Race: Falsehoods and Fallacies

[edit: for a more detailed discussion of some of these fallacies, see Entine, 2001. The Straw Man of ‘Race.’ Retrieved at: http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/straw_man_of_race.htm%5D

[Update: the list so far —


Race: Fallacies and Falsehoods

A. Fallacies

1. Social construct fallacy. “Races are social constructs, therefore it‘s absurd to contend that there are genetic difference between them.”

Known variants: “Race is a folk construct, not a biological one”; “Races aren’t biologically real”; “Race is an illusion.”

This Fallacy contends that racial populations are socially defined (i.e. are social constructs) and concludes that there can’t be genetic differences between them. Like the subspecies fallacy, this fallacy works through equivocation. “Social construct” is used to mean both “socially delineated group” and “populations with no genetic basis.”

This is a fallacy because:
Social construction does not imply non-genetic.

Debunking this fallacy:
The best way to debunk this fallacy is to offer a counter example:

e.g Imagine two groups:
a. (Bright) The group of all individuals with a genotypic IQ > 130
b. (Dulls) The group of all individuals with a genotypic IQ < 70

These are two socially constructed groups whose members are, by definition, genetically different. Ergo: social construction doesn’t imply a lack of genetic difference.

2. Montagu‘s fallacy. “’Race’ is a confused term, therefore it’s meaningless to discuss differences between “races.””

Variants: “The definition of race keeps changing.“ Race is an incoherent concept.” “Race is a confused concept.” “Race” is the phlogiston of biology.”

According to this fallacy, “race” is an intrinsically incoherent concept and, as such, “race” can not coherently be studied. (It’s either reasoned that since the term “race” refers to different things, there is no coherent concept of race or it’s reasoned that since all concept of “race” are fuzzy (the content, value, or boundaries of application vary according to context) there are no coherent concepts of race.) Either way, it is concluded that since there are no coherent concepts of race, race can not coherently be studied.

This is a fallacy because:
A. “Race” is a polyseme; it’s an umbrella term that refers to independent concepts (e.g. Subspecies; ethnicities; continental populations; regional ancestries; breeding populations, genealogies). Establishing that the polyseme ‘race’ is not a coherent concept, does not establish that there aren’t coherent concepts to which the term refers.

B. Showing that some concepts of race are incoherent doesn’t imply others are.

C. Showing that various concepts of race are fuzzy does not imply that they can not be operationalized and studied

Debunking this fallacy:
Point out that if race is an incoherent concept, “racial disparities” must also be an incoherent concept. Establish a simple definition of race [e.g. the populations people refer to when discussion racial disparities; the definition used by the government:

In Directive No. 15, the “White” category includes persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. The public comment included suggestions for subcategories and related changes in terminology to collect more detailed information on White ethnic groups according to the geographic region of their ancestors.” (Office of Management and Budget. Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/fedreg_race-ethnicity)%5D

3. No Race Gene fallacy. “There’s no racial phenotypes/ trait/ gene so race has no genetic basis.


This is a variant of the “social construct fallacy” that deserves a name of it’s own. This fallacy works by juxtaposing two paradigms of race: “races as socially defined groups” and “races as a biologically defined groups.” The fallacy reasons that a) since there is no unique race defining phenotype, trait, or gene, b) race is not genetically defined and c) since race is not genetically defined d) race has no genetic basis and e) since race has no genetic basis f) no differences between racial populations can have a genetic basis.

This is a fallacy because:

B does not follow from a. Races are defined by ancestry (or genetic relatedness) and ancestry necessarily has a genetic basis. D does not follow from c. (Refer to the social construct fallacy.) F also does not follow from c. Were race defined by color etc. and were color to correlate with genetic differences in trait X,Y, and Z, race differences in trait X, Y, and Z would have a genetic basis.

Debunking this fallacy:

Establish that “race,” as commonly used refers to regional ancestry and that regional ancestral genotypes differ in allelic frequencies.

4. Race is color fallacy. “Race” refers to superficial differences like color, therefore there can’t be significant differences between races.”

Variants: “There is no basis in scientific fact or in the human gene code for the notion that skin color will be predictive of trait X”; “Color is only skin deep”; “There seems to be no rationale for the selection of certain physical features to determine race and not others. Why skin color and not eye color.”

Example of the fallacy in play:
“There is no, however, inherent reason to believe that those tendencies cluster on the basis of “race” for the simple reason that the racial designations that we currently use are principally based on three characteristics. They are facial structure, skin color, and hair texture. Those are things that are controlled by six genes out of thirty thousand genes in the human genome and those genes have never been shown by any geneticist on the planet, any biologist on the planet, to be connected, or what geneticists call “concordant,” with any other trait known as intelligence or known as temperament or behavior or ethics or morality or any of those kinds of things. So even though individuals absolutely have certain genetic predispositions towards everything from certain diseases to the ability to sing, to play music, to jump high, to run fast, there’s no reason to believe that those things would cluster on the basis of this thing that we now call race (Tim Wise).”

This is either a classic Petitio Principii or a classic sleight of hand. According to this fallacy, populations defined by superficial differences can not be more than superficially different. This Fallacy works by construing racial populations as populations defined by color or some other superficial trait.

This is a fallacy because:
1. Racial populations are misconstrued as being defined by color or superficial differences and not by regional ancestry.

Debunking this fallacy:

Establish that Race refers to regional ancestry and that superficial phenotypic differences are simply a marker of this as are practically significant differences.

5. No subspecies fallacy. “Biological Races don’t exist, therefore Race differences can’t be biological.”

Known variants: “There is no biological race.”

Alternative: (Too many subspecies) “As scientist can’t decide if there are 3 or 200 races, race is a meaningless category.”
Alternative: “There is more genetic diversity in Africa…(therefore Africans aren‘t a race).”

According to this fallacy, there can’t be genetic differences between populations that are called “races,” because there aren’t human subspecies. This fallacy works through equivocation; “biological race” is used to refer to both subspecies and to “genetically different populations.” It’s contended that biological races in the taxonomic sense don’t exist (i.e. there are no human subspecies) and from this it’s concluded that populations called “races” (i.e. populations defined by ancestry) can’t be genetically different.

This is a fallacy because:
1. Whether or not the human species is polytypic according to taxonomic criterion is irrelevant to whether or not a particular difference between ancestrally defined populations has a genetic basis.

Debunking this fallacy:

Point out the equivocation and clarify that you are discussing the origins of differences between ancestrally defined populations.

6. 99.5 fallacy. “As humans, we share 99.5% of our genetic material, therefore there can’t be important genetic differences between individuals and there can’t be races. “

Known variants: “Humans are basically genetically identical”

This fallacy portrays the amount of human genetic variation as minuscule because humans are 99.5% alike genetically. The fallacy implies that the .5% is trivial and goes on to imply that, since differences between individuals are trivial, differences between populations must be also. This fallacy works by having us compare the genetic diversity within humans to that across species and evolutionary time. Accordingly, human variation is insignificant because humans are much more alike to one another than to eggplants and spiders.

This is a fallacy because:
With regards to variation between individuals
1. The .5% is vast amount (it represents millions of base pair differences). (Redon, et al., 2006. Global variation in copy number in the human genome). As it is, only 1.5% of the genome is made up of coding genes that generate proteins.

2. Small genetic differences result in large phenotypic differences. (ScienceDaily, 2008. Tiny Genetic Differences Have Huge Consequences http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080118165005.htm

With regards to variation between populations
3. The average between populations differences in contention represent only a fraction of the total within population variance. Given the genetic basis of within population differences, a genetic basis for between differences is highly plausible.

Debunking this fallacy:
Establish that there are large genetic based differences between individuals within populations. Clarify that the contended differences between populations represent only a small but socially important fraction of that.

7. Lewontin’s Fallacy. Version 1. “Most genetic variance is within races, therefore racial groups can’t be identified.

Variants: “Two random individuals from any one group are almost as different as any two random individuals from the entire world”; “Two individuals are different because they are individuals, not because they belong to different races”; “You can’t predict someone’s race by their genes.” “There’s no race gene.”

This is a statistical fallacy which works by ignoring combined effects. According to the fallacy, since average genetic differences between populations are small, populations can not be differentiated by those differences.

This is a fallacy because:
1. The possibility of looking at multiple differences at the same time is overlooked. (If you look at ten traits you can identify something easier than if you look at 1).

Debunking this fallacy:

Point out that large differences emerge when looking simultaneously at multiple sites.

8. Lewontin’s Fallacy. Version 2. “85% of genetic variation is within populations, therefore racial groups can’t be very different”

Variants: “Lewontin found that racial groups only differ by 7%.”

This fallacy works by minimizing between-population genetic differences; large within-population variation is contrasted will smaller between population variation.

This is done by: A. Comparing the (15%) between population, between race variability to total within
population variability instead of the relevant (42.5%) between individual, within
populations. (The other 42.5% is within individuals.)

B. Comparing between continental race variation to within population variation, when
discussions usually concern differences between subpopulations (European and West African populations, not all Caucasians and all Africans)

C. Implying that the variance under-discussion is, in fact, socially unimportant. (A 15% Variation would imply a 1.1 SD difference in a trait like IQ)

D. Implying that small genetic differences implies small phenotypic differences (see:
99.5 fallacy)

E. Ignoring the information capturing in the correlations of genes (see: Lewontin’s
Fallacy. Version 1.)

Debunking this fallacy:

The best way to undermine this fallacy is to point out what the supposed 15% in variability would imply:

Imagine some trait for which there is a 1:1 phenotypic/geneotypic relation and for which the within population SDs are 15; if the genes for that trait were randomly dispersed throughout the genetic variance, a 15% between group variance would be equivalent to a >1.1 SD difference.

(15% between populations / 45% between individuals within populations)

between trait variance = a(b)/w = y
= 2(sqrt(y)) = z

a=within group trait variance
b=between group genetic variance
w= within group genetic variance
y= between group trait variance
z=between group trait difference

between trait variance = 225(.15)/.45 = 75
= 2(sqrt(75)) = 17 = 1.1 SD

(for reference, there’s a > 1 SD difference in average cranial size between East Asians and S.S Africans; cite: Beals, et al., 1984. Brain Size, Cranial Morphology, Climate, and Time Machines)

9. False Consensus fallacy. “There’s scientific consensus that there aren’t biological races.”

Known variants: “Most anthropologists abandoned the notion of race nearly a half century ago/”

This is an argument from fabricated scientific authority.

Debunking this fallacy:

Point out that there is no such consensus. (Lieberman et al., 2004. The race concept in six regions: variation without consensus; Štrkalj, 2007. The status of the race concept in contemporary biological anthropology: A review). For example, in “Current Views of European Anthropologists on Race: Influence of Educational and Ideological Background” (2009), Kaszycka, notes: “Of the 125 respondents, 50 percent agreed that human races exist (answering “yes” for Question 1 or Question 2), 48 percent disagreed (answering “no” for Question 1 and 2), and two percent were undecided (leaving the question unanswered or putting in a question mark).”


Unamused and I are collaborating on a few informational pamphlets directed at advancing the study of Human biodiversity. (You’re welcome to help; contact us at: HBioD@googlegroups.com.) We decided to write one on Race falsehoods and fallacies to combat the pernicious disinformation. Currently, we’re compiling our list of influential fallacies falsehoods and would appreciate your input. When it comes to Race and differences, what are the most influential ones?

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23 Responses to Race: Falsehoods and Fallacies

  1. Harmonious Jim says:

    “human nature is remarkable uniform throughout the world”

  2. Kiwiguy says:

    There’s more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else therefore there can’t be significant differences in [insert trait].

    There’s another example here on Brad de Long’s blog with a response by gcochran:

    [40,000 years–1700 generations–is *not* very much time for evolution to do its work. And there is said to be more genetic diversity in a standard baboon troop than in the entire human race.] >

    Sure it is, plenty of time Read some quantitative genetics. Even if you use the lowest plausible estimate of narrow-sense heritability, you can have a one-std change in a couple of thousand years, or even less. The Amish could have become tamer than average just from having their freer spirits leave the group over ten generations.

    Rapid evolutionary change is common.

    And those baboons have a lot more genetic diversity than dogdom – while dog phenotypes vary wildly, more than any other mammal. The key is correlated genetic differences in coding genes – which is what selection produces.”


    • Chuck says:

      “here’s more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else therefore there can’t be significant differences in [insert trait].”

      Can this argument really be taken seriously? I can’t even figure out the missing premises:

      1. There’s more genetic diversity in Africa

      C: Therefore there can’t be significant differences in [insert trait].

  3. Kiwiguy says:

    Tim Wise uses a number in this debate with Taylor. Comments from Jason Malloy & gcochran.


    • Chuck says:

      I found this quote odd:

      “See, ‘Step 2’ is the whole story. Taylor has psychotically argued that it is more ethically “justified from a genetic point of view” (whatever that means??) for a person to prevent the immigration of two African blacks into America than it is for them to save their own drowning child; a nonsensical, poorly justified ethic that Taylor (who obviously doesn’t have children himself) is actually promoting. But according to the Bamshad results, what would actually be “justified from a genetic point of view” would be for a white person to prefer the immigration of, or to save the life of a black person over another white person about 1/3 of the time – an ethic which actually contradicts White Nationalism. Taylor, of course, already knew what his ethics were, the ludicrous quasi-scientific gene rationale was drawn entirely post hoc from the newly minted church of Frank Salter. The Salter crowd, including academic White Nationalists like Kevin MacDonald, is the far Right version of what Alan Sokal was scathingly exposing on the far Left, where marginalized political philosophies, seeking depth and legitimacy, turn themselves into cargo cults by co-opting the language of math and science. What else can we call it when intellectually decadent academics mine terms and ideas from biology, and use them out of their original functional scientific context to promote ethno-states? How is it different from those other Post-Modern academics on the other side of the political spectrum who use out-of-proper-context terms from physics to promote socialism?”

      Remind me to comment on it as Salter’s vision of ethnic genetic interest is philosophically coherent.

  4. Kiwiguy says:

    “We are all Africans now”

    Peter Frost comments on the

    “100,000 years is not a mere paleontological moment. A population can undergo significant physical and genetic change in as little as eight generations. In fact, many animal species go back only to the last ice age (25,000-10,000 BP). Evolutionary change is due primarily to the intensity of natural selection and only secondarily to the passage of time. Indeed, the faster such change has occurred, the more important it must be, since it is being driven by intense natural selection and not by adaptively neutral processes like genetic drift or founder effects.”


    Frost on the 99.9% the same fallacy.


  5. Kiwiguy says:

    “Group differences are only skin deep.”

    Actually forensic anthropologists can determine race from skeletal features so it appears those differences go all the way to the bone (see p 14 ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion’).

  6. TylerD says:

    No list of influential falsehoods about race would be complete without Lewontin’s fallacy, but everybody already knew that.

  7. Anon says:

    I think the 99.9% (not 99.5%) thing started in 2005 when HapMap phase 1 was released. This quote went around:
    “Any two unrelated people are 99.9 percent identical at the genetic level. However, it is important to understand the 0.1 percent difference because it can help explain why one person is more susceptible to a disease or responds differently to a drug or an environmental factor than another person.”
    Source: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/oct2005/nhgri-26.htm

    In a 2007 Harvard speech Bill Clinton said it too.
    “Human beings, with their three billion genomes, are 99.9 percent identical genetically… Don’t you think it’s interesting that [we] spend 90 percent of our lives thinking about that one-tenth of one percent?”
    Source: http://blog.acumenfund.org/2007/12/06/999-identical/

    Whatever the true figure is, it’s still a percentage of three billion base pairs.

    A question: What amount of the different DNA between two individuals is not “junk”?

    This (2010) paper here uses the 99.9% figure, but doesn’t say what fraction of the difference is actually significant.

    “Any two human genomes compared side by side are 99.9% identical. However, with a 3.2 billion base-pair genome, each person harbors some 3.2 million differences in his/her diploid genome.

    Most of the differences are due to single-base substitution polymorphisms, popularly known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). While the majority of the SNPs are of no biological consequence, a fraction of the substitutions have functional significance and are the basis for the diversity found among humans. As genetic markers, SNPs can be used to follow the inheritance patterns of chromosomal regions from generation to generation and are powerful tools in the study of genetic factors associated with human diseases.”
    Source: http://revistes.iec.cat/index.php/IM/article/viewFile/4c457c452d16a.002/9397

    • Chuck says:

      “I think the 99.9% (not 99.5%) thing started in 2005 when HapMap phase 1 was released. This quote went around:”

      If I put 99.9%, I’d have to just correct it to 99.5% — because it’s now known that there’s more than .1% difference between individuals. (Sorry, busy…typing fast).

  8. JL says:

    One falsehood that often comes up is the idea that two individuals from different races are often more similar than two individuals from the same race. There’s a paper by Witherspoon et al. that showed that this is in fact never the case when comparing people from geographically separated populations for a large number of genetic markers.

    • Chuck says:

      Isn’t this Lewontin’s fallacy (i.e. Edwards)? Or is it technically separate?

      • JL says:

        I would think they are separate arguments, because even if you are able to genetically classify people into two groups with 100 percent accuracy, that does not necessarily mean that two people from the same group will always be more similar genetically than two people from different groups. For example, it is possible to distinguish every Pole from every Italian, but that does not mean that all Poles are genetically more similar to each other than to any Italian.

  9. JL says:

    Chuck and Unamused, while you’re at it, you should also consider making a Youtube video about these issues. An Xtranormal video along the lines of this one would be great, but a more no-frills sort of video could work as well.

    • Chuck says:

      Ok, I distilled this down to 8 common inane fallacies. As for the video, if you write the script I’ll make the video.

      • JL says:

        If there’s going to be a video, Unamused should be coaxed to write the script. He’s got a knack for that sort of thing, I don’t.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    I put a list of seven common fallacies into this old article:


    There’s also Richard Dawkins’ Green Beard argument:


  11. podard says:

    Linda Gottfredson has a 2009 paper about this very topic, called “Logical Fallacies Used to Dismiss the Evidence on Intelligence Testing”. Good stuff.

    • Chuck says:

      I’m aware of it; it’s an excellent article. She deals mostly with intelligence not race, though. The terms “Heritable,” “race,” and “intelligence” all need to be defended. Surprisingly, the terms “there,” “are,” “differences,” and “in” have yet to be vigorously challenged.

  12. Heya i am for the primary time here. I came across this board and I to find It truly useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and help others like you aided me.

    • Chuck says:

      Thanks for the link. I’m unable to tell if your interlocutor is being willfully ignorant or simply intellectually dishonest when saying: “[I]t would be most extraordinary if all the diverse capacities of the human intellect that fall under the umbrella of “intelligence” turned out to be neatly partitioned between semi-subjective racial groupings, such that one “race” was, across the board, more “intelligent” than another. The mental contortions required to reach such a conclusion are more than my mind can handle, given all the data described above.” Any ideas?

      • martinsewell says:

        I don’t know my interlocutor, who is an MB-PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge/Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, but my guess is willful ignorance, as the literature I referenced contradicts his politically correct egalitarian ideology, combined with breathtaking naivety for someone in his position.

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