Hey every adult on social media! Every. Single. Person. Not just the right. Not just the left. Not just the Karens. Not just the Chads. Not just the Boomers. Not just the Millenials. Every. Single. Person.
You would fail the argumentative units taught in middle schools and high schools across the country. If your Facebook arguments were essays handed into English teachers and if the articles you’re sharing were the resources you’d use to support those arguments, English teachers would return your think pieces to you with glaring red Fs, inked in the upper right-hand corner and circled for emphasis.
Okay, so everybody wouldn’t fail (Hello, glaring flaw in reasoning!)– but if you want people to listen to your opinions about controversial topics, it can’t hurt to revisit the basic rules of how to evaluate resources and build an argument.
So can you take five minutes and listen to me–a woman with 14 years of teaching experience in middle and high schools who holds an English degree from the University of Illinois and a master’s in Secondary English Curriculum and Instruction from Louisiana State University–about what you’re doing wrong and then reevaluate your thinking? It’s the same process my eighth graders go through whenever I give them feedback.
What You’re Getting Wrong About Evaluating Resources and Building Arguments
- Stop writing off vetted and reliable news organizations and media resources because of a minuscule amount of bias. It’s important to recognize bias and if particular outlets lean left or right, but that’s just one step in the complicated process of evaluating resources and arguments. Does it lean slightly left? Does it lean slightly right? That’s not enough to discredit the facts or information presented in the source. Now if a resource or news organization is heavily biased then disregard it. You’ve seen those news bias charts floating around (you can take a look at a couple of different ones here and here). And what’s alarming is some Americans–both conservatives and liberals–are choosing to get their news from the most outrageously biased sources they can find instead of looking at minimally biased news sources on both sides of the political spectrum. If you handed in an argumentative essay to me and most of your citations were from these online news sources—The Huffington Post, The New Republic, BuzzFeed News, Daily Kos, Alternet, Occupy Democrats, Palmer Report, Patribotics, The Federalist, The New York Post, The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Daily Wire, Newsmax, RedState, The Blaze, InfoWars, WorldTruth.TV, The National Enquirer, and so many others–these heavily biased resources would weaken your entire argument, potentially causing you to fail the assignment. Might there be grains of truth and facts in these resources? Maybe, but you shouldn’t have to dig through skewed information and inflammatory language for it. Also, please recognize any argument any person makes will be biased–because that person is trying to prove a point regarding a debatable issue. (And P.S., some of you don’t use the word bias and its forms correctly within sentences–which further detracts from your argument. Bias is a noun. Biased is an adjective. Examples of correct usage: The article has bias. An article is biased. The biased article weakens your argument. Your bias is showing. Examples of incorrect usage: Another bias article is posted on Facebook. An article is bias because it’s hyper-partisan. The bias argument is faulty.)
- And what about that complicated evaluation process? You have to consider multiple factors when evaluating a news source. Unfortunately, it’s not an exact science, and sometimes you can’t discredit a source for one factor alone. When looking for facts and data to back up arguments, consider these things: is the information true, does it give a list of resources, is it opinion, is it propaganda, is the information current, is the information written by an expert or are expert sources used within the resource (authority), is the information published by an accredited institution, does it address counterarguments, is it based in fact, is there inflammatory language, are there flaws in reasoning, does the site work well, is the website free from errors, is the website organized easily, AND/OR is there a minimal amount of bias? Look at these things when evaluating sources. Is any single resource going to meet all the above criteria? Maybe? Maybe not? Weigh its merits before deciding to use it. Now let’s inspect some of the more important points made here.
- Is the information true, and based in fact, data, and logical reasoning? If you use a resource that gives inaccurate information (Can you find the same information on multiple, reliable resources?), it renders the entire resource and your argument invalid. You cannot argue with facts; they speak for themselves. I repeat–facts are not debatable.
- Is the information up-to-date? I cannot stress this enough. When using resources to back up your point, use the most recent information available. Let’s examine the controversy surrounding masks. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in March, Dr. Fauci, the nation’s foremost expert in infectious diseases, said to not wear a mask in a 60 Minutes interview. This clip, widely circulated via YouTube and Facebook, is still being used to back up people’s arguments for not wearing a mask. However, this is old news because as doctors and scientists have learned more about how this brand new virus spreads and how to treat it, they have changed their recommendations to wearing a mask. Dr. Fauci and other experts now say everyone should wear one in public based on the current research. Yes, information and recommendations can change that quickly. Adjust your wheelhouse to new information and stop clinging to outdated data. Let me put it to you like this, up until the 19th century, doctors used to bleed patients as treatment. Hey, got pneumonia? A sore throat? Let’s drain you of your blood to help you get better! Let’s make you super weak to fight this infection! Sounds ludicrous right? (Sidebar: On the day he died, George Washington woke up with a sore throat, and as a treatment, his doctors drained 40 percent of the blood from his body.) Do doctors still use this practice? NO! Because it’s been proven ineffective and choosing to still practice it would be negligent. Now that was a super long time ago, but just like I wouldn’t want a doctor draining my blood to treat coronavirus, I wouldn’t want doctors to use treatments on me from three months ago–when they didn’t know much about the virus. When scientists and doctors are presented with new information that proves old information wrong, they change their previous stances. You need to do so as well. Take a little time. Dig around on Google. Check to see the date the information was originally published or if it’s been updated recently. Stop spreading old news as new news. If you use old information, it renders your entire argument invalid.
- Is the information written by an expert on the topic and does that resource have the authority to give you the information? Am I an infectious disease expert? No. Are you an infectious disease expert? Probably not. And no amount of googling will make you or me one. Trust what people who have degrees and have studied topics extensively are telling you and then use their expertise to back up your argument. At this point, you might be thinking, Mrs. Ram, you’ve just obliterated your own authority, but I didn’t. What’s my expertise? What are my credentials? As pointed out above, I have authority when it comes to literature, writing, and 14 years of teaching both. So do I have the authority and expertise to discuss with you how to evaluate resources and arguments? Yes. But, just like I tell my students, don’t ask for my expertise about Huey Long’s assassination, why the sky is blue, or how to figure out that algebraic equation—because I’m not an expert on those topics. Here’s another example. Would you want your cancer treated by a hospital administrator, a general practitioner, a gastroenterologist, or an oncologist? This seems like a no brainer, right? So why choose articles, listen to speeches, or elevate arguments from people who are in leadership positions who ignore experts when it comes to mask-wearing and COVID-19? Why choose a resource about anti-mask-wearing or about how coronavirus-is-a-hoax penned by a plastic surgeon, gastroenterologist, rheumatologist, or even a general practitioner over experts even more knowledgable? Just like I don’t want my ulcerative colitis treated my dermatologist, I don’t want my information about coronavirus from anyone but an expert. Again, dig. Who wrote the information that you’re reading? Do they have the authority to tell you this information, and if they don’t, did they gather that information that they’re providing from other expert sources?
- Is there inflammatory language? If you want people to listen to your argument, limit or refrain from using language that insults and angers the people you’re trying to persuade. Choose resources that practice this as well. That negative language will work on people who already agree with you, but it won’t on the people who don’t. Were you offended when I told you at the beginning that you’d fail an argumentative unit? I did it on purpose to show you how negative language can affect an argument.
- And finally, just liking or loving a person or an entity is not enough to use them as a resource. A good solid argument is based on facts, data, and logical reasoning and can be strengthened by using emotional and ethical appeals. If it’s built only using emotional and/or ethical appeals, disregard the argument.
Y’all. I didn’t even touch flaws in reasoning, but you can read more about that here.
You might not like me now or the information presented here. You might have caught on to some flaws in my logic (feel free to point them out to me). But that’s not enough to discredit the basic rules of how to evaluate resources and how to build an argument that I presented to you.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you dislike what I told you. If your argument isn’t grounded in facts, statistics, data, and logical reasoning and isn’t backed up by credible, reliable, trustworthy resources, you don’t have an argument and people aren’t going to consider what you have to say. Because you’re wrong and you’re choosing to ignore or argue with information that can’t be argued with.
What I’m going to ask you to do now is to sit and reflect. How can you be better at choosing resources and building arguments? What do you need to rethink? How can we all be better about how we engage in persuasive discussions on the internet and in person?
Works Cited: See links embedded in the post.