INI304H1 Extended Course Description

INI304H The Illusion and Reality of Evidence

Instructor: Roger Riendeau
Innis College Residence, Room 127A

Seminar: Tuesdays 1:00-4:00 pm in Room 312 of Innis College

In his ground-breaking book, The Bias of Communication (1951), Harold Innis offers an astute observation that may be even more pertinent today than it was almost seven decades ago: “As modern developments in communication have made for greater realism they have made for greater possibilities of delusion.” Although advancements in communication technology, including radio and television, the print media, and the internet, have greatly increased the accessibility of information, they have not necessarily improved the human capacity to evaluate the validity of information. University students, in particular, are inundated with information from numerous sources as they pursue their course of study. For example, the popular media offers a daily parade of “experts” – commentators, journalists, writers, politicians, scientists, lawyers, and other professionals – who purport to have definitive answers to complex questions. So-called “official” sources emanating from various agencies of government are presumed to present the “truth” based on apparently thorough and objective investigation. The internet places a wealth of information on virtually every subject at one’s fingertips. When enroled in their courses, university students are exposed to a diversity of conflicting opinions and perspectives that they can be assured are a product of reliable, systematic, and current scholarly research.

The challenge facing modern students is to avoid becoming merely passive absorbers of information, accepting uncritically what they read, hear, and see. A more active alternative is to ask pertinent questions and to evaluate the available evidence in an effort to arrive at rational bases for making a decision. INI304H The Illusion and Reality of Evidence is designed to help students to learn how to make more intelligent choices about the information and perspectives presented to them or which they wish to present and how to decide upon rational criteria by which to accept or reject facts and ideas — in other words, how to think and to analyze critically. Towards this end, the course will focus more on the methodology of argumentation than on the substance. The major aspects of evidentiary analysis examined in INI304H include:

  • the type of evidence being presented, including fact, authority, and logic;
  • the quality of the evidence being presented, that is, its relevance, verifiability, and sufficiency;
  • the reliability and variety of research sources used to support an argument;
  • fairness and thoroughness in the interpretation or representation of alternative perspectives or contradictory information;
  • the strategic use of language or arrangement of ideas to influence reader understanding and response;
  • objectivity and subjectivity in the expression of perspectives and the treatment of evidence;
  • the existence of personal motives, ideological commitments, or vested interests influencing argumentative perspective.

These aspects of evidentiary analysis will be addressed within the context of a specific case study: the historical controversy surrounding the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The enduring controversy over who killed JFK — a “lone” gunmen named Lee Harvey Oswald or a conspiracy of forces involving Oswald and/or others, including agents of the American government — has generated hundreds of books and thousands of articles, in addition to countless films, videos, and internet websites. The sources range from popular accounts, to government reports, to scientific investigations, to scholarly analysis. Consensus on virtually any aspect of this “crime of the century” is even more elusive today than it was more than a half century ago. Although studying this case will not enable students to find the “right answer” to such a complex and controversial question, it is designed to help them acquire the skills to make more reasonable decisions and judgements about the perspectives that they are developing.

During the course, students are expected to attend the weekly seminar and to complete the following assignments (value in terms of a percentage of the final grade indicated in parenthesis):

  • 1,500-word critical analysis due in early February (20%)
  • 3,000-word research essay due at the end of term in April (40%)
  • 3-hour term test during the final class in April (20%)
  • Class participation (20%)

Evaluation of a student's participation in the class will be based on (1) regularity of attendance at weekly classes, (2) willingness to contribute to class discussion, (3) quality of contribution to class discussion. Enrolment is limited to 40 students.