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Author: Ross S. Feldberg

1. Feldberg’s Brief Guide to Critical Reading (2006)

1.1. Introduction

The essays on physician-assisted suicide and the two chapters from Biology as Ideology will introduce you to a different treatment of scientific topics. Rather than giving information for you to memorize or concepts for you to master, these essays are trying to convince you of a point of view. To critically analyze this kind of writing you need to be able to identify and evaluate the ideas being advocated. This takes us to the realm of critical reading and thinking. I offer the following as a set of first guidelines. (Please feel free to add additional topics, examples or suggestions from previous courses.)

1.2. What Kind of Writing Is It?

We generally apply critical reading to writing that is trying to convince us of something. If a piece of writing isn’t fiction, descriptive writing, a personal critique or a summary of current knowledge, assume it is Persuasive Writing (trying to convince you to believe a certain point of view). This is an appropriate function of writing, but it also obliges you to examine the piece with your analytical skills at full strength. The heart of Persuasive Writing is the Argument.

1.3. Identify the Argument(s)

Arguments: A collection of statements one of which we term the conclusion and the others the premises. Sometimes it is hard to decide what the actual conclusion is, either because the writer is not very clear or because he has an interest in obfuscating.

  1. Try to identify first if there is an argument and then find the premises and conclusions.

  2. Try to identify assumptions that the writer makes. This can be difficult since the assumptions are often unstated. When you find yourself disagreeing with an argument even though the logic is sound, it may be because you do not share the author’s assumptions.

  3. Critical thinking will have you look more carefully at the logical structure
    Arguments are valid if the conclusion follows logically from the premises (NOTE: an argument can be valid, but wrong, if the premises are not true. The validity of an argument is separate from the truthfulness of the premises.)

    Rather than explore formal deductive logic (which I find difficult) let me give you some “seat of the pants” guidelines.

    1. As specified above – the first job is to figure out the point (what is the author trying to convince you of? Often this is more than one thing). Not always easy to do this.

    2. Does the author make it clear what an opposing view might be (He/she doesn’t have to, but before you accept the point being made, it is useful to think what the opposite view would be!).

    3. Look out for certain argumentative devices. A partial listing of these might include:

      1. Assuring: Here the author suggests that the argument is sound or the premises valid without actually presenting any solid evidence
        “Recent studies have indicated….” (what studies? all studies?).
        “Everyone agrees by now... “ (if you don’t, something is wrong with you).

      2. Guarding: Here the author weakens his claims to make it less subject to attack. Perfectly acceptable, but if a claim is weakened enough it becomes immune from attack while at the same time communicating an overall direction.
        “It is virtually certain that students who do poorly on the MCAS have only themselves to blame” (he doesn’t say it is absolutely certain, but he wants you to think that).
        “Perhaps it is the case that the poor really are genetically deficient” (if he didn’t believe this, he wouldn’t raise the possibility)

      3. Discounting: Anticipating and dismissing the opposition without really considering it carefully or honestly (this is one of the most common devices).
        “Those who believe in diversity are just being politically correct” (are there really no other reasons why someone might believe in diversity?)

        Another example of discounting is the use of the “straw man” argument. Create an extreme point of view and assign it to your opponent.
        “Advocates of stem cell research would tamper with the essence of what it means to be human” (Gee, and I thought they were just trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease…)
        “Those who use animals in research have no regard for animal welfare” (do they really beat their pets?)

      4. Slanting: The use of charged language instead of argumentation. Often a writer will discredit an opposing by attributing it to a fringe view.
        “Those extreme feminists who advocate Title IX are responsible for the destruction of college athletics” (who defines extreme? Has college athletics really been destroyed?)

Appealing to Fear: This argument tries to persuade by invoking fear in the reader.
“Same sex marriage will inevitably lead to the weakening of the institution of marriage.” (No one wants marriage to be weakened, but is there really a causal link between these two issues?)

I would put the “slippery slope” argument in this category. This takes a currently controversial issue and projects an unacceptable future outcome
“Allowing physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives will lead to doctors killing troublesome patients in the future.” (Is this outcome realistic or necessary?)

What other aspects of critical reading/thinking would you add to the above? I have also found the analysis in Chapter 4 of S. Barnet and H. Bedau’s book Notes from Critical Thinking Reading and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument 2nd ed. (Bedford Books 1995) to be particularly helpful. They break the analysis down into four major components:

  1. Identify the author’s major point (thesis). Hopefully the title or the final conclusions will make this clear, but not all authors make it clear exactly what their thesis is. Is this due to bad writing or to a deliberate attempt to obfuscate?

  2. Examine the author’s purpose (be careful, many authors will pose as neutral, but will be trying to convince you of something). Writing with a specific purpose in mind is fine, but the reader needs to be able to identify that purpose.

  3. Look at the Author’s Methods (described above).
    If the author quotes authorities, does he/she only quote those on one side of the issue? Does he set major authorities against less competent ones?
    If the author quotes statistics, does he/she selectively use statistics? (An interesting example of this was cited in a recent Supreme Court ruling about the rights of convicted criminals to pursue rehearings on their cases. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia suggested that a very low error rate on convictions as indicated by reversals as evidence that there was no problem with our legal system. However, 80-90% of criminal cases eventually are plea-bargained with the defendant admitting to guilt. Thus, the error rate is actually 5 – 10 fold higher if we only apply it to those cases that are contested – a very subtle misuse of statistics
    If the author uses analogies or examples are they reasonable ones?
    Can you identify the author’s assumptions?
    Does the author use ridicule or humor to make a point.

  4. Think about the author’s Persona (How does the author’s presentation of self contribute to his/her argument?)

1.4. Some Excellent Critical Thinking Guides on the Web