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A few months ago, I participated in a debate, where the topic to be debated upon was "An unbiased text is a myth", which is to say that all texts have their share of bias. I was on the "against" side of the debate, and lost miserably, and I'm not sure why, because I did mention Police Reports and even referred to several News Articles which I made out to be unbiased.

After the debate however, I approached the judge and asked her what was wrong with my argument, to which she replied by pointing out to all places in the texts which contained bias, and said that even police reports contain a significant amount of bias (which I still don't understand to this day, considering all they write about is their observations and a summary of the case).

In all of this, is there actually such a thing as an unbiased text?

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    How do you, and the other debaters, define "bias"? – muru May 15 '18 at 7:56
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    Is this related to philosophical theories that consider truth as a social construct, so any text would always contain the biases that underlie the social practices of the society that produced it? (Does this sound sufficiently confusing?) – user800 May 15 '18 at 8:14
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    @ChristopheStrobbe That's exactly what I thought of when I read the question. I may try and put an answer together on that basis if I can find a good example. – Bob Tway May 15 '18 at 8:16
  • Well...how do you define text? If I create a series of randomly selected characters, would that be unbiased? (Characters here meaning random pixel combinations in a certain frame of space, though I suppose one could argue this is biased against large characters, or characters written in a portion of the EM spectrum not visible to the human eye...) – heather May 15 '18 at 21:35
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First, I have to ask: do you have a clear definition for bias? Think on this for a moment.

Let's look at some of the meanings given, for instance, by Merriam-Webster:

  • a : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
  • b : an instance of such prejudice
  • c : bent, tendency

I believe you're only thinking of "unreasoned judgement/preujdice" when talking about bias. If that was all, sure, there might be texts which are unbiased about something (but not, in general, unbiased about everything)*.

Was that the debate topic using such a narrow definition? If not, Everyone has biases: tendencies to favour or disfavour things.

Now:

... considering all they write about is their observations and a summary of the case ...

That is inherently biased for several reasons:

  1. People often fail miserably at accounting for their own biases even when simply observing something (so they might unconsciously ignore things) - biased observation
  2. Even for the things that they do manage to observe, people do not write down every last bit of minutiae, but only selected bits - biased reporting
  3. A summary is by definition a product of the writer's judgement on what is important and what isn't from the larger text (which has already gone through conscious and unconscious filtering), and therefore is a direct application of their biases.

So what we have in such a report is whatever's left after all of the writer's biases have been applied. A different person could have observed and chose to report about slightly different things.


... several News Articles which I made out to be unbiased ...

Have you considered your own biases? Do you believe yourself to be perfectly unbiased and informed? Can any biased person judge that a text is unbiased?


* Note

1 + 1 = 2

Seems to be unbiased about most things, but rather biased against base 2 arithmetic.

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    Mod 2 arithmetic is awesome. It's impossible to make sign errors there. – Rand al'Thor May 15 '18 at 19:11
  • @Randal'Thor While I agree with you, perhaps you misread the note as base 2 is different from mod 2. – Kimball May 20 '18 at 23:40
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    1 + 1 = 2 Seems to be unbiased about most things, but rather biased against base 2 arithmetic. - As a mathematician, I'm not on board with this statement or entirely clear what you mean. The statement 1+1=2 is a particular statement written in particular convention. Comparing decimal to binary is literally the same as choosing 1 alphabet over another (or something like using a different font), so I don't think it's biased in the same sense as a police report or the news. – Kimball May 20 '18 at 23:46
  • @Kimball note what it's a footnote to: "If that was all, sure, there might be texts which are unbiased about something." That's the point: it isn't biased in the same sense as a police report. – muru May 20 '18 at 23:50
  • @muru But in what sense is it even fair to say the statement 1+1=2 is biased? I just don't really understand what you mean. – Kimball May 20 '18 at 23:53
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Cognitive psychology developed the concept of schema (plural: schemas or schemata) to describe "a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them". According to Kendray Cherry's article What Is a Schema in Psychology?,

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

So far, so good, but the availabiliity of these concepts and shortcuts comes at a price (my emphasis):

However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to focus instead only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established ideas about the world.

We have schemas for things, person schemas, social schemas, self-schemas and event schemas. With regard to their role, Kendra Cherry points out that schemas influence what we pay attention to, that they help simplify the world, that they allows us to think quickly, that they can chage they way we interpret incoming information and that they can be remarkably difficult to change.

The use of schemas is typically automatic. One potential problem related to schemas is prejudice. Kendra Cherry mentions a study related to gender expectations and stereotypes:

In one interesting study, researchers showed children images that were either consistent with gender expectations (such as a man working on a car and woman washing dishes) while others saw images that were inconsistent with gender stereotypes (a man washing dishes and a woman fixing a car).
When later asked to remember what they had seen in the images, children who help very stereotypes views of gender were more likely to change the gender of the people they saw in the gender-inconsistent images. For example, if they saw an image of a man washing dishes, they were more likely to remember it as an image of a woman washing dishes.

A related concept is that of a perceptual set. In the article Definition and Examples of Perceptual Sets in Psychology, Kendra Cherry defines the concept as follows:

A perceptual set refers to a predisposition to perceive things in a certain way. In other words, we often tend to notice only certain aspects of an object or situation while ignoring other details.

She adds that "the way you see the world is heavily influenced (and biased) by your own past experiences, expectations, motivations, beliefs, emotions, and even your culture?" Later in the article, Cherry also mentions schemas, which contribute to these perceptual sets. She gives the following examples of schemas that influence perceptual sets:

For example, people have a strong schema for faces, making it easier to recognize familiar human faces in the world around us. It also means that when we look at an ambiguous image, we are more likely to see it as a face than some other type of object.

Psychologists and other disciplines that study how we think (e.g. philosophy) have identified many biases; Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases is depressingly long. In the context of the current question, biases related to belief and social biases are interesting. Wikipedia also has a separate list of memory biases.

Schemas, perceptual sets and biases all influence the way we write texts and how we interpret them. Moreover, they do this automatically and subconsciously. Since these biases can cause reasoning errors, several disciplines are studying how to reduce or mitigate them; see e.g. cognitive bias mitigation and cognitive bias modification on Wikipedia.

So in everything that we meaningfully call a text (this excludes "1 + 1 = 2" from the other response), bias will unavoidably creep in. We can mitigate it somewhat by having the text reviewed by other people, especially people who don't share all of our biases and who are aware of many existing cognitive biases.

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How about the blank page? Having no text it is saying nothing and by saying nothing it can't be read to say one thing as opposed to some other thing.

I'm not being entirely serious ... because when we say text we already imply some kind of norm. Here that norm would be actual text and not a blank page. You could call this a bias against the blank page, a bias against the page with no text, but this misunderstands what norms are, and what they are for.

When people begin to ask whether a particular text is biased its because they are contesting the norms within a text - whether covert or overt.

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