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RocketReader newsletter - Critical Thinking in Reading

Critical Readers

books As critical readers, we need to be aware that often the goal of a written text is to persuade the reader to accept the author's point of view on the subject. We should aim to effectively identify, reconstruct and evaluate the author's arguments. This gives us power of knowing that our own opinions are formed as a result of logical reasoning. With critical reading, we can see through manipulative and persuasive writing techniques.

All of us act as providers and receivers of information. We alternate between the roles of speaker and listener, reader and writer all the time in our daily lives. The information that we exchange is sometimes contained in the form of expression of emotions (like "Wow!), commands ("Get out of here!"), or questions ("Is it cold outside?"). However, most of the time we are exchanging statements, i.e. sentences that are either true (T) or false (F). This is especially true of information contained in written sources, where non-verbal clues of communication (like body language) are less prominent.

In some cases it is unknown whether the statement is true or false. However, we can always talk about the "truth-value" of a statement. For example, the statement "Life exists on Venus" is probably false as far as we know. However, if we discovered life, then this statement would be definitely true (T). There are some statements that have definite truth values from the outset. For example, "teal is a shade of green" (T), "the world is square" (F), and "all monkeys hate bananas" (F).

If some supporting statements are being used to justify conclusions, such collection of statements is called an argument. The supporting statements are called premises. It is important for a critical reader to distinguish between an argument, i.e. the author trying to persuade you to a point of view, and just a list of separate facts. Test yourself now! To see if you can correctly identify an argument, read the two paragraphs below. One of the paragraphs contains an argument. Can you identify it?

Identify an Argument - Exercises

1. Florida is a peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. These oceans are cyclone breeding grounds. Tropical cyclones and savage storms often scourge the residents of Florida. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew caused massive destruction and left a damage bill of $26.5 billion. Buildings containing people were ripped up and sucked into the sky. Cars were blown around like lolly papers and smashed into houses. And, to make matters worse, many of the buildings in Florida are not built to the tough hurricane codes. Cyclones are dangerous. Consequently, Florida is a dangerous place to live and people should sell up and move to somewhere safe, like Arizona.

2. French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799. During the course of the Revolution, France was temporarily transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of theoretically free and equal citizens. The effects of the French Revolution were widespread, both inside and outside of France, and the Revolution ranks as one of the most important events in the history of Europe.

Identify an Argument - Answer
The text about Florida's climate is an argument, because the author provides some facts about the climate in Florida, and then concludes that it is a dangerous place to live (conclusion). The data about the violent storms is provided in support of the author's view (premises).

The text about French Revolution, even though containing some views of the event, is not an argument. The text does not contain any particular point that the author is trying to prove. It is rather a collection of historical facts and opinions of the French Revolution and its role in the history of Europe. It is widely regarded that the French Revolution was one of Europe's most important events, so there is no real author's opinion there.

Induction or Deduction?

So far, we have learned how to spot an argument and recognize that the author is trying to persuade us. The next step is to use critical thinking techniques to evaluate the argument. To do this, you need to first identify what kind of argument is being presented to you. The two basic kinds of argument are *inductive* and *deductive*. Induction is normally described as moving from the specific to the general. Deduction is the opposite process - it begins with the general and moves towards the specific.

Analyzing Inductive Argument - Example

Inductive arguments are generally based on experience or observation, and involve comparisons between ideas, things or events. The purpose of the comparison is to establish whether the similarity found between items can give birth to a general rule based on that similarity. Induction only attempts to find "rules of thumb" - sometimes there are examples that don't fit the rule.

Example: Every time James has a cup of coffee after 6 pm, he has trouble sleeping that night. Tonight he had a cup of coffee at 7 pm, so he will have trouble sleeping.

The strength of any inductive argument largely depends on three of its elements:

  1. How accurate and comprehensive the previous observations are. In our case, we would want to be sure that the speaker has known James for a considerable period of time and is well aware of his coffee-drinking and sleeping habits.

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  1. How strong the cause-effect link seems to be. We would want to feel confident that there is really a strong relationship between James drinking coffee and his sleep problems.
  2. How similar the different cases are. We would want to know whether there are any significant differences between the observation of James' behavior today and on the previous days. For example, it may be that James normally has coffee after 6 pm whenever he is studying for an exam - and that is when he also has trouble sleeping. However, tonight he had coffee because he was having dinner with some friends.
The Key to analyzing Inductive Arguments

As you can see from the above example, any significant variation might affect whether the different observations are comparable. Always keep this in mind, because this is where many inductive arguments are weakest.

Analyzing a Deductive Argument - Example

In a *deductive* argument, the author's claim is that it is *impossible* for the premises to be true but the conclusion false. The conclusion must follow *necessarily* from the premises. If this is the case, the argument is called valid. If the premises are also true, the argument is not only valid but also sound. The following examples make the concept easier to understand.

Example of an invalid deductive argument: All teenagers love hip hop. Adam loves hip hop. Therefore, Adam is a teenager. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises - as Adam might be an adult that happens to like hip hop. The argument is also unsound, because the generalization that "all teenagers love hip hop" is untrue.

Now, for example of a valid, but unsound deductive argument: All teenagers love hip hop. Adam is a teenager. Therefore, Adam loves hip hop. However, as above, the premise "all teenagers love hip hop" is not true as it is a generalization that does not literally mean 100% of teenagers.

Finally, an example of a valid and sound deductive argument: Adam and James are teenagers. Adam and James love hip hop. Therefore, some teenagers love hip hop.

The Key to Analyzing Deductive Arguments
Many errors in deduction are due to making unjustified inferences from premises, i.e. faulty reasoning that leads us to wrong conclusions. However, the vast majority of unsound deductive arguments are also caused by premises being questionable or false. For example, many researchers on controversial topics like UFOs or ghosts often assume that the data in their study is correct. They go on to supply the best explanation for any physical anomaly encountered in the course of the study - and then proceed to prove the link. However, such assumptions are often themselves questionable.
Practical Tips: Recognizing and Evaluate Arguments in a Text
man reading a newspaper
  1. When reading a text, look for words or phrases that can provide clues as to which statements are premises and which conclusions. Some likely premise indicators are phrases like "After all, ...", "Given that...", " In view of the fact that...","Since..." and alike. Sentences containing conclusions are likely to start with "Therefore...", " In short,...", "So...", "Thus...".
  2. If there are no apparent premises or conclusions in the text, try to look for a statement summarizing the main message of the text that can serve as a conclusion. View the headings. Look at the captions on the pictures. Scan the text to get the general message. If no such statements can be found in the text, try to pick up clues about the author's likely outlook or message from outside the text. If it is an election leaflet, it is likely to supporting a candidate and presenting good deeds on their side, and bad deeds for the opposition. If it is a sales brochure, it will likely conclude that the product is worth much more than the money you pay for it, and present lots of information supporting this.
  3. Put together a short sentence which seems to summarize the main message of the text - then look for such or similar statement in the text. If you have found one, that helps confirm that you are interpreting the text correctly.
  4. If after a few attempts you still have not found a conclusion, keep going with your best guess for the conclusion statement. Remember, your "conclusion" in this case is only an educated guess. It should be replaced by a better one if you fail to reconstruct the argument using that conclusion.
  5. Once you have determined an overall conclusion, revisit the text in search of statements which could support that conclusion. Ask yourself "What makes the author think so?" and look for answers in the text. Repeat the process (and the imaginary question) in your search for further premises in support of those statements, and so on, until you are satisfied with the result.
  6. Try to practice the above argument identification, reconstruction and analysis techniques as often as possible. Soon you will notice that you become better at detecting manipulative writing and seeing through faulty logic. Making better decisions and steering clear of scams are just the most obvious of the many benefits you will gain.

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