Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

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.

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.


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.

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.


Suppose a claim is not a fallacy. What then? In some cases, a reexamination of the primary source material is necessary. In humanities-based scholarship, it is possible to arrive at a number of very different interpretations by looking at the same primary source material. Also, sometimes primary sources contradict one another, making objective analysis challenging. For example, if you are challenging the idea that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped end the Great Depression, you would want to find statistics and newspaper articles from the early 1940s that indicate the outbreak of World War II was the most importation factor in recovery.

If you challenge the claim that the New Deal helped end the Great Depression, you would want to carefully examine primary source material.


When confronting an idea, you want to strive to be as objective as possible. You want to take into consideration your own biases and your tendency to be predisposed to bias. For example, regardless of whether you are politically conservative or liberal, you may be inclined to favor a research study supporting your viewpoint over another research study that contradicts what you believe. An objective evaluation of sources is critical!

When you challenge a claim, you should be factual and to the point. Leave out information that is unnecessary and stick to the main idea. Obviously, you want to properly cite all sources. Hopefully, these tips will help better prepare you next time you are faced with challenging an idea or claim.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

  • Data in the form of statistics and research studies plays an important role in challenging ideas. These forms of data are often used to support or refute claims.
  • Primary sources are sources that are created during the time period under examination. Primary sources allow researchers to gain an authentic ”snapshot” of what was happening during the time period they are studying.
  • When challenging an idea, look for logical fallacies. Examples of logical fallacies include appeal to popular opinion, confusing causation with correlation, false dichotomy, and many others.
  • Interpretation of sources is an important part of challenging an idea. Always strive to be as objective as possible. You also want to take into consideration your own biases.
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