Research Guide

Analyzing Current Issues with Opposing Viewpoints

Judging Opinionated Material
Review the Author's Credentials and Affiliations
Identify the Main Idea(s) of the Viewpoint
Identify the Author's Supporting Material
Evaluating Content
Analyzing Sources with Facts and Ethical Concerns

Opposing Viewpoints and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking and Bias
Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Bias from Reason
Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources
Evaluating Information Sources
Recognizing Deceptive Arguments
Preparing for a Debate or Group Class Discussion Using Opposing Viewpoints Viewpoints

Analyzing Current Issues with Opposing Viewpoints

Judging Opinionated Material Back to Top

When researching articles in the Opposing Viewpoints database, you will come across many differing opinions and conclusions. How do you know who to believe? Which articles should you use when you do your assignment? Whenever you read opinionated material and consider whether to use it as support for a research paper or essay, you should consider the following tools to evaluate such material.

Review the Author's Credentials and Affiliations Back to Top

Each article in the Opposing Viewpoints database gives a brief biography of the author. You should pay special attention to this information. Read the author's biographical sketch and ask yourself the following questions: What is the author's background, and how might it be likely to affect his/her viewpoint? Is the author qualified to speak on this particular topic? Is the author likely to take a view because of his/her profession or because he/she is personally involved in the issue? Asking these questions will help you establish whether the author has a particular bias. It will also make you aware that authors are rarely completely objective, no matter how reasonably they present their views. For example, in a viewpoint by the Tobacco Institute on the issue of smoking, the Tobacco Institute defends cigarettes as not causing cancer. While the fact that the Tobacco Institute represents the cigarette manufacturers should not discount its viewpoint, this information remains a point in evaluating it and should alert you to potential bias. In other words, because the Tobacco Institute sells cigarettes, its viewpoint will be biased toward its economic objective.

Identify the Main Idea(s) of the Viewpoint Back to Top

What is/are the main point(s) the author is making? In each viewpoint, an opening quote is taken from the body of the article to summarize the main argument. This can be used as a starting point for your analyses. The questions that precede each viewpoint also help guide you to locating the main points in the author's argument.

Identify the Author's Supporting Material Back to Top

Does the author quote statistics, scientific or government reports, or other factual data to support his/her conclusions? Or does the author use personal anecdotes, analogies, or experiences? What are the premises of the author's argument? Do they lead logically to his/her conclusion? Remember that you are not identifying the supporting evidence to judge whether it is valid, but more to find out what type of research informs the author's views. A research report on the AIDS virus might be important to finding out the latest treatments, while an article written by an AIDS patient about how such drugs affected him will give a more personal perspective. Both views could find their way into a well-researched paper.

To evaluate a debate on an issue, you should ask these questions and decide whether an author solidly presents his/her argument. Some authors may use identical statistics to argue opposing views. In such a case, you might need to read more material in order to judge these articles. Statistics themselves can be manipulated to prove different points. Asking yourself simple questions such as how many people were used to develop these statistics and which people were used? How old are the statistics? Which organization did the study that produced the statistics? can help to detect what the compiler of the statistics was hoping to achieve and how much you should trust the compiler's results.

One of the premises of the Opposing Viewpoints is that "those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own." Remember to give all viewpoints a fair reading. Most often, you can learn more from an article with which you disagree than one with which you agree. Sounds strange, doesn't it? When dealing with highly opinionated material, you may be tempted to simply agree with the author who best supports your own views. While this isn't necessarily bad, it doesn't represent critical thinking. You should read the opposing views with an open mind and search for both merits and faults in each author's view. You may even discover that by keeping your mind open to views you disagree with, your own views will be reinforced.

Evaluating Content Back to Top

Articles in the Opposing Viewpoints are an important tool in evaluating content. When looking at controversial material that is often in disagreement, you should:

Compare the information presented in fact-centered arguments Back to Top

Using two articles that take an opposing stance can help you to analyze information more efficiently by pinpointing on which points two authors disagree. For example, does one author in the pair offer more objective information to support a point? Are either or both arguments personal, with few facts presented? Is the issue discussed in general terms, or does the author discuss a small portion of the issue in great detail? For example, an author may discuss terrorism as an aberration that must be controlled, without mentioning a specific country or proposal.

Another author may focus on an infamous terrorist and discuss terrorism as it relates specifically to his actions. Either tactic may distort the issue's ramifications.

For example, read the two excerpts from two viewpoints on endangered species:

Excerpt 1

The current extinction rate of species ranges from approximately 1000 to 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates, and if this trend continues, as many as 2 million species of plants and animals will be exterminated worldwide by the middle of the next century. This forecast is alarming because biodiversity is essential for the sustainable functioning of the agricultural, forest, and natural ecosystems on which humans depend. For example, the loss of a key species (e.g., a pollinator) can cause the collapse of an ecosystem.

David Pimentel, Bioscience, December 1997.

Excerpt 2

Environmentalists know that extinction happens, even without the help of man; if nothing else, they have the dinosaurs and the early mammals to illustrate this fact. But where any modern species of plant or animal are concerned, facts are of minor interest. The environmentalist claim is that they are saving nature from man, but it is also true that they are attempting to save nature from itself. What environmentalists really want is to preserve nature as they found it. They see nature as many of them see economics--a static picture that they can toy with as they see fit--always with predictable outcomes. They refuse to accept the transition that is part of nature.

Robert A. Condry, Conservative Review, July/August 1996.

When analyzing the content of these two viewpoints and those written in a similar vein, attempt to extract the facts that each author presents. For example:

Pimentel: Facts: Current extinction rate is 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates. If rate stays the same, 2 million species will be extinct. Conclusion: Biodiversity is essential and man's contribution to extinction endangers the world.

Condry: Extinction is part of a natural process. The dinosaurs were extinct before mankind was on earth. Conclusion: Extinction is a natural process that is inevitable.

Then analyze the author's conclusion:

Pimentel uses several facts to back up his argument that the rate of extinctions is harmful. He extrapolates from these facts that even the loss of a single species can endanger an entire ecosystem. Pimentel's conclusions seem a bit alarmist, however. He does not provide sufficient evidence to prove that the loss of a single species can harm an entire ecosystem. More information would be necessary to prove his conclusions.

Condry offers even fewer facts to support his conclusions that extinction is not a problem. He seems to spend more time attacking environmentalists than he does attempting to prove his point. Quite a bit more information would be necessary in order to see that extinction brings no harm to the environment.

Compare the information presented in vaIue-centered arguments Back to Top

In-depth, objective examination of opposing views is most easily done with topics that rely on fact to prove their point. But many debates center on philosophical and personal values. Issues like abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia will typically hinge more on values than on fact.

Even though it is difficult, you can still learn to evaluate these arguments. What values does the author present as important? Which values does he/she think are irrelevant or of secondary importance? How do the authors' values compare with those of the reader?

For example, read these two excerpts about the death penalty:

Excerpt 1

One may well argue that human life is cheapened when murderers, instead of being executed, are imprisoned as pickpockets are. It is not enough to proclaim human life inviolable. Innocent life is best secured by telling those who would take it that they will forfeit their own life. A society that allows those who took the innocent life of others to live--albeit in prison for a time--does not protect the lives of its members or hold them sacred. . . .

To insist that the murderer has the same right to live as his victim pushes egalitarianism too far. It blurs moral distinctions and recognizes only physical equalities. His crime morally sets the murderer apart from his victim. The victim did, and therefore the murderer does not, deserve to live. His life cannot be sacred if that of his victim was.

Ernest van den Haag, "The Death Penalty Is Moral."

Excerpt 2

The truth is, we all pay for the death penalty because every time the state kills somebody, our society loses its humanity and compassion and we sow the seeds of violence. We legitimize retaliation as the way to deal with conflict. Yes, we all pay. And in this sense the death penalty means cruel and unusual punishment for no only the condemned prisoner but for the innocent as well, for all of us.

Coretta Scott King, "The Death Penalty Is Immoral."

When analyzing viewpoints based on personal values, you need to identify the writer's moral stance:

Van den Haag's stance: Murderers should be considered the worst offenders of society's values, instead of being treated as petty criminals. Allowing murderers to live cheapens the lives of those they murdered. Conclusion: A murderer should be given the death penalty if society wishes to confirm that murder is one of the most terrible crimes against society.

King's stance: The death penalty cheapens the lives of all of society. It condones violence and murder as a way of solving problems, rather than condemning it. Conclusion: Society should reject the death penalty to show it has higher moral standards than those of the murderer.

Now, analyze which values the authors believe are most important. In both these examples, the author identifies a personal morality that each feels should be upheld above all.

Van den Haag's basic premise is that society must make distinctions between murderers and their victims. Victims are innocent and murderers are guilty. Essentially, the death penalty is just because it reinforces that murder is more heinous than any other crime and deserves the ultimate penalty.

King argues that society cannot take a life for a life. This would make society no better than the murderer. Therefore, the death penalty is unjust because society cannot exact a punishment that is in and of itself a crime.

It is interesting that both Van den Haag and King believe justice should ultimately belong to society and not to the individual, but they disagree as to what role society should take.

When judging moral arguments, ask yourself whether your personally views changed after reading the viewpoints. Did reading both views inform and reinforce your opinion, or did it change slightly?

Analyzing Sources with Facts and Ethical Concerns Back to Top

Many times, viewpoints mix fact and values to make their point. For example, two articles taken from the Opposing Viewpoints database that take two different views on cloning offer different evidence and arguments.

Excerpt 1

Replication of a human by cloning would radically alter the very definition of a human being by producing the world's first human with a single genetic parent. Cloning a human is also viewed as uniquely disturbing because it is the manufacture of a person made to order, represents the potential loss of individuality and symbolizes the scientist's unrestrained quest for mastery over nature for the sake of knowledge, power and profits. . . .

Any attempt to clone a human being should also be prohibited by basic ethical principles that prohibit putting human subjects at significant risk without their informed consent. . . . The birth of a human from cloning might be technologically possible, but we could only discover this by unethically subjecting the planned child to the risk of serious genetic or physical injury, and subjecting a planned child to this type of risk could literally never be justified. Because we will likely never be able to protect the human subject of cloning research from serious harm, the basic ethical rules of human experimentation prohibit us from ever using it on humans.

George Annas, "Human Cloning Should Be Banned"

Excerpt 2

About 15 percent of Americans are infertile, and doctors often cannot help them. Federal statistics show that in vitro fertilization and related technologies have an average national success rate of less than 20 percent. Similarly, a Consumer Reports study concludes that fertility clinics produce babies for only 25 percent of patients. That leaves millions of people who still cannot have children, often because they can't produce viable eggs or sperm, even with fertility drugs. Until recently, their only options have been to adopt or to use eggs or sperm donated by strangers.

Once cloning technology is perfected, however, infertile individuals will no longer need viable eggs or sperm to conceive their own genetic children--any body cell will do. Thus, cloning may soon offer many Americans the only way possible to exercise their constitutional right to reproduce. For them, cloning bans are the practical equivalent of forced sterilization.

Mark D. Eibert, "Human Cloning Should Not Be Banned"

Identify the author's main objective:

Each author takes an opposing view of science. Annas does not trust in science and believes that its goal of pursuing information and new technology may not be informed by ethics. Annas's basic premise is that cloning violates a human ethic by placing science above human concerns such as a right to individuality. Annas argues that science should be restricted from pursuing ends without considering the moral implications of such decisions. Thus, Annas thinks that human cloning is unethical on its face. Cloning a human would represent science experimenting in uncharted areas without any concern for morality. In addition, cloning a child may increase the risk of harm to another human being, which is unacceptable. Conclusion: Society must reject cloning because it is unethical and a misuse of science.

Eibert, on the other hand, basically trusts science. He does not believe that science's goals and ethical goals are at odds. Eibert takes a practical approach. To Eibert, science and morality are not at polar extremes. Science is a tool that can be used for human ends. Cloning is just one more advance in a series of scientific advances that improve humankind. Eibert thus believes that human cloning is a practical solution to couples who face infertility. In addition, human cloning supports a couple's rights to have a child. Conclusion: Cloning is no different than any other scientific development and must be used accordingly.

Thus, when using material in a research paper or report and building an argument, ask yourself what type of supporting evidence you will want to use. You can build an argument from many different aspects, from a moral argument, to a factual argument. Your evidence could come from a more personal perspective, or from a more formal, research-oriented perspective.

Opposing Viewpoints and Critical Thinking Back to Top

You have probably been told that critical thinking is an important skill. The articles in Opposing Viewpoints are excellent at helping you learn to think critically about issues. What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking has been described as "the careful and deliberate determination of whether to accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim" (Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking). More simply, critical thinking is the process of evaluating what other people say or write to determine whether to believe their statements.

Some statements are easy to assess. For example, "The President of the United States serves a four-year term." This is a fact and requires little deliberation. It can be easily verified. Other statements involve ideas that are more complex: "The United States must develop its Strategic Defense Initiative to protect it from enemy attack." Not only do you have to decide whether the United States has enemies that can destroy it, you have to determine whether building a Strategic Defense Initiative is the best way to counter such an attack. Your assessment of this statement may have a significant impact on your attitudes toward American defense and the policies of the U.S. government.

Critical Thinking and Bias Back to Top

Developing the ability to think critically can be difficult because it is easier to make hasty judgments based on opinions and biases than it is to evaluate facts and arguments. For example, your friends might think that the death penalty is just, and you might also think so just because your friends do, without hearing any arguments to the contrary. Your viewpoint, based solely on the opinions of others, would be weak.

A brief overview of several critical thinking skills is important when assessing views such as those contained in Opposing Viewpoints. Click on any of the list below to receive more information about a particular area.

Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Bias from Reason Back to Top

This skill focuses on distinguishing between a statement based on fact (one that can be proved true) and a statement based on opinion (one that expresses how a person feels about something or what a person thinks is true).

The ability to distinguish between these two types of statements is the essential first step to critical reading. Whether reading a newspaper or magazine, listening to a disagreement, or preparing for a debate, you can become a more sophisticated consumer of information if you can identify the speaker's viewpoint.

When first learning to assess this skill, you may be tempted to identify statements of fact as "important" and statements of opinion as "irrelevant" or "unimportant." It's important to remember that a factual statement may be false or taken out of context and thus be misleading. Likewise, on some issues, a statement of opinon might be the most important of all. The point is to practice distinguishing the difference between a fact and an opinion, not make evaluative judgments about them.

The hardest statements to label will be those that include statistics or other objective proof, yet are not merely fact. It is fairly easy to recognize that "two percent of all teenagers commit suicide" is a statement of fact. However, by adding another factor-"The high rate of divorce is responsible"--the "factual statement" becomes an opinion. You must be aware of such pitfalls.

Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources Back to Top

A primary source is original material or information that has not been interpreted by another person. Examples of primary sources are court records, government documents (like the Constitution), letters, some documentary films, memoirs, position papers of organizations, original research, and editorials. A secondary source is made up of information collected from numerous primary sources that is interpreted by the collector. Examples of secondary sources include histories (such as a history of the Constitution and its framers), many magazine articles, and critical analyses.

Primary sources often have the immediacy of an eyewitness. They can provide details that may not be available to an outside observer or scholar. But they may also present information in a manner colored by the author's personal views or experience. For example, a Palestinian describing his life under Israeli rule gives a valuable personal account of what conditions are like. Yet in looking at such an account, one might ask whether the author's individual experiences are typical of the average Palestinian. Is his account affected by his political views or affiliation? The reader must presume that this eyewitness account would be different from a version given by an Israeli living in the same town. Both accounts might be accurate, in which case you would have to consult other primary and secondary sources to gain an understanding of what life on the West Bank is like.

A secondary source may or may not offer information that is more analytical and comprehensive than that found in a primary source. The secondary source author has the advantage of hindsight and, in many cases, access to several primary sources and thus to several perspectives. The author may have more of an objective distance from the events being depicted. But a secondary source is only as factually accurate as the primary sources it uses. And the secondary source author may write an account as colored by personal views as an eyewitness might. Thus a secondary account of Palestinian life on the West Bank in a newspaper that targets a Palestinian audience might reflect and reinforce the publication's editorial stance about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some sources are not clearly primary or secondary and must be considered carefully. For example, is a television documentary a primary or secondary source? On the one hand, it contains visual presentation of primary sources, such as interviews. On the other hand, the interviews and the presentation of the topic in general are a product of the filmmaker's interpretation of what is important in covering the topic. In this case, the source could be both primary and secondary.

Evaluating Information Sources Back to Top

In addition to identifying whether a source is a primary or secondary source, you must also learn to discern what information is most valuable for completing an assignment or report. You probably have been told that all information, no matter how objectively presented, has a point of view. When Time magazine promises to "put the world in your hands," it is really promising that its staff will gather and condense what they consider the top stories of the week into a concise, convenient package. Although such a product is not a bad source of information, it is not a perfectly objective, all-knowing source, either. Its content is the reflection of the biases, both political and cultural, of the magazine's editors and publisher and also of their limitations in time and resources when trying to cover world events on a weekly basis.

You should critically examine sources of information to determine point of view and to find out how this point of view affects the accuracy of their coverage. When examining a source of information, check the author's previous writings or his/her relationship to the events being written about. Is the author a member of a partisan organization involved in a dispute being portrayed? Has the author shown a consistent stand on the topic in previous writings? In addition, you should look at other articles on the topic in the same publications. Is there a consistent point of view? Its point of view can also be discerned by comparing its information with other sources that are known to have opposing views on the same topic. Learn to question a source: What are its intentions? What are its biases? What does it gain by presenting a particular perspective?

A source should also be evaluated for its timeliness. It must give information that adequately reflects the time period of the topic being covered. For example, when writing about a topic such as the protest movement during the Vietnam War, you may consider a variety of sources in order to write on the topic. While you may want to look at histories of the protest movement first, to get an overall impression, you will also want to look at eyewitness accounts of participants in the movement, as well as opponents of it. A mixture of such accounts from both the time period of the war and those written later might also be useful. The sources written after the war may bring some historical distance to their discussion of the topic. But the sources written during the war give direct evidence of why people were opposed to it.

Beyond determining the point of view and timeliness of an information source, you must also judge its usefulness. You must determine whether the source deals with the aspects of the subject needed for the research project. You should know that some sources will be more directly useful for writing about the topic, while some will provide valuable background information, while others will have only marginal value at best.

In evaluating a source, you should determine whether the author's intention is appropriate to serve your needs. A scholarly secondary source, for example, would be more useful in providing an in-depth historical perspective on a topic than seventy seconds of documentary film footage on a television news program. On the other hand, the news story may contain quotes that give useful information or insight into a topic. All of these factors should be considered when determining the usefulness of a source.

Recognizing Deceptive Arguments Back to Top

The ability to distinguish between deceptive and logical reasoning is an essential skill in critically analyzing written and oral arguments.

The danger of deceptive arguments comes from their misleading nature, which may cause you to reject a valid opposing argument or embrace an argument that has little rational merit. Deceptive arguments often distract people from the vital issues and focus their attention on matters of little importance. For example, an author who writes on animal experimentation argues: "All animal liberationists do, ridiculously, claim that their movement is just a logical extension of the more serious and legitimate black and women's liberation movements." By generalizing about animal liberationists, and then by ridiculing their argument, the author diverts attention away from the issue and focuses instead on animal liberationists' sense of priority. Whether animal rights deserve equal attention with civil rights is an interesting topic, but it may have little bearing on how experimental animals should be treated. In labeling a part of the argument as ridiculous, the author aims to invalidate the entire issue.

Many writers are skilled at using emotional appeals to sway readers in support of irrational arguments. For example, one author writing on the issue of criminal justice contends, "Crime in the United States is up by 300 percent--which goes to show that the criminal justice system is incapable of dealing with crime." The author exploits the public's fear of an escalating crime rate, yet offers no solid evidence of a link between the quality of the criminal justice system and a rise in crime. The quoted statistic has little relevance unless the author can prove that crime rates rise when criminals have no fear of being punished.

By reading and evaluating opposing views, you will become more proficient at recognizing deceptive arguments. Many arguments seem reasonable at first reading; however, once students read the opposite opinion, they are forced to decide between two apparently equally plausible arguments. Though opponents may use the same statistics and even the same logic, they may reach different conclusions.

There are innumerable types of deceptive arguments. To facilitate discussion, the examples below fall into eight broad headings.

  1. Bandwagon — the idea that "everybody" does this or believes this.

    Commonly held beliefs are not necessarily correct beliefs. One author, for example, writes: "History shows that when millions of Americans want something (ie., drugs) they'll do anything to get it . " The author attempts to rationalize the legalization of recreational drugs because "everyone is doing it."

  2. Scare tactics — the threat that if you don't do or don't believe this, something terrible will happen.

    This argument is commonly used during emotional discussions or debates when dealing with topics that concern the public's well-being. One AIDS commentator writes, "Federal action is essential if the 'Typhoid Mikes and Marys' of the AIDS epidemic are to be prevented from continuing to infect others individually and en masse." Alarming words such as "typhoid," "epidemic," and "infect" alert readers to the author's intent to frighten the reader into believing his/her argument.

  3. Strawperson — distorting or exaggerating an opponent's ideas to make one's own seem stronger.

    A popular method of creating a strawperson is to distort and exaggerate an opponent's argument and dissect it, thereby ignoring the genuine issues and attempting to invalidate the entire argument through attacking an inflated misrepresentation of its main points. An author writes, "The warped logic of the men and women who are more concerned with bleeding hearts than bleeding bodies goes something like this: 'It is prejudice and poverty that forces young people to break the law.'" The writer uses inflammatory language and states the opponent's argument in one simple sentence, making the argument seem ridiculous. The author creates this exaggerated argument, or strawperson, to more easily knock it down.

  4. Personal attack — criticizing an opponent personally instead of rationally debating his/her ideas.

    One author attacks animal rights supporters: "Their sweeping indictments of science and technology, their portrayals of science as a force beyond political control, might lead a weak mind to conclude that extraordinary evils require extraordinary solutions." The author personally attacks and categorizes animal rights activists rather than proving his own point.

  5. Testimonial — quoting or paraphrasing an authority or celebrity to support one's own viewpoint.

    Testimonials can be used to legitimately further an argument if the person quoted is truly a well-respected authority. However, testimonials often come from people who have little or no experience in the field debated. A U.S. senator's wife may argue, for example, music lyrics that contain violence or sexism may lead to violent or sexist acts. However, whether this woman's opinion should be more heavily regarded than any other's is arguable. Her husband's fame gives her statements false credibility.

    However, testimonials can be used legitimately. Quoting an expert on a given topic may lend more validity to an argument. The reader should keep in mind, though, that the quote may be taken out of context or used in a manner the speaker did not intend.

  6. Slanters — to persuade through inflammatory and exaggerated language instead of reason.

    The adjectives used to describe people or their political positions often reveal the author's prejudiced beliefs. Many authors do not intend to display their bias, but the words they use send a signal to careful readers. Flagrant slanters, however, are relatively easy to spot. One economics author writes, "The titanic expansion of bureaucratic power is shattering the foundations of a free society and menacing the well-being of every citizen. Words like "titanic," "shattering," and "menacing" are obvious clues to the author's beliefs on government control. The author employs inflammatory words, rather than a solid argument, to persuade readers that large government programs threaten society.

  7. Generalizations — using statistics or facts to generalize about a population, place, or thing.

    This argument can be difficult to recognize if the generalization is a statement the reader already accepts. The reader's preconceived ideas about a topic can hinder his/her ability to distinguish between factual statements and generalizations based on personal opinion.

    A commentator writing about Latin America states, "Latin American societies do not encourage new ideas. They are unconcerned with the task of changing the world in which they live." Not all Latin Americans would agree with that statement, but a reader with limited exposure to the topic might not understand the controversy such a statement generates. In generalizing, authors exclude the possibility that alternatives exist, thereby severely limiting debate.

  8. Categorical statements--stating something in a way implying that there can be no argument.

"Animals are in no sense the moral equals of humans, and therefore we are under no moral obligation to refrain from using them for experiments." This author suspends the debate with a broad statement that assumes that any further discussion would be futile. Categorical statements squelch the open exchange of ideas by denying the possibility that logical alternatives exist.

Recognizing deceptive arguments is pivotal to the evaluation of Opposing Viewpoints. Many writers attempt to manipulate readers through emotional pleas, scare tactics, and other devices. By coming to understand these techniques, you will become more adept at reading and thinking critically.

Recognizing Ethnocentrism and Stereotypes Back to Top

This critical-thinking skill will challenge you to question commonly held beliefs and attitudes about identifiable groups. These attitudes--stereotypes--assume that all members of a group share the same set of characteristics. Through recognizing stereotypes and ethnocentrism, you will realize that your perceptions of a group are not always accurate and, in fact, often hinder their understanding of a topic.

Stereotypes are often difficult to recognize because many are deeply ingrained and widely accepted. Obvious stereotypes stand out because they often appear as statements such as, "All Asians are bad drivers." Few people, on reflection, would accept that statement as fact, yet many people are influenced by such generalizations. Becoming conscious of stereotypes can help you discern between authors who rely on stereotypes to further their arguments and those who do not.

Ethnocentrism is a specific form of stereotyping which holds one's own nationality, religion, or cultural traditions and customs as superior to others. This attitude emphasizes the differences between one 's own group and others which are considered inferior. For example, the leader of a Caribbean Basin country states, "Our nation is the most fair, egalitarian society in this hemisphere. We consider it to be superior to yours." The author leaves no room for argument. His ethnocentric comment ends all further discussion on the relative merits of differing political systems.

Some stereotypes are easy to spot, while others are less obtrusive. It is especially important to recognize stereotypes when reading conflicting opinions or when involved in debates and discussions. Stereotypes and ethnocentric attitudes can prevent sound analysis of a debate because they obscure issues in favor of emotional arguments that may exploit participants' preconceived notions. An example from one writer states, "Immigrants are flagrant welfare abusers." Instead of using facts or statistics to support his argument, the author exploits the public's fear that it is being financially exploited by immigrants. If you understand that a stereotype has been used, then you can more objectively read a viewpoint without being misled by flawed logic or biased generalizations.

Despite the misleading nature of stereotypes, they are often necessary to make sense of a complex world. To treat every person as an individual would make political or social discussions very difficult. For example, one author describes politicians' manipulation of the media as though all politicians take advantage of the media in the same way. In reality, individual politicians have their own style of using, or even ignoring, the media. However, it would be very cumbersome for the authors to elaborate on each politician's use, or abuse, of the media. This would detract, in fact, from this author's central argument, which is the media's affect on American politics. Similarly, an author may generalize about the gay population as if all homosexuals form a cohesive community and share the same traits. While this is not entirely true, there are general concerns among gays that are less important to heterosexuals. AIDS is more of an issue among homosexuals than it is among heterosexuals. To effectively deal with this issue, writers must often stereotype to facilitate discussion.

Stereotypes and ethnocentric beliefs are not always negative. However, seemingly positive generalizations can have negative effects. Positive stereotypes can skew arguments and obscure the truth just as negative ones do. For example, if you accept as true the stereotype that all religious leaders are virtuous and trustworthy, then a scandal involving a television evangelist's sexual exploits and misuse of donations may give you a tremendous shock and cause a serious reconsideration of your beliefs toward all ministry. However, if you consider ministries objectively, you will realize that ministers are like other classes of people; some are frauds, but many abide by the values they promote.

Preparing for a Debate or Group Class Discussion Using Opposing Viewpoints Viewpoints Back to Top

The viewpoints in Opposing Viewpoints make an excellent starting place for discussion and debate. First, every title of every viewpoint can be used as a topic for discussion. For example, Organ Transplants Are Ethical can make for an ideal discussion or debate topic.

To prepare for an oral presentation using the viewpoints in Opposing Viewpoints, read all of the articles in support of the position you would like to present as your topic for discussion. Summarize the main ideas given in the articles, while making sure to gather several pithy quotes, statistics, and relevant facts that you can add to make your presentation interesting and concrete. If participating in a debate, you will be using this material in your initial argument.

Next, read the viewpoints that are against the position you hope to present to the class. What are the biggest objections to your position voiced in the opposing views? Do you wish to counter some of these objections in your presentation? Are some of the objections convincing? Do you need to acknowledge that some of these objections are valid and deserve consideration? By reading views in opposition to your own, you will be better prepared for questions from the instructor and your fellow students and will also be more informed about the drawbacks to your own position. When participating in a debate, this part of the process will be essential for your rebuttal to the other team. Make sure and take careful notes on the main arguments of the opposition and how you will be rebutting them.

When compiling your notes for an oral presentation or debate there are a few ways to make sure that your presentation remains interesting to your audience.

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