Ever notice how political speeches and ads always mention “the worst,” “the best,” “the largest,” “the most”? It’s effective to use superlatives, but it isn’t always accurate. For instance, President Barack Obama has said that “we import more oil today than ever before” – but do we? How can you find out? What do the numbers really mean? And why would he say it if it wasn’t true? In this lesson, students will weigh Obama’s superlative claim against the facts.
In this activity, students will:
- Analyze the reasons behind Obama’s claim that “we import more oil today than ever before.”
- Assess the truth of this claim using data from the Energy Information Administration.
In February 2009, during a joint session of Congress, Obama said that we import more oil today than we ever have. He repeated that claim in an April 2009 interview with a Russian paper. In fact, according to the government’s own sources, oil imports peaked in 2005 and have declined substantially since.
- White House press release, “Transcript of President Obama’s Interview with Novaya Gazeta.”
- Energy Information Administration, “Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Imports.”
If your class does not have internet access, make copies of the Obama transcript for each student, and distribute them at the beginning of the lesson. Determine how many copies of the EIA chart you will need for small groups of about three students each, and make copies to distribute at the beginning of Exercise #2.
Exercise #1 – Asking the Right Questions
Have students read the answer to the second question in the transcript of Obama’s interview with Novaya Gazeta. You will be examining the claim that “we import more oil today than ever before.”
Discuss as a class:
- What was the point of Obama’s answer? Rephrase it in your own words.
- How does the claim that “we import more oil today than ever before” support that point?
- What reasons might Obama have to say that we import more oil than ever before?
- What questions would you need to ask before deciding whether this claim is true or false?
- How might you find the answers to these questions?
Exercise #2 – Cross-checking
Break the class into groups of three students each and have them examine the EIA chart, “Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Imports.”
In their groups, have students answer the following questions:
- Does the graph accompanying this chart show that we’re importing more oil today than ever before?
- What does it show?
- In what week were we importing the greatest amount of oil?
- How much were we importing in the most recent week shown on the chart?
- What’s the difference between these two values?
Exercise #3 – Analysis
Discuss as a class:
- How does Obama’s claim compare with the facts?
- How do the facts change the point he was making in the Novaya Gazeta interview?
- What should Obama have said instead? Is there a claim he could have made that would have reflected the real data without weakening his point?
Optional Activity #1
For higher grade-level classes with internet access, have them search for oil import data on their own before supplying them with the EIA chart. For each source they find, they should ask:
- What reasons do I have to trust this source?
- What reasons do I have to think this source might be biased?
Optional Activity #2
The EIA graph shows general trends in the data, and the accompanying chart shows actual data points for each week. Have students compare the week with the highest imports (Nov.4, 2005) with the weeks before and after. Have them compare the imports for Sept. 2, 2005, two months before the peak, with the imports from the most recent week. Even when the collected data show a high number of imports, the individual data points can vary greatly. It’s important to look not only at the latest data, but also at the trend, to get a clear picture of the situation.
Discuss the following:
- If this week’s imports were actually the highest on record, even higher than on May 26, 2006, what would that mean? Would it mean our oil consumption was going up?
- What other information would you need to draw conclusions from that data point?
- What advantage does the graph have over the chart? What advantage does the chart have over the graph?
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. In addition to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, she has worked for the National Academies Press. She has also worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a freelance researcher and editor.
- English Language Arts Standards
- Information Literacy Standards
- National Educational Technology Standard
- National Social Studies Standards
- Social Responsibility