Argument is Not Just About Winning

In a culture saturated with talking heads debating one another, sometimes resorting to “alternative facts,” and when proponents of extremist beliefs urge the curious to “research it yourself” once they’ve populated YouTube and the web with material that supports their fringe ideas, the idea of “evidence” is complicated. Students may well think it’s something you select to make an argument – picking cherries, tossing aside whatever doesn’t fit your thesis.This activity is designed to help students think about ethical uses of evidence and how to use sources to understand an issue, not just to win a fight.

Agree on a common topic for the class to investigate, have students in groups state a claim about that topic, and ask them to quickly find evidence to back it up. As they search have a group member observe and jot down the moves they make as they search, then discuss as a class. Did they filter for sources that would affirm their belief, discarding ones that didn’t?

Discuss how to avoid a premature conclusion and why it’s important to approach issues with integrity and an open mind rather than cherry-picking supportive evidence. Provide contrasting examples of an ethically constructed argument and one that leaves out inconvenient facts. Then repeat the process asking students to seek out and include in their search sources that contradict or complicate their claim.