The “TESCREAL Conspiracy Theory” Conspiracy Theory

Dr. Émile P. Torres
7 min readOct 14, 2023

Last June, sociologist James Hughes and a PhD candidate named Eli Sennesh published an article claiming that the TESCREAL concept is a “conspiracy theory.” They write:

These new left conspiracists cast all futurist philosophies together under the acronym of TESCREAL, linked in their minds to eugenics and racism. Again, there is a web of facts underlying their fantasies, just as [Jeffrey] Epstein was confirmatory for QAnon. But the conspiracy style of argumentation is bad intellectual history and bad politics.

But let’s take a closer look at this. First, where did the TESCREAL concept come from? It was introduced by Dr. Timnit Gebru and I while writing a paper about the influence of certain ideologies within Silicon Valley — ideologies that are driving and shaping the race to build artificial general intelligence, or AGI. We kept ending up with sentences like this:

Nick Bostrom, a transhumanist who participated in the Extropian movement, anticipates with excitement and anxiety the technological Singularity, is hugely influential within the Rationalist community, founded an organization (the Future of Humanity Institute, or FHI) that shares office space with the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), and cofounded the longtermist ideology, which overlaps in crucial respects with the modern cosmism of Ben Goertzel, with whom Bostrom has shared the stage at various conferences, such as the Singularity Summit, …

And:

Eliezer Yudkowsky, a transhumanist who participated in the Extropian movement, was a leading singularitarian, founded the Rationalist movement with his community blogging website LessWrong, started the Singularity Summit with Ray Kurzweil (the most famous singularitarian), at which the modern cosmist Goertzel was invited to give talks, and is also closely affiliated with the Effective Altruism movement and its longtermist offshoot, …

And those were just the prefatory remarks before getting to the point. The paper quickly became unmanageable. So, I proposed the acronym “TESCREAL” to economize our language and streamline the conversation. Gebru and I immediately recognized the conceptual — and linguistic — usefulness of this acronym, and so have many others, apparently, as the term has taken off, and now has its own Wikipedia page.

Which brings us back to Hughes and Sennesh, as their “rebuttal” piece is also mentioned on Wikipedia.

They accuse us of “sloppy” scholarship. But consider that their article was published on Medium (June 12, 2023) before either Gebru or I had published a single article on the TESCREAL concept.

What, then, were they basing their criticisms on? Imagine telling me that you’re going to write an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now imagine that I write a bold, aggressive refutation of the main thesis of your article, accusing you of peddling conspiracy theories, (a) before your article has been published, (b) without having read a pre-publication draft of your article, and (c) without even having even reached out to you to see if I’ve properly understood your thesis.

This is precisely what Hughes and Sennesh did. Talk about sloppy scholarship! Who does this? Why would anyone write an 8,000-word rebuttal — much less make outlandish accusations about conspiracy theories — of something they know nothing about, because they couldn’t know anything about it, because nothing had yet been published on it?

Long ago, I was an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Emerging Technologies for many years, which was run by Hughes, and my experience with him led me to believe that he is a thoughtful and nuanced scholar. This article of his, with Sennesh, seriously challenges that belief. Indeed, the fact that Hughes and Sennesh poke fun at the idea that Russian cosmism might be influential in Silicon Valley (with Hughes repeating this on a podcast) just foregrounds their complete ignorance of the TESCREAL framework.

Read our paper before criticizing it — that shouldn’t be too much to ask from a pair of sholars!

After Hughes and Sennesh published their article, I published a Truthdig article (June 15, 2023) that offers a broad, accessible overview of the TESCREAL concept. Read that article and see for yourself that there’s nothing conspiratorial about it, whatsoever.

The fact is that:

(1) these ideologies are enormously influential within Silicon Valley. Something isn’t a “conspiracy theory” if there’s overwhelming and unambiguous evidence for it. The claim that fossil fuel companies spread disinformation about climate change to deceive the public isn’t a conspiracy theory, because the evidence clearly supports it. (Naomi Klein has a good discussion of this in her book Doppelganger, which I’d recommend reading.) Similarly, the claim that many — including some of the most powerful — people in Silicon Valley are motivated by transhumanist, Effective Altruist, longtermist, and so on, considerations isn’t conspiratorial because it’s demonstrably true. Gebru and I offer copious evidence in our article — and yet the article hardly scratches the surface, which is why I’m considering writing an entire book on the TESCREAL bundle early next year.

(2) these ideologies are intimately linked with each other — historically, sociologically, and philosophically. Historically, they grew out of the same techno-futuristic, socio-cultural movements. Indeed, the “ESC” in “TESCREAL” can be understood as variants of transhumanism. Meanwhile, Rationalism was founded by a transhumanist Extropian singularitarian; modern cosmism was delineated by a transhumanist Extropian with singularitarian leanings; and so on and so on. Tracing the genealogy of these ideologies leads straight back to the first-wave eugenics movement of the 20th century, as transhumanism is the backbone of TESCREALism and (a) transhumanism was developed by prominent eugenicists like Julian Huxley, and (b) it’s literally a form of eugenics: so-called “liberal eugenics,” which is not controversial.

Sociologically, many people — though not all — who identify with one letter in the acronym also identify with other letters, and many of the very same individuals who were instrumental in the development of one of the TESCREAL ideologies also played an integral role in developing others. That’s just a verifiable fact.

Philosophically, these ideologies share all sorts of common denominators (e.g., fundamental values, beliefs, tendencies, and goals[1]), and the worldview that emerges from this bundle is built around a very particular techno-utopian vision of our posthuman future among the stars.

Together these historical, sociological, and philosophical considerations yield a clear and compelling case for thinking of the bundle as a bundle. Nothing about this is conspiratorial. So, the article by Hughes and Sennesh simply misses the mark — it attacks a mirage, a figment of their imaginations, which is unsurprising given that they literally hadn’t read a single article by Gebru or I about the topic before writing their critique.

The absurdity of their criticisms is, rather humorously, underlined by a tweet from an academic named Anders Sandberg, who said the following:

A fun leftist take by [Sennesh] and [Hughes] on why TESCREAL is a conspiracy theory missing actual critique. I might not agree with their critique of the various letters in the abbreviation, but it actually has substance one can discuss.

The tweet then linked to Hughes and Sennesh’s article.

What’s funny about this is that Sandberg is a prominent transhumanist who also participated in the Extropian movement; he anticipates the technological Singularity and has been a speaker at Yudkowsky and Kurzweil’s Singularity Summit, alongside Goertzel; he’s been an active member of the LessWrong/Rationalist community since the website was first created; he’s hugely influential among Rationalists and Effective Altruists, and works for Bostrom’s FHI, which (once again) shares office space with CEA; and his forthcoming book on “Big Futures” is closely aligned with the normative futurologies of cosmism and longtermism (I know because Sandberg sent me a copy of this book several years ago).

So, Sandberg is at the very heart of the TESCREAL movement — and here he is, suggesting that TESCREALism is a conspiracy theory![2]

Why, then, did Hughes and Sennesh publish an article about something they knew nothing about? My guess — and that’s all this is — is that Hughes, as a socialist transhumanist, took umbrage at the thought that Gebru and I are grouping all transhumanists within the TESCREAL category (#notalltranshumanists). But that is explicitly not what we’re doing. If Hughes or Sennesh had taken the time to read what we’ve written — they could have asked us for a pre-publication draft, which we’ve sent around to lots of people — they’d realize that our account of TESCREALism is quite nuanced, and makes plenty of space for transhumanists, Effective Altruists, and others to fall outside the perimeter of the TESCREAL sphere.[3]

The lesson here is, of course: don’t make strong claims about ideas that one knows nothing about. The Hughes and Sennesh article is a shining example of shoddy scholarship, as it completely fails to engage with the ideas it audaciously labels “conspiracy theories.” Indeed, if anything has the whiff of a conspiracy theory, it’s their own accusations, which they based on fragments of ideas that Gebru and I have tweeted out, in 280 characters, during the months leading up to their article. Hughes and Sennesh then pieced together these fragments, making unsubstantiated inferences, drawing conclusions based on little more than their impressions, and concluded that Gebru and I are making claims that, in fact, we aren’t. “No, that’s not at all what we’re saying!” is what rang through my head, over and over, again while reading their “critique.”

I’m more than happy to discuss the merits, and potential flaws, of the TESCREAL concept. But only with people who do their homework first.

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[1] I’m currently working on an academic paper that will explore this in detail.

[2] Note that he posted this tweet before having read a single article by Gebru or I about the TESCREAL concept. That strikes me as intellectually irresponsible.

[3] Also, what’s with the personal insult directed at me? They write: “Torres had evolved from addressing their work to the growing community of AI risk thinkers, with disappointing results, into a trenchant critic of that community.” Why say this? “Disappointing” to whom? Certainly not to me — I couldn’t have been more happy with the response to my scholarly work from TESCREALists when I was in the community! I shared office space with Sandberg at FHI for a few days after being invited to give a talk there; I spent months, by invitation, as a visiting scholar at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge; and I was even personally invited to hang out and chat about existential risks at Vox with Dylan Matthews and others. I’ve had coffee with Jason Matheny, met folks like Jaan Tallinn and Luke Nosek, and am listed as one of the top researchers on existential risks. Just, very odd!

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Dr. Émile P. Torres

I study all things human extinction: its nature and causes, its ethical implications, & the history of the idea. Philosopher, but MS in Neuroscience.