Understanding Prescription Bias

Prescriptive Bias

Prescriptive language tries to disguise opinions as truth. It does this using words like “is”, “should”, “needs to”, and “must.” As opposed to descriptive language which describes our experience and understanding, prescriptive language dictates that the world is identical to the one prescribed by the author.

Example of a prescriptive statement: “Inception was the best movie of 2010”

Was it really? According to whom? This is clearly a belief in the form of a declarative sentence. Prescriptive language seeks to spin an (often ideological) opinion off as a given fact. Prescription tells us how the world is instead of describing and studying it.

Example of a descriptive statement: “I think Inception was the best movie made in 2010” (Describing how I feel about Inception)

Prescription Tries to Equate Distinct Concepts

If concepts can only refer to other concepts, will a statement like “X is Y” ever really be true? Even a trivial statement like “the sky is blue” reveals how slippery prescriptive language can be. Is the sky always blue? What about during a sunset? The “sky” and “blue” are just concepts that happen to have a meaningful relation given certain observations. A descriptive (and true) statement might look like: “During bluebird days, the sky looks blue to me.” By falsely equating concepts and ideas, prescriptive language greatly reduces the quality of discourse and tries to force the world to fit into simplistic and absolute categories.

What’s So Bad About Prescription?

The previous example might seem unimportant. Who cares that the “sky” is not literally “blue?” Consider the following questions:

  • Is the US a racist country?
  • Are lockdowns counterproductive?
  • Is big tech bad for society?

Since these questions use “is” and “are,” they have no correct answer and merely lead to partisan squabble. These complex issues are not reducible to identities between simplifying concepts like good and bad. Here are more productive questions that elicit description and contemplation instead of prescription and bickering:

  • Under what circumstances can we find reliable evidence of racial discrimination and how has it affected different individuals over time?
  • What have been positive and negative effects of lockdowns and how do we reconcile these with our personal and societal values?
  • What opportunities does mainstream technology facilitate and how can these same technologies become pathological?

Description begets understanding. Prescription begets more prescription and hot emotions.

Prescriptive News Tends to be More Dishonest

Prescriptive news tends to concern itself little with thorough reporting and more with making provocative statements to generate emotional tension and drive clicks. Prescriptive sentences tend to be false and can manipulate subtly or outright.

Fortunately, the Helium news feed automatically filters out prescriptive news. Learn from thoughtful description instead of being tricked by prescriptive language. You can also see the most prescriptive articles for each source as well as a “Prescription Bias” indicator (from 0 to 10 where 0 is no prescription and 10 is a ton of prescription) for each source.

Here’s some examples of prescription bias in news:

McCarthy warns Democrat-backed HR 1 is Pelosi power grab meant to erode election confidence (“Is”)

The COVID vaccine system is unfair to those who need the shots most. This was predictable. (“is”, “was”)

Humans Are Pretty Lousy Lie Detectors (“Are”)

Federal Spending Is Out of Control. No, Earmarks Won’t Change That. (“Is”, “Won’t”)

See Sources & Their Average Prescription Bias