History


I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.

The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:

  • The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
  • The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
  • What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.

An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.

Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:

  • The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
  • Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
  • Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
  • The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
  • The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
  • The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.

As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.

ARB — 3 Oct. 2013

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

I love the proverb, “What gets measure gets managed.”

This principle often gets applied to business situations. It can mean that simply examining an activity changes the activity by forcing you to pay attention to it. It can also mean that producing measurements about the activity gives you a handle on it, a way to improve it. If you start adding up your sales volume every month, it gives you a basis for saying, I’m not generating enough revenue, I need to do more selling.

But I’m interested in knowing the source of that quotation. It often gets attributed to management expert Peter Drucker, but I’ve never seen an actual reference that proves he said it.

This blog post will serve as an ongoing investigation of this quotation and might be updated from time to time as new information comes to light.

Here are some popular forms of the quotation:

“What gets measured gets managed.”

“What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed.”

“What gets measured gets done.”

“To measure is to know.”

However, I haven’t been able to find any reliable reference that traces any of these forms to Peter Drucker or any other original source. It’s possible that these are nothing more than memes that have caught on and keep getting passed around.

So far, the most likely source of this idea, if not in any of these popular forms, is William Thomson, the Scottish physicist also known as Lord Kelvin. According to the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, by Jeanne Mager Stellman (page 1992), Kelvin said in his May 3, 1883, lecture on “Electrical Units of Measurement” (Popular Lectures, Vol. 1, page 73):

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

That might be the best we can do in tracking down the source of this bit of management wisdom.

Some people probably think it doesn’t matter whether we get these kinds of things right or not. But in his story about researching this same Lord Kelvin quote, James Heywood of patientslikeme makes some good points about the value of checking primary sources.

ARB — 2 Dec. 2012

Omar ibn SaidAn interesting article appeared today in the Raleigh News & Observer, reminding me of the story of Omar ibn Said (ca. 1770-1863), a Muslim teacher and trader who was sold into slavery in Africa and sent to America in 1806 or 1807 — see “Slave and scholar led exceptional life in N.C.

Although often called a “prince,” it would be more accurate to say that Said was from a prominent family of Futa Toro, which is now part of Senegal. The Wikipedia article on Said says he was captured in a military conflict before being sent to America. A bio from UNC says he was convicted of an unspecified crime.

Said eventually wound up with the wealthy Owen family of Fayetteville, N.C. The family evidently gave him few work assignments, allowing Said to live an easier life and pursue scholarly efforts.

A historian at the N.C. Office of Archives and History told the News & Observer that Said “was likely the most educated slave in North Carolina and one of the best documented practicing Muslim slaves in America.”

Here is an excerpt from an autobiography by Said, which appears to have been written in 1831:

I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians. We sailed a month and a half on the great sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian land. I fell into the hands of a small, weak and wicked man, who feared not God at all nor did he read (the gospel) at all nor pray.

I was afraid to remain with a man so depraved and who committed so many crimes and I ran away. After a month our Lord God brought me forward to the hand of a good man, who fears God, and loves to do good, and whose name is Jim Owen and whose brother is called Col. John Owen. These are two excellent men. I am residing in Bladen County.

I continue in the hand of Jim Owen who never beats me, nor scolds me. I neither go hungry nor naked, and I have no hard work to do. I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.

The News & Observer article says that on Friday Nov. 5, the state of North Carolina will inaugurate a roadside historical marker in Fayetteville, in front of a mosque name after Omar ibn Said.

AB — 31 Oct. 2010