Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass

  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you share.

Half Glass

  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have USED the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.


One of these is worthless.

Though these sentences are contradictory and entirely fictional, each serves a rhetorical purpose. Find the useless sentence and pledge to purge any like it from your work.

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.


Argument and Rhetoric are inseparable

Despite my pretense that they can be graded as separate categories, Argument and Rhetoric are as inseparable as fist and fingers. Just as I can’t describe a fist without speaking of tightly curled fingers, I can’t describe Rhetoric without explaining how it persuades readers to accept an argument. Even so, I try to grade the fingers and the fist.

The Style Aspect of Rhetoric

Example 1

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

[When read aloud, the following paragraph sounds like mostly comprehensible conversational speech, but viewed on paper, it is peppered with grammar trouble and peculiar phrasing that make comprehension very difficult.]

The NPR broadcast was very interesting and what surprised me is how the claims were accurately correct in my opinion. I would have never thought of how money can change so drastically in time. In the past, we were exposed to using gold as a currency, then to paper bills and now an electronic transaction. In today’s world, society does claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, but at the same time we already progressed, using digital cash. A prime example, paying bills, in which society pays bills using a computer and that consist only information it’s seems surprising to know now how easily any amount of a transaction can be paid off or transferred. There is no physical money being involved. The closest idea that I can think of using paper would be is sending checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

[The highlights indicate every phrase that needs to be corrected. Red and purple are not particularly significant, but two colors are needed to call out individual phrases.]

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

The NPR broadcast was very interesting, and what surprised me was that the claims were correct in my opinion. I never realized that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have already progressed to digital cash. We pay our bills by computer; those transactions consist of information only. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any money being involved. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. I was surprised to learn that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions, each time using a more abstract version of barter. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have mostly eliminated those last physical objects in favor or digital cash. We pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any paper or metal currency at all. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s increasingly rare.

Rhetorically Effective Arguments prove more complex theses.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. It illustrated that money, already an abstraction, has grown increasingly more abstract, as have our lives in general. Before money, we traded cows for corn, but transactions were limited to what one trader had that another trader wanted. With the advent of gold as a currency, trade flourished because the gold could represent cows or corn or any other valuable commodity. It was an abstraction, a symbol of needs fulfilled. Next paper bills, with no inherent value, represented gold. Now electronic entries in a bank branch database represent dollars, each step more abstract than the previous. Today, we don’t trade, use gold, or for the most part use currency: we pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical at all. Like the work we do (which increasingly is not physical labor but mental exertion) it’s no coincidence that our cows are also now abstractions. The closest we get to the animal is the shrink-wrapped meat ground and extruded so that it no longer looks like anything that lived.

Example 2

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

Money, money, money. The extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how did a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images become the social fabric of our world? When you put a U.S dollar bill side by side to monopoly money you understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t. Although, monopoly money like “real” money is simply paper from our trees. Therefore, we must question, why is money valuable? Pre Colonial era we traded among each other valuables in which each person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamond, gold and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colony needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow he would search for that person that needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill and a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in its self has no real value to it, it isn’t rare and its not pretty. We the people make money valuable, we make the value “real”, but should we?

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

Money, money, money: it’s the extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images became the social fabric of our world. Even a child who puts a U.S dollar bill side by side to Monopoly money can understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t, even though “real” money—like Monopoly money—is simply paper from our trees. Is it because one is issued by the US government and the other by the Parker Brothers Company that makes one of them valuable? In pre-colonial times, we traded among each other valuables which every person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamonds, gold, and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colonist needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill or a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in itself has no real value to it; it isn’t rare, and it’s not pretty. We the people make money valuable. We make the value “real”; but should we?

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

Despite its importance to all our lives, we have to admit money is a fiction. Children are right to wonder how pieces of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images run our world. They know but can’t grasp why one dollar bill can be traded for candy at the corner store while the other is worth nothing, except in Monopoly. What they do understand is that the houses in Monopoly aren’t real, but the money doesn’t seem so different from the bills we use for groceries. 

In our early history, we traded valuable things directly. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who had a cow and needed a pig. This exchange of goods made perfect sense but was clumsy and sometimes impossible to manage. Substituting precious and rare metals or jewels for cows and pigs, we were able to trade with everyone, whether they had cows or not. Money in itself has no real value to it, but we agree to make it valuable for convenience. While it no longer represents gold, the money we use today has value only because it is issued by the US government and not the Parker Brothers Corporation.

The Argument Value of Rhetoric

Rhetoric Can Reveal or Hide Arguments

The fact that there is a giant ball of limestone sitting in the middle of the ocean somewhere still being claimed by someone who is deceased is unsettling to me. That is like me having 500 dollars and throwing it in the ocean. When the money washes up onto shore and someone picks it up, it would now be theirs. Nobody can just go pick up the giant ball of limestone and claim it.

This paragraph may contain a valid argument, but the language obscures it. The analogy misses the point of the story of the sunken fei. Nobody will ever retrieve that “money,” but its physical presence or absence is of no longer of consequence to its owner.

Let’s try a different analogy for the limestone disc at the bottom of the ocean. Donald Trump has created a value for his name. Unlike banks that pay huge naming fees to have NFL stadiums named for them, Trump can get developers to pay him millions to attach his name to a project. His name is not an object like the sunken fei. Its insubstantiality doesn’t matter at all. And neither could anybody steal it and be richer. If he’s a billionaire, it’s because he can sell his name for a billion dollars whenever he wants to.

Brevity and Clarity

Don’t Give Readers Time to Disagree

A first draft may contain many capable sentences that make reasonable individual points, but if they don’t transition well from one idea to the next, and if the goal of the argument is not identified in advance, readers are free to follow any path that distracts them and never arrive at the summit you want to guide them to.

1. The value of money is the mental reassurance of wealth.
2. One might question what mental reassurance of wealth has to do with money.
3. Simply it is the way we track value.
4. We are reassured that the money we have can purchase a curtain amount of things.
5. We place a value on money to keep track of things it can purchase.
6. The psychological or economic value of money may change with currency variations, but the money will always be worth something.
7. Over time, America’s relationship with the value of the dollar has evolved.
8. In the early 20th century, it granted a request from the French to convert their dollar assets into gold.
9. Granting that request gave the impression that the US dollar was weak.
10. The French believed that their money was worth more than the U.S. dollar.
11. The French wanted something they thought was worth having, so they asked for gold.
12. Even though the gold was worth no more than the equivalent value in US dollars, the French were not convinced that the dollars were “worth their weight in gold.”

First, combine the sentences for better effectiveness.
[1-6] Money reassures us of our economic wealth. While the volume of goods and services it can buy will change from time to time, knowing that we have enough to meet our needs is reassuring.

Then, provide the needed transition between the sections.
But even money can vary in value compared to other currencies.

Then, combine the conclusion sentences.
[7-12] When the French began to doubt the stability of the value of American dollars, they demanded the US convert their dollar holdings into gold.

Most of your individual claims can be made in a word or two so that the sentences provide their own internal transitions.

Sufficient Scholarship

Example 1

Over-reliance on Personal Perspective

So what makes these pieces of paper we call dollars have value? well because people in society decided to make it have value. This method of currency was created to make the trade of goods easier and faster to manage. After reading “The Island Of Stone Money” one can notice that the inhabitants of Uap had a similar system to the one we use today. Today technology has advanced so much that we can now digitally manage, distribute and hold our money through mobile apps and online websites. whether one prefers using credit cards, Pay Pal or bank apps a physical dollar is a place holder for that digital number on any of those digital outlets. Now comparing Uap’s method to our current method the people of Uap used the stones as their physical placeholder to replace their word. Essentially creating a word for product system. Whilst currently people are using a pixel for product system.

Rhetoric and Scholarship are inseparable in your case, MyStudent. You’re trying to thrive on observation and speculation alone, without bringing any evidence or support from the rich material at your disposal. You cite only the Yap, and you do so in a way that assumes your readers are all familiar with Milton Friedman’s article. They’re not. They haven’t listened to the NPR podcast. They have no idea what you’re talking about. They know only what you tell them. So tell them what you learned and help them understand.


Why the Challenger Exploded

Why Challenger Exploded

In January, 1986, the solid booster rockets that were to launch NASA’s space shuttle Challenger into orbit suffered a catastrophic failure 73 seconds into the launch. All seven crew were killed in the disaster, most likely from the impact of their cabin striking the ocean below. The weather in Florida was very cold; ice had formed on the launch pad overnight, but the launch proceeded despite the known risk of low ambient temperatures, partly because of public interest in this particular launch. For the first time, a non-astronaut—”ordinary citizen” Christa McAuliffe—was a member of a shuttle crew. The nation was riveted.

The launch, most uncommonly, was broadcast live on TV. Millions of schoolkids watched as the events unfolded, including McAuliffe’s students, gathered in their classroom to celebrate their teacher’s accomplishment. For 72 seconds, they were jubilant, but then an explosion separated the boosters from the shuttle and the launch catastrophically failed.

The Common Explanation

The immediate cause of the explosion was the failure of O-Rings to contain the immense pressure of combustion within the rocket.

The complicated issue of causation

The answer to the question “Why did the Challenger Fail?” or its corollary question, “Why did Christa McAuliffe die?” is complicated, since no single cause can be isolated.

Several causes can be named, some distant, some immediate, some precipitating.
Among them:

  • The O-rings failed
  • The design required a warm ambient temperature at launch
  • NASA ignored warnings that the weather was too cold
  • The decision to send a civilian to space created pressure to launch
  • NASA was emboldened by the program’s success to take an unprecedented risk

A most unlikely explanation

One explanation very rarely heard is that the Challenger failed because of the way Romans decided to build their horse-drawn carts when Rome ruled most of the known world and could establish a global standard.


Roman war chariots were built with wheels spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart. The apparently arbitrary width was determined to be the width of two war horses’ rear ends yoked side by side to the chariot. The standard assured that horses would not pull a too-wide wagon through any opening wide enough only for them.

Before long, the much traveled and justly famous Roman roads developed deep grooves at the established separation, discouraging any other wheel spacings.

As England was part of the Roman Empire, English carts came to adopt the Roman standard to take advantage of the path of least resistance established by the ruts carved by Roman chariots.

Golden Chariot

When railroads first began to replace horse-drawn carts as the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys, the same cartwrights using the same patterns and tools as they used for carts, passed on the standard wheel spacing with which they were already familiar. By 1850, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch spacing had become known as the “standard guage” for railroad cars throughout the British Empire, including India, where the connection between Chariots and Railroads is obvious in the photo above.

Early railroads in America naturally adopted the odd but increasingly accepted English “standard gauge” as well. As more track was laid in England and America, deviation from the standard was a costly and foolish error for any investor in a new train line.

Train Tunnel

Tunnels were carved through mountains no wider than necessary to accommodate two trains passing one another, which limited not only the width but also the height of the cars or their cargo. The width of two Roman warhorse rear ends had come to dominate the widths of roads, then rails, then railcars, then tunnels, then what could be hauled in one piece by train through the mountains.

Solid Boosters

The solid rocket boosters that propelled many successful shuttle launches into space are enormous structures, as you can see by comparing them to the trucks following the shuttle conveyor to the launch pad.

When NASA awarded the contract for the design and construction of those boosters to the Morton-Thiokol Corporation of Utah, the die was cast for catastrophe. The boosters could have been built as a solid single piece, but those segments would never have made it through the tunnels they would have to have traversed through the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, they were built in sections, shipped in pieces, assembled in Florida, and wrapped by the now-infamous rubber O-Rings that failed so catastrophically on the day of the Challenger disaster.

Why did Christa McAuliffe die? Because of the width of a horse’s ass.


Tonight’s Specials

Something from the bar?

This has to be the lamest question ever uttered, and it’s uttered a million times a day in restaurants all over the world.

It might elicit an actual drink order from a customer who always wants the same refreshment before dinner, and for whom price is no object, but for everyone else it causes hesitation, confusion, reluctance, panic.

We don’t know what you have, how it’s priced, whether your bartender is frugal or licentious, which of the countless ways you might want to take advantage of us is in play . . . .

In other words, it creates an environment precisely the opposite of what the server intended, which was to make the customer comfortable, appreciated, and catered to (in a word, spendy).

Get it? 🙂

Here’s what your customer at Table 13 visualizes when you attack her with your demand that she order a drink:


It’s no wonder that, when you make her select from this ridiculous array of alternatives—on a strict social deadline!—she panics in the moment and says the only safe thing: “I’ll stick with water.”

And you wonder why you don’t get bigger tips!

Hint to the metaphor: Readers do the same thing. Faced with too much new data or too many choices—in absence of clear guidance—they retreat to their bunkers where you can’t begin to persuade them.

How to Serve

You don’t understand your job, which is to serve, and by serving to guide, and by guiding to sell, and by selling to improve your employer’s bottom line, and—by helping out absolutely everybody—to take home bigger tips from happier customers whose enjoyment has been lubricated by expensive cocktails.

The best servers use their power to their advantage.

And when I say “servers” I mean “writers.” You understand this is an extended metaphor, right?

  1. They are the subject matter experts
  2. They have already examined the pertinent evidence
  3. They have come to the right conclusions
  4. If they establish your trust, they can guide you to the right conclusions
  5. Everybody is happy when you come to the right conclusions

How to Write

How to serve; how to write; they come down to the same set of rules. Stay in charge of the subject matter; approach it like the expert you are; keep everybody comfortable; say what needs to be said and not another word; guide your reader (diner) to the right conclusion.

One of the images below demonstrates the right way to offer up hors d’oeuvres. The other is the way we write too often without even knowing we’re doing it.

Hors D'oeuvres

Get it? 🙂

NOTHING is accomplished if I tell you “We have a wonderful assortment of delicious hors d’oeuvres; what do you want?”

You think I’ve offered you the universe when in fact I have seven options and a microwave. Instinctively, you know this too, and you’re afraid to order Amazonian beefcheek if I’m not going to recognize it, so you freeze. You don’t know what I have because I haven’t told you.

But if I extend to you a limited sampling of carefully selected delicacies (by which I mean data and evidence because we’re still talking about writing, remember?) and stand there smiling, offering by my benevolent presence to guide you through the options with pleasant but persistent patience, then we pretty much both understand you’re going to order one of these little beauties . . . probably the one on which the house earns the biggest markup.

But whatever you choose, it will be something I have. I’ve made your options completely clear. And I’ve looked you in the eye with confidence. And nothing else seems reasonable.

Get it now? 🙂

It might even be Amazonian beefcheek, which I had all along, and could have sold you if I’d wanted you to choose it.

Lessons from the Server


  1. Don’t ask open-ended questions.
  2. Don’t promise that you’ll have important information to share . . . later.
  3. Don’t blame the kitchen.
  4. Don’t apologize for what you don’t have.
  5. Never contradict your customer’s preferences.


  1. Instead of open questions: We have spectacular cocktails from our certified mixologist (I know. I didn’t know there was such a thing either, but she has the certificate to prove it! 🙂 ) But if you’re not drinking, I have flavored teas, a full line of soft drinks, fresh-roasted coffee hot or cold. I’ll even put a big bottle of sparkling water in a bucket of ice. (But I won’t let you think that “sticking with tap water” is an alternative.)
  2. Instead of saying there are countless options: For big appetites I have a 22-ounce porterhouse; South Jersey magazine raves about our chicken Parmesan; but the best bargain on the menu is the brick oven pizza: 15 bucks and you’ll take half of it home. (If you choose the pizza, I upsell you in two painless moves to the shrimp version at $23.50 and we’re both happy.)
  3. Instead of blaming the kitchen: We’re not used to being so crowded on a Thursday, but the review that came out in the local paper has us really hopping.
  4. Instead of saying the owner forgot to order seafood: There are no good mussels in the market this week after that storm in the Gulf; fortunately, the Maine lobster was unaffected and the 2-pounder is on special.
  5. Instead of arguing about your customer’s favorite cut: A lot of people say that, and I agree, so this is hard for me to say, but the filet mignon actually has less flavor than the rib-eye which benefits from all the marbling. Our chef handles both cuts really well. Want to try something new? (If you do, you’ll help me unload our excess rib-eye. If not, you’ll be choosing the already over-priced filet. Either way we both feel like winners.)

Metaphorical Payoff

Do I really have to do this, or do you get it?

  • THE KITCHEN is NOT the entire world of knowledge. It’s whatever you’ve been able to gather from your research. You’ve had just a few weeks, for crying out loud. It’s everything you could afford, and everything you could keep from spoiling in your limited refrigerator space (your White Paper; your Brain).
  • THE CHEF is you back there working with dull knives and too little butter on the one working burner that isn’t devoted to all your other classes—the ones that really matter to your major! 🙂
  • THE SERVER is also you. Once you graduate, you can hire someone to do the serving for you, but for now, you have to cook and deliver everything to the table.
  • THE CUSTOMER is your reader. He’s an arrogant blowhard, full of opinions about what’s good and what’s bad about food. You have to figure out what he thinks he knows, charm him into questioning where he got that misinformation, and sell him that the Tortellini-Tre-P that he always thought was cruel to animals happens to be an ecological blessing in exactly three ways, which you delineate for him with pleasant and persistent patience.

Waiter Receives Tip

Everybody wins.

You collect the big tip for introducing him to guilt-free sausage. He goes home with his utterly infatuated date who has no idea what she’s in for, and you—with your obvious command of the data—attract the attention of the stunning brunette with the dangling earrings and those magnificent teeth.

For sticklers keeping score: Yes. You win twice. But it cost you a semester and he only had to pay the check. Fair’s fair.

Feedback, please

If this is exactly like the advice you’ve received in every other writing class you’ve taken, I’d love to hear about your earlier experiences.

If, on the other hand, it’s a fresh way to consider the task of crafting an academic essay, well, I’d love to hear that too.



The Opposite of a Black Sneaker

In Favor of Outrageous Thinking

The goal of all our arguments is not to join a black-or-white debate, but to create a color, or a set of fancy footwear, not the comfortable shoes that “go with everything,” but a pair of high-heeled neon ankle-killing athletic shoes everyone laughs at until the day she buys a pair. If you start with black, and I start with white, we tend to think we should meet somewhere in the middle, and the middle too often looks gray.


Gray satisfies no one. It can’t be what we wanted. Ending up with compromises no more compelling than our starting premises wastes our readers’ time (if we still have readers at the end). Instead we need to realize we’ve misinterpreted our starting points. We haven’t started with opposites. For one thing, we’re both talking about sneakers.

The opposite of a black sneaker

The opposite of a black sneaker isn’t a white sneaker; it’s broccoli, or impressionist art, or the atomic weight of laughter. We’re not obligated to compromise our positions to find something that contains components of both. We should instead be hoping that the tension between the two ends of the spectrum reveals something more interesting than either of the “sides.” First it reveals that we haven’t started on the two extremes. Then we discover there’s something beyond both our positions.


The worst mistake we can make—even worse than settling for gray—is to start with gray, which can only result in more gray.


Gray on Gray.
Also known as “How to Fail.”

The most common misconception with someone who is happy is we think that person has meaning in his life. A person who is happier may even have less meaning in her life than her less-happy counterparts. Happiness doesn’t define meaning; rather, it defines contentment. Having meaning in one’s life runs deeper than the mere sensation that happiness brings. Meaning is about contributing to the world, to something greater than oneself. Happiness is just satisfaction with one’s current standpoint on life, and one’s environment. The world defines happiness as something much greater than it actually is. Happiness is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s current standpoint.

Color on Color.

Our goal is the colorful conclusion, achieved by beginning with bold and colorful premises, somewhere along a line of reasoning the ends of which are not in sight when we begin.


Color on Color: A Model

Our neighbor Frank seems happy, and would probably define himself as happy, but he’s not. He takes pride in his fine house, where he lives with his presentable family, and he has job security. Let’s call him content. Our neighbor Ernest rents a cramped apartment, lives alone, and scrapes by freelancing. Let’s call him happy. Ernest is tortured by an abiding outrage against injustice. He champions every cause that comes his way if it will better the world or ease the suffering of others. Often hungry himself, he will share his lunch with anyone. We might prefer to be Frank, but Ernest is more likely to be happy.

If you can prove that,
I’ll eat my shoe.

The result of our premises will not be as certain as when we try to start with supposed “opposite sides” of a known argument, but the pursuit of an outcome will be more entertaining, vivid, colorful, and compelling. Maybe even nutritious.


One Side Inevitably Loses any
Black-and-White Argument

EXAMPLE. Today we begin a debate on arming teachers in schools. If anti-gun advocates allow the argument to be phrased as black-and-white options, they inevitably lose. Most likely neither side will get exactly what it wants, but the pro-gun side will win. Why?

The “compromise” solution that will surely be the outcome—the grey in the middle between All Teachers Should Be Armed and No Teachers Should Be Armed—will be to arm “Some Teachers.”  Clear victory for the pro-gun side. Utter failure for the anti-gun side. The outcome lies in the how the question is phrased.

In-Class Exercise

Leave some smart commentary about this lecture as a Reply below. Address any topic I have raised. You might consider:

  • The trap of thinking there are “opposites” to every argument
  • The trap of thinking we know what those opposites are
  • A comparison of the Gray-on-Gray model and the Color-on-Color model
  • Another example of why finding a “compromise” solution always benefits one party to an argument and creates a big loser.

If you can’t comment without having some in-class discussion, then I’ll have figured out how to spark a discussion! That’s a win, but you’ll have to start the discussion with me, not the other way around.

Critical Reading

Donor Execution

Inmate Organ Harvest

Today, I’ll ask you to carefully examine a written argument for claims that can be disputed for accuracy, sufficiency, and relevance; for inferences that are unfair, unreasonable, illogical, or irrelevant; and for judgments that not well grounded, flimsily supported, or flat-out batshit weird.

I won’t ask you to do so without first doing so myself. I’ll do my best to critique the claims, inferences, and judgments of the GOOD video “Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates” in a way I hope will be instructive.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will first say I think the idea of letting condemned prisoners donate their organs is sublime. At the same time, capital punishment itself is an abomination on our supposed civilization. But if we can’t eliminate executions as I would wish, then executing convicts by removing their organs under anesthesia for the life-saving benefit of others is a perfect poem, simultaneously regrettable and dear.

The question is, since I admire the conclusions it draws, am I inclined to overvalue the video’s reasoning? As a human, of course I am. As a lecturer in argument, I’d like to think I can be objective. You be the judge.

Model of Critical Reading

Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates.
The title includes several claims.

  • Let’s. The word means “Let us,” or “Permit us,” or “What do you say we . . . ?” It indicates a proposal argument is being made. The author will recommend a course of action for a named benefit. Classic proposals contain the language should, or must, or ought to, or, in this case, let’s.
  • Harvest. The word itself is an analogy claim. It says that pulling living tissue from a human body is equivalent to plucking peppers from the pepper plant we planted and cultivated to produce peppers. As pure analogy it fails miserably of course; nobody planted this convict or nurtured it in hopes that it would bear fruitful kidneys and lungs. There are people who pluck the beneficial parts of organisms they find but haven’t grown, but they’re not farmers. They’re foragers, or scavengers. So maybe to be accurate the video should be titled “Let’s Scavenge the Organs of Death Row Inmates.”
  • Death Row Inmates. This narrows the proposal considerably. Harvesting organs is a good idea; now let’s narrow the recommendation from everyone who dies to the 47 convicts put to death in the United States last year. Focusing on this group is both useful and problematic for the writer. Many viewers may think death row inmates have relinquished any rights they had to bequeath or keep their organs; at the same time, how much trouble should we be going through to get fewer than 50 hearts a year? (Not to mention, how many of those hearts will be worth the trouble?)

An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning the man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted.

  • How cleverly this bland statement shifts our attention from the death of the inmate (surely the most unfortunate side effect of all) to the unfortunate loss of his organs.
  • It also contains the strong but entirely unspoken claim that these organs would be used for transplants if only they had not be spoiled by the messy execution process. Were 100% of last year’s executed prisoners eager to be organ donors?
  • Probably legitimately, but very cavalierly, the writer claims the inmate is always male.

Death row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied.

  • This claim will be true if as few as two inmates have ever asked to donate their organs.
  • Perhaps, to make the claim more sufficient, one of those two has asked repeatedly.
  • A judge bangs down a gavel to indicate that a court has denied the donation request, but no claim to that effect is explicitly made. We are urged to blame judges for their shortsightedness, but given no evidence that we should.

A simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested.

  • This sounds like a pure repetition of the first claim about organs made “sour,” but the accompanying graphic indicates electrocution, not hanging or poisoning, is ruining them.
  • If the ruined organs are the “simple reason” to deny transplants, how are judges to blame?
  • It would be pointless of them to permit a convict to donate useless organs.
  • What exactly did the convicts ask? How did they propose to donate organs that would be spoiled by their executions?

By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time.

  • While this claim is technically true, it doesn’t convince me that it must be true.
  • Maybe we wait too long to cut someone down from the gallows.
  • Maybe the injection is lethal long before it ruins the heart and lungs.
  • Furthermore, the claim does not mention the other organs. Could the kidneys, eyes and livers of the executed be fruitfully harvested?

So far the organs of all criminals executed in the United States have stayed with their original owners.

  • This is pure rhetoric.
  • The fact it states is not the point at all.
  • The lovely “So far” is an appeal to change the way things are.
  • The equally lovely “their original owners” marginalizes the surgical and ethical aspects of donation and makes the transaction comfortably commercial, like buying a used car from “the original owner.”

Consider the loss. Someone died waiting for that killer’s heart.

  • This is clever but patently absurd.
  • Someone died waiting for a heart certainly. But nobody had a reason to expect this heart.
  • Why the writer chooses this moment to identify the would-be donor as a “killer” is unclear.
  • The claim would be more effective if he had said: “waiting for this willing donor’s heart.”

The inmate could have allowed a dozen people to live in exchange for a body he wouldn’t be around to enjoy anyway.

  • Oddly, “the inmate could have allowed” shifts the blame from the courts or the method of execution to the inmate, who here is portrayed as selfishly condemning twelve people to hang onto a body he can’t use.
  • It seems entirely unclear that everyone deprived of an organ necessarily dies.

The math says we should encourage death row organ donation.

  • “The math,” apparently, is “1 is less than 12.”
  • How that says we should encourage death row organ donation is beyond me.
  • And when did we shift to the need to “encourage” donation? Earlier we were told inmates were eager to donate.
  • So, if anything, we should be encouraging executioners to permit death row organ donation.

By using the Mayan protocol . . . removal of the organs would itself be the method of execution.

  • This bizarre claim seems to be an attempt to legitimize yanking the beating heart out of a living person by appealing to an ancient cultural tradition.
  • It succeeds if you think of the Mayans as reasonable and deeply respectful nurturers of human dignity.
  • It fails if you think of the Mayans as bloodthirsty practitioners of human sacrifice on helpless victims.

Removal of the heart, lungs, and kidneys—under anesthesia, of course—would kill every time without an instant of pain.

  • A major shift in the argument occurs here, without notice.
  • Removal would kill.
  • Donation has become the method of execution, replacing all others.
  • Now, we no longer require the inmate to “ask repeatedly” to donate his organs. That choice has been made.
  • In return, we offer the assurance that death will be painless, something we don’t promise with hanging or electrocution.
  • The author knows he’s bargaining here, with inmates, with viewers, but he doesn’t say so. The claim is entirely unspoken.

If this creeps you out, remember that the federal government and 38 states currently approve capital punishment.

    • This is the Modest Proposal claim: “I am not responsible for this horrible reality; I’m only trying to make the best of it.”
    • Jonathan Swift used it satirically when he proposed: “Orphans will always be with us, useless and a drain on public resources; perhaps we should eat them.”


  • What’s creepy is executing people, the author says; my part is the cool part.

Maybe we should consider turning “scheduled death” into renewed life.

  • Well, it would still be scheduled death, wouldn’t it?
  • I mean, that’s what makes it so efficient.
  • You can schedule it.
  • No, that’s not creepy.

The “Give Directly” Hypothesis

A man checks his phone to confirm that the charity GiveDirectly has transferred a cash grant to his account. (Nichole Sobecki for NPR)

In 2013 Daniel Handel, an economist with USAID—the U.S. government’s main agency for foreign assistance—had just moved to Rwanda when he heard about a charity that was testing a bold idea:

Instead of giving people in poor countries, say, livestock or job training to help improve their standard of living, why not just give them cash and let them decide how best to spend it?

Handel had been mulling this exact question. Aid programs were spending enormous sums per person to boost poor people’s income less than the cost of the program. At this rate, Handel thought, why not just hand over the money to people directly? This program called GiveDirectly was doing just that.

So Handel went to his bosses at USAID’s Rwanda office and proposed an experiment:

Take one of USAID’s typical programs and test it against cash aid. His initiative has since grown to encompass six experiments in four countries. He is currently overseeing these tests from a new position, senior adviser on aid effectiveness at a USAID research unit in Washington, D.C.

A pool of families from nearly 250 villages was selected based on typical criteria and randomly assigned to one of four groups.

  • Those in the first were the “control” and received no help.
  • Those in the second group were visited by the teams from the nutrition and hygiene program.
  • Families in the third group were given small cash grants by GiveDirectly equivalent to the per-person cost of the nutrition and hygiene program, which ultimately averaged out at $114.
  • In the final group, families got a much larger cash grant of around $500 – a figure chosen because this was the amount that GiveDirectly estimated was more likely to make an impact.

On Thursday, the government released the results of the first study in the series: An evaluation of a program to improve child and maternal health in Rwanda by teaching families about nutrition and hygiene.

The experiment found that the program met none of its main objectives. Teaching Rwandans about nutrition did not improve their nutrition or health. Neither did giving Rwandans the cash equivalent of the cost of the education program — about $114.

“Our hearts sank.”

The program’s focus on trying to change behaviors is one of the world’s major strategies for ending malnutrition. And, at least in this example, it had failed to achieve any of its primary goals.

A year on, the children who had been targeted by the nutrition and hygiene program were no more likely to eat a better or more diverse diet, and no less likely to be malnourished or anemic than children who had gotten no help at all. But providing a much larger cash grant of about $500 did make some difference.

Supporters of such “cash-benchmarking” exercises are heralding this particular one as a milestone. For years, anti-poverty advocates and researchers have complained that the U.S. government doesn’t do enough to make sure its aid programs actually work. “But when you talk about giving money to people straight up, with no conditions, people at USAID look at you kind of like you’re a crazy person. There’s ‘an inherent sense’ that they can’t be trusted to spend it wisely.” said Daniel Handel’s associate James Carbonell.

In this case, people who were given the cost-equivalent grants used much of the money to pay down their debts.

It remains unclear what, if any, material changes USAID is planning to its nutrition efforts based on the study’s findings.


  1. Did the authors of the study Fail?
  2. Would proving that cash-equivalent grants were as beneficial as the education program have qualified as Success?
  3. Or did the authors succeed by proving that simply handing recipients money without any stipulation was the wrong way to achieve a particular goal?
  4. Could the authors conclude that poor people really DON’T know “what to do with the money”?


Heavily edited from an original story by NPR.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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