Does EA understand how to apologize for things?

In response to the drama over Bostroms apology for an old email, the original email has been universally condemned from all sides. But I’ve also seen some confusion over why people dislike the apology itself. After all, nothing in the apology was technically inaccurate, right? What part of it do we disagree with?

Well, I object to it because it was an apology. And when you grade an apology, you don’t grade it on the factual accuracy of the scientific claims contained within, you grade it on how good it is at being an apology. And to be frank, this was probably one of the worst apologies I have ever seen in my life, although it has since been topped by Tegmark’s awful non-apology for the far right newspaper affair.

Okay, let’s go over the rules for an apology to be genuine and sincere. I’ll take them from here.

  1. Acknowledge the offense.

  2. Explain what happened.

  3. Express remorse.

  4. Offer to make amends.

Notably missing from this list is step 5: Go off on an unrelated tangent about eugenics.

Imagine if I called someone’s mother overweight in a vulgar manner. When they get upset, I compose a long apology email where I apologize for the language, but then note that I believe it is factually true their mother has a BMI substantially above average, as does their sister, father, and wife. Whether or not those claims are factually true doesn’t actually matter, because bringing them up at all is unnecessary and further upsets the person I just hurt.

In Bostroms email of 9 paragraphs, he spends 2 talking about the historical context of the email, 1 talking about why he decided to release it, 1 actually apologizing, and the remaining 5 paragraphs giving an overview of his current views on race, intelligence, genetics, and eugenics.

What this betrays is an extreme lack of empathy for the people he is meant to be apologizing to. Imagine if he was reading this apology out loud to the average black person, and think about how uncomfortable they would feel by the time he got to part discussing his papers about the ethics of genetic enhancement.

Bostroms original racist email did not mention racial genetic differences or eugenics. They should not have been brought up in the apology either. As a direct result of him bringing the subject up, this forum and others throughout the internet have been filled with race science debate, an outcome that I believe is very harmful. Discussions of racial differences are divisive, bad PR, probably result in the spread of harmful beliefs, and are completely irrelevant to top EA causes. If Bostrom didn’t anticipate that this outcome would result from bringing the subject up, then he was being hopelessly naive.

On the other hand, Bostroms apology looks absolutely saintly next to the FLI’s/​Max Tegmarks non-apology for the initial approval of grant money to a far-right newspaper (the funding offer was later rescinded). At no point does he offer any understanding at all as to why people might be concerned about approving, even temporarily, funding for a far-right newspaper that promotes holocaust denial, covid vaccine conspiracy theories, and defending “ethnic rights”.

I don’t even know what to say about this statement. The FLI has managed to fail at point 1 of an apology: understanding that they did something wrong. I hope they manage to release a real apology soon, and when they do, maybe they can learn some lessons from previous failures.

Edit: the FLI have since further revised their statement, acknowledging that the newspaper was nazi in nature and expressing regret for the initial funding decision. They’re still leaving up the misleading statement on government funding (which was ideology independent), and the overall tone still seems to lack understanding of why people are so shocked that they came anywhere close to working with a full on pro-nazi org. However, I think this at least upgrades their statement from a non-apology to a bad apology, which is a step in the right direction at least. Hopefully they’ll get there eventually.

Second edit: The FLI have released a formal statement, which is a further big improvement. In particular they stopped denying Nya Bagdlets neo-nazi opinions and gave a more in depth explanation of what happened. I still think it was a very major mistake and people are right to be concerned about it, but it’s at least reassuring that there don’t appear to be nazi sympathisers within the FLI ranks, and that they are doing something to address their mistake.