Critical Reading and Critical Thinking
Critical reading refers to the ability of a reader to evaluate the validity
of information presented in a written source. It is important to distinguish
between critical reading and critical thinking. We should always aim to
first evaluate a text on its own merits by applying critical reading techniques.
Then we can proceed to apply our critical thinking techniques, analyzing
the information contained in the text in light of our prior knowledge.
Otherwise, it is easy to interpret a text as saying what we would like
it to say - and this is exactly what we would like to avoid.
Why is it important to be a critical reader?
We use the information that we extract from various reading sources in
our problem solving and decision making. If we fail to recognize a fallacy
or an invalid argument in a written text and proceed to make decisions
based on the faulty assumptions, then the quality of these decisions will
be poor. That is why the ability to recognize the most common fallacies
and invalid argument structures is so important, and we will be discussing
those in the upcoming issues of our newsletter.
Being a critical reader also gives you an insight into how YOU should
write to communicate your ideas clearly and concisely. Developing critical
writing skills will benefit anyone. The ability to communicate your thoughts
with clarity and persuasion is essential in any of today's occupations.
(We will also discuss critical writing in more detail in the upcoming
Are you a critical reader?
Below are some examples of statements that require critical reading skills.
You may find that you come across similar statements every day when reading
a press release, a brochure, a newspaper article, a web site the
list goes on. Do you see how these statements can be misleading? After
you have analyzed the statements, check out our analysis below.
Examples of written statements
- The company has reported an increase in revenues of 383% in the past
- Three out of four plastic surgeons recommend this type of treatment.
- Mr Wright, the youngest of the candidates for Mayor of Springfield,
delivered a speech it the City Hall today.
- Since he comes from a famous family of entertainers, he is obviously
an actor of great talent.
It is not immediately clear - especially if you are just skimming the
text - that:
The first two statements are ambiguous. In the first statement, the implied
assertion is that the company' revenues have been substantial. It is not
necessarily so, since the base revenue figure is unknown - it could have
even been one dollar! In the second statement, the implied assertion is
that "three out of four means seventy five percent of all plastic
surgeons, and that this type of treatment means this particular
treatment. Again, this is not necessarily so.
In the third statement, the true information about the candidate's age
is given in a way that may be misleading because it appeals to stereotypes.
Depending on the context and on the audience, it may imply either the
candidate's lack of experience (negative connotation), or his resourcefulness
(positive connotation) compared to the other candidates. Any of the connotations
may lead to invalid assumptions, since no information about the candidate's
professional achievements, or about the age of any of the candidates is
The forth statement invites the reader to conclude that because a family
as a whole has a particular characteristic, every member of the family
must have that characteristic. Again, this is not necessarily the case.
Being part of a famous acting family does not guarantee that every family
member has a talent for acting.
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Top four critical reading traps.
Trap One: Faulty perceptions.
If our perceptions as readers are faulty, our thinking about what we
read can easily become faulty as well. Our world view is largely founded
on stereotypes based on our past experiences - this is how our brain operates.
However, it is important that we become aware of these stereotypes, recognizing
the fact that they exist. Otherwise, it is easy to jump to faulty assumptions.
You read that a Volvo driver has been involved in an accident and automatically
assume the Volvo driver was the one who caused the accident.
How to deal with it: Test your perceptions by asking yourself what assumptions
has lead you to these perceptions.
Trap Two: Invalid Assumptions.
Invalid assumptions are some of the greatest traps that endanger your
critical reading and thinking. It is extremely easy to jump to assumptions,
and then make conclusions based on faulty premises.
This definition of an idealist by Henry L. Mencken provides a humorous
example of an invalid assumption: An idealist is one who, on noticing
that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also
make better soup."
How to deal with it: Remember to always question your assumptions. You
need to find out if your assumptions are valid or not, before you proceed
to making conclusions based on them.
Trap Three: Undermining the power of words.
Words have different meanings based on the different contexts in which
they are used. It is important for a critical thinker to always acknowledge
the context in which the word is being used. Words also change meanings
over time, and new words appear. Being aware of multiple meanings a word
can take will help both your critical reading and critical writing skills.
Newspaper headlines make good examples of how words can take on different
meanings. New Vaccine May Contain Rabies is an actual headline
that can be understood in more ways than the author might have intended.
How to deal with it: Take every opportunity to learn more about language
and expand your vocabulary. Make an effort to regularly read books that
contain complex ideas expressed in complex language. Carry a pocket dictionary
with you, and use an online one when reading on the Web. This will improve
your ability to spot ambiguities and misleading arguments.
Trap Four: Faulty Logic.
Logic is based on how one assesses the situation and makes decisions
based on the assessment. Faulty perceptions and invalid assumptions are
often followed by invalid arguments. That results in poor decision making.
You must have the proper materials to build a house so, if you
have all proper materials, you will build a house. (This is not a valid
conclusion. You MAY build a house given all proper materials, but will
not necessarily do so.)
How to deal with it: Make sure that the arguments which you are using
to support your position are logical, valid and based in reality. (We
will discuss the valid and invalid argument structures in the upcoming
issues of this newsletter.)
Critical reading skills are crucial for successfully processing the vast
amounts of information we encounter every day. Recognizing the reading
traps we have discussed in this newsletter will help you to be a more
efficient critical reader. This is an important step towards becoming
a true critical thinker and better decision maker.