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Sins of Omission

Sins of Omission

Summary

Take a quick stroll through the Congressional Record, and you’ll see that there’s nothing straightforward about legislation. The bills themselves are complicated: They have many parts; they go through numerous revisions, and they use jargon and language that’s tough to understand. The conversations surrounding the bills are complex too, and there are often subtle differences in opinion that don’t break down along party lines. Politicians can exploit this complexity to misrepresent their own opinions or those of their opponents, making issues seem cut and dried when, in fact, they’re anything but. In this lesson, students look at some claims made by presidential candidate John McCain about his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. In evaluating whether these claims are accurate, they will see the importance of researching context and learn to be on the lookout for fallacies that exploit incomplete knowledge.

Objectives

In this activity students will:
  • Analyze the Web sites of two presidential candidates
  • Compare two pieces of proposed congressional legislation
  • Analyze statements made by the candidates for attempts to manipulate the public
  • Learn to recognize the “arguments from ignorance” fallacy

Background

In June 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain attacked Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for opposing the Kyl-Lieberman amendment. Among other things, this amendment called for designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

McCain argued that because Obama didn’t support the bill, he must therefore oppose this designation for the IRGC. But Obama actually cosponsored an earlier bill calling for the IRGC to be deemed a terrorist organization.

Materials

1. Student handout #1, statements from John McCain and Barack Obama.
2. Student handout #2, excerpts from legislation.

Procedure

Before class, make enough packets of the supporting materials so that when the class is divided into small groups of 3 to 5 students, each group will have a packet.

Exercises

Exercise #1 – Keeping an open mind, asking the right questions

Divide the class into groups of 3 to 5 students each. Hand out copies of student handout #1. Have students examine only the first two statements, in which McCain discusses Obama’s position on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment.

Remind students that McCain is a Republican and Obama is a Democrat, and that at the time of these statements, they are running against one another for the office of president. Have students discuss the following questions in their groups:
  • What is the main issue?
  • Summarize McCain’s position and Obama’s position on the issue, based on these statements. Do the two men agree, according to McCain?
  • Does it benefit McCain if people think he and Obama are on opposite sides?
  • Does it benefit McCain if people think that he cares more about terrorism than Obama?
  • Do you think that McCain is accurately representing Obama’s position?
Point out to students that this is only McCain’s side of the issue. In order to decide whether his assessment is accurate, they’ll need to ask some questions – not just about whether McCain’s facts are right, but also about whether he’s putting them in their proper context. Ask the full class what questions they would need answered before they could decide whether McCain is accurately representing Obama’s position. Guide students toward generating a list that includes the following:
  • What does the Kyl-Lieberman amendment really say?
  • Why does Obama say that he voted against the amendment?
  • What is Obama’s record on similar legislation?
Exercise #2 – Cross-checking

To the teacher: It’s important that students review several sources when verifying information. Even when they are not technically telling falsehoods, politicians may leave out or misrepresent information. Students should gather all the facts from neutral sources before they decide whether a statement is accurate, or whether it needs context.

Hand out copies of student handout #2 to the groups. Explain to students that the first excerpt is from the Kyl-Lieberman amendment and the second is from a bill that Obama cosponsored. Have students examine the two excerpts for similarities and differences.

Direct students’ attention to statement #3, an excerpt from an Obama press release, on their first handout. Ask students: Does this match with what John McCain was saying about Obama’s motivations for voting against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment?

Have students discuss the following questions briefly in their groups, then as a full class:
  • Were you able to answer any of your questions from the first exercise? Which ones?
  • Does this new information change your opinion on whether McCain is accurately representing Obama’s position?
Exercise #3 – Arguments from Ignorance

To the teacher: If your class has completed the FactCheckED.org lesson plan on fallacies, they may already be familiar with argumentum ad ignorantiam, or argument from ignorance. This fallacy exploits holes in our knowledge to claim that if we don’t know something is false, it must be true. Students should know how to recognize and guard against this fallacy.

Direct students to handout #1, statement #4, from the McCain campaign Web site. Ask students to rephrase McCain’s point. What evidence is he offering?

Have students come up with analogous examples of similar reasoning. If the classroom has computer access, have them look at John McCain’s Web site. Can they find something McCain doesn’t mention supporting? Does this mean he opposes it? Have students search McCain’s Web site for his position on handing out heroin at public schools. If they can’t find evidence that he opposes this practice, does that mean he’s in favor of it?

Explain to students that this reasoning – “it must be true, because we don’t know it to be false” – is a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or argument from ignorance. It is one way in which politicians (and others who seek to persuade us of something) can exploit the holes in our knowledge. Being aware of faulty reasoning can protect against tactics like this. So can research – since the students now know more about Obama’s position on designating the IRGC as terrorists, they might be less likely to fall for this ploy. But knowing how to spot logical fallacies means that even before you have all the information, you’ll suspect that something’s not right.

As a summary, have students look at FactCheck.org’s article on McCain’s statements.

Optional Exercise

Watch the McCain ad, “Dr. No,” released on June 25, 2008.

Focus on the portion of the ad in which Obama is accused of saying “No to Clean, Safe Nuclear Energy” and Obama’s recorded voice is heard saying:

Obama: I start off from the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal. I am not a nuclear energy proponent.

Using the Internet, including Obama’s Web site, research what Obama has said about nuclear power.

Discuss in class:
  • Is the McCain ad accurate? Does Obama oppose nuclear power? Lay out the evidence you have gathered.
To see FactCheck.org’s take on the ad, read the article “Distorting Obama.”

About the Author

Jessica Henig earned her B.A. in history of science from Smith College, and her M.A. in English from the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, she taught digital literature and rhetorical writing. Prior to joining the Annenberg Public Policy Center in May 2007, she worked for the National Academies Press. She has also worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a freelance researcher and editor.

Correlation to National Standards

National Social Studies Standards
VI. Power, Authority, and Governance Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
X. Civic Ideals and Practices
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Essential Skills for Social Studies
Acquiring Information
A. Reading Skills
1. Comprehension
2. Vocabulary
B. Study Skills
1. Find Information
2. Arrange Information in Usable Forms
C. Reference & Information-Search Skills
2. Special References
3. Maps, Globes, Graphics
D. Technical Skills Unique to Electronic Devices
1. Computer

Organizing & Using Information
A. Thinking Skills
1. Classify Information
2. Interpret Information
3. Analyze Information
4. Summarize Information
5. Synthesize Information
6. Evaluate Information
B. Decision-Making Skills
C. Metacognitive Skills

Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation
A. Personal Skills
C. Social and Political Participation Skills

Democratic Beliefs and Values
B. Freedoms of the Individual
C. Responsibilities of the Individual
D. Beliefs Concerning Societal Conditions and Governmental Responsibilities

National Mathematics Standards
Number and Operations Standard
Algebra Standard
Data Analysis and Probability Standard
Process Standards
Problem Solving Standard
Connections Standard

National Educational Technology Standards
Profiles for Technology Literate Students
2. Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services.
7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity.
8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving, and decision making in content learning.

Information Literacy Standards
Information Literacy
Standard 1 Accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 Evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 Uses information accurately and creatively.

Social Responsibility
Standard 7 Recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 Practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information technology.
Standard 9 Participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

English Language Arts Standards
Standard 1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary work.
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Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Standard 8 Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Standard 12 Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).