After reading this question, I was astonished that no one really comment about the unscientific nature of the question, as well as the insidious door it opens.

How can we accept such a title ? Black, white ? To answer a question we need proper input, scientific and accurate. In which extend such a question can be answered ?

The term black put in the same basket such differents persons. Who is considered to be black ? What is the amount of black in your skin to determine you as being black ?

Left aside this point, what about the origins of people considered to be black ? There are so many origins. How could you put indifferently together such differents cultures as jamaican, bresilian, or ethiopian ? Is this scientifically acceptable ?

Another point. If we allow this kind of colour-oriented question, why shouldn't we accept questions like "Are black people more stupid than white people ?" ? Why should we be ok with positives racial stereotypes and not ok with negatives ones ?

I think we are at a crossroad here.

  • 2
    You don't see too many white guys lining up for the 100 m sprint final at the Olympics. You don't see too many black guys standing on the blocks for the 100 m freestyle final at the Olympics. It's been this way for a long time. Is it mere chance? Could be. I doubt it though.
    – user2466
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 9:25
  • 1
    @boehj See, thats exactly how racism originates. People define an subjective artificial differentiation criterion - athletic... and now the shit begins. Why we only have good white tennis/table tennis players? Its completely subjective and artificial differentiation of a biological class sharing million more common properties (genes) than these few artificial ones. Your doubt is more a prejudice (we all have based on partly ignorance) then legitimated skepticism. Many will have the same, its sound firstly reasonable. But its completely artificial...in the end 50:50 false positive answers Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 19:27
  • 4
    @Werner given the nature of debate surrounding epigenetics, showing that one characteristic can sometimes be linked to another more visible characteristic (such as muscle growth and skin pigment, for a hypothetical example) does fall within the realm of scientific observation. However, if at best other traits could be linked to the melanin levels which determine skin tone, all that would mean is that there is a statistical correlation present within a given subset of a population, it has no practical application to individuals within that subset. Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 23:38
  • 2
    Showing that certain populations statistically have some observable differences does not in any way advocate racism,it merely indicates diversity.Simply dismissing a claim as ignorant because it may be sometimes be used as a pejorative is not productive.Should we then disallow scientific discussion regarding the demonstrated correlation between skin color and sickle cell anemia?.When treated in an objective and scientific manner,I see no reason why these claims shouldn't be examined,or is it your fear that these questions will attract racist posts or somehow cause us to slip into eugenics? Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 23:55
  • 3
    @Werner: Who travels 100 m the fastest is not subjective at all.
    – user2466
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 2:46
  • 1
    @boehj: Would you count the current US-President to the black people? Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 3:08
  • @user: Yes, wouldn't you?
    – user2466
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 5:52
  • 4
    No. He is half 'black', half 'white'. A common practice is, to call everybody, who isn't perfectly 'white', 'black'. 50% 'black' is 'black', 25% 'black' is 'black', 12.5% 'black' is 'black'. If you don't call a 50% 'white' person 'white', your distinction is biased. Beside that, the grouping into 2 groups is an oversimplification and does not meet any scientific concept of race. Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 10:41
  • @user: I've lost touch with what 'African-American' means (perhaps I never knew). Obama says he's an African-American however. If the census came around, and he had to tick a box/s, given that he identifies as being African-American, which would he choose?
    – user2466
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 0:02
  • I didn't invent the census, so please ask those people, who are responsible for the census, if you're interested in the question - I'm not. If you think the question is related to the question here, you seem to think that all colored people form a common race, and the people of lighter skin from a different race. From what I observed from europe about the US-elections, the strategy of the democratic party has been, to avoid, talking about the color of the skin of Obama and let the republicans step into the trap, using the color in a more sophisticated way, mostly, and only defensive. Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 14:24
  • Statements of a politician are always taken with care, because they're mostly tactically influenced. And therefore it isn't useful as a prove, what Obama said obout himself. Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 14:26
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    @Monkey Tuesday - that's pleiotropy not epigenetics (FWIW) @Werner Racism starts when people start judging people on the perceived attributes of groups they belong to. I think it's v. important not to base something as important as opposition to racism on something as flakey as the idea there is no genetic basis to race
    – david w
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 8:44

6 Answers 6


Unfortunately many claims one might encounter are very vague and use imprecise terminology. It would be nice if all questions here would be well-defined and precisely formulated, but that is just an unrealistic expectation.

People are claiming that black people are better at certain sports than white people. There are even some claiming that black people have a lower IQ than white people and that this difference is genetic. Questioning this claim would be a perfectly appropriate topic for this site.

I don't think we should expect the question askers to accurately define any possible ambiguities in their question, they are the ones asking and they often don't have the necessary knowledge to make the question more precise. We can deal with a certain amount of vagueness in questions, the answerers can either ask for clarification or make some assumptions in their answers. A question does not need to be absolutely precise, it should reflect the reality of the claim as it is encountered "in the wild".

The answerers are the ones qualified for correcting the terminology and clear up misconceptions. They can explain the problems with the definition of race, the user asking the question probably can't.

  • 1
    Other questions get closed for being too unspecific, but racism is tolerated? I don't appreciate this. Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 2:56
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    @User My answer still stands for other claims as well, if the claim is using vague terminology we have to deal with it (another example would be "toxins" in medical claims), if we force the users to use more precise terminology, we make the claim more precise, but not more accurate as it will no longer represent the common version of the claim. With regards to racism, I don't think we should pretend it doesn't exist and disallow any questions about possibly racist claims.
    – Mad Scientist Mod
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 8:17
  • 3
    But there is no black race, and not a white. You can not answer the question, if you don't correct it. The problem isn't in the answer, it is in the assumptions of the question (one black race - for example; or one white race, of course). Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 10:45
  • 3
    @user this is my point. We could make a big step ahead if we eliminate these questions. Once again it's not even about racism or not, this is just scientifically absurd. Because all the answers will have the same twist as the questions. This is just not scientifical. Look at the answer voted by the community to the referenced question. Given studies are unscientific, because black and white notion is unscientific.
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 8:27
  • Absolutely, @Roubachof, absolutely! Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:13

We have high expectations of answers on Skeptics.SE - much higher, it seems to me, than other StackExchanges.

In particular, we expect answers to make scientific claims that are supported by evidence that is referenced. For that to make sense, the answers must be precise, as you desire.

However, in practice we allow a bit more latitude and vagueness the questions. Generally, the person asking the question doesn't understand the science involved, or they wouldn't need to ask they question. That doesn't mean it is free-for-all, but if a person asks a question about hard-to-define term like race, that doesn't mean the question is normally rejected.

Instead, any or all of the following can happen:

  • the answerer has the opportunity to define the term in their answer - e.g. for race it might be as self-described in a survey. (This actually means several different competing answers might be right at the same time, for their different definitions.)

  • someone can post a comment asking the questioner for clarification. (Sometimes, the questioner will be able to explain. Sometimes they will realise the question has no meaning.)

  • someone can boldly edit the question to include a sensible definition, if they are confident it matches the intent of the original questioner (e.g. by pulling it out of one of their referenced documents).

  • someone can give the answer that the question has no meaningful answer.

We've seen before that people have been concerned about "insidious" questions. In practice, they are normally dealt with sensibly. Sure they attract a few thoughtless responses, but they are quickly downvoted and/or moderated as required.

In the meantime, the thoughtful answers can be quite delightful, as they show what happens when science's light shines on the more shadowy areas of human ignorance.

  • So you think this study etd.utk.edu/2008/HunterStacy.pdf light shines on the more shadowy areas of human ignorance ?
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 9:05
  • @Roubachof, I am afraid I am missing your point...
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 9:53
  • This is the answer to the question (see first post) which made me create this thread.
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 11:13

Most of the other answers (including my original one, but maybe not ChrisW's) have accepted your premise that because there is no precise definition of race, any questions about it are unscientific. They have tried to explain how ill-defined questions can be addressed, without simply censoring them.

I want to try a different tack - arguing that lacking a precise definition of race is not a show-stopper.

There is a piece of fallacious sophistry to prove that the colour black is equal to the colour white, that I have seen described several times, but despite searching, I am unable to find a reference (Douglas Hofstatder, perhaps?) which forces me to describe it in more detail than I would like.

Point to something nearby that is black in colour. Now, when you look at it you have to admit it isn't entirely 100% pitch black. It does reflect just a little bit of light. It is really a very, very, very dark grey but no-one objects to describing it as black. Black isn't really one single colour, but a set of very, very dark colours.

In fact, you could add a tiny smidgin more white to the colour, and it would still be black, right? I mean, there is no hard-and-fast rule that very, very, very dark grey counts as black, but very, very dark grey doesn't. Claiming that a particular shade was officially the boundary of black, and even a teensy bit more white made it "not black" would be a ludicrous position to hold on the fuzzy concept of "black".

By simply repeating this exercise, adding tiny bits more white to the colour and demanding that it would be ridiculous to declare that this shade was the boundary, eventually you end up with such a light shade of grey that is, in fact, it is white.

Black is white, logically!

Now such an argument is, itself, invalid. Colours are not rigidly defined concepts, but fuzzy concepts (in the sense of fuzzy logic). The truth value of whether a shade is black can be, for example, "a little bit" or "very".

Nonetheless, colours are useful concepts that can be used and reasoned about with science.

The distinctions between biological species have similar boundary issues, and yet there are many scientific theories based on the concept. Obesity is another.

And so is race. You are right to argue that the boundary definitions of races are difficult to define, and are perhaps even poorly defined in particular studies. You are wrong to suggest that that makes all concepts of race meaningless/unscientific/insidious/racist.

To be clear:

  • All individuals belong to exactly one race: False
  • Race does not exists as a useful concept: False
  • There is no differences in distribution of attributes between races: False
  • All differences between races is genetic, as opposed to social/cultural/economic: False

Because people seem to believe these statements are true without evidence, then it is absolutely right that they be discussed on Skeptics.SE.

  • My arguments were, that even unscientific questions have their place on Sceptics; that scientific questions about race could be OK too; that admitting the existence of racial characteristics needn't be catastrophic; and that 'questions and answers about race' isn't the same as 'racism'.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 2:45
  • @ChrisW, I understand. I mentioned your answer not because I disagreed it, but because it was not like the others. They all implicitly accepted the OP's premise that race wasn't a valid concept. You started by explicitly assuming that "You can distinguish race X from race Y", which could be seen as rejecting that premise. For that reason, I didn't want to falsely characterise your answer as being the same as the others in this respect.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 3:08
  • @OddThing: thanks you for your effort to push the debate forward, I appreciate that. But in order to understand better your position, could you please tell me what would be your answer to this question: Is it true that black people, on average, can jump higher than white people? And more importantly, how would you proceed in your research to answer this question.
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 9:08
  • I don't know the actual answer to the question. To research it, I would check into the motivation of the question - hopefully, that would allow me to limit the domain as much as possible (for example, to US college basketball players, rather than any member of the global population, which would be harder to sample.) I would use that motivation to work out whether for this experiment, the best measure of race is an objective measure of skin colour, a country-of-grandparents-origin, a subjective decision by a nominated judge (or panel of judges) or self-identification. (Cont'd)
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 13:05
  • I would then collect participants for jump-height measurement. I would discard anyone who didn't clearly fit into a particular category (with predefined rules). After producing the results, I would be sure to list all of the potential sources of confounding variables (experience with basketball, general fitness, nutrition in the womb) I could think of, and explain that correlation does not imply causation. If there was a correlation to explain I would then start applying for grants for further experiments to attribute the variability to the confounding variables.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 13:10
  • @OddThinking: thank you. But now, what would be the value of this study on such a vague panel ? Would it prove anything ? You are struggling with the selection of your panel (objective measure of skin colour, a country-of-grandparents-origin, a subjective decision by a nominated judge or self-identification). You see, from my point of view it proves nothing because the notion of race is not scientifically definable. You could do however a study on a precise panel, such as smokers, people living in estonia, drivers. But on a notion that no one is capable of defining, what is the point ?
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 13:56
  • I'm not struggling. I am offering five different possible definitions, which might be applicable in different situations. (I could equally give different definitions of "heavy smoker", based on how many cigarettes they ignite, how much tar they ingest per week, how much money they spend on tobacco products and self-identification.) And there are very powerful reasons for studies on race, including targeting drugs/medical aid, targeting government services where they are needed, and targeting adverts for the maximum sales of fizzy drinks.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 14:05
  • The issue is that the race question is an ethical question. And giving five different possible definitions doesn't solve the philosophical point on this question.
    – on_my_way_out
    Commented Jun 28, 2011 at 23:42
  • 2
    @Oddthinking: Your reasoning isn't that bad, but it misses two important points: There is no race-boundary between black and white. If you want to use the concept of race, you have hundrets of different races, and people, which could be identified as pretty white, and another group of pretty white people may have a bigger genetically distance to each other, especially in questions of jumping, for example, or average height, which might be related, than to a different group which happens to be pretty black skinned, and have not so much in common with anoter black group. (Cont'd) Commented Jun 29, 2011 at 20:44
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    My impression is, that most of you don't get this into the head. You see colored people and think 'different race' and other white or somehow not so black people, and think of 'same race' or 'nearly same race', as if the color of the skin would be an indicator of overall genetic similarity. And this simple viewpoint - coming to point 2 - is used politically, and accepting a two-races model means to support it. Without the political viewpoint of we-or-them, there is no interesting question to make. Commented Jun 29, 2011 at 20:50

How can we accept such a title ?

With some scepticism.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the following are true:

  • You can distinguish race X from race Y (using some arbitrary physical characteristic)
  • There's some metric according to which race X scores, on average, some percentage more than race Y

The following seem to me examples of racist, reprehensible behaviour:

  • Assuming that a random individual of race X will score more than a random individual of race Y
  • Refusing to allow an individual of race Y to compete
  • Assuming that race X is 'better' in other ways
  • Assuming that any betterness is because of race (and not, for example, because of individual genes and/or upbringing)
  • Making social, political, employment, housing, and other such decisions based on race and using the existence of that metric as a reason/excuse

It's also permissible to down-vote the question if you think it's ill-posed.

It's also possible to close a question for being 'subjective and argumentative'.

  • +1, but I was confused by the example of "individual genes" (versus race). Could you please clarify?
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:26
  • @Oddthinking - For example: "You're good at soccer. Is that because you're of Portuguese ancestry? No: it's because you're you (i.e. your specific genes and experiences)."
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:29
  • @ChrisW, ah, I understand. Thanks! (ObXKCD: xkcd.com/385)
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:45
  • 1
    The racism problem is, to make a distinction of two races: black and white. That assumption is wrong, and can't be healed. There are - if we use the term - hundrets of races. A lot of people will not fit to any of them, because of mixing, but the rest will not belong to one of two big lines, one of them 'black' and the other 'white'. Those lighter and darker skinned people don't form 2 lines. There isn't a well defined border between them, so you have to count every group and tell us, where - for example - australien aborigines count to, where indins count to, north african people and so. Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 3:06
  • Where do native americans count to? Do you consider Innuit as white? Chinese people? Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 3:07
  • 2
    @user - You seem to be arguing that "race" (or "skin color") is ill-defined and perhaps non-existent. You could argue the same about UFOs (flying saucers) too: but that would still be an on-topic question.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 16:46
  • 2
    What UFO-question would be an on-topic question? How is it the same? UFOs are often suspected as vehicles from outer space, but another viewpoint is, to call just unknown things UFO, as the name says. I don't see a close similarity. Racism is in contrast the difference between we and them. An arbitrary distinction, with hundrets of colors there, hundrets here, without a clear border. Why are the colors/races reduced to two, and how? Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 18:47

I see this topic as similar to When is it appropriate to “be a dick” on Skeptics.stackexchange? Namely, this response (with some editing):

[Being nice] not optional or reserved for people you agree with; it is a basic tenet of the site. Any hostile behavior or ad hominem attacks should not be tolerated.

[...] The community should reject and down-vote disproportionate, mocking behavior towards any opposing ideas or people in the guise of making a VALID argument.

[...] Let's keep the questions (and answers) canonical and authoritative. If you can resist the urge to browbeat those who hold opposing ideas (whether they're on this site or not), this site will thrive.

But the door swings both ways. Some people make really stupid claims; we aren't here to deal with those people but we are here to deal with the claims. It doesn't matter how much we don't like a specific claim or answer. It doesn't matter how much of a bad taste it leaves in our mouth or how convinced we are of a different viewpoint. What matters is the claim.

Approaching the long lists of claims about race is well within the realm of skepticism. Those questions should be held to the same standard as the other questions on the site. They shouldn't be held to a looser or stricter standard. If there is issue with the formation of the claim (such as the definition of "black" or "white") than it should get closed. But it should not be closed because it is a sensitive topic.

  • +1 - This knocks it right on the head.
    – user2466
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 2:59
  • 1
    My impression is, that not only you, but many readers here, misunderstand Roubachof's and my position. Your last paragraph slowly gets the point: It's not about a sensible question, but it's about the specific way, in which this insensitive questions violate our understanding of races. To make it striking: There isn't a single african race, or black race, or white. Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:28
  • 1
    @user: I specifically addressed this in my answer.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:45

There are evolution biologists claiming that there are IQ differences between races. There are evoltuion biologist claiming there arent at all different human races...All a matter of what you define as race and IQ.

You cannot proof such statements wrong, boring definition debates, as giving scientifc links is the ultimate proof on skeptics.SE (the more links and longer your post - the more likely your post gets upvoted - no matter how redundant or doubtful the links are, no one really checks all, i too)

The only conclusion i can draw from this:

You have to draw a bottom line for allowed questions and scope of this site. You find enough examples on your own. Gender, race, decapitation, torture. Most answers on these question dont generate any practical useful knowledge (due to the definition problem) or extension of your horizon but 50:50 false positives and ergo prejudices.

Otherwise, a simple question: What is/should be difference between skeptics.SE and YahooAnswers (or any popular ask what you want site)? If it goes on like now it will probably converge to same quality and scope as these sites have, i think we agree nobody wants this. But im not sure most are afraid of this...

  • No offense, but I am having a little trouble understand your English. I think I agree with the basic point you are making but probably differ on the details regarding where the bottom line is located. Do you think the barrier for entry here on Skeptics should be the practical usefulness of the answer?
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 19:09
  • @MrHen Strange that some totally agree with me but others dont understand my english. Im used as german to write long sentences, maybe thats it? Doubting as i frequent english boards since a decade now... I wrote a couple of answers and comments on meta here. Dont want to repeat.I more & more believe this site will end in a little better yahooanswers clone with a non working rating system if it goes on like now. More explanation here Links are imo pretty good read. Psy/Bio Q&A are imho pretty terrible here Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 20:18
  • @MrHen practical useful means: can the answer change your life if you use the info. Verificating of hoaxes/prejudices will not. So why allow and attract sensationlism. Therefore boulevard media exist...Funny just got a "critic" badge & downvote, but no comment why. So im likely on point. Seems you are not even allowed to critisize on meta.skeptics LOL. In the end like on every board, Q&A site, if one doesnt attract many experienced user due to low quality & generalisations, the overall quality will be as high as on every other board. A good rating system per se doenst guarentee any quality Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 20:29
  • @Werner: I may not have been clear. I got probably >90% of what you were saying; the remaining <10% was likely just intent. I couldn't tell if you were trying to say (a) answers that don't generate practical knowledge are not good and (b) questions that draw those types of answers are not good. Am I close?
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 20:32
  • 3
    @MrHen the questions on sleeping with open eyes or spam mails are top notch skeptical answers IMHO. You could use this information actually or just take it as a note. But questions on are women more...torture effective...conscious after decapitatino are so pointless that i never read similar on any open internet discussion board in a decade! No one would answer, here just because you get points for Q&A. Mods here seem to allow this because they are "popular" & sensational. Do you see well educated guys reading boulevard news? To me its clear where this will end after some months.Poor quality Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 20:45
  • @Werner: Ah, yes that helps me understand your intent. Thank you. :)
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 21:50

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