Sunday, May 30, 2010

Research, Third of Many Parts: Judging Sources III

So much information exists. Every day, new books appear to explain current events, argue climate change, and evaluate energy and economic policy. History has been told, re-told, revised, and re-considered as values and points of view shift. Which book or version is the true, definitive one? How can consumers sift through it all; how can readers differentiate between the true, factual analysis from distorted, partial ones?

First, search the source for other points of view. Few subjects are simple. Matters of State and policy are complicated. Why then do some writers and speakers pretend that only two extremes exist, that only one of those extremes is the correct choice? For example:

We can save the planet and go broke, or we can slow down until we can afford to make change.

This is the classic either-or persuasive technique. You’ve heard it many times, many ways:

1. Either we save the polar bear, or we continue to use fossil fuels to enrich the quality of our lives.
2. We must prevent all drug use, or we can surrender our streets to gangs.

These extremes should help you realize the either-or fallacy. It prevents us from talking about other options, middle grounds, and reaching consensus. Either-or polarizes and divides us. Either-or usually frightens and misleads. Trust the writer and speaker who grant that the other side has a valid point of view. Trust the writer and speaker who examine both extremes as well as the middle ground. Trust the writer and speaker who know more and share more than the either-or ones.

Second, search the sources for emotional appeals, and if the analysis is purely emotional, be on guard. Facts and reason must appear in order to persuade readers and listeners fairly.

First, a word about emotion: it’s good and should appear in persuasive arguments. Matters of the heart shape matters of State and policy. After all, I am not likely to care about the use of pesticides, chemicals, or additives unless I can put a human face into the argument. Erin Brockavich, starring Julia Roberts, makes this point effectively when the new, impersonal, and large legal firm enters the case. The new lawyers only see numbers: the number of clients, the need for telephone numbers, the number of people with breast cancer or brain tumors. Erin sets them straight, recalling names, faces, every scar that resulted from a surgery, every child buried. Erin again puts the emotion into the case and in doing so, reminds the new attorneys that they are fighting for human life and justice, not just monetary returns.

Now, another word about emotion: be suspicious if the argument is based upon emotion alone and the writer offers no facts or evidence. For example:

Incumbent Talksalot should not be returned to office; he only speaks for Big Business, not the American people.

If the writer or speaker adds evidence that Incumbent Talksalot has received campaign contributions from corporations and lobbyists for special interests, his declaration may have merit. If the writer or speaker also provides proof that Incumbent Talksalot’s voting record mirrors the corporate and lobbyists’ interests, then his claim is even stronger. Finally, if the writer or speaker logically develops an analysis that juxtaposes the corporate and lobbyists’ interests with those of the American people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that he knows the truth.

Sometimes, the emotional appeal is not an attack against a man; sometimes it is purely a matter of diction. Remember last week’s examples: radical versus free-thinker, improved versus unimproved, Heartland and family values? These words resonate because of their emotional appeal. A writer and speaker can manipulate the argument with nothing more than word choices. For example:

“Mr. Family Man will represent our interests in Washington” is a statement that seems to imply that Washington is not a place where families exist, a place where families have no influence whatsoever.

“Sending troops is the right thing to do; it is the patriotic thing to do. We must protect our shores.” This claim pushes buttons that do not irritate. After all, I want to be “in the right.” I believe in “national pride.” “Protection” is a worthy goal.

If either of the statements above is unaccompanied by facts, data, evidence, or logic, I should be suspicious. Critical thinking tells me that Washington’s population includes families, that Congressional representatives are heads of families, that Washington’s residents care about health and safety and the pursuit of happiness as much as anyone. Critical thinking also tells me that military action may not be the first or best option—at least until I have heard all other points of view on the matter. Then, I can make a well-informed decision.

Third, beware of false premises that lead to faulty conclusions. Occasionally, an essay will begin with a claim that has not actually been debated, agreed upon, or proven, yet everything follows from this premise. For example:

All pigs can fly. Miss Piggy is a pig; therefore, Miss Piggy can fly
.

Granted, my syllogism is absurd, but it serves to illustrate the problem. If we let a false premise serve as the foundation of an argument, then we have suspended critical thinking and accepted as truth what may not be true. We must scrutinize the bases upon which arguments are built before they enter the public domain and take hold as tightly as urban legends do. Repeated, a false premise takes on the weight of truth. After all, web services such as snopes.com would not, could not exist if there were not vast numbers of untrue stories circulating in break rooms, around water coolers, and on the World Wide Web. Sadly, much of what passes for reasoned arguments these days is little more than opinion, rumor, and claims based upon false premises.

Another version of this fallacy is known as circular reasoning. It simply begins with a claim that has not been proven, then closes with the same claim. For example:

Brand X trucks are built to be tough; therefore, Brand X trucks are tough.

We all know that Brand X may or may not be well-built. Simply saying that it is supposed to be tough does not make it tough. Similarly, simply asserting that Candidate Y is a family man does not make it true. Search for evidence of Candidate Y’s actions in behalf of family: Are his kids in Scouts? Has he served as a Homeroom Parent at his child’s schools? Has he volunteered to coach a Little League team? Is he home for dinner more often than not?

One more version of false premises is a flawed comparison; beware of writers and speakers who use faulty analogies. For example:

Today’s high school student is little more than a convicted felon serving time.

Granted, some high schools resemble a prison—strong, sturdy, fortified and perhaps even surrounded by heavy-duty fencing. Some high school students must also wear uniforms, and many must submit to electronic surveillance and daily searches before entering the premises. Kids and prisoners stand in line for everything, and the foods they eat are high in carbohydrates and sodium. But upon release for the day, teens can drive themselves places without armed guards or shackles on their limbs. They need not go to half-way houses or wear electronic bracelets. They can take off their uniforms and enjoy their freedoms like any other citizen.

The differences outweigh the similarities. The comparison, while amusing perhaps, is false. Examine closely comparisons and analogies. How many differences exist? The differences may nullify the comparison.

One final wrinkle on the faulty comparison is the hasty generalization. If I drive through the State of Oklahoma and do not encounter a single tornado, I may claim that Oklahoma’s stormy weather is overrated, but I have based my conclusion upon a single experience. My knowledge is severely limited and therefore, my conclusion false.

Fourth and finally, beware of red herrings. Most of us are equipped with the “red herring” chip. We use it often and freely when we want to avoid challenges and win arguments. Consider the following exchange between parent and child.

Parent: Where have you been? It’s one hour past your curfew! Why do you think I provide a cell phone for you? You are supposed to use it to call me when you will be late!

Child: I could not get a signal.

Parent: Where were you then? You were supposed to be at John’s house, studying. Anyone can get a signal inside or outside John's house.

Child: You don’t trust me? How can you not trust me? I can’t stand your need for control!

The child has successfully shifted the ground by tossing in a “red herring.” The conversation shifted from the child’s failure to call or be home on time to the parent’s parenting style.

Beware when writers and speakers do not answer questions, shifting the ground instead. Men and women who campaign for offices and causes are adept at tossing out “red herrings.” Instead of answering questions that might prove their culpability, they will re-focus the discussion to an area where they believe they are strong. Instead of daring to offend a constituency, no matter how tiny, they will fly the “red herring.”

So if the truth is hard to find, how will you find it? Read, watch, listen; read, watch, listen; read and watch and listen. Bias and propaganda in your sources cannot deter or mislead you because you:

1. will read all points of view—even those that do not match your own;
2. will read from the left, the right, and in between;
3. will read magazines, newspapers, blogs, and books;
4. will watch documentaries and films based upon true stories;
5. will watch commercial, cable, and public television;
6. will watch domestic and international news programs;
7. will listen to all points of view—even those that do not match your own;
8. will listen to speakers from the left, the right, and in between;
9. will listen to U. S. and foreign broadcasters; and
10. will read, watch, and listen to minority opinions because they need to be heard.

All this reading, writing, and listening will insure that you become knowledgeable. You will be able to discern truths and reason well. However daunting research seems, it is vital if you are going to write well, effectively, and beautifully.

Reading Challenge:

Pick a topic—any topic—and read at least three different points of view on the same topic. Search for bias and propaganda. Identify it and decide how it shapes the argument. Choose the one essay, article, film, or speech that best represents the whole topic honestly and critically. Be sure that any online source you choose includes the file extension .gov or .edu. These are more likely to be objective rather than subjective.

Writing Challenge:

After completing your Reading Challenge, write your own “editorial” on the topic, avoiding the fallacies described in this week’s blog and integrating at least two points of view.