Demystifying Critical Thinking

Developing strong critical thinking skills is crucial to your success as a writer. Critical thinking involves actively engaging the text that you are reading and asking questions of that text. Try to envision the act of reading as participating in a conversation with the author, rather than merely absorbing the information as it is given to you. Question the information and the claims that the author makes. Bearing this perspective in mind, it is helpful to approach critical thinking as a set of questions to ask when reading or listening to an argument (Browne and Keeley 2004). 

  • What are the issue(s) and conclusion? The first step of critical thinking is to identify the issue or controversy that the author is addressing or reacting to. There are two different types of issues, descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive issues address or describe how the world is. For example, "What makes grass grow?" Prescriptive issues deal with the way the world ought to be and often involve moral or ethical concerns such as "We should reduce our carbon footprint." The conclusion is usually the author's answer or solution to the issue. The conclusion is what the author is trying to convince you of (Browne and Keeley 2004, 15-24). 
  • What are the reasons? Reasons are the statements that are intended to support the conclusion. They are the answer to why the author came to a particular conclusion. In the case of descriptive issues, the reasons are most likely to constitute evidence that supports the conclusion. In prescriptive issues, reasons tend to be "general prescriptive statements" or "descriptive beliefs or principles." Identifying the reasons and how they relate to the conclusion will help you to map out the reasoning process of the author (Browne and Keeley 2004, 25-36). 
  • What words or phrases are ambiguous? Words or phrases can be considered ambiguous when the meaning of the word or phrase is unclear to the point that, within the context of the argument, there are multiple meanings that could be applied to the word or phrase and each meaning would have a different effect on the strength of the argument. Ambiguous words or phrases are important only to the point that they affect the reasoning of an argument, so focus your search for ambiguous language on the issues, reasons, and conclusions of arguments. Look for abstract words or phrases that could have multiple meanings. Take a contrary point of view to the author and consider whether or not, from that perspective, you can come up with a different meaning for suspect words or phrases. When reading, never assume that you completely understand the meaning of the author's use of ambiguous words, seek clarification (Browne and Keeley 2004, 37-52). 
  • What are the assumptions? Assumptions in writing consist of unstated ideas that are taken for granted that often support the author's argument. There are two types of assumptions to look out for, value assumptions and descriptive assumptions. Value assumptions are concerned with the values and beliefs the author holds which inform the author's point of view and help shape the argument. Descriptive assumptions are assumptions about what the world was, is, or will be like. Just as with ambiguous language, look for assumptions that affect the reasoning structure of the argument. Assumptions contribute to the development of an argument just as much as the reasons do, however they are not explicitly stated. Identifying assumptions will help to add context to the reasons given and allow you to better evaluate the author's point of view (Browne and Keeley 2004, 53-82). 
  • Are there any fallacies in the reasoning? Fallacies are examples of faulty reasoning used to trick the reader into accepting the reasons and conclusions of an argument. Three common reasoning tricks are: "providing reasoning that requires erroneous or incorrect assumptions"; "making information seem relevant to the conclusion when it is not"; and "providing support for the conclusion that depends on the conclusion's already being true (Browne and Keeley 2004, 84). There are a great number of fallacies to be wary of. You can consult a number of websites or any introductory textbook on Logic for a comprehensive list (Browne and Keeley 2004, 83-102). 
  • How good is the evidence? To better support their arguments, authors will often present various types of evidence. Before you can accept the truth or validity of any claim an author makes you must examine the evidence provided to support the claim. If the evidence is insufficient, the claim should be disregarded as the claim can not support the argument since it has no support itself. You must evaluate each piece of evidence presented to determine whether it is reliable or not (Browne and Keeley 2004, 103-135). 
  • Are there rival causes? In many instances the work of an author will attempt to explain why or how something happened or occurred. However, causation is rarely as cut and dried as an author would have you believe. Using the evidence and reasoning provided by the author, try to determine if there are alternative causes supported by the evidence. The existence of rival causes requires you to evaluate all possible causes before accepting a particular one (Browne and Keeley 2004, 137-154). 
  • Are the statistics deceptive? Statistics are frequently used as evidence in arguments. Because statistics are presented in numbers and percentages they are often perceived as a type of scientific authority. Statistical evidence appears to present facts, but in reality can be very deceptive. Authors can use a number of deceptive strategies when presenting statistics. Unknowable statistics are statistics that are really only estimates because there is no possible way to actually gather all of the information. When presented with these types of statistics it is important to question how the author arrived at the particular estimate. You should also be wary of the term "average" as it can have different meanings (i.e. median, mode, or mean). Authors will also use statistics to prove one thing while actually concluding something else, such as the president has a 40% approval rating therefore 60% of Americans hate the president. Other times authors will leave out key statistics in an attempt to make the presented statistics more impressive. For example, stating there was a 100% increase in funding can sound very impressive, but less so if we are talking about going from one dollar to two (Browne and Keeley 2004, 155-164). 
  • What significant information is omitted? Look for information that you believe is pertinent to the subject that may be missing. Is the author leaving out contrasting viewpoints? Are there positive or negative effects for whatever position the writer is arguing for that are left out? Try to determine if there is anything left that needs clarification and ask yourself why that information may have been left out (Browne and Keeley 2004, 165-177) 
  • What reasonable conclusions are possible? Contrary to how the author may present his/her conclusion, there are generally multiple conclusions that can be drawn from any conglomeration of reasons and facts. Considering all of the evidence presented by the author, try to think of alternative conclusions that are supported by the author's reasoning. Appreciating that there are multiple possible conclusions will help you to better evaluate the author's conclusion without simply accepting it because the reasoning supports the conclusion (Browne and Keeley 2004, 179-190). 

Browne, M. Neil and Stuart M. Keeley. 2004. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 7th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education.