I have seen a number of questions in my time as a biology SE member which could cause offence because they use language which some people could take offence to. Generally if this is pointed out the OP is happy to change it/ happy for someone to edit it to change it to something more appropriate (which is something I have done before). Other times they are rapidly closed. But sometimes the OP takes it as a personal attack and refuses to change terminology, what should be done about posts in that case? Obviously we could edit them ourselves but that leaves us likely to bear the effects of revenge down-voting and harmful editing of our own previous posts which would erode the usefulness of this site.

Potential hot topics include gender, sexuality, race, disabilities, and drugs. These are likely to occur in questions on biology SE because often people have biological questions about them, but sometimes they use inappropriate, naive, or outdated terminology in their posts.

Recently I got in to a discussion about the use of the term "race" and the distinctions the OP made. I believe their use of the term and classifications they made were purely a naive innocent mistake but they seem to have taken offence to several users politely pointing this out to them. I pointed the OP to this article about the use of the term race and races they defined, which states that:

"Use of the terms race and ethnicity in the scientific literature, including the ARCHIVES, can at times be troublesome because of the impreciseness of the definitions, the historical implications of the words, and the lack of any scientific basis for their meaning. The terms denoting the races were arbitrary definitions with origins in 19th-century biological determinism. For example, the word Caucasian to denote a population was an invention of Blumenbach in 1795. He believed that the people of the Caucasus mountains in the current Republic of Georgia were the most beautiful on earth and gave the name of this region to the population that he felt was closest to the original ideal."

"Ceasing to analyze data blindly by race or ethnicity is not an attempt to be politically correct, but rather doing so brings us closer to the underlying biological science on which medicine, and our care for patients, is firmly rooted."

Since doing so they have had further communication from other users and ignored the given reference by continuing with their stance. So how do we deal with posts in this category?


6 Answers 6


Well, I'm part of the discussion you are referring to, so I sympathise with your question. In this and other cases, what I find most annoying is the lack of interest to discuss the basis and assumptions behind the posed question. To me, this suggests a lack of interest for a scientifically based answer/discussion. One of the core aims of bio-SE (and SE in general) is to produce well-formed, scientifically based and scientifically interesting questions, and if the basis of the question is not up for discussion this is a failure to me. Bio-SE does not (should not) exist simply to entertain the personal views of contributors, and everybody must expect to defend their premises with relevant arguments and references. To be clear; I don't have any problem with disagreement and opposing views, but these must follow from a coherent argument and backed up by something. Otherwise they are off-topic. In many cases relevant counterarguments or suggestions are just deflected or igored. In the case you are referring to not one of the suggestions or objections to the original question is met with a relevant and substantial answer.

Edit: And to clarify; I don't think this is a PC-specific issue, but the problem will often arise in questions and answers that can be interpreted as PC/non-PC. In my mind, the general problem is a lack of honest and scientifically meaningful discussion. I've encountered the same thing in questions on aspects of evolution, where it is obvious that the poster is not looking for an scientifically based answer, but simply a platform to state that evoluton is false.

  • $\begingroup$ I completely agree with you @fileunderwater, disagreement will occur as it should because nothing is proven, that's how science is, but there has to be discussion and a willingness to be open to change if presented with challenges which the OP only backs up with personal opinion $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 6:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I am also part of that discussion and agree with you both, hence my comment about their being only one 'race' (hopefully people could see that I was not being flippant). What I tend to do now, is if the OP does as you guys have correctly observed him to do, I just simply ignore the question and focus my energies on other questions. $\endgroup$
    – user3795
    Jun 25, 2013 at 10:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @damien I am glad that you agree and I can appreciate that you may want to just leave these sorts of questions alone, I personally think the users have a responsibility to make the site as useful and accurate as possible (but sometimes I wish I had never got involved in certain debates..) $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ Even with the more technical evolution questions this is a factor. You end up writing the same answers to 'more evolved' and 'advanced' questions all the time. Glad there is some understanding on this matter in the community. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Jun 25, 2013 at 13:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would like to echo @Damien's comment: I think ignoring the question is the best you can do under these circumstances. That particular question also prompted me to add an answer to Rory's meta post on custom close reasons - if people could discuss it, it would be great (I'm not too sure of it myself). Also, thank you for pointing out that this is separate from political correctness. $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Jun 25, 2013 at 18:05

I'm going to close the question, editing it into shape is not an option as the author disagrees with the fundamental premise that the question needs to be framed differently. I also can't really let the community close it in this case as the bounty prevents any close votes anyway. But my impression here is that a majority considers the question problematic. The question also received a lot of flags.

Now, I actually see two different issues with the question. The first issues has been discussed here, race is widely considered as not a useful criterium in genetics and the way it is used in this question is considered offensive by some.

The issue here is not political correctness, but correct biology and professionalism. In this case the terminology can reflect negatively on our site as a whole.

Another issue I have with the question is that it contains no motivation for asking the question at all. Just asking "Is there a difference in X between Y groups" without any indication why you suspect there is one is not a good question in my opinion. I don't see how this question can further any understanding of biology or how it could be useful.

This decision is not necessarily final, as we don't have any well-developed policies on this matter. But I also don't want to leave this question open and bounties, immune from closure by the community.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm new to the Bio site, but participated on the Christian site a good deal over the last year. This issue is similar to the use of the word cult. In the vernacular, it is offensive, but when used academically, it is the preferred term. Hence, "cult" is used on the Christian site. Use of the word "race" on the Bio site is the reverse situation. In vernacular "race" means difference in skin color, but that difference seems to have little difference molecularly and genetically. Thus, race in this context does not mean anything useful. $\endgroup$
    – user3970
    Jan 12, 2014 at 0:47

This is too long for a comment, but is in response to Derfder's post.

First, nice to see some actual discussion of the issue, instead of deflection. Second, nobody is arguing that there is no genetic or morphological differences of any kind between people coming different parts of the world. Your underlying question has validity, the problem in how it is phrased.

An essential part of science is a precise language, otherwise the discussion is meaningless and there is a large chance for pointless misunderstandings. 'Race' is anything but a precise concept and multiple definitions exist (just reading the wikipedia page Race (human classification) that you are referring to should provide ample evidence why the concept is problematic). To add to this are the highly charged historical roots of the term. In the original discussion you were asked to specify what defintion you are referring to, and why it is essential to use race in this case, when other more suitable labels exist, but you didn't respond. The stubborness to reconsider the term 'race', and not even justify it, only comes of as ignorant and, to me, is similar to people that refuse to stop using the word nigger just because they dont mean anything bad by it.

As for the case of forensic anthropology, I would flip the question and ask why they as a field feel the need to keep an antiquated syntax when the rest of science has moved on. I'm not arguing that they cannot often assign a geographical ancestry to a corpse, but this is irrespective of the concept of race. A number of other terms would do just as fine, and 'human population' or 'geographic ancestry' are two terms that comes to mind. The specific issue here is that 'race' implies many things that are simply false when it comes to human populations (e.g. a taxonomy, hierarchy, and a shared common ancestry of 'races'), and it is therefore a misleading concept to use.

Also, your wolf example is irrelevant since we are not arguing about the concept of 'race' in biology in general (which also has multiple definitions and is therefore vague), only in relation to human populations.

I have looked at @Derfder SE-profile, and with his background of numerous downvoted questions on controversial issues in multiple SE-sites I'm (personally) considering that this could be a case of a SE-troll.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for: "nobody is arguing that there is no genetic or morphological differences of any kind between people coming different parts of the world. Your underlying question has validity, the problem in how it is phrased." $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ I have looked at @Derfder SE-profile, and with his background of numerous downvoted questions on controversial issues in multiple SE-sites I'm (personally) considering that this could be a case of a SE-troll. - Please, try to stay objective and not subjective. This kind of accusations are typical for radicals including racists (I hate racists from the bottom of my heart, have been fighting in the streets of Prague with nazis a lot. I am a proud ANTIFA member). But if you really want, we can discuss the downvoted questions you are mentioning. What question exactly are you worried about? $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 14:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Derfder I said that I was considering that you might be a Troll. It could also just be a continuous poor phrasing of questions. I'm also not passing judgement on the earlier issues themselves (frankly, I have better things to do); I'm simply noticing that you have a history of producing content that is considered controversial in many different topics, and I find this suspicious. However, I'm done with this discussion, and the decision on what to do with your original question is up to the moderators. My opinion should be clear by now. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2013 at 14:47

N.B. I have posted this as an answer to my own question because I think it is helpful for future similar situations, if it gets a few upvotes I will accept it so it appears as the first post under the question.

Suggestions for title of the original question would also be helpful so people looking for this sort of guide in the future can find it easily, could you comment with suggestions with suitable key words

So I think there has been considerable lengthy discussion now but a general consensus seems to be building. As a result I propose that the "answer" to this question would be to describe the steps to take in response to such situations.

I suggest we guide users to do the following when they encounter a post entry they do not agree with:

Step 1. Downvote the post (if felt necessary), leave a comment on the post pointing out why they think an edit is necessary, whilst also attempting to offer a solution and supporting evidence for their claims.

Step 2. The OP then has the opportunity to either present a counter argument or edit the original post.

Step 3. The community can then judge the response and should take one of the next three actions;

1) accept the OP's counter arguments or edits and upvote the question/remove the downvote

2) edit the original post to a state that pleases them

3) vote to close the post to encourage the OP to edit the post

Step 4. If the aforementioned steps do not solve the problem, or cause new ones which can't be solved with editing, then flag the post for moderation and pass an explanation to the moderators.

Avoid lengthy, and potentially fraught, discussions in the comments on the main biologySE site or on chat - keeping it in an open forum using the meta section & commenting there will help to give the moderators & community the best chance of coming to a rational, well informed decision.

Caveats: If any users become aggressive, abusive, or start damaging the site maliciously, users should report them immediately to moderators and avoid getting further involved. This includes attacks on peoples ability & education, impression of their political motivations (sexism, racism, agism etc.), or plain spiteful verbal abuse. Moderators may decide to suspend the user's account.

From the help pages:

"What kind of behavior is expected of users?

We’re excited to have you here, but we do ask that you follow a few guidelines when participating on our network.

Be honest.

Above all, be honest. If you see misinformation, vote it down. Add comments indicating what, specifically, is wrong. Provide better answers of your own. Last but not least, edit and improve the existing questions and answers! By doing these things, you are helping keep Stack Exchange a great place to share knowledge of our craft.

While you’re doing all of those things, we also require that you...

Be nice.

Civility is required at all times; rudeness will not be tolerated. Treat others with the same respect you’d want them to treat you because we’re all here to learn, together. Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know, and bring your sense of humor.

Please note that expletives are not allowed. If you use expletives on this site, you may be issued a warning or a suspension."

  • $\begingroup$ I feel like a clause on civility needs to be added somewhere prominent on this site. It shouldn't need to be said on SE sites, but I've seen it happen several times - if you get angry at people, they're not going to want to help you, and all the fake internet points won't help. $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Jun 26, 2013 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ As far as titles go: "Question with flawed premise and argumentative OP"? $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Jun 26, 2013 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ @dd3 We have this in the help area, although I'd agree it's not exactly prominent $\endgroup$
    – Rory M
    Jun 26, 2013 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @RoryM: That explains where I saw it. Thanks for the link. $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Jun 26, 2013 at 23:04

Even though I was trying to keep out of this discussion, something compelled me to weigh in on the discussion.

I'll disclaimer this from the outset and say, I am vastly politically incorrect all the time - so my points are not remotely related to any notions thereof.

Just a few ideas/points:

Derfder: why not just replace the word 'race' with 'phenotype'? This is an international site (I am from Australia for example), and while, granted, in some places, the term 'race' is still used - in some other areas of the world, the term phenotype is largely used.

Also, yes, it cannot be denied that a lot of people consider the term 'race' as a repugnant term in reference to people. But, that is not my argument, nor it seems, the moderators/members here's argument either.

If I can be blunt(ish) - is your persistence on using the term 'race' a matter of stubborn pride? (and I am not saying that this is a negative thing, I have this quality too). Why not just use the accepted term 'phenotype'?




In biology, races are distinct populations within the same species and does not apply to genetic differences but phenotype. Because of this, an animal with parents of two different races will be considered to be the race that the animals resembles most closely.

Example of different phenotype in humans:

Example of different phenotype in humans


Rejection of race is moderate in Europe, sizeable in Poland and Cuba, and lowest in Russia and China.

and I am from Europe, so I see the term "race" as a term for a group of people with certain biological characteristics (as the forensic anthropologists see them too) nothing connected with racism. I have European-African friends and they consider themselves as a Negroid race. Maybe that's because of what US did to Negroid people in the past. But here in EU it is not a stigma and you can call black or white whoever you want and he will be ok.

To me it seems that you want to deny the existence of races, which is very disrespectful to the Negroid race, human race from Africa, who were probably the oldest race on this planet.

I really think you are trying to sound "political" instead of being real to yourself.

Example: Jon Bon Jovi is in the Rock department of my music shop. It's because his music is mostly rock. But he has some Pop and Country flavor to it (especially on his recent albums).

But he is still a rocker (rock-n-roll) player when the reporters ask him. The same is true when a reporter asks an Afro-American. HE told him that he is black. I tell him that I am white. Of course, I can be more specific and go deeper and tell that I am of Czech and Hungarian ancestry.

If races don't exist then why are they used in anthropology (except of course politically correct USA and Canada), pathology, pharmacology, anatomy, histology and most importantly forensic anthropology

Main article: Forensic anthropology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(human_classification)#Forensic_anthropology Similarly, forensic anthropologists draw on highly heritable morphological features of human remains (e.g. cranial measurements) to aid in the identification of the body, including in terms of race. In a 1992 article anthropologist Norman Sauer noted that Anthropologists had generally abandoned the concept of race as a valid representation of human biological diversity except for Forensic anthropologists. This lead him to ask "if races don't exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them?"He concluded that "the successful assignment of race to a skeletal specimen is not a vindication of the race concept, but rather a prediction that an individual, while alive was assigned to a particular socially constructed ‘racial’ category. A specimen may display features that point to African ancestry. In this country that person is likely to have been labeled Black regardless of whether or not such a race actually exists in nature.[174] C. Loring Brace echoed this answer stating that: "The simple answer is that, as members of the society that poses the question, they are inculcated into the social conventions that determine the expected answer. They should also be aware of the biological inaccuracies contained in that "politically correct" answer. Skeletal analysis provides no direct assessment of skin color, but it does allow an accurate estimate of original geographical origins. African, eastern Asian, and European ancestry can be specified with a high degree of accuracy. Africa of course entails "black," but "black" does not entail African."

So my final question for the deniers of races is:

If races don't exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them?

I expect the moderator that he take this problem as a grown up and reopen it for answers, because if forensic anthropology is unscientific, then I am not a Caucasoid and I don't have blue eyes and blonde hair and a pale skin and I don't look like a European at all and my friend is not from Angola.

This is a very good reading if you have enough time.

enter image description here

Taken from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1762596/

UPDATE: Your reactions lead me to the conclusion that it's still more about "political correctness" and not about science. Denying the truth is the worst thing in the long term.

Please, consider this:

MtDNA studies have shown that there are at least four distinct gray wolf lineages: the most ancient is that of the African wolf (native to North, West, and East Africa), which is thought to have originated as early as the Middle to Late Pleistocene.

All other lineages occur together in the Indian Subcontinent, the oldest of which is the Himalayan wolf (native to the Himalayan region of eastern Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, parts of Tibet and eastern Nepal), which is thought to have originated 800,000 years ago, when the Himalayan region was going through major geologic and climatic upheaval. The peninsular Indian wolf, C. l. pallipes, likely diverged from the Himalayan wolf 400,000 years ago.

The youngest wolf lineage in India is represented by C. l. chanco (native to the northwestern Himalayan region of Kashmir), which originated 150,000 years ago. This last lineage, known as the Holarctic clade, expanded into Europe and North America, as shown by it sharing genetic markers with domestic dogs, European and North American wolves.


Now, change the word "wolf" with the word... "human".

  • $\begingroup$ The issue is not around political correctness but around discussion of biological issues - you are refusing to accept that the term race and divisions you made have little biological relevance. I am not saying you are not Caucasoid, that you don't have blue eyes & blonde hair, or that your friend is not from Angola! Anthropologically, Caucasoid may be relevant, but it is not in a biological context. Amongst the help section of the site it says users can "insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references" - something you are failing to do and are ignoring people giving you references. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ I have updated my answer with an example at the bottom, because I really think that the "fear" of using the term race on this forum is very big. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ I hope that this example with the wolf is enough for the moderator to unlock my question. Because, if not I think we should deny wolf races too. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't see the word Race on there (at least a google chrome page search showed nothing) and again this is not a reference which says that "race is a biologically relevant term" $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ I might point you to this section on race in humans - it's only a wikipedia page but you ignored the reference I gave from a paper so try wiki instead.. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human#Race $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ I am a biologist, and I seem to be doing pretty well for my self, this is no place for personal attacks. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, but you are focusing the whole time on the wrong things instead of the main point which is that race is widely used term in Europe (at least in Central and Eastern Europe) and denying the existance of rases is something very dangerous. I repeat I am a Caucasian race not a Negroid race. My bilogical characteristic belongs to Caucasian race. My friend from Angola has biological characteristics of Negroid race.This is reality. I am not blind.** So, if you are the moderator, please, unlock my question. If not, $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ let us continue this discussion in chat $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ All that is being asked of you is to rewrite your question with the correct biological terms used - it is a biology site and you should respect that you need to ask questions within the correct scope and context. It is really not as big a deal as you are making it. You have refused, and made unsubstantiated claims, which is why the post was flagged. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ I cannot deny existence of Races. They exist. I repeat: I am a Caucasian race not a Negroid race. My bilogical characteristic belongs to Caucasian race. My friend from Angola has biological characteristics of Negroid race.This is reality. I am not blind. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ From the page about biological race: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(biology) In biology, races are distinct populations within the same species and does not apply to genetic differences but phenotype. Because of this, an animal with parents of two different races will be considered to be the race that the animals resembles most closely. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ These distinct phenotypic differences are generally called "phenotypes" or "morphs" in the biological literature and often suggest the presence of some genetic marker. e.g. I study fruit flies, we have an ebony phenotype strain in the lab, we also have wildtype flies, white-eye phenotype flies, brown-eye phenotype flies etc.. I consider this matter to be up to the moderator now and I will not discuss it further with you, it is clearly a futile exercise and I have better things to be doing. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @moderators Please, reopen my question. I can add the phenotype description of the races if the names are not enough or add images too, if necessary. And I can also include all the links to the wikipedia about what is race en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(biology) and also a statement that the term "Race" is used only in biological meaning and that I think that all human being are equal and I refuse racism or any hate based on the biological characteristics of people. Thank you in advance. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:57

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