Evidence as Verbal Strategy

Uncovering Evidence and Examples as a Verbal Strategy

We see a woman's bare legs, one shoe on, one missing, evidence of a crime.The picture on the right is meant to look like an actual crime scene. This is, perhaps, the situation that comes to mind most quickly when we think about evidence. The detectives and the criminalists study the crime scene and collect all sorts of things that might be considered evidence, that might help prove the cause of death, how the crime was committed, and who did it.

On television detective stories, we rarely hear about things that have been collected that are not related to the crime. If this woman has a scratch on her arm, we jump to the conclusion that her killer scratched her.  If she has her husband’s watch with a broken band in her hand, we quickly conclude that her husband was the killer and she grabbed the watch in a fight. Neither of these things might be true. He cat might have scratcher her arm.  Her loving husband might have given her the watch so she could take it to be repaired.

In some detective shows, the actual killer might leave items at the scene to implicate someone else.  We can learn from a cautious use of evidence in crime scenes to use evidence cautiously in our reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Study the evidence and examples as you read

As you read your assignments, study the arguments you find. If the author makes a point on a controversial question, look closely at the structure.

You might find the main point or main idea is presented at the beginning of the paragraph. You might find it at the end of the paragraph (as a conclusion), somewhere in the middle, or (most confusing) the main idea or point might be implied but not stated with the writer assuming it is obvious.

Now look for evidence and for examples.  A common paragraph structure is to begin with one or two examples in order to get your attention. It’s actually a good idea. It does get our attention.

The main point – or what we call the main idea might follow the examples. It is usually a more general statement.

In this structure, the evidence might come last. Evidence might refer to statistics,  a quote from an authority, or relevant facts. The paragraph may continue to describe how the evidence leads logically to their main idea.

Lets consider an example. The writer wants to convince readers to stop smoking. They don’t want to start by telling readers to stop smoking. If the readers are smokers, they might not read any further.

They could start with a few examples like the Marlboro Man (in advertising for Marlboro cigarettes) who  died of lung cancer, caused by smoking. They might refer to someone who developed Macular Degeneration, going blind because of smoking.

Then, we have the general statement or main idea. “Scientists have found that people who stop smoking are less likely to suffer from serious health problems.” (yes we might have figured out this was the main idea.)

Finally we look at evidence. The writer provides statistics, perhaps even graphs, comparing deaths and serious health problems with people who never smoked, those who smoked and quit, and for those who have continued to smoke for many years.

They might stop there, but if you are writing a similar paragraph for a class, you need to end with an analysis of the evidence. “As you can see, those who stopped smoking had many fewer heath problems due to smoking. Imagine what might happen if  most smokers were to quit. This would this save many lives. It would increase our national GDP because of increased time on the job. It would also lead to huge savings in national healthcare costs.

It is important that you not” jump to conclusions” For example, you sometimes read or hear strange statistics. such as teenagers who chew bubblegum, make better grades in math. (I made this one up.) The problem is, you can only use this statistic as evidence if you can explain how one thing could have caused the other.  Some things really do just happen by chance.

You might find other paragraphs using examples and evidence  to make a point. Study them. When you take a class dealing with opinions or controversial issues, begin preparing for a paper or essay questions asking you to state your opinion and support it with examples and evidence.

Imagine that you need to write such an essay. Choose a few topics and start looking for helpful examples and evidence. You might go so far as to check the Internet for statistical evidence.

Do this for several controversial topics. If you want to go further, outline an answer you might write, or actually write out a few short answers.

Benefits of understanding the use of examples and evidence

1. With awareness of paragraph structure, you will recognize the main idea, examples, and evidence quickly and  understand  what you read. You won’t be tempted to think the first sentence is always the main idea; you might recognize it as an example or perhaps a statement of the problem.

2. You might find your reading is more interesting.

3. You will probably improve your writing. When you understand ways paragraphs can be structured, you can apply these structures to your own writing.

4. You can use the same sort of structure to participate in a debate, to make a speech  or make a classroom presentation.

4. In classes where you are asked this sort of questions, you will feel confident, you will be able to write a good paper in less time, and you are likely to get better grades.

Two terrible examples of writers who used evidence poorly to support racist views.

In 1996 Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray published an infamous book called  Bell Curve.  They used statistics to show that on tests of intelligence, students of different racial groups made different average scores. The highest scores were made by Asian students. Next were white students. Then came the Hispanic students. Those with the lowest scores were African-American Students.  There is no doubt that this was true.

What would you conclude from such statistics?

The problem was that these authors arrived at a conclusion they probably already believed: that African-Americans  have lower levels of intelligence. It is hard to believe, in this time in history, educated writers could jump to such absurd conclusions.

First of all, there could be and were many other causes for these students to make low grades on the intelligence tests. Many of these students grew up in poor, often single parent homes. Many never had a parent who read stories to them. They also attended the poorest schools, with many dropping out of school at early ages. All of these things could have contributed to their making low scores on intelligence tests. The authors don’t conclude that Asians are more intelligent that Caucasians. They understand the high value placed on education in most Asian families explains why they make higher scores.

The other thing that I find hard to believe is that these authors apparently didn’t consider the fact that we define “intelligence” as the score a person makes on an intelligence test and that most intelligence tests are mainly based on reading, math and logical reasoning. Many studies have shown that these tests created, based on the usual experiences of white, middle and upper class families.

There have been efforts to create culture-free intelligence tests. The one I have used would work well with students who don’t speak English but whose education is similar to an American education. They would not measure intelligence of people from a very different culture who never learned abstract reasoning. But the fact that some people never learned abstract reasoning does not mean these people are lacking in intelligence.

We might also consider the work of Howard Gardner who suggests that intelligence includes far more than what we test on these intelligence tests. He lists 7 (or perhaps 8 or 9) different intelligences, intelligences that may not depend on having a good western education, intelligences that may be important in many areas of life.  For more information  go to Multiple Intelligences .

The second terrible example based on the same statistics

This time it involved a famous scientist, one of the researchers described the shape of the DNA molecule as a double helix, leading to our understanding of how genetic information can move from this point to all parts of the body. Dr. James Watson was a highly respected scientist who shared a Nobel Prize.

It hurts me to think that such a person can make such terrible errors in their scientific reasoning. But Dr. Watson, while working with Harvard University, said  “while there are many people of color who are very talented,” that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all testing says not really.”

The New York Times quoted this and added that Dr. Watson was suggesting that people of African decent are not as intelligent as people of European descent. In his resignation speech and apology, Dr. Watson says that if he really did say what he is quoted as saying, that there was no scientific basis for such a belief.

I only hope that Dr. Watson was confused because he was getting older and somehow said something he didn’t believe, or certainly something he would not have believed or even thought twenty or thirty years earlier.

The only good result of these terrible conclusions, apparently based on statistical evidence, is how the American people and, I would imagine, people all over the globe raised such strong objections to both the book on the Bell curve and to Dr. Watson’s remarks.  The general public is apparently of the problem when statistics are used to support racist remarks. I wish we were equally aware when absurd arguments are made by our politicians.  Or, perhaps, we don’t expect rational arguments from politicians any more.

Two lessons from this example

1. When you read a book or article, look for the author’s assumptions, for his bias. Does he begin by believing something and then look for evidence to prove he is correct?  I’m afraid all too many politicians think this way. They take the party’s position on a topic and misuse evidence to prove it to their followers. This is particularly strange when they argue passionately first for one position, and then a few months later, for the opposite position.

2. When you form an opinion, check your own assumptions and bias. Are you able to consider the question or topic from different points of view?  Can you be fair as you use evidence and examples to reach a conclusion? Are you open to changing your own mind after considering the facts?

Examining evidence is a part of what we mean by Critical Thinking.

You might be interested in reading Critical Thinking .

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