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Challenging an Idea: Identifying Key Points & Avenues of Research

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about challenging an idea or claim. We will explore how to identify key points of a claim or thesis and highlight strategies used to provide a rebuttal.

Presidential Debates and the Role of Data

Many of you have probably watched a presidential debate on television. The candidates typically stand at a podium and each presents evidence for why he or she is the best suited to be elected President of the United States. In presidential debates, and in other types of debates, data in the form of statistics usually plays an important role. Candidates typically cite statistics related to taxation, employment, poverty, and other areas of economics.

Often a candidate will challenge an opponent's idea or claim by citing a statistic or other form of research. For example, if Candidate A says something like: 'Under my administration, job growth has been strong,' Candidate B might reply by saying something like: 'Actually, over the past four years, job growth has declined by 8%.'

Challenging an idea or claim is an essential skill in politics, but it is not limited to politics alone. In the fields of science, medicine, history, the arts, and others, challenging an idea through evidence takes place all the time. In fact, this is how advances are made. Let's explore some strategies used in challenging an idea or claim. Here we go!

Back to the Source: Identifying Key Points

In order to challenge an idea from an academic standpoint, it is imperative to fully understand the main idea and the key points surrounding it. For a hypothetical example, let's pretend that a historian has written a book and has argued that President John Adams suffered from mental health problems during his time in office. If you were a historian seeking to challenge this claim, you would first want to become thoroughly aware of the research. You would want to identify all the key points and become intimately familiar with them.

What would this look like? To begin with, you would want to examine the primary sources used to construct the thesis. Primary sources are sources that are original and created during the time period under examination. For example, a newspaper article about John Adams from 1798 would be considered a primary source because it was created in 1798 while Adams was president. Letters, government documents, and pamphlets are other examples of common primary sources. Primary sources allow researchers to gain an authentic ''snapshot'' of what was happening during the time period they are studying.

A 1776 copy of Common Sense written by Thomas Paine. This is an example of a famous primary source.
commonsense

By examining primary sources, you could find out where the historian was getting his information from: you could get an idea of what people actually thought about John Adams's mental state in 1798. In historical scholarship and other humanities-based scholarship, primary sources are the cornerstone of research. In the sciences, you would want to examine the experiment or original research upon which a claim is based. Similarly, in the field of economics, you would want to examine the original survey or study and make sure the math adds up!

Fallacies, Interpretation, and Objectivity

Once you fully understand the key points of a claim and the sources and evidence that the claim is based on, you are prepared to challenge it.

Fallacies

When challenging an idea, look for logical fallacies. Sometimes ideas or claims are based on fallacies. There are all types of logical fallacies. One is an appeal to popular opinion. In this fallacy, an asserted claim or idea is regarded as true just because it is widely accepted. For example, many people mistakenly believe that Abraham Lincoln chopped down his father's cherry tree (this myth is attributed to George Washington). However, just because many people believe this doesn't make it true. Another fallacy is confusing causation with correlation. Just because two events or factors are related to one another does not mean one caused the other. A false dichotomy is a fallacy in which only two alternatives are presented, when in fact, there may be other options.

Just because many people believe that young Abraham Lincoln chopped down a cherry tree does not mean it is factual.
lincoln

There are many other types of fallacies, but the purpose of this lesson is not to cover them all. When challenging an idea, always consider whether that idea may be based on a logical fallacy.

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