thought Sam Bankman-Fried was a visionary genius. Actual philosophers? Probably not so much.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    Nick Bostrom would be descended from an immigrant named Boström – yet another case of American- Swedish people being embarassing.
    I promise the frequency of people being openly racist or otherwise reactionary is not that high in the old country.
    We have a xenophobe party but they grew big by general populism, after the previous recession.

  24. StevoR says

    @ 24. chrislawson :

    Reading this, I sometimes wonder if we should set up an encyclopedia of common destructive misuses of science just so that we don’t have to repeat the same old rebuttals time and again.

    Maybe something like what they got at Skeptical Science on Global Overheating – see :

    https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php

    but broader in scope? I vaguely recall Pharyngula used to have (still has?) some sort of its own wiki or something like that somewhere but I’m not really sure.

    It is a good idea.

  25. KG says

    Since Bostrom thinks we’re almost certainly living in a simulation, and since, if we are, there’s no way of telling when it started running, I’m surprised he didn’t just claim that old racist email was very likely just something coded into the simulation’s initial conditions, for which he therefore had no responsibility.

  26. erik333 says

    The simulation theory is so stupid it boggles the mind anyone could take it seriously unless they alteady believe in an omnicient creator god, for which there would be no point to actually create a universe except as a thought experiment.

    Any simulation would have processing and encoding overhead: recursive nesting of layers of simulation would only decrease the information space left for sentience. And we don’t even know of any part of the observable universe used for this purpose, and barely any for sentience.

    Why anyone would even bother simulating to the extent suggested is also unexplained.

  27. hemidactylus says

    @28- KG
    So his previous doing of a racism was actually just a glitch in the matrix that serves to prove the simulation, just as with what was recalled as the Berenstein Bears inexplicably transforming into the Berenstain Bears? I’m sold [sarcasm]. A few decades from now this further awkwardness on his part could serve as another retrospective “glitch”.

    https://skepchick.org/2022/08/did-curious-george-have-a-tail-study-examines-the-mandela-effect/

  28. birgerjohansson says

    KG @ 29
    Aaaarggh!
    On one hand, we are rid of him. On the other hand, you have to deal with our garbage.

  29. raven says

    There are a lot of problems with the simulation idea, starting with that it is unfalsifiable.
    If you can never tell, it isn’t a useful concept.

    A related question. If you can create simulations not distinguishable for what they simulate, why create just one? There could be millions or more.

    A minor one is that our version of the simulation is pretty dismal.
    If you can simulate a universe, why not come up with a better one?
    Maximum happiness for maximum people instead of the floundering dystopia we live in today.
    We also need a Faster Than Light space drive so we can colonize the galaxy.

    About all we can tell about the creators of our current simulation is that they aren’t very benign and not very imaginative.

  30. says

    The fundamental outrage revolves around the claim that Black IQs are lower than White. But the ugly underpinnings of this reflects that the Black population in the U.S. even today is more heavily affected by lead poisoning and was even more affected when poverty and racism confined Black children to lead-laced tenement homes. Lead poisoning is documented to lower IQs because it is also documented to create brain damage. To simply deny that Black IQs in the U.S. are not lower than White IQs is a racist decision to ignore that Black children in the U.S. are systematically lead poisoned. The American Black population has lower IQs and is more violent because these are well documented medical symptoms of lead poisoning. Indeed, much of the ingested lead ends up in the bones and it has been documented that when a woman had been lead poisoned as a child, that woman’s fetus will be lead poisoned as her body mobilizes lead and calcium from her bones during pregnancy.

  31. says

    There are a lot of problems with the simulation idea, starting with that it is unfalsifiable.

    Actually, it can be falsified by the lack of perceptible technical glitches. Even if our minds are part of a simulated universe, we could still, at least in some circumstances, perceive and remember, and maybe even record, when a glitch happens within our perceptive range; i.e., if something or someone in front of one briefly flickered out of existence, or froze or started moving noticeably faster, slower or more jerkily than normal.

    The American Black population has lower IQs and is more violent because these are well documented medical symptoms of lead poisoning.

    Generally true, but a very clumsy generalization. Not all black people grew up in places where lead paint was prevalent; and lead paint has been removed from a lot of the neighborhoods where it was once routinely used. This is one reason why crime in such neighborhoods has gone down: not as many kids today getting lead poisoning as in previous generations.

  32. KG says

    Actually, it can be falsified by the lack of perceptible technical glitches. Even if our minds are part of a simulated universe, we could still, at least in some circumstances, perceive and remember, and maybe even record, when a glitch happens within our perceptive range; i.e., if something or someone in front of one briefly flickered out of existence, or froze or started moving noticeably faster, slower or more jerkily than normal. – Raging Bee@35

    Haven’t you noticed that the simulation doesn’t keep track of socks and biros properly? :-p
    Besides which, the storyline has become increasingly implausible in recent decades, resembling bad SF. I mean, AIDS? Collapse of the USSR? Twin Towers? President Trump FFS!

  33. says

    Hi, PZ Meyers, it is obvious that you PZ Meyers, are not so much offended by the racism of the superior white philosopher and absolute Chad Nick Bostrom, but for what he stands for in your mind.

    And that is probably a caricature of the white sexist cryptobro and hero of all incels who will lead us to fascism, if you PZ Meyers, do not now so continue to write a blog article about the mental confusions of 25 years ago of the world famous philosopher and incel Nick Bostrom.

    Nick Bistrom forever!

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