Dwelling in the zone of evidence

I’ve written plenty about the software layer that adapts the Hypothesis annotator to the needs of someone who gathers, organizes, analyzes, and then writes about evidence found online. Students in courses based on Mike Caulfield’s Digital Polarization template will, I hope, find that this software streamlines the grunt work required to find and cite the evidence that supports evaluation of a claim like this one:

Claim: The North Carolina Republican Party sent out a press release boasting about how its efforts drove down African-American turnout in the 2016 US presidential election.

That’s a lightly-edited version of something I read in the New Yorker and can send you to directly:

As we were fleshing out how a DigiPo course would work, I wrote an analysis of that claim. The investigation took me all the way back to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Then it led to the 2013 Supreme Court decision — in Shelby vs Holder — to dilute the “strong medicine” Congress had deemed necessary “to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting.” Then to a series of legal contests as North Carolina began adjusting its voting laws. Then to the election-year controversies about voter suppression. And finally to the press release that the North Carolina GOP sent the day before the election, and the reactions to it.

Many claims don’t require this kind of deep dive. As Mike writes today, core strategies — look for fact-checking prior art, go upstream to the source, read laterally — can resolve some claims quickly.

But some claims do require a deep dive. In those cases I want students to immerse themselves in that process of discovery. I want them to suspend judgement about the claim and focus initially on marshalling evidence, evaluating sources, and laying a foundation for analyis. It’s hard work that the DigiPo toolkit can make easier, maybe even fun. That’s crucial because the longer you can comfortably dwell in that zone of evidence-gathering and suspended judgement, the stronger your critical thinking will become.

When I first read Toobin’s claim my internal narrative was: “Boasted about voter suppression? Of course those neanderthals did!” Then I entered the zone and spent many hours there. Voter suppression wasn’t a topic I’d spent much time reading about, so I learned a lot. When I returned to the claim I arrived at an interesting judgement. Yes there was voter suppression, and it was in some ways more draconian than I had thought. But had the North Carolina GOP actually boasted (Mother Jones: bragged, Salon: celebrated) the lower African-American turnout? I concluded it had not. It had reported reduced early voting, but not explicitly claimed that was a successful outcome of voter suppression.

So we rated the claim as Mixed — that is, partly true, partly false. A next step for this investigation would be to break the claim into more granular parts. (Software developers would call that “refactoring” the claim.) So:

In a press release on November 7, 2016, the North Carolina GOP reported lower African-American early voting.

That’s easy to check. True.

Here’s another:

In its 11/7/2016 press release the North Carolina GOP boasted about the success of its voter suppression efforts.

Also easy to check: False.

What about this?

In the wake of Shelby vs Holder, the North Carolina GOP pushed legislation that discriminates against African-American voters.

You need to gather and organize a lot of source material in order to even begin to evaluate that claim. My fondest hope for DigiPo is that students inclined to judge the claim, one way or the another, will delay that judgement long enough to gather evidence that all can agree is valid. That, I believe, would be a fantastic educational outcome.

3 Comments

  1. What if all can never agree that the evidence is valid? What if for example, no matter how much evidence were gathered, some people continued to insist on delaying judgment? Meanwhile, while judgment is delayed, justice is delayed, and those suffering from the discrimination for which no amount of evidence is enough, continue to suffer. Justice too long delayed is justice denied. Is that a fantastic outcome?

    1. No. So let’s find a middle ground between knee-jerk reaction and endless inconclusive dithering. And let’s teach people to dwell, at least for a little while, in that zone.

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