Statistics in the Rhetoric Classroom

Students might come to my class thinking that numbers and studies can stand on their own, that they are objective and not argumentative. I try to teach them, though, that raw data must be interpreted and that interpreting always requires a person who is situated, biased, flawed, and emotional.

I want students to learn the critical thinking skills necessary to look at logos, determine how rhetorically valid it is, and to analyze its rhetorical presentation.

We Give Numbers Meaning

Often students assume that argument does not function within fields that strive toward objectivity like math. Each time their worldview is challenged in a way that suggests a more subjective and mediated reality, many invoke the comfort of cold, hard numbers to suggest that there is still factual knowable truth in the world: “1+1 is still 2.” In response, I quote famed statistician Nate Silver who writes in The Signal and the Noise, “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning” (9).

I explain that numbers, while "true," have little value until they are brought into the world—until the minus sign means a withdrawal from your checking account, until three equals the number of pizza slices you have for lunch, or until the flu virus spreads exponentially in your city. These are the types of problems that students can evaluate with rhetoric because understanding and using facts requires interpretation.

Culture Affects Numbers

For advanced rhetoric classes, I explain that even with a closed-system like math, the rules are not created in a neutral vacuum. Language changes affect numbers: "regrouping" is now the term for "borrowing" in subtraction, my friends teaching elementary school tell me. The way we interpret numbers also depends on culture. Our base 10 system groups items based on increments of ten—it takes ten ones to push a number over into the tens column and ten groups of ten to overflow into the next column to the left, the hundreds. There are symbols available for 1-9, but after that a single column can contain no more. Students assume this is the only way; doesn’t it “naturally” make sense: grade school children counting on their ten little fingers?

In reality this system of numerical organization is dependent on culture and is not a universal. The Mayans in fourth century AD used a base 20 system (Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World 28); California’s Yuki tribe had base 4 and base 8 numbering systems. Some scholars believe the Mayans counted on their fingers and their toes; the Yuki counted the spaces between the fingers (When Languages Die 173-175). Not to be limited to body digits, ancient Iraq used various systems including base 120 and base 60 (Mathematics Across Cultures 103). Mixing things up even more, the Dozenal Society of America has promoted since World War II the use of a duodecimal system, in other words, learning to count in base 12. Among the benefits: alignment with systems of measurement (12 inches to a foot, 12 donuts in a dozen) and fractional simplicity—1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 of 12 all create nice whole numbers. All of these systems of numbers, from the way we count them up to the way they take on meaning, depend on culture and context, on the rhetorical situation.

I wanted to share the resources I use for the day or two of class focused on statistics because students really enjoy these activities and brain teasers, and I believe it solidifies the rhetorical epistemologies I want them to take away from the class. The examples I incorporated into the group work are popular ones I found on the web.

Homework Reading:

The best reading for teaching statistics in the writing classroom is Joanna Wolfe's "Rhetorical Numbers: A Case for Quantitative Writing in the Composition Classroom" published in CCC (2010). I have condensed this article into a 6.5 page version for students (with pictures) that captures the essence of how numbers are rhetorical with her great examples. Comment if you would like me to send you that abbreviated PDF.

Video to Begin Class:

Pros and Cons of Public Opinion Polls (listed on my Cold Open Videos Post)

Short Lecture:

Individual or Group Work Questions:

While explaining that all statistics are rhetorical and biased, I make sure to note that not all statistics are created equally. Like all rhetorical moves, statistics can be stronger or weaker, and people can employ statistical methods in better or worse ways. In our work, then, we identify some ways that statistics commonly go wrong to help students think critically about numbers.

Comment and I'll send you the answers.

Class Discussion:

At the end of class, we analyze how statistics are rhetorical in "Did You Know?" and "Wealth Inequality in America"


When students incorporate statistics into their final papers, I ask them to create an accompanying footnote which argues for the reliability of the source. They include the education, affiliations, and reputation of the expert to the best they can determine. With a statistic, they include the method of data collection, the sample size, and the margin of error. If no information exists, that's a marker on its own of potential unreliability.

More Resources:

Tim Wise ColorblindThe Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity  (93-96): In this section, Wise compiles analyses of faulty statistics that have been used by racism skeptics. These skeptics claim that the success of Asian Americans in the United States disproves racial inequality. The numbers more accurately suggest that when all other things are equal in education, location, and skills, Asian Americans are paid less than white Americans because of discrimination.

Captain America "Statistics Song"

I'd love to hear how instructors approach statistics and other uses of logos. Please feel free to comment or ask questions below.


  1. This approach looks both interesting and well-informed (thanks google for finding this source). I'd love a copy of your PDF on Wolfe's article -- I may share your condensed version with my Tech Writing students this semester!

  2. Thank you for sharing! I just read Wolfe's "Rhetorical Numbers" and would also love a copy of your condensed PDF for teaching purposes. Much appreciated!


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