On the Importance of Backing up the Things you Say

I teach freshmen college students how to use objective research to form an argument. Usually, these are students in introductory English or Communications classes who are about to write their first college research papers. Their professors contact the library, and we bring the class in for a crash course on research. Often, it’s a struggle to keep the students engaged and interested—they want a good grade on their first research paper, but how long can you really stay interested in someone talking about the importance of research for college assignments?

I’ve noticed that they become a lot more engaged and interested when I point out that research is important in the real world, even outside of college. I tell them: “If there’s anything in this world that you care about, anything that you think is unfair, anything you think needs to change, then you need to learn how to back up your arguments with solid facts.”

The library jargon for this skill is “information literacy.” It’s incredibly important, and it’s incredibly lacking in our country today. It ought to be taught before college, but unfortunately most of the first year students I’ve encountered are barely information literate, if at all. Granted, that means that I’ll likely have a job for the foreseeable future, which is nice, but librarianship is really less of a “job” and more of a cause.

Have you ever seen someone make a claim with no sources, and then challenge everyone else to find data to disprove their claim? Those people are information illiterate. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and they don’t know how to talk about whatever it is that they’re trying to talk about.

I mentioned an example of this in my first post: a Facebook user who believed that Obama had caused serious damage to the trucking industry. His claim was “1100 trucking companies went bankrupt each week” under the Obama administration. I knew that was too outrageous to be true, so I asked him where he’d found that number. He could not provide a source, but instead suggested that it’s up to me to find data that suggests otherwise. That guy was information illiterate. He was bad at arguing, but he was arguing anyway.

I’ve seen this more and more in recent years, and it’s a damn shame. Here’s why it’s so frustrating: Did you hear that Hillary Clinton donated her entire life savings to pay college tuition for underprivileged kids? No? Look it up! You can’t find anything to disprove it, therefore it must be true.

If that was true, maybe more people would like Hillary Clinton. Maybe more people would have voted for her. Maybe she wouldn’t have lost the election. So wouldn’t you like to know whether that’s actually true?

It’s not true. I just made it up. But since our nation does not value information literacy, I could probably convince people that it’s true. That’s not good. That means I’m convincing people to believe in lies that will affect who they vote for. It’s also not true that “1100 trucking companies went bankrupt each week” under Obama. If that were true, I would question my support for Obama. That’s why this matters—people are making voting decisions that affect everyone, so it’s best that they do so with correct information.

So here’s the lesson we teach freshmen at the library: Before you make an argument, you need to find the facts. We see lots of students who say “I want to write a paper about why fast food should be banned,” or “I want to write about why we should lower the drinking age.” And we tell those students, “you’re jumping to conclusions. The only thing you should start with is ‘I want to write about fast food, or the drinking age, etc.’ Then you do some research to see what the facts say. THEN you form your argument. You do not form an argument before you’ve seen any facts.”

You might find facts that show you that people under 21 are susceptible to brain damage if they drink alcohol. If that’s where the facts point, you might not be able to argue that we should lower the drinking age. It would be much more convenient if you could say “drinking is good for children,” but you probably have no facts to back that up, so that’s a shitty argument.

Until you can back up the arguments you make, you don’t have a good argument. All you have is BS. If you want to convince anyone of anything–why shouldn’t we regulate gun ownership? Why should we respect NFL players who kneel for the anthem? Why do you think Trump a successful president?–you need more than just BS. You need facts.

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