Thinking


Just for the record, often there’s so much wrong with an assertion that it’s hard to know where to start, so I just don’t bother. Just so you know.

— ARB, 29 July 2014

 

Advertisements

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

Here’s a piece of business advice: Wherever you go, whatever you do, always act in such a way as to raise the bar.

In business, we frequently focus on competition. In the darwinian ideology, life is supposed to be about competition, and that idea often gets transferred into business. In reality, though, I think cooperation is more important in the way both life and business work.

Cooperation is much more fundamental to getting things done, and I think even competition can be seen in a way as a form of cooperation, in that when we compete, we make each other better by raising the bar.

ARB — 6 September 2013

 

Today on Facebook, grief expert Rob Zucker shared a fascinating article about Conor McBride, who was forgiven by the parents of his girlfriend, whom he murdered. The article asks the question “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” and discusses restorative-justice diversion programs, a movement that seeks to reconcile criminals and their victims — and to let victims’ forgiveness play a role in sentencing. Together, Conor’s parents and the parents of the murdered girl, Ann Margaret Grosmaire, consulted with Sujatha Baliga, who leads the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. Working together with the prosecutor, the parents succeeded in getting a reduced sentence for Conor.

It’s a messy story about a horrible crime, but it does cause me to reflect on repentance, mercy, and capital punishment.

Years ago, I was struck by something said by computer scientist David Gelernter, who was maimed in 1993 by a package bomb from the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. How did Gelernter feel about the death penalty for Kaczynski, who also murdered three people? Here’s what Gelernter wrote in his 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, as quoted in a review of the book:

I would sentence him to death. And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents, apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men’s families, and the whole world — and tells us how he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing clarity that he deserves to die — then and only then I’d commute his sentence…

An unrepentant Kaczynski pleaded guilty in 1998 to escape the death penalty and is serving life without possibility of parole.

In 1999 in Utne Reader, Gelernter wrote an essay that is at the same time thoughtful and impassioned. The essay is titled, “What Do Murderers Deserve?” with the subtitle, “In a┬áresponsible┬ásociety, the death penalty has its virtues.” In the opening paragraph he writes,

A Texas woman, Karla Faye Tucker, murdered two people with a pickax, was said to have repented in prison, and was put to death. A Montana man, Theodore Kaczynski, murdered three people with mail bombs, did not repent, and struck a bargain with the Justice Department: He pleaded guilty and will not be executed. (He also attempted to murder others and succeeded in wounding some, myself included.) Why did we execute the penitent and spare the impenitent? However we answer this question, we surely have a duty to ask it.

I have no essential problem with the death penalty. Often when learning about some abhorrent crime, I’ve found myself thinking, why not just save us all a lot of time a grief and put a needle in his arm right now? At the same time, capital punishment is unevenly administered in this world. You’re less likely to get executed if you can pay for better counsel. And what about the role of repentance? In a just world, I guess that would make a difference. But in the messy one we are stuck with for the time being, it seems likely that repentance and forgiveness will only be allowed to make a difference at the margins where you find ideas like restorative justice.

ARB — 6 January 2013

 

Nearly all of us are actors within the economic system, and so we are driven by economic incentives to a greater or lesser degree.

I think I can make an argument that by living a simpler life, we can free ourselves to a greater extent from those incentives. That gives us greater freedom of choice.

Thoughts?

ARB — 20 December 2012

 

I’ve discussed this question before over on ThomasNet Green & Clean — see my piece “The Climate Change Controversy — What’s It Really About?

However, I’m meditating on a somewhat different way to articulate it. I should say that I don’t think this controversy is essentially about science. I’m not persuaded by ill-informed or politically motivated assertions, but I don’t use terms like “hoax,” “anti-science,” “pseudo-science,” or “denialism” in connection with the argument.

My current thinking is the following:

The climate change controversy is about a high-stakes struggle between science in the service of eco-socialism and misinformation in the service of free-market fundamentalism.

I’m engaged in an ongoing development of my thinking on this topic and will no doubt circle back to it. But I just wanted to pin down that idea.

ARB — 2 Nov. 2012

Just a note that I have written a post over at Tools for Thinkers with brief reviews of some of my favorite books about intelligence and how to improve it if you so desire. I review books by Tony Buzan, Jeff Hawkins, Daniel Golemen, and Joshua Foer. See “Some Great Books About Intelligence.”

ARB — 2 Nov. 2013

Next Page »