Did you know that President Obama was once a gang member and even served time in prison before rising to the presidency?
That vegetarianism kills? That more people die by violence from knives than guns in the U.S.? That the U.S. spends five bazillion dollars on foreign aid every year? I didn’t know any of that either, but these are just some of the claims I’ve read in student papers over the last year. And how did my students find out? Well, the Internet, of course.
A number of issues, both in writing and critical thinking, are involved in such claims, of course.
A major problem with student writing is the writer’s tendency to just repeat an often-stated claim--“You can kill with a knife the same as with a gun”--without really researching and supporting it or even thinking about it and its underlying implications because the writer has heard it so often. This is not only a matter of writing but of critical thinking. Fortunately, there are ways to address such questionable claims through teaching research and critical thinking skills. Some of them follow.
Try These 5 Methods to Support Dubious Claims
Attitude of Skepticism
Primary to critical thinking is developing an attitude of skepticism, of not taking claims on face value but actually considering them. Carl Sagan, acclaimed astronomer, wrote for the lay audience in several of his books about the scientific method in general, especially of not just accepting claims on face value, but holding initial skepticism and willingness to investigate claims. He introduced the idea of “The Baloney Detection Kit,” how one might investigate dubious claims. That is, if something sounds suspicious, like baloney, it may very well be. The claim that knives are more dangerous than hand guns may lead me to checking out that claim because my own experience and understanding of violence lead me to be suspicious of it.
One of the first steps of “The Baloney Detection Kit” is the initial sniff test. That is, how reasonable does the claim seem at face value, “first sniff”? For example, there is a group of people, “9/11 Struthers,” which claims that the Bush administration was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This claim fails the initial sniff test, whatever you might think of the Bush administration, because the first question that leaps to mind is “Why?” (followed closely by “How?”) Bush-- whatever your politics and whatever you may think of him as a leader in general--just doesn’t seem like a lunatic who would kill thousands of his own people for no apparent reason. And such a plot would involve keeping perhaps a million conspirators silent for over a decade. The claim fails the initial sniff test and is probably baloney.
During the course of questioning and investigating a dubious claim and its source, the writer will likely decide that her claim should be, if not totally abandoned, modified. While it may not be completely reasonable to say that knives are as dangerous as guns, they can certainly be dangerous weapons, and so the initial claim can be modified (“While the gun is certainly a very dangerous weapon that can do the massive damage that other weapons cannot, there are other dangerous weapons that are not as controlled as guns--” etc.)
Checking out Claims
Along with the initial sniff test and modifying claims comes querying claims. If something sounds questionable--well, question it. Under what circumstances, and how, can knives be as dangerous as guns? Can an example be given of this? Who makes this claim? What might be her underlying motives? Querying a claim with pertinent questions to check out its validity is part of critical thinking and engaging in the academic process. Querying will also help develop writing skills because in the course of questioning the claim, and if it does appear a valid argument, the writer will have more support for the assertion, for example, that knives can be as dangerous as guns, with expert testimony, examples, and so forth.
Equally important to querying a claim for specifics on its validity is checking out the source and its reliability. Who said that knives kill more than guns? An ER doctor? A convicted felon? A criminal prosecutor? A scholar on the topic of violence? A member of the National Rifle Association? What expertise does the claimant have, and what motives/agenda might he hold on making the claim? On the issue of weapons, a doctor, scholar, and police officer have different types and valuable expertise, but their perspectives and agenda on the topic of how weapons should be addressed within a society are likely very different.
Besides modifying an overly broad claim during the course of investigating it, the writer will also be able to support it better. That is, in investigating the claim that knives are as dangerous as guns, the writer will have come up with statistics, examples, and expert testimony of the violence of both weapons and will then be able to better support the modified claim: e.g., if the modified claim is that knives, while not as capable of the kind of mass destruction a gun can produce, pose their own particular kind of damage, the author now has support for this.
By teaching students some of the methods of actually thinking about, questioning, and researching dubious claims, the instruction can help students develop not only their writing skills but critical thinking skills as well and introduce them to a more scientific and academic way of perceiving information in a world with a lot of information of dubious quality.
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