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

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

One of the great challenges for an observer of public discourse these days is getting a clear, unbiased statement of both sides of an argument. People have powerful motivations to articulate only their opinion and trash the other side — see my previous entry, “Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation.”

So it was refreshing to come across the infographic linked below from Information Is Beautiful. The graphic provides a reasonable, neutral juxtaposition of both sides in the climate debate. (Click the image to see it full-size.)

AB — 8 December 2009

I find that the discussion around the Intelligent-Design controversy is often clouded by rhetorical spin from one side or the other. I thought this brief note from William Dembski captured the central issue clearly: See “Evolutionary Informatics as Intelligent Design and not as Theistic Evoluation.” See also my previous entry, “Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation.”

AB — 24 August 2009

[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:

Pseudo-science

In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:

Anti-Science

I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.

-deniers

This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.

Anti-Business

Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.

Ideology

Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

Porting this post over from Socialtext:

I wrote up some comments this morning on my Reluctant Guru blog about the way people use rhetorical intimidation to gain the upper hand in disputes.

Some of the phrases I commented on are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong” and “pseudo-science.”

Here’s what I wrote — I will use this space here to write updates:

“Pure and simple” — As in, “This is theft, pure and simple.” This is sometimes used to add artificial certainty to an assertion, to make things seem black-and white.

“Just plain wrong” — Used in similar ways to “pure and simple” to impose an oversimplified certainty to your own side in an argument.

“There is no dispute that ….” — Followed sometimes by a statistic, sometimes simply by the speaker’s opinion. My immediate urge when I hear this is to respond with, “I hereby dispute you.”

“Nonsense” — Used to describe someone else’s idea and to position your own as superior.

“Utter” — This one occurred to me just now, as it is sometimes used with a word like “nonsense” or “hogwash” to make the other person’s idea sound even more unreliable.

“Pseudo-science” — Used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions. A celebrity not long ago used this term to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models.

“Ideology” or “belief system” — Used to describe someone else’s values or way of thinking. Seems to me that using these terms places a slightly negative spin on the other person’s position — as if my own way of thinking is truly objective, whereas the other person’s is tainted by extremism. I guess a good test might be to ask, Am I willing to describe my own way of thinking as an ideology or belief system?

AB — originally posted 22 March 2007