Evaluating Evidence and Sources

“That’s not fair!” “We shouldn't let that happen!” Have you ever said or thought those words? When you feel strongly about an issue, you want to do something about it. One way you might change a situation is to write about it. You can write something that might persuade other people to share your opinion. You may even convince people to help you bring about the change you want.

Here is your chance to make the world a better place. In this workshop you will write argumentative essays on a variety of issues. Using reasons and evidence to support your position, you will try to convince your readers to believe as you do and to take action on the issue.


Picking Your Battles

The purpose of argumentative writing is to convince your readers to share your point of view on an issue. An issue is a subject, situation, or idea about which people disagree, such as the best way to raise money for a band trip, whether television is harmful to children, or whether the city should build a skate park downtown.

Your issue should be important to you. It should also be important enough for other people to have strong feelings and opinions about it. Avoid matters of personal preference, such as clothing styles or food. Focus on issues that have a real impact on people’s lives.


Taking a Stand

Every issue has at least two sides—for it (PRO) and against it (CON). As a writer you will need to adopt a position and tell your reader which side of the issue you support. You may already have a feeling about what side of an issue you are on, but in the beginning it’s important to keep an open mind and consider both sides of the topic. Once you are sure you have enough evidence to support your position, you can state your claim and present your supporting evidence.


Backing It Up

You must convince your reader that your position is logical, or that it makes sense. To do this, you must support your reasons for your opinion with evidence. Reasons tell why you believe as you do. Evidence—in the form of anecdotes, facts, statistics, examples, expert opinions, or interview quotations—backs up each reason.

When gathering evidence for your argument, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a fact, an inference, and an opinion.

Objective vs Subjective Writing

Writing that presents facts without revealing the writer’s feelings and opinions is said to be objective. Journalists who report on current events for newspapers usually write in an objective style. Their readers want the facts; they do not want to hear how the reporter feels about the event.

Writing that reveals the writer’s personal feelings and opinions is said to be subjective.

Writers may combine subjective and objective details in the same text. As a critical reader, you must figure out which statements are based on subjective impressions and which are based on factual, objective evidence.


Stereotypes and Bias

Stereotypes: No Room for Individuality

Imagine you’re sitting on a bench in a shopping mall, waiting for your ride to show up. You begin hearing bits of conversations from shoppers as they walk by. You hear these comments:
“People who drive sports cars are all reckless.”
“All politicians are dishonest.”
“Teenagers are so lazy.”
“Football players aren’t good at school work.”
“Boys are better than girls at math.”

You’ve just heard people express their opinions of others using stereotypes. That means they are using unfair, fixed ideas about groups of people. Stereotypes don’t allow for any individuality. They brand every member a group with the same characteristics. Stereotypes can be very hurtful. They are often used to persuade us to do or believe something.

Bias: An Inclination to Favor Someone

If you’ve watched your favorite sports team on the opposing team’s host TV channel, you’ve probably noticed that the broadcasters favor the home team with their comments and calls. What you’re really noticing is something called bias—attitudes and beliefs that shape a person’s thinking in spite of the facts. Of course, your bias is evident also—you want your team to win!

As you read editorials or any kind of political or social commentary, be on the lookout for expressions that suggest the writer has already made up his or her mind about something or someone. Think of bias as an inclination to think a certain way.

You should look for bias whenever writers or speakers make claims and assertions that they don’t (or can’t) support with logical reasons and facts. When people ignore, distort, or hide the facts that oppose their bias, they may be guilty of prejudice.

The Triple A's of Evidence: Adequate, Accurate, Appropriate

When you read informational texts, you expect a writer’s evidence to be adequate, accurate, and appropriate. You need to assess, or judge, the evidence for yourself.

Is it Adequate?

You tune in to your favorite television courtroom drama, and here’s what you find out: A dog’s bark in the night, a loud thump against the wall, and a bag found in an airport trash can are all presented as evidence against the accused. Some believe, though, the one bit of evidence that seals the case is an ordinary baseball hat. The hat, which was found close to the scene of the crime, is too small for the head of the accused. It is up to the jury, however, to decide if the evidence against the accused is adequate—that is, they have to decide if there is enough evidence to prove the defendant committed murder. Adequate means “enough for what is needed; sufficient.”

Is it Accurate?

DNA experts are brought in to determine if the DNA of the blood at the murder scene matches the DNA of the blood of the accused. Although the DNA matches exactly, experts found contaminants in one of the blood samples. It is up to the jury to decide if the expert opinion on the DNA sample is accurate. Accurate means "free from mistakes or errors.”

Is it Appropriate?

The fact that a dog started barking the night of the murder may or may not be relevant to the case. It may not be appropriate evidence. Appropriate means “suitable, relevant; right for the purpose.” Appropriate evidence is to the point. Appropriate evidence does not rely totally on emotional appeal. Appropriate evidence is not inflammatory. Appropriate evidence is not based on a stereotype of the defendant.

You're the Judge

When you read a statement and think to yourself, “What does that have to do with anything?" you’re probably looking at inappropriate evidence.

If a writer states an opinion using extreme or absolute words such as all, each, and every, you’re probably looking at evidence that is inaccurate.

If you have to trust a person’s feelings instead of relying on facts, then the evidence is most likely inadequate.

As a reader you have to be able to judge the evidence. Look for facts and valid opinions. Plenty of facts and valid opinions usually means the information you’re reading is adequate. Look for sources in support of accurate information. Does the writer cite quotations, statistics, experts, or case studies? Do the sources seem reliable?

Stereotypes and expressions of bias are inappropriate evidence. You don’t want to use evidence that is inappropriate, inaccurate, or inadequate to support your position when you're writing. And you want to be cautious when reading texts that supply evidence that appears to be inappropriate, inaccurate, or inadequate.


Evaluating Sources

Newspapers, magazines, books, the Internet, and television shower us with information every day. Unfortunately, not all of the information available is reliable. Use the following guidelines to evaluate the sources you find.

Preferred sources: two magazine articles that have the opposite perspectives on the value of gray wolves for the environment
Less valuable sources: two television programs with similar information about gray wolves as harmful predators


Graphics courtesy of MyCuteGraphics.
Adapted from Holt Literabure and Language Arts - First Course.