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Nick Bostrom should step down as Director of FHI. He should move into a role as a Senior Research Fellow at FHI, and remain a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. 

I don't seek to minimize his intellectual contribution. His seminal 2002 paper on existential risk launched a new sub-field of existential risk research (building on many others). The 2008 book on Global Catastrophic Risks he co-edited was an important part of bringing together this early field. 2014’s Superintelligence put AI risk squarely onto the agenda. And he has made other contributions across philosophy from human enhancement to the simulation hypothesis. I'm not denying that. I'm not seeking to cancel him and prevent him from writing further papers and books. In fact, I want him to spend more time on that.

But I don’t think he’s been a particularly good Director of FHI. These difficulties are demonstrated by and reinforced by his Apology. I think he should step down for the good of FHI and the field. This post has some hard truths and may be uncomfortable reading, but FHI and the field are more important than that discomfort.

Pre-existing issues

Bostrom was already struggling as Director. In the past decade, he’s churned through 5-10 administrators, due to his persistent micromanagement. He discouraged investment in the relationship with the University and sought to get around/streamline/reduce the bureaucracy involved with being part of the University.

All of this contributed to the breakdown of the relationship with the Philosophy Faculty (which FHI is a part of). This led the Faculty to impose a hiring freeze a few years ago, preventing FHI from hiring more people until they had resolved administrative problems. Until then, FHI could rely on a constant churn of new people to replace the people burnt out and/or moving on. The hiring freeze stopped the churn. The hiring freeze also contributed in part to the end of the Research Scholars Program and Cotton-Barratt’s resignation from FHI. It also contributed in part to the switch of almost all of the AI Governance Research Group to the Center for the Governance of AI.

Apology

Then in January 2023, Bostrom posted an Apology for an Old Email

In my personal opinion, this statement demonstrated his lack of aptitude and lack of concern for his important role. These are sensitive topics that need to be handled with care. But the Apology had a glib tone, reused the original racial slur, seemed to indicate he was still open to discredited ‘race science’ hypotheses, and had an irrelevant digression on eugenics. I personally think these are disqualifying views for someone in his position as Director. But also, any of these issues would presumably have been flagged by colleagues or a communications professional. It appears he didn't check this major statement with anyone or seek feedback. Being Director of a major research center in an important but controversial field requires care, tact, leadership and attention to downside risks. The Apology failed to demonstrate that.

The Apology has had the effect of complicating many important relationships for FHI: with the University, with staff, with funders and with collaborators. Bostrom will now struggle even more to lead the center. 

First,  University. The Faculty was already concerned, and Oxford University is now investigating. Oxford University released a statement to The Daily Beast:

“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.”

British universities are conscious of these problematic issues. For example, in 2019 Noah Carl was dismissed as a Junior Research Fellow from a Cambridge University college after an investigation into his problematic research on ‘race and intelligence’, and an open letter signed by 1,000 people. If Bostrom stays as Director, the hiring freeze will stay and the relationship with the Faculty and University will continue to be bad.

Second, staff. As previously noted, most of AI governance left, and the Research Scholars Program ended. There is currently no-one listed under “Research Support” (presumably the administrative side of FHI) on the team page. Jonas Sandbrink, FHI’s sole remaining full-time researcher in the Biosecurity Research Group, recently resigned - noting the “upsetting behaviour and careless attitude of FHI's director regarding important issues of social justice and basic human decency”. If Bostrom stays as Director, FHI will continue to struggle to retain and attract talent.

Third, funders. Dustin Moskovitz, with Cari Tuna one of the main funders of Open Philanthropy, tweeted about posts made by Rohit Krishnan and Habiba Islam, noting how important it is to approach discussion of these dangerous topics with remarkable care: “extraordinary, dangerous claims demand extraordinary, ~unassailable evidence. If you make them without it, you lose credibility and trust swiftly”. “It only takes one person having that latent belief and acting on it for discussion of the relevant facts to become dangerous (and thus merit care)”. “It’s empirically, demonstrably dangerous” and “you ha[ve] to speak about them carefully”. Moreover, one of Open Philanthropy’s four operating values is inclusiveness, and they have emphasized this in proactive outreach to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds in their hiring. Open Philanthropy is FHI’s biggest historic donor. I would be amazed if they had not raised these problems with FHI.

Fourth, collaborators. CEA released a statement condemning Bostrom’s “flawed and reprehensible words”. CEA shares an office building with FHI and has been a close collaborator with FHI. Peter Wildeford wrote a personal post criticizing the Apology. Wildeford was writing in a personal capacity, but it is obviously relevant that he is the co-CEO of Rethink Priorities, a major research center in the field of existential risk. The acting Director of CSER tweeted that “the apology should have been an opportunity for a clear and unequivocal disavowal of ‘race science’ [...] I am profoundly disappointed that it was not.” GCRI also released a statement on Race and Intelligence. CSER and GCRI are other existential risk research centers. If Bostrom stays as Director, FHI will continue to struggle to maintain its relationships with existing collaborators and to establish new ones.

Conclusion

In conclusion, for the good of FHI and the field, Bostrom should step aside as Director and FHI should find another person to be Director. It's not the case that he's irreplaceable. Other people could be Director of FHI, and probably do a better job - especially now since the Apology.

Bostrom should step back from this particular high profile role, which he was already struggling in and which has become acutely difficult since his Apology. Again, I would imagine that he gets to stay a Professor at Oxford University - one of the most prestigious jobs in the world. And he would continue his research and writing. His webpage notes that he’s currently working on a book project, has released two papers on the ethics of (future) digital minds, and is working on detecting internal states of potential moral significance in large transformer models. That all sounds like fascinating and plausibly important work. He doesn’t need to be the administrative lead of a research center to do this work. Indeed, he would do better without the distractions of administrative work.

FHI and field would do better if he moved roles.

This post is anonymised to avoid interpersonal drama, not because I’m worried about any career blowback.

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I disagree. Or at least I think the reasons in this post are not very good reasons for Bostrom to step down (it is plausible to me he could pursue more impactful plans somewhere else, potentially by starting a new research institution with less institutional baggage and less interference by the University of Oxford).

Bostrom is as far as I can tell the primary reason why FHI is a successful and truth-oriented research organization. Making a trustworthy research institution is exceptionally difficult, and its success is not primarily measured in the operational quality of its organization, but in the degree to which it produces important, trustworthy and insightful research. Bostrom has succeeded at this, and the group of people (especially the early FHI cast including Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, Andrew Snyder Beattie, Owain Evans, and Stuart Armstrong) he has assembled under the core FHI research team have made great contributions to many really important questions that I care about, and I cannot think of any other individual who would have been able to do the same (Sean gives a similar perspective in his comment).

I think Bostrom overstretched himself when he let FHI grow to doze... (read more)

Given the problems that FHI has run into here, do you think it's likely to continue to do good work? My guess is that being able to hire is crucial to that work. Given that, we have to ask ourselves: how long should we wait for Nick to find a resolution to these problems before we conclude that he's unable to solve them? My guess is that two years into a hiring freeze is long enough.

I agree with you that we should update somewhat in the direction of cooperating with universities being difficult and costly. But we should also entertain the hypothesis that it's good to collaborate with universities, but it's not good to ask Nick to be the one who does it.

GPI is a pretty clear existence proof that while collaborating with universities is difficult and costly, it can be done.

I think you're probably right, but that "proof" is too strong? FHI's research agenda seems more "out there", and more potentially controversial, than GPI's, in a way that could plausibly make collaboration with the current department leadership impossible for FHI even with excellent leadership, or at least impossible without making self-defeating concessions. (To be clear, I don't think this is likely to be the case.)

Yeah I was definitely using the word "proof" colloquially and not literally. My understanding from inside info though is that FHI's issues with Oxford have very little to do with their choice of research agenda. I think this is also clear from outside info (FHI had a similar research agenda for a long time and had university support).

While this is a data point that shows that in principle it's currently possible to currently work with the University, GPI has quite a different strategy compared to FHI that aligns significantly more with traditional academia, so it doesn't necessarily prove that it would be currently possible for FHI. 

However, I think a stronger existence proof for it being possible to work with the University is that FHI managed to do that in some way reasonably for at least 10+ years. (They were established in 2005) - for comparison, GPI is only 5 years old. 

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Peter Wildeford
Thanks - that's a good point.
2
Linch
The more important metric to me will be if it is possible to do highly (preferably positively) impactful work while collaborating with universities, which I've seen positive evidence from individual professors/labs but not for larger groups. 

It seems that your comment is mainly about successes  by Bostrom in the (medium to more distant) past, while the post is about experience in the more recent past and expectations for the future. I would say that the expectations for the future are what is relevant to evaluate whether it's a good thing or not for Bostrom to step down as Director (?)

Just mentioning some examples:

Bostrom has succeeded at this, and the group of people (especially the early FHI cast including Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, Andrew Snyder Beattie, Owain Evans, and Stuart Armstrong) he has assembled under the core FHI research team have made great contributions to many really important questions that I care about, and I cannot think of any other individual who would have been able to do the same

All of the people mentioned joined a long time ago and all but Sandberg have left FHI. Is there anyone of a comparable quality that joined in the last 5 years?

For core FHI work, like "Eternity in Six Hours" (one of the papers that's been most influential on my world view) I see what seems to me genuine interest in figuring out the truth and to answer the big questions, instead of secretly trying to trick me int

... (read more)
5
Peter Wildeford
Great points. ~ Just two quick nitpicks: I think you mean "FHI" not "GPI". And I think Drexler is still at FHI in addition to Sandberg. But you're right that ASB, Owain, and Stuart Armstrong have left FHI.

Thanks for pointing out the FHI/GPI mistake, I've corrected that.

I also thought Drexler was still at FHI, but I checked and this doesn't seem to be the case: He's not mentioned  on the team page and his website at FHI has been taken down.

3
Aleks_K
As an affiliate, though, not as an employee. (And they seem to have lots of affiliates, so not clear what this actually means.)
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HaydnBelfield
He listed GovAI on this (very good!) post too: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/5hApNw5f7uG8RXxGS/the-open-agency-model Yeah dunno exactly what the nature of his relationship/link

I think asking Bostrom to step down because of controversies belies the value that FHI most provides for the world. 

Is there any controversy that you'd consider bad enough for you to support Bostrom stepping down from FHI? Because this sounds like no?
 

Totally! There are lots of controversies that I think would be quite bad. If Bostrom had stolen money, or falsified data, or shared a bunch of AI capability research ideas irresponsibly, or had committed sexual assault, or had badly mismanaged some conflict of interest, or had displayed some other deceptive attitude. 

I am not sure what you mean by "controversy bad enough". A lot of people seem angry at Bostrom, but that surely isn't a good measure of "how bad" something that someone did was.

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pseudonym
Thanks for clarifying! On "controversy bad enough", I asked that because your statement was "I think asking Bostrom to step down because of controversies belies the value that FHI most provides for the world", and I didn't know whether you were referring to these recent controversies specifically (the bad effects of the recent controversies isn't bad enough to override the good that Bostrom is expected to provide in the future over the counterfactual), or about controversies generally (asking Bostrom to step down because of controversies in general misses the value of what Bostrom brings; we should not do this). Yeah, I agree that in many cases it isn't a good measure, but I think saying it "surely isn't a good measure" probably goes too far. There probably are nonzero contexts where it is a good measure, even if this isn't one of them. For example, if someone's work and role was highly dependent  on or affected by popular opinion or buy-in, then something can be bad just because of a lot of people being angry at it.

Ah, yeah, sorry, that was indeed unclear of me. I think saying "because of recent controversies" would have been more accurate. I wasn't trying to make a statement about all types of controversies (people totally get angry and cause controversies for good reasons as well as bad reasons).

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Ivy Mazzola
I think that he generally means something that can be described as a controversy but not much else in addition to that. A "simple" controversy you might say. For example, I assume that controversies which are also crimes, and controversies which are also signs of poor mental health which could impact the job, would not be included here. Just my guess
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pseudonym
Sounds like a reasonable assumption, but I just thought it'd would be worth clarifying because Habryka is someone who cares a lot about the actual literal meaning of words, so I should err on the side of taking what he says literally.

But the Apology […] reused the original racial slur[…]

Where? You mean in the 26-year-old email that he quoted in the apology? If so, the above claim seems unfair and deceptive.

The point is that he reused the term, and didn't redact it by e.g. saying "n------!!!!” or "the n-word".

That's a very unusual use of the word "reused" that would predictably mislead readers of the OP who have not read Bostrom's apology. Bostrom quoted the entire 26-year-old email as is (excluding the first and last lines with the name of the person he was replying to and his own name and email address).

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temporalis
That's mentioning the term, not using it.

I agree that this is an unfair claim but the post wouldn't lose much force without it

In my experience, there's a pattern, in social attacks like this, where critics are persistently, consistently unwilling to restrain themselves to only making criticisms that are true, regardless of whether the true criticisms would have been enough. This is a big deal and should not be tolerated.

Are you claiming that there are other deceptive statements in this post?

I didn't make that claim in the grandparent comment, and I don't know of any specific other deceptive statements in it. But, on consideration... yeah, there probably are. Most of the post is about internal details of FHI operations which I know little about and have no easy way to verify. The claim about the Apology is different in that it's easy to check; it seems reasonable to expect that if the most-verifiable part contains an overreach, then the less-verifiable parts probably do too.

(context: worked at FHI for 2 years, no longer affiliated with it but still in touch with some people who are)

I'd probably frame/emphasize things a bit differently myself but agree with the general thrust of this, and think it'd be both overdue and in everyone's interest.

The obvious lack of vetting of the apology was pretty disqualifying w.r.t. judgment for someone in such a prominent institutional and community position, even before getting to the content (on which I've commented  elsewhere). 

I'd add, re: pre-existing issues, that FHI as an institution has failed at doing super basic things like at least semi-regularly updating key components of their website*; the org's shortcomings re: diversity have been obvious from the beginning and the apology was the last nail in the coffin re: chances for improving on that front as long as he's in charge; and I don't think I know anyone who thinks he adds net positive value as a manager** (vs. as a researcher,  where I agree he has made important contributions, but that could continue without him wasting a critical leadership position, and as a founder, where his work is done). 

*e.g. the news banner thing displays 6 yea... (read more)

Meta-note re: my commenting non-anonymously: 

To be clear, I 'd say the same thing to Nick if asked, and mean what I said re: "in everyone's interest" - I assume he wants FHI to succeed. I suspect/hope Nick would wants friends/colleagues "to disagree with [him] both publicly and privately; ... who will admonish [him], gently but firmly, with whatever grain of truth there is in any accusations against me." (from this article  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/21/opinion/cancel-culture-friendship.html  - while I don't like the term cancel culture and, like OP here, don't think it's an apt description of this situation, some of the points are relevant here).

Also, I felt very conflicted about posting this, both because I've benefited in the past from both Nick's work and him hiring me, and because posting here stress me a lot (I expect lots of downvotes in absolute terms, though unsure how things will net out). This all stresses me out a lot. But I went ahead because I want FHI to be able to move on and thrive.

Edit: note I tweaked this comment a fair bit after reflecting on it some more, especially the last part, and I also wanted to signal-boost one of the comments in the ... (read more)

4
JWS 🔸
So I don't have any extra knowledge to add to FHI, but I think this quote hits on something key: There are a few cases like this where excellent EA researchers end up as org leaders, but this is not the thing that they're best at. From other people's reports in this thread Bostrom seems to be a textbook example here. I'd also say MacAskill and Backstead come to my mind here given that they are board members of EVF, but their background/experience/expertise is mostly in academic philosophy as far as my outside view can tell.[1]  I can see the argument that you'd want someone with this background who has deep knowledge of the movement's philosophical tradition and arguments to be on a board, but I'd be surprised if the very best people in EA at research/idea generation would also be the very best we have at organisational strategy, community leadership, and people management - which are the qualities I'd want to be at the heads of EA organisations. The suggestion by Sean about a co-directorship might be a good one for many EA orgs perhaps? I sense that we're probably very over-indexed in excellent reseachers and under-indexed in organisational experts, so this might be a way of not letting the former crowd out the latter for these leadership roles. Final quick points for clarification: 1. I've never run or been part of leading a significant organisation myself, so these thoughts can definitely be wrong! And I'd appreciate explanations as to why 2. My apriori view that Will and Nick might not be the best org leaders in EA doesn't mean I don't like them as people, or I don't like their work 3. I'm open to the point of view that these EA thought leaders end up leading orgs because there are few others putting themselves forward. I assume those running EA orgs have the evidence for this one way or the other, and if true it'd be a good thing to look at rectifying. 1. ^ I'm sure this pattern holds for other orgs as well, EVF is just what came to mind

Edit: I want to make it clear that I am talking about “genetic” differences not “environmental” differences in this comment. Thanks to titotal for pointing out I wasn’t clear enough. The survey of experts finds that far more experts believe both genetic factors and environmental factors play a role than just environmental factors. I spend the rest of my comment arguing that even if genetic factors play a role, genetic factors are so heavily influenced by environmental factors that we shouldn’t view them as evidence of innate differences in intelligence between races. 


I find the repeated use of the term "discredited" to refer to studies on race and IQ on the forum deeply troubling. Yes, some studies will have flaws, but that means you have conversations about the significance of these flaws and respect that reasonable people can disagree about how best to measure complicated issues. It doesn't mean  you dismiss everyone who agrees with the standard perspectives of experts in an academic field as racist. My favorite thing about this community is the epistemic humility.  We are supposed to be the people who judge studies on their merits, no matter how uncomfortable they... (read more)

I don't really like discussing race and IQ stuff (and if you don't like it either, I think it's completely fine to stay away). Unfortunately, I have to step in and point out that this comment is inaccurate/misleading when it comes to the science and the descriptions of peoples beliefs. 

Lead poisoning, the flynn effect, and malaria are all environmental factors, not genetic ones. nobody who has read up on the issue denies that average IQ test scores are different for different races, the argument is about how much of the difference is attributable to environmental factors.  (I'm pretty sure that Bostrom did claim an opinion about whether "environmental factors influence cognitive development", because the answer is an uncontroversial yes. 

If the differences were near-entirely genetic in nature, then eliminating unequal access to resources, lead poisoning, different cultures, etc,  wouldn't have any effect on IQ differences, because it wouldn't affect genes. Holding this position requires thinking that there aren't any significant differences in environment between the races that could affect IQ significantly. I think this view is fairly extreme and unlikely, and ... (read more)

I realize I wasn’t clear enough that I was talking about genetic stuff the whole time in my comment. Sorry about that! I will edit my comment for clarity.

The first study I referenced was specifically referring to whether IQ differences between races have a genetic element. It found that far more experts in the field believe it has both a genetic element and a environmental element than just an environmental element.

I believe that environmental factors influence genetics enough that you don’t need to interpret genetic differences as innate racial differences. I explained my reasons for that the end of my middle paragraph , but spent so much time talking about the environmental factors that I believe contribute to genetic factors that your impression may have been reasonable.

The very racist people you've described will certainly try take these studies the wrong way, but they are very rare in the upper class western places EAs typically inhabit. I’ve found that a bigger risk in our communities is relatively left wing people trying to pursue professional retaliation against centrist people for believing things that make them uncomfortable, no matter how common the belief is among experts in the field or how much we oppose the extremists they associate us with.

9
DPiepgrass
Bostrom did not say it was unknown how much the gap is genetic vs environmental. He said he didn't know. This apparently made some people mad, but I think what made people more mad was that they read things into the apology that Bostrom didn't say, then got mad about it. (That's why most people criticizing the apology avoid quoting the apology.) There is a Wikipedia page that says I've also glanced at a couple of scientific papers that seem to imply otherwise (this one and this one). These papers basically say that most experts think the role of genetics is greater than zero. I don't care to investigate with a ten-foot pole why Wikipedia is in tension with these papers, and I don't blame Bostrom for feeling the same way. I think this issue is a lot like the lab-leak hypothesis of Covid: it doesn't really matter whether Covid escaped from a lab, because gain-of-function research is dangerous either way, so our policy will be the same either way (oppose GoF research). In the same way, it doesn't seem very useful to study racial IQ differences; our policy decision should be the same regardless (reduce poverty in Africa—poverty is bad; prosperity and education both increase IQ).  And I have no doubt Bostrom would agree.
3
dumont
I expected this to link to the study, but it doesn't?
7
titotal
That's a fair point. The meta-analysis study is here. It find difference in d of 1.17 between IQ scores of  adopted and non-adopted children. d means standard deviations, corresponding to 15 IQ points, giving a total of 18 IQ point change in the traditional sense. It was linked in the original article, the one i linked is a follow-up which I thought was pretty good. 

I think we should link to a discussion of this elsewhere, and not revisit it here, because it seems like a really big topic that could easily take over the entire comment thread and in my view doesn't change the conclusion of the post much (since I think the case for Nick stepping down was already good enough before the apology).

I think it's pretty outrageous to suggest that the OP is allowed to make this argument in the post, by calling it 'discredited' and a 'disqualifying views', but commenters are not allowed to object. If you want to criticize someone for bringing an irrelevant issue into it, you should direct your ire at the OP.

2
Ben Millwood
Commenters are fine to object, but to the extent they rely on the question of whether the science is actually discredited or not, I think they should link to an existing discussion of it rather than duplicating it here. The duplication just damages all of: * the discussion of the issue here, to the extent it misses things that previous discussions have covered, * the discussions that we'd otherwise have linked to, to the extent that people spend effort improving this one rather than that one, * any other discussion here, which becomes more difficult to navigate for being mixed in with it. I'm not trying to prevent discussion, I'm just trying to move and consolidate it. (But in practice it hasn't been as dominating here as I'd feared, so I'm not going to bang too hard on this drum.)
2
SoniaAlbrecht
I would also prefer a world that adds to  the previous discussion instead of reinventing the wheel here, but in practice I don't think people would pay as much attention if we merely linked to that thread. To me the  case for how much the fallout from the apology matters rests on how justified the fallout is, so I believe the merits of the case against the apology deserve the space they are getting in this thread. Thanks for clarifying more what you meant. 
3
SoniaAlbrecht
As I mentioned earlier, I don't have an opinion on whether Bostrom should step down or not, only that the apology is not a good reason to step down. If you are right that the reasons outside the apology are good enough, I would support that. However, at this point I would also need a statement from an EA organization that he would not be stepping down because of the apology. 
1
SoniaAlbrecht
Ben I don’t want to discuss this any more than you do. I’d prefer to never have to discuss it like they apparently get to do on LessWrong. However, people who think this research is discredited keep bringing it up, which repeatedly damages the epistemics of the community. Edit: I feel that my writing was very poor quality here, and apologize for that. Thanks to others for pointing out how different writing needs to be on the forum from other writing. This phrasing I used later in the discussion is a better worded version of what I was trying to say in the next paragraph: The case for how much the fallout from the apology should influence our decisions rests on the case for how justified the fallout is. If it is not justified, many of us feel that we should find another solution instead of compromising our integrity by giving into political pressure. If the fallout is not justified, many of us believe that most of the content of this post is not very important. Original Paragraph: The author chose to devote a large majority of his post to this topic. As others have pointed out, he overstated his case for how Bostrom’s apology negatively influences his ability cooperate with EA. I believe this could be an example of how the weakening of empistemics because people are starting to work so hard to ignore research that makes them uncomfortable could spread to other topics. The inaccuracy of the author's statement also makes the preserving epistemic integrity case for standing up for Bostrom (possibly via Habryka's suggestion for example) much stronger. Therefore this is highly relevant to the post.

Rereading it, I feel like almost none of the discussion of the apology in the OP is contingent on whether the research is discredited or not. If you persuade the OP or other people on the forum that the research is not discredited, it will not solve the problems Nick faces as director.

I believe the value EA contributes relative to other social justice movements is our ability to judge research on its merits no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. I've never seen anything like it in the others I've been a part of. This is how we discovered that donating abroad is better at preventing death than donating locally, that AI and biosecurity were bigger risks before our views became mainstream, and a host of other topics.  I believe losing this value would be worse than losing a relationship with Oxford University or losing funding from one donor. As the response on the forum and the author of the CEA statement's correction of their statement shows, the case for it damaging our ability to find new collaborators and funders is weak. The essential role epistemic integrity plays in our movement is the biggest reason that to me and many others the merits of the case for/against the apology email raised in this post are more important that some logistical problems it created.

4
pseudonym
I feel like you and Ben are talking past each other; you claim that, like Ben, you don't want to discuss this. Yet you don't respond to Bill's comment about how the problems Nick faces are not contingent on whether the research is discredited. Your point about the value EA contributes is also irrelevant, unless you're making a claim here that Bostrom is providing this value and that this value is stronger than the value of his counterfactual replacement.
2
SoniaAlbrecht
Yes I agree we are talking past each other, and tried to clarify that in a comment that seems to have gotten overlooked because it wasn't upvoted. I am not arguing with people like Ben who believe he should go regardless of the apology and the logistical challenges it may have caused. Bostrom may deserve to go for all I know. As I mentioned in my original comment, I have no opinion about it overall. I am only arguing that the apology and fallout from it are not a good reason to think he should go. I am not trying to distract from the non-apology discourse. I intended my original comment to be a small addition to much more important points others are making.  Many people (such as the author) feel the apology and fallout are a good reason or even the best reason for him to go , so my point is worth making. The author himself said he believed the views expressed in the apology such as the one I am addressing are "disqualifying views for someone in his position as Director." (regardless of the fallout) . Even if someone were just as suited as Bostrom, the act of dismissing him based on the fallout from the apology would be a violation of our epistemic standards. Therefore he is better than a hypothetical identical counterfactual on this issue. If Bostrom stepped down for unrelated reasons, I am arguing that people should expect a statement from officials in the community that it wasn't because of pressure due to the apology.  I'm not sure who Bill is, but my entire intention with the comment you are responding to was to address the argument you mention him making. I believe the case that the fallout  should influence our decisions rests on the case that the fallout is justified. If it is not, we should find another solution instead of compromising our integrity.

The survey of experts finds that far more experts believe both genetic factors and environmental factors play a role than just environmental factors.

Are you referring to Rindermann et al. 2016? The core table is this,

It is concerning to see 'discredited' used so easily  when it is far from clear that it is an accurate label. This is not my specialty so I'm not qualified to have an opinion, but it seems more like rejecting some hypotheses a priori, without consideration. I'd like to see further discussion which qualifies such claims. 

This post lines up with my outsider perspective on FHI, and it seems to be quite measured. I encourage anyone who thinks that Bostrom is really the best leader for FHI to defend that view here (anonymously, if necessary).

I'm not taking a position on the question of whether Nick should stay on as Director, and as noted in the post I'm on record as having been unhappy with his apology (which remains my position)*,  but for balance and completeness I'd like to provide a perspective on the importance of Nick's leadership, at least in the past.

I worked closely with Nick at FHI from 2011 to 2015. While I've not been at FHI much in recent years (due to busyness elsewhere) I remember the FHI of that time being a truly unique-in-academia place; devoted to letting and helping brilliant people think about important challenges in unusual ways. That was in very large part down to Nick - he is visionary, and remarkably stubborn and difficult - with the benefits and drawbacks this comes with. It is difficult to understate the degree of pressure in academia to pull you away from doing something unique and visionary and to instead do more generic things, put time into impressing committees, keeping everyone happy etc**. - It's that stubbornness (combined with the vision) in my view that allowed FHI to come into being and thrive (at least for a time). It is (in my view) the same stubbornness and difficultness t... (read more)

7
ThomasW
Thanks for sharing your perspective, it's useful to hear!

Judging by Bostrom's body of work so far, if him stepping down from being the sole director of FHI is very high EV, it's probably because it will free more of his time for thinking and writing (rather than due to someone else making FHI have higher EV.) So the more relevant question here, I think, is whether being the sole director of FHI is really the best use of Bostrom's time. It could may be, especially if it will cause him to have more influence in the future. Though when considering that question, he should be mindful about the strong bias humans have towards decisions that cause the decision maker to have higher status (like a decision to be the leader of a prestigious organization).

(Whatever the answer to that question is, it's probably also the right answer in a world where the 26-year-old-email trainwreck did not occur.)

If Bostrom did step down as FHI director, who is likely to replace him? How confident are you that  a new director will succeed in resolving conflicts with the broader philosophy department?

I have very little direct experience with FHI (just a very brief internship) but from the outside it looks like FHI has produced some really amazing research while Bostrom has directed it.

Perhaps a good way to appraise whether FHI has been performing above/below par during Bostrom's directorship is to compare its output to a similar organisation such as Global Priorities Institute. How would you compare the value of work done by FHI versus GPI? I don't know enough to be confident in this, but to me it seems like FHI has generated far more value (not that Bostrom is the only person to thank for this, but it seems like an important piece of evidence).

In any case - the views and oppinions of random users of this forum like me who aren't directly involved with FHI don't mean much, and I don't really see the benefits of raising this question in public on the EA forum.

Mervin makes a great point that it is hard to compare GPI to FHI in general. But I also think comparing past FHI and past GPI is not the right way of thinking about it - instead we want to compare current/expected future FHI to current/expected future GPI. And the fact of the matter is quite clear that current/expected future GPI still can actually hire people, engage in productive research work, and maintain a relationship with the university whereas current/expected future FHI I think can best be described as "basically dead".

0
Xavier_ORourke
From where I sit -It's really hard to guess at all the details and relevant context of what's going on (which is why I feel a bit stupid commenting on it... but I guess I can't resist lol). Is FHI the only org being subject to a hiring freeze? Or is the university/philosophy department cutting costs in many places? Are conflicts with the philosophy department basically FHI's fault? Or is the bureaucracy dysfunctional/unfriendly to FHI in ways which made it impossible to keep them happy without making other costly tradeoffs? If Nick steps down as director, is there somebody else waiting in the wings who is likely to do a better job and successfully resolve the issue? The only thing I know for sure looking in from the outside is that FHI has been doing really really great work 🤷

Are conflicts with the philosophy department basically FHI's fault?

I think this is a relevant question, but I don't think it's the whole question (not that you were claiming it was). As an outsider who has heard some stories and has some guesses, I would conjecture that the University is (at least sometimes) unreasonable and bureaucratic, but nevertheless, if you want to be a director of a university-affiliated research group, "managing the relationship with the university, even when they are being unreasonable" is absolutely a core competency of the job, and it's not one that Nick has had much luck with.

My understanding is that this is indeed unique to FHI, unfortunately. This is maybe why FHI and GPI make for a compelling comparison - both are EA-affiliated, both are in the University of Oxford. While working with a University is never easy, GPI seems totally fine and indeed does continue to hire, run events, etc. FHI does not.

I don't know about the alternatives to Bostrom or how likely they would be to change the situation. Nathan makes a good point that perhaps prediction markets could play a role here. I generally think that, given I run an EA research org that could be construed as competing with FHI for funding/talent/influence/etc. I shouldn't really engage in explicitly calling for Bostrom to step down or help analyze the alternatives. But hopefully I can more generally help people think through the situation more clearly as a whole. I mainly wrote what I wrote because the comment made me angry enough that I felt like I had to.

Relevant context is that FHI had a hiring freeze and was dying before the apology. And yes, it's only FHI. There was some kind of cutting corners to avoid bureaucracy and the department got mad. It's possible that with another leader FHI would be able to be rehabilitated in the department. Nobody can say for sure, but their best bet would be to go with someone willing to play by the book, and it would be odd for the department to have a grudge against new leadership.

FHI and GPI have different aims. I think the better comparison would be FHI today vs. what FHI could be. Or FHI today vs. FHI before things went to pot.

All the people I know who have recently worked at/work at FHI want him to step down, they just are uncomfortable saying so directly. I agree that this is not a good place to raise the issue, but I'm not sure where is, given that. I hope this thread emboldens others to have a frank conversation, and it's possibly helpful to have information out there. I would really like FHI to survive, and it sounds like it could if he stepped down.

I worked at FHI as a research scholar from 2018-2020. At that time I didn't hear anyone saying that Bostrom should step down (and I definitely didn't think he should). 

To be clear, it has been obvious to everyone that FHI has had severe operations/logistical issues. However, it's much less clear if or how FHI would function without Nick Bostrom. 

I'm pretty nervous about rumors in situations like this.

If I were in charge of making any decision here, I'd send out surveys and have a bunch of conversations. 

I think it's beneficial for the community if someone presented a very different view (publicly):

While I don't know enough to comment on the 'pre-existing issues' section of your post, my view is that Bostrom's apology was sufficient.

I think a lot of people might be reacting excessively to mistakes that he made more than two decades ago.

Some words may be considered particularly inappropriate in certain socioeconomic and cultural contexts. However, it's important to recognize that others may be acting and speaking from a different background with different norms and values that one isn't familiar with. Bostrom isn't from the Anglosphere, probably isn't very neurotypical, and grew up as part of another generation.

Furthermore, I'm concerned about contemporary authoritarian trends encouraged by some individuals who identify as social justice activists. While these trends may make the immediate environments of some individuals more pleasant, they can also have consequences (political or otherwise) that could place the world on a riskier trajectory. I think EAs need to reflect on these risks and avoid contributing to them.

3 notes on the discussion in the comments.

1. OP is clearly talking about the last 4 or so years, not FHI in eg 2010 to 2014. So quality of FHI or Bostrom as a manager in that period is not super relevant to the discussion. The skills needed to run a small, new, scrappy, blue-sky-thinking, obscure group are different from a large, prominent, policy-influencing organisation in the media spotlight.

2. The OP is not relitigating the debate over the Apology (which I, like Miles, have discussed elsewhere) but instead is pointing out the practical difficulties of Bostrom staying. Commenters may have different views from the University, some FHI staff, FHI funders and FHI collaborators - that doesn't mean FHI wouldn't struggle to engage these key stakeholders.

3. In the last few weeks the heads of Open Phil and CEA have stepped aside. Before that, the leadership of CSER and 80,000 Hours has changed. There are lots of other examples in EA and beyond. Leadership change is normal and good. While there aren't a huge number of senior staff left at FHI, presumably either Ord or Sandberg could step up (and do fine given administrative help and willingness to delegate) - or someone from outside like Greaves plausibly could be Director.

1 and 2 are very good points, thanks.

re 3: It's also not out of the question that they could just aim to have an open (or private) hiring round for a new Director, perhaps with Ord or Sandberg as Interim/Acting Director in the meantime.

9
SoniaAlbrecht
The OP's post includes the statement "But the Apology had a glib tone, reused the original racial slur, seemed to indicate he was still open to discredited ‘race science’ hypotheses, and had an irrelevant digression on eugenics. I personally think these are disqualifying views for someone in his position as Director. " The other points he raised are more important, but he stated he believes that the apology is grounds for dismissal in and of itself regardless of the rest of the points he makes. 
4
SoniaAlbrecht
The other sense in which the OP is relitigating the apology is that for many of us (likely including the OP), the case for how much the fallout from the apology should influence our decisions rests on the case for how justified the fallout is. If it is not justified, many of us feel  that we should find another solution instead of compromising our integrity by giving into political pressure. If the fallout is not justified, many of us believe that most of the content of this post is not very important.

This post argues that:

  • Bostrom's micromanagement has led to FHI having staff retention problems.
  • Under his leadership, there have been considerable tensions with Oxford University and a hiring freeze.
  • In his racist apology, Bostrom failed to display tact, wisdom and awareness.
  • Furthermore, this apology has created a breach between FHI and its closest collaborators and funders.
  • Both the mismanagement of staff and the tactless apology caused researchers to renounce

While I'd love for FHI staff to comment and add more context, all of this matches my impressions. 

Given this, I stand with the message of the post. Bostrom has been a better researcher than administrator, and it would make sense for him to focus on what he does best. I'd recommend Bostrom and FHI consider having Bostrom step down as director.

Edit: Sean adds a valuable perspective that I highly recommend reading, highlighting Bostrom's contributions to creating a unique research environment. He suggests co-directorship as an alternative to consider to Bostrom stepping down.

  1. FHI is dying under Nick Bostrom. It doesn't matter if you think he's done good work as director before. The dispute with the faculty means that either he goes or FHI goes, for all intents and purposes. FHI is down to a handful of people and the university makes it hard for them to hire or renew contracts, de facto sunsetting the organization.

  2. That said, this post is sadly perhaps counterproductive, because according to several people Nick might otherwise consider stepping down but in the wake of the apology this has become less likely.

It frustrates me that a lot of the comments appear to be based on "vibes". This is not a referendum on the apology nor about whether you generally like the work FHI has produced.

No matter whether he was the only person who could have led FHI so well before, at this point he should step down before FHI goes completely defunct. I don't think it would make him look bad to step down. I think it looks bad for him to stay at the expense of FHI. There is not another place like FHI in the world, and it would be really bad for it to shut down, or even for it to hobble along as a shell of its former self.

I agreed with you a few months ago; it does seem like FHI has suffered significant mismanagement, though as Sean suggests maybe a strong co-director would work also.

However, after recent events I think the case for him staying on is actually stronger, because it is important to set a precedent that we support people genuinely thinking for themselves and do not give in to bullying. I don't see how we can hope to build an inclusive community of original thinkers if everyone has a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, knowing they might be denounced and fired if that became politically expedient. For more details on this I recommend Cinera's excellent post.

I also think you have significantly overstated your case in various places. For example, while CEA did condemn him, their statement was widely criticized and they ended up issuing a partial apology for it. You mention funding, but don't provide any evidence this will prevent FHI from fundraising; any funder that wants to promote a diverse and inclusive group of intellectuals producing novel work will have to accept that they will sometimes strongly disagree with grantees. Similarly, freedom of speech is a major concern for the ... (read more)

I hesitate to weigh in here but I really don't think this is a good way of thinking about it.

I'm certainly not trying to "bully" Bostrom and I don't view the author of this post as trying to "bully" Bostrom either. If Bostrom were to step down as Director, I don't see that as somehow a "win" for "bullying", whatever that means.

I do agree that being able to come up with important and useful ideas requires feelings of safety and for this reason and others I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt when they express themselves. Moreover, I understand that in a social movement made up of thousands of people, you are not going to be able to find common agreement on every issue and in order to make progress we need to find some way to deal with that. So I am pretty sympathetic to the view that Bostrom deserves some form of generalized protection even if he's said colossally stupid things.

But - to be clear - no one I know is trying to get Bostrom fired or expelled or cancelled or jailed or anything. He still could have a very cushy, high status, independent non-cancelled life as a "FHI senior researcher", even if he weren't Director. The question is - should he be Director?

My u... (read more)

4
Nathan Young
Do you think there is a way we could score FHI in a way that would be comparable in the worlds with and without Bostrom? If so, this really does seem like a place for prediction markets.

If you previously thought he should step down, and then we received no positive news about his suitability for the role, I think it's indefensible to keep him on just to prove a point. It's an important job! We really need to ensure that the person in the role is capable of it! To say that you think that Bostrom is not fit for it and yet should stay in it IMO shows a lack of respect for the actual research work that FHI does.

3
temporalis
No, saying that we should do X rather than Y does not mean you disrespect Y. It could just be you respect X even more, or disagree "respect" is the right framing, or think that X is required for Y. In any case I think Cinera's argument that Bostrom's behavior was actually a positive update is somewhat credible.

I repeat here my previous post supporting Bostrom, and his apology:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/r3f45au7ewEkypygf/wokism-rethinking-priorities-and-the-bostrom-case

He is a simply one of the best philosophers of our time, and the main founder or longtermism. The comment in the original mail list was a modest misstep by a person without special responsibilities at the time, and his apology in 2023 has been entirely appropriate.

The racial IQ gap is an observational fact, and he is not an expert on its determinants, so he shall not take a position on a scientific issue that lays beyond his academic authority.

Does being the best philosopher of our time and the main founder or longtermism mean that he is the best person to run FHI as a Director? I don't really see the relevance.

-3
Arturo Macias
Given how the Oxford group has become the most relevant internationally in the academic research of X-risk is hard to argue against his tenure. Beyond that, my main claim is about the mail incident. I claim: i) the original mail was a minor misstep by a young person without special responsibilities and, ii) not taking a position on the issue of the racial IQ gap is not only acceptable but morally mandatory.

Given how the Oxford group has become the most relevant internationally in the academic research of X-risk is hard to argue against his tenure.

Disagree. The relevance here is what FHI will accomplish in the future, not what it has accomplished in the past. And it seems clear that it is not hard to argue against his tenure as people are clearly doing just that.

Beyond that, my main claim is about the mail incident.

Disagree with you as well, but I am going to stand by my desire to not relitigate the apology here and instead defer that conversation to other threads.

Peter Wildeford wrote a personal post criticizing the Apology

I want to flat that this link goes to a post written by Shakeel Hashim in his role managing communications for CEA, not a personal post by Peter Wildeford. Could you please either update this link or change the wording?

The endless nothingburger scandals in EA are driving me out of my mind. Please just do effective interventions instead of community debating.

I'm this close to never using the term "EA" to refer to myself again despite the fact that I'm going to be shooting for the goal "Do the most good per resource unit" because of this.

In the very useful and interesting comments before this one, there is much discussion of administrative issues and other specific matters which relate to the success or otherwise of the FHI. I offer no view on any of that. Instead, I wish to say that Bostrom, and by extension the FHI, has been far more seriously damaged by both his 1996 comments and his 2023 apology than some of the comments here disagreeing with the view of the OP recognise. As an adult and a scholar well into his 20s, Bostrum "liked" and thought true the sentence; "blacks are more stupid... (read more)

This post is anonymised to avoid interpersonal drama, not because I’m worried about any career blowback.

 

Can you clarify what you mean by "interpersonal drama" here? 

3
Elizabeth
I don't want to yell at someone for something they didn't mean, but this question hasn't been answered and I can't come up with an explanation for "avoiding personal drama" that feels noble.  I guess it's good OP was truthful that it was drama aka people reacting to their opinions, rather than unfair retribution. 
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