Professor Nick Bostrom has published on apology on his website for an email he wrote in 1996 where he said: “Blacks are more stupid than whites. I like that sentence and think it is true.”
Bostrom continued: “But recently I have begun to believe that I won’t have much success with most people if I speak like that. […] For most people […] the sentence seems to be synonymous with: I hate those bloody [n*****s]!!!!”
In his apology, Bostrom says “I completely repudiate this disgusting email … It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive”. He claims he also apologized at the time almost immediately after the email was written, and says he is apologizing again, “unreservedly”.
The context of the email was apparently a thread on “offensive content and offensive communication styles”. It was sent on the mailing list of an internet forum called the Extropians, an unmoderated platform for “conversations about science fiction, future technologies, society, and all sorts of random things”. In the email, Bostrom said he has “always liked the uncompromisingly objective way of thinking and speaking”, the “more counterintuitive and repugnant a formulation” the better, so long as it is “logically correct”.
The email continued: “Take for example the following sentence: Blacks are more stupid than whites. I like that sentence and think 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_ [sic] black people and thought 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 for me. For most people, however, the sentence seems to be synonymous with: I hate those bloody [n*****s]!!!!”
He then said his point was that while he and other people on the Extropians mailing list might appreciate “speaking with the provocativeness of unabashed objectivity” and he thought it was “laudable” to “accustom people to the offensiveness of truth”, this might be a “less effective” way of communication with “the people ‘out there’” and could lead to “some personal damage”.
Bostrom is a philosophy professor for applied ethics and director of both the Future for Humanity Institute (FHI) and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. According to his FHI profile, he is the “most-cited professional philosopher under the age of 50” and has authored 200 publications, including the New York Times bestseller Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies as well as influential papers introducing the simulation argument and the concept of existential risk.
Joyce Ekakoro, a 3rd year PPE student, told Cherwell she feels “uttermost disgust at the racist comments made by someone so esteemed within one of the departments I study within”. Ekakoro added that “coming to an institution where we know we are a minority is difficult enough … and to have members of staff who should be supporting and empowering our academic endeavours view us so deplorably really stings”. The email has “tainted” her Oxford experience and left her “upset and uneasy”, and she really hopes the university will act.
A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “The University and Faculty of Philosophy is currently investigating the matter but condemns in the strongest terms possible the views this particular academic expressed in his communications. Neither the content nor language are in line with our strong commitment to diversity and equality.”
Bostrom brought the email to light himself on 9th January via an apology published on his website, claiming he had heard someone was digging through the Extropians archives to find “embarrassing materials to disseminate about people”. He feared that “selected pieces of the most offensive stuff will [sic] be extracted, maliciously framed and interpreted, and used in smear campaigns”, and aimed to “get ahead of this” by airing “the very worst of the worst in my contribution file”.
In his apology, Bostrom says his “actual views” are 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”. However, regarding whether he thinks there are any “genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities”, Bostrom says it is not his “area of expertise” and he “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”. Although eugenics does not appear to be mentioned in the original 1996 email, Bostrom’s apology continues, explaining that he does not support eugenics “as the term is commonly understood”. He claims the term is used in “contemporary academic bioethics” in a “different and much broader sense”, such as in reference to the genetic screening and diagnostics available to prospective parents undergoing IVF. Bostrom adds that, “[b]roadly speaking”, he is “favorable to wide parental choice in these matters”.
Cherwell spoke to Deborah Ogunnoiki, a 3rd year classics student, who said that “as a black philosophy student it really terrifies me that someone who could’ve taught me or taught the people who taught me, would casually suggest that my race makes me less intelligent”. She thinks this incident “really shows that Oxford really hasn’t changed”, and “[e]ven if there’s more diversity, it doesn’t mean this place has become any safer for us”. Ogunnoiki noted that it “feels like [the] philosophy department is protecting [Bostrom] more than they’re protecting their black students”.
The Faculty of Philosophy published a paragraph on their website on 13th January which states: “The Faculty is committed to academic freedom of speech and, as part of this commitment, does not moderate opinions expressed by its members. However, we expect all members to meet certain standards of behaviour, and there is no room for hate speech in our faculty. In relation to views that have come to light in a faculty member’s historic email and their recent apology, the Faculty Board would like to make clear that it rejects both the views themselves and the abhorrent language in which they were originally expressed. The Faculty utterly condemns racism in all its forms.”
This statement was repeated in an email sent to all philosophy students by the Chair of the Philosophy Faculty Board. This email advised that affected students could access support through the Student Welfare and Support Services and via their college welfare team. It said the Faculty is “committed to the work of anti-racism” and will be “developing [its] actions informed by the University’s Race Equality Task Force”. The Faculty is apparently planning to invite philosophy students to a meeting later in term to “discuss ways of advancing racial equity and inclusion in the Faculty”.
Nick Bostrom has been contacted for comment.