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Apropos of this baffling exchange I had with a right-wing 'Brexit' supporter on on Twitter yesterday I'd like to know if my definition of a fact ('a thing that is known or proven to be true') is correct or if my co-respondent is the one with the winning definition.

To save you braving the nonsense that is twitter, it went something like this:

  1. A user posts a pic of the front-page of todays Independent newspaper. It is headed '50 key facts to help you decide' [whether to vote in or out of the EU].
  2. Someone then comments 'Biased 'facts' no doubt.'
  3. To me this just seems wrong - a 'fact', surely, is a thing known or proven to be true?
  4. I suggest that his comment is oxymoronic - how can a fact be biased?
  5. Someone then claims that 'biased facts means facts that are used for a biased purpose. If all the facts were there it would be unbiased'
  6. I think his argument, as worded and stated, is a nonsense.

* UPDATE * I really don't want anyone to get drawn into the EU referendum (or any other political debate) - I'm asking specifically about the meanings of the words per se so I would prefer it if explanations did not explain things in terms of economics, immigration, demographics or whatever.

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, PLL, Araucaria, Kris, MetaEd Jun 24 '16 at 12:29

  • This question does not appear to be about English language and usage within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

36

Speaking from a statistical perspective, it is definitely possible to create factual statements that have a bias.

It's important to keep in mind the definition here:

noun
        prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

I submit to you several factual statements designed with bias.

  1. "More white people are killed by police officers than black people." The implication here should be obvious. And, to be fair, this statement is factually true. However, it fails to mention that there are far more white Americans than black.

  2. "The number of deaths as a result of DUIs have increased since marijuana was legalized in Colorado." Again, this is indeed a true statement. However, since the legalization, the population of Colorado has increased significantly.

  3. "The design of the F-35 has several flaws." True statement. The design of every aircraft has several flaws, so while this is clearly designed to make the F-35 look bad, it's also a true statement.

The problem mostly lies in what you consider indisputable fact. In the words of Nietzsche:

You have your way. I have my way.
As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

  • 1
    I found one just yesterday: "so huge and mobile that it's generating waves in Earth’s gravitational field." Pretty sure everything does that. Including light. iflscience.com/environment/… – Mooing Duck Jun 23 '16 at 17:59
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    For the ultimate example of this, see the classic Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax The facts presented are totally true, but the conclusion they're meant to lead you to (that water is a harmful chemical that should be banned) is clearly false. – Ajedi32 Jun 23 '16 at 18:42
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    It's like the old joke about the American and Russian having a race; the American wins (it's an American joke). American papers have the headline "American wins, Russian comes in last." Russian papers have the headline "Russian comes in second, American comes in next to last." Both are accurate; both are biased. (No offense to any Americans or Russians - or people running races, for that matter - intended.) – Ghotir Jun 23 '16 at 19:24
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    I'd argue that in a "factual statement" it's the statement that is biased not the fact(s). – Laconic Droid Jun 24 '16 at 0:25
12

I would think the word "biased" should apply to a person, and only one who has some obligation to be neutral.

However, a selection of facts can be biased. If you cherry-pick only the best or only the worst aspects of any entity, even if each fact is true in isolation, the impression can be misleading.

For example, supporters of Obama like to say, "He reduced the deficit" -- which is true, the deficit during the Obama administration was lower than it was in 2008, which was the year before he took office, but it was also the year of the worst global financial meltdown since the Depression, and so isn't really a valid baseline. In this sense, the selection of one fact, true though it is, is "biased".

Similarly, I cited one egregious misbehavior by some Obama supporters. If that behavior is not generally representative, my own fact might be "biased".

(Probably words like misleading or nonrepresentative are better than biased.)

  • 4
    Many EE's would argue that bias is not merely a human phenomenon. – ebyrob Jun 23 '16 at 18:10
  • Minor quibble: It was FY09, not FY08, that was being used as the absurdly misleading basis of comparison. Aside from being the year of the global financial meltdown, the FY09 deficit also included hundreds of billions of dollars of spending that was authorized by Obama, not Bush, and, even more importantly, included several hundred billion dollars in TARP loans which were all repaid with interest over the following couple of years (and, yet, the next two years still managed to have worse deficits.) The deficit is still higher than in FY08 and a few times higher than in FY07. – reirab Jun 24 '16 at 2:20
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There are facts and there are "facts" - with the latter, the quotes around it can be called 'scare quotes' ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scare_quotes ) - they are a way of saying "so called", ie implying that they are not facts at all.

Presenting misinformation or outright lies as "facts" is such a common practise for people (or newspapers etc) trying to advance a particular argument, that the whole notion of an indisputable fact has been brought into disrepute. In other words, all facts can be suspected of being "facts".

I suspect that you thought your fact was indisputably true, while your friend is saying that it's a scare-quote-fact, ie dubious.

EDIT - the edit to the OP's question, in which the entire exchange is reproduced, bears this out:

 'Biased 'facts' no doubt.'

Note the scare quotes around facts.

EDIT - philosophical note. Trying to reduce the chaos and complexity of the world around us into simple facts is something that has kept philosophers busy for thousands of years, and will continue to keep them busy for thousands more I suspect. It's possible that there is no such thing as an undisputably true fact, and all things presented as facts are to some degree opinions and approximations.

  • A note about your note: you are indulging in the error of sorites. Yes, there is some measure of disagreement about every fact, but that doesn't mean there is no distinction between facts and opinions. – Malvolio Jun 23 '16 at 20:14
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    "It's possible that there is no such thing as an undisputably true fact." Well, this is technically true, but only because people can dispute things even if they're known to be true. If there were no absolutely true facts, then the statement "there are no absolutely true facts" would itself be an absolutely true fact, which is a contradiction. Therefore, we can reject the statement that there are no absolutely true facts and there must exist at least one absolutely true fact. – reirab Jun 24 '16 at 2:25
3

Let me point out very specifically why you're wrong.

A "car" could reasonably be defined as a means of transportation that meets certain other requirements.

A "toy car" is not a means of transportation.

But there is nothing wrong with talking about a "toy car".

The definition of a noun points to the cluster of concepts that noun embodies. Modifying a noun with another noun or adjective, (like "biased fact" or "toy car") changes the cluster of concepts embodied.

Arguing over whether a "biased fact" is a fact is as silly as arguing over whether a "toy car" is a car.

  • I don't think 'toy car' is an oxymoron. Or is it? – 5arx Jun 23 '16 at 20:27
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    No, it's not because "toy" modifies "car" so that it not longer has to be a means of transportation. – David Schwartz Jun 23 '16 at 20:28
  • If we're talking in the context of everyday human discourse I disagree. A toy car is a tangible thing. – 5arx Jun 23 '16 at 20:35
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    'Toy car' is a collocation if not a compound, and the meaning is accepted. 'Biased "facts" ' is not [Google Ngrams], and what exactly is meant needs clarification. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '16 at 21:13
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    There's nothing magic about "toy car". If follows the same rule as "toy boat" or "toy plane". The word "biased" works just like "toy". – David Schwartz Jun 23 '16 at 22:10
3

'Biased' facts usually are biased because they have been selected to support one opion. They still are facts and yet the collection can constitute a falsehood as it leaves out many other facts which would support a different opinion; I call this 'lying by omission'.

So not so much the individual facts but the collection and filtering process is biased. This is what your #5 point alludes to.

But beyond that, facts still must be worded to be communicated. The choice of words is another way to slip in a bias into an otherwise correct statement.

3

Can a fact be 'biased'?

No. If it's authentically a fact then it is an instance of a truthful event and describing it as biased would be technically incorrect.

Can sets of facts be manipulated to represent a biased intention?

Absolutely yes. And this is usually the area of expertise of politicians who handle multiple facts, expose the ones that are more convenient and leave behind others that can be used as arguments of an opposite position. This is also a current huge problem (really huge from my point of view) of news media, where facts are used out of context to comply with a particular bias, or in other cases, relevant sets of facts are completely omitted, and the ones they exclusively focus on are those that correspond with a convenient agenda.

1

I would suggest that the person claiming that the facts were biased is technically the one who is wrong.

A fact cannot be biased. An argument can be biased but that would mean either the facts are misleading, misrepresentative or simply false, never biased.

People often call their opinions facts, and in those cases the opinion is almost unilaterally biased but these are not actually facts.

50 facts that make one side of an argument look good is a biased article, a biased argument and pretty much straight up propaganda but the facts themselves are not "biased" as such.

For example, if 100 people go from country A to country B each year and 80 people go from country B to country A each year.

We could say 100 people leave country B for country A each year leading to a growth in population for country A.

That would be a fact. It would be a misleading fact. It would not be a biased fact. The argument that this fact is trying to make would probably be a biased argument.

Bias refers strongly to an external influence guided by the external factors self interest. It means having an interest in one side of an argument over an other due to factors that don't effect the argument itself.

A better way to describe the facts within this article would be "misleading and one-sided" forming a biased argument.

0

'Biased facts' is indeed oxymoronic. But many interpretations are biased. It is a fact that "the EU are considering visa-free travel for 1.5 million Turks." But just reporting the bare fact can itself show bias. The implication in the heated EU immigration debate is that they will all exercise that right to migrate. To present the fact with balance, you would have to add ", but that is not a migration right, and in any event, the holders of these special passports are the top 2% of Turkish society, and are the least likely to migrate anyway."

So sometimes the bare fact is biased, and only an extended commentary brings it back into balance.

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    Based on the actual textual exchange then I think its clear his usage was oxymoronic. – 5arx Jun 23 '16 at 15:10
  • It's questionable for one side to supplement his citation of the facts with irrelevant rebuttal to an argument that has not been made ("they are not allowed to immigrate just to travel"), and outright dishonest to inject interpretations and expectations ("only the best people will get the visas and they won't immigrate"). To criticize your opponent for not doing so on your behalf is just lunacy. A plan for 1.5 million visas is a fact, unbiased and unarguable. The consequences of that plan are subject for discussion. – Malvolio Jun 23 '16 at 19:49
  • Thanks. I deliberately picked something controversial (that was used in real life in the UK Brexit debate). I can easily pick something less controversial, ie our [food product] now has 30% less fat without adding it is still 10% fattier than our competitors and we have added sugar or perhaps our oil investment fund has beaten the market but the price of oil fell 50%, our fund only fell 40% – adatherton Jun 24 at 9:59
0

In casual language, facts are often conflated with an implicit argument for an unspoken conclusion. (e.g. "the facts speak for themselves")

Calling an individual fact biased is not a description of the fact itself, but is instead referring to the unspoken claim.

A collection of facts can be biased. As a simple example, a list of 10 good things about chocolate is going to be rather biased in several ways:

  • It will be biased towards including beneficial things over harmful things
  • It will be biased to contain information about chocolate rather than other desserts

Many such biases are benign; typically allegations of bias are only made when the bias is not benign — e.g. an enumeration of facts designed to lead you to a conclusion, rather than to give you the information to develop an informed opinion.

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