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What's Your Evidence?

Sorry for the outage the last couple of weeks. My younger son just graduated high school, which meant visits from many relatives and lots of events, including frequent drives to the town I grew up in where a ballot initiative campaign was underway.

Anyone living anywhere similar initiatives have taken place knows what that means: lots of lawn signs with “Yes on #” or “No on #” in very large fonts, with unreadable text beneath.

This type of campaigning taps into the human tendency to ignore topics that are not top of mind until the last minute. The hope is that, once you get into the voting booth and see the text of an initiative you are being asked to vote on for the first time, all you will recall is how many “Yes” and “No” signs you saw around town and make your choice based on instinct vs. deep consideration of the matter.

On one drive, my wife made me slow down enough to figure out what the vote was all about which led to the discovery of a website called “Residents for Waterfield Facts” which claims to provide the factual information someone needs to make an informed choice, in this case about use of public lands for a commercial development project.

For now, I’ll put aside the naming conventions organizations use to give themselves an appearance of grassroots origin and lofty goals, my favorite being the two groups that keep fighting over the issue of who gets access to auto-repair information: the Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee (i.e., independent auto shops wanting to expand their business); and Citizens Committee for Safe and Fair Repair (the auto dealers fighting to hold onto their lock on that info). Instead, I’d like to focus on why “Residents for Waterfield” want to share with others the facts.

As stated in the preamble post to this web site, LogicCheck was created to demonstrate to journalists, citizens and students that facts – while terrific – cannot help us navigate through tough choices unaided by logic. We can raise and document facts (as does the group behind the Residents for Waterfield Facts site), check them (as do countless fact-checking sites), and hope that factual information will lead to better understanding and good choices.

But facts are one category of evidence, a very important one, but hardly the only kind of evidence that can be brought in to support an argument.

As long-time readers should know by now, evidence (whether in the form of facts, statistics, images, or other forms of information) supplies the premises of a logical argument, an argument that can be tested for strength and weakness. In the case of the ballot initiative you have been reading about, many well-documented facts have been put together, but they have been put together in support of a conclusion: that voters should approve the project.

Now it may be that some of these facts are incorrect, which would weaken the argument in support of that conclusion. But even if every fact is 100% true, they may not provide adequate evidence to convince you to support the conclusion. Perhaps some of the facts are irrelevant or out of date, or perhaps there are other facts that – if included – would make you doubt the choice the campaigners want you to accept. In any case, it is the job of a critical thinker – especially one being asked to make an important choice – to check both the facts and the logic behind the argument into which those facts fit before voting “Yes” or “No” (or making any other decision that requires purposeful thinking).

All that said, evidence provides the building blocks for any argument on any subject, so for the next few posts and logic checkers I’d like to take a closer look at different forms evidence can take, starting next time with statistics.


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