The question: Is racisim a natural instinct? has been closed, I feel incorrectly.

The question was closed as unfalsifiable, and no justification for why the moderator considered it unfalsifiable was given.

I think it is an important point that if a moderator claims a questions not falsifiable, they should have to show why they consider that to be the case. It is incorrect for the burden of proof to be shifted to the person not making the claim.

As noted by user Onthax, Richard Dawkins makes a similar claim in The Selfish Gene, referenced on the Wikipedia page on racism, which touches on racism as an instinct:

Dawkins writes that racial prejudice, while not evolutionarily adaptive, "could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance".

The wikipedia page on Instinct states that:

Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience, that is, in the absence of learning and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors"

It would seem possible then that the hostility of humans to other races with differing levels of environmental influence could be measured.

In addition to those observations, other ways to test the claim:

  • Surveys against representative samples asking questions about why they may be racist
  • Measuring and studying reactions to appropriate stimuli
  • Compare differences of self-proclaimed racists with a control group
  • Looking for any brain activity that may correspond with racism, in line with established practices for studying instinct.

A quick search on Google Scholar shows many peer reviewed studies dealing with and testing instinct. Some even touch on racism and instinct.

It is my opinion that the claim is clearly falsifiable

More importantly, we allow questions even if the answer is "We don't know". An answer explaining why we don't know would be just a welcome as an answer showing support for or against the claim.

Again, in my opinion, this is an example of a question being closed without a good basis, which only hurts the site. The user who posted the question was a new user who has had their question closed without, IMO, sufficient justification.

  • I've changed your tone to something much less argumentative. It's not optional to be nice here. FAQ
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 23, 2012 at 14:08
  • @Sklivvz I changed my tone to reflect your edits, although I put back in the points about the onus being on the moderator to show why a claim is unfalsifiable and the question being closed being harmful. Those are points I am making and they should not be considered hostile. Feb 23, 2012 at 23:04

5 Answers 5


While I do not concede the onus is on the reader (let alone a moderator) to show a question is unfalsifiable, I shall respond.

I can see no way in which "racism as an instinct" and "racism as a socially-conditioned response" can be distinguished experimentally. (I'll concede "racism as a conscious decision" can be.)

The "racism as an instinct" and "racism as a socially-conditioned response" models do not seem to make any different predictions. Your first three experiments suggested (i.e. surveys, reaction measurement and "comparing differences" [??]) would be therefore be useless.

The brain activity idea did have some merit, but made too many assumptions about the state-of-the-art in neurology to be taken too seriously. It assumes some "instinct" part of the brain that can be distinguished from a "socially-conditioned" part of the brain, and their respective usage can be measured experimentally. This takes the question beyond the scope of Skeptics.SE into areas of novel research.

Some instincts (such as the reaction of a newborn immersed in water) can be studied before social conditioning, but trying to measure, for example, the reaction of a newborn English child to being told a stranger was born in France is obviously absurd.

I remain open to testable predictions I haven't managed to think up myself. I have asked the OP for ideas, but have not yet received any.

Yes, Dr Dawkins said something "could be interpreted as" something else. That doesn't make it a falsifiable claim.

I am beginning to learn that when people reference a Google search, without quoting any of the findings, it is worth having a look, as it is likely irrelevant. I couldn't see anything relevant on the first page of the provided search to support testing for instincts in humans. Contrary, two of the articles, seemed to challenge the applicability of instinct in psychological models.

So, I obviously refute the statement that it is "clearly" falsifiable.

As I have explained in a comment, we do allow questions if the answer is "We don't yet know." We do not allow questions if the question is unanswerable, i.e. the answer is "We could never know."

Arguably, having a closed unanswerable question littering the place hurts the site. If it isn't fixed, it will eventually be deleted. It's being kept around in the hope it can be rescued; the OP has been invited to assist with this but has not yet responded. I believe having closed unanswerable questions isn't nearly as bad as having an open unanswerable question.

I also believe that spending our effort on arguing the toss in meta on every closed question hurts the site. If there is something to be learned - a way of improving the site for everyone - I am happy to spend the effort. When it becomes a protracted debate about the fate every ill-considered question, there is an opportunity cost: this is time we could better spend on asking and answering better questions on the main site. For this reason, I hope you will forgive me for not rushing to answer every one of the four "Why was this question closed?" meta-questions you have opened in the last 24 hours.

  • Can you explain why "trying to measure, for example, the reaction of a newborn English child to being told a stranger was born in France is obviously absurd."? Mar 2, 2012 at 15:58
  • @userunknown: The answer to your question seems so obvious to me, that I suspect that we are suffering a misunderstanding here; not sure where. My point is: racism is more than just a distrust/hatred of people with different appearance, but also of people with similar appearance but different nationalities - e.g. England versus France. Trying to detect such an emotion in a child so young that they hadn't learnt socially-conditioned expectations would require using a child so young that they hadn't learnt language. Explaining that someone was French to a child too young for language is futile.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Mar 2, 2012 at 16:32
  • Does the fact that humans are psychopaths or simply behave like one can be distinguished?
    – user4951
    Apr 2, 2012 at 15:33

I think this article answers the question - Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces.

preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences is not present in the first days of life, but is learned within the first 3 months of life. The findings imply that adults' perceptions of ethnic differences are learned and derived from differences in exposure to own- versus other-race faces during early development.


I don't know on what basis the question was opened. I'm glad that it was which means there is no need to discuss it further.

What I do think needs addressing is when a moderator makes a claim that a question is not falsifiable and uses that as their justification for closing, they should provide a justification for why they consider the question unfalsifiable.

It is not appropriate for a moderator to make a claim and then shift the burden of proof to the person who asked the question.

A scenario in which a user asks a question only to have it closed and then have to go to greater lengths to justify their question being open is harmful to the site. If the user is not informed of why their question is considered unfalsifiable, they have an unreasonably high threshold to show that it is.

A scenario in which a moderator states clearly why they consider a question to be unfalsifiable is much preferable. It gives the asker a clear reason and direction to start in when trying to show that their question is falsifiable.

Oddthinking's last comment on the racism as an instinct question stated:

Racism doesn't have a corresponding animal model where we can separate social-conditioning.

That should have been posted at the start. It is a clear reason for the closing and justification that allows for a reasonable response. It is a direct claim that the asker can disagree with and refute.

Without a clear reason given as to why the moderator considered a question the quetsion unfalsifiable, any argument made by the asker can be dismissed or considered insufficient. Which is unfair to the asker.

In short: When you make a claim you should be prepared to be able to back it up. This is doubly true for a moderator which set an example and even more so on Skeptics.SE, where we explicitly require people to provide support for their claims.

For the record, I agree bickering on meta about closed questions is not the greatest use of time. I agree time would be better spent on answering interesting questions on the main site. When questions are closed without it being clearly stated as to why, in spite of upvotes and reopen votes cast by the community, then such issues necessitate discussing. Since this discussion was potentially responsible for the question being reopened, then I don't think it was a waste of time.

  • I think what I perceive as "mod-bashing" is inappropriate. Discussing questions, instead, is always welcome.
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 24, 2012 at 23:25
  • 2
    @Sklivvz I'm not sure I get your point. What I wrote is a bit long-winded, but the point I am making is that it is not enough to close a question because a mod considered it unfalsifiable, without saying why it is unfalsifiable. I think it is an important point and it should certainly not be taken as a personal attack. My intent here is constructive criticism. Feb 25, 2012 at 2:23
  • I guess my position is based on two practicalities: 1) by posting a question, the OP is implicitly claiming that it follows the FAQ, and is hence answerable; isn't that where the burden of proof lies? (I do feel obliged to mention that Skeptics.SE often places the burden of proof in the wrong place!)
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Feb 26, 2012 at 3:56
  • 2) I am not sure what more there is to say after "it is unfalsifiable". To me that implies that "the model makes no testable predictions that differ from the null hypothesis". Clearly, it is easy to refute a claim of unfalsifiability - by presenting a prediction. But what would supporting evidence look like? (As much as I hate the expression, it is trying to "prove a negative".)
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Feb 26, 2012 at 4:01
  • @Oddthinking The FAQ does not actually mention anything about falsifiability, as far as I am aware. If an asker has their question closed for "not being falsifiable" then that isn't enough. It doesn't give them a direction or claim to disprove to allow the question to be fixed. I see it as somewhat akin to a cop telling you you're breaking a law, but not telling you which law so you don't have a fair chance to stop. (no moderator analogy intended, it's just what came to mind). Feb 26, 2012 at 18:10
  • 1
    You say you're not sure what else to say other than it is not falsifiable, yet you gave a good reason at the end of the comments mentioning an animal model. That's something that can be discussed/disproved and can lead to the question being improved. IMO, if you are unable to give a good reason for the question being unfalsifiable (aside from obvious cases such as dealing with non-empirical observations or the like) then you shouldn't close it on that basis and rather leave it to the community to decide. Feb 26, 2012 at 18:13
  • I will also note without a clear claim of why something is unfalsifiable it allows any prediction the asker provides to be dismissed as insufficient. I don't think that is acceptable. -- Would this be better as a separate meta question? Feb 26, 2012 at 18:22

A small correction, and a partial answer. You state that "we allow questions even if the answer is 'We don't know'". This is not exactly correct.

We allow questions whose answer is "We don't know yet", but we certainly do not allow questions whose answer is "We don't know, and we will never know."

While scientific research doesn't objectively have an answer for every possible claim (as our current 90% answer ratio shows), there are a lot of questions which are not scientifically answerable.

The question was judged to be the second kind and not the first.

  • I understand that. My issue is that the question was judged to be the second type without a good justification being given. If Oddthinking considers the claim unfalsifiable, he should state why. Feb 23, 2012 at 22:56

I agree that questions shouldn't be easily closed, just because somebody thinks it might be unfalsifiable or unprovable.

Of course, if you haven't thought about a question for years and aren't working in the field, you might easily oversee possibilities, which you haven't thought of.

Even if you have thought of it and work in that scope, you or someone else might surprisingly find a method to prove or disprove a claim.

In contrast, it might in most cases, where somebody claims a claim to be unprovable, be, that this claim itself is not provable.

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