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

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I’ve seen these photos before, claiming to show archaeologists digging up skeletons of giants. A. Roy King shows how some of the best-known photos were faked.

Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece? [Updated 22 May 2010] I was intrigued recently when someone sent me a series of photos purporting to show the skeletons of giant humans excavated at archaeological sites. Here is an example to the right. However, some quick Internet research revealed that these photos are all doctored. You can see all the photos at About.com — here is an explanation and analysis by urban-legends specialist David Emery: "Giants in Greece — Analysis." The photo s … Read More

via A. Roy King

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

Today I ran across this great comic by Sydney Padua on the BBC News web site. In the 19th century, Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical precursor of computers.

The difference engine was never completed during Babbage’s lifetime, but here is a link to a photo of one at the London Science Museum built recently.

AB — 9 July 2009