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 useful infographic for the demographics geeks among us.

According to this accounting, 15 out of the 100 are undernourished and one is starving. Thirteen have no safe water, 23 have no shelter.

Good to see that 83 are literate. Interesting that 22 can access a computer.

(Click the image to go to the original and explore it at full size.)

The World as 100 People

ARB — 2 April 2013

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011

A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

I was astonished to learn today that the lyrics to the 1960s hit “Louie Louie” are not obscene, as we speculated endlessly as teenagers. (See “What are the REAL lyrics to ‘Louie Louie’?” on The Straight Dope.)

The KingsmenAccording to The Wacky Top 40, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, The Kingsmen, who recorded the song in 1963, were surprised to learn that people thought they heard obscene lyrics when listening to the song. The group’s drummer is quoted as saying, “At one time we saw 35 different copies of the lyrics and they were all completely different, depending on what part of the country you were from.”

He says the lyrics were so hard to understand because the lead singer was too far away from the microphone in the recording studio.

According to The Straight Dope, the author of the song, Richard Berry, told an interviewer that the song is meant to be “the lament of a seafaring man, spoken to a sympathetic bartender named Louie.”

It’s a beautiful, touching song. Here are the actual lyrics, as given in the Dr. Demento lyrics database:

Louie Louie
by Richard Berry

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go.

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me,

Me catch the ship across the sea.

I sailed the ship all alone,

I never think how I’ll make it home.

Louie Louie

Oh no, no, no, me gotta go, oh no

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

Three nights and days I sailed the sea.

Me think of girl constantly.

On the ship I dream she there.

I smell the rose in her hair.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Louie Louie

Oh baby me gotta go.

(Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!)

Me see Jamaica moon above.

It won’t be long me see me love

Me take her in my arms and then

I tell her I’ll never leave again.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

I said we gotta go,

Let’s get on outta here.

Let’s go.

AB — 7 May 2010

Sound designer Meara O’Reilly has posted a fascinating entry on BoingBoing about how the various tones generated in the human voice tract generate recognizable speech — see “Whistling Speech.”

O’Reilly highlights the work of Haskins Laboratories, a research institute in New Haven, Conn., that does work on speech, language, reading, and their biological basis. Here’s a direct link to a great demo by Haskins showing how three different tones that don’t make sense individually can combine to make recognizable speech. Below the tone chart is a series of links allowing you to play the different tones separately and in combination.

AB — 17 March 2010