5 Questions to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills [Part 1]
We’re constantly bombarded by messages designed to persuade us. These messages appear in the following places:
- Op-ed pieces that attempt to shape our beliefs
- Work documents or meetings where colleagues try to win our support for their proposals
- Advertisements that want to persuade us to buy a product
Without critical thinking skills, we are at risk of being manipulated, deceived, or mindlessly led to conclusions that others want us to have. We need strong critical thinking skills so that we can assert our own beliefs and reach our own conclusions.
To improve my own critical thinking skills, I recently read Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley. I want to share five important questions that I learned, that each of us can ask in order to exercise our critical thinking skills. In this post, I will only cover the first three questions — we’ll review the final two in a subsequent post.
Before I jump to sharing the key questions, let me first provide some context about persuasion and arguments. A persuasive message is making an argument which attempts to convince us to believe certain things or act in certain ways. The argument’s goal is to convince us to believe a particular conclusion.
The author or speaker wants you to believe the conclusion based on a number of statements called reasons. The basic structure of an argument is “this, because of that.” This refers to the conclusion, and that refers to the reasons. Thus, as Browne and Keeley say:
“Conclusions are inferred; they are derived from reasoning. Conclusions are ideas that require other ideas to support them.”
Given this context about arguments, we can now apply our critical thinking skills to evaluate the quality of the argument and decide for ourselves whether or not to believe it. We begin by first understanding the structure of the argument; then we can further evaluate the argument to decide whether to support the conclusion.
To understand the structure of the argument, the key questions are:
- What are the issue and the conclusion?
- What are the reasons?
- What are the assumptions?
From here, we can further evaluate the quality of the argument:
4. Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?
5. How good is the evidence?
After analyzing the reasons and assumptions, searching for fallacies, and weighing the evidence, you can then decide whether or not you agree with the argument’s conclusion.
So for any persuasive message you encounter, whether a written document or a speech, you can ask the five questions above to perform your critical analysis. As I mentioned above, this post will only cover the first three questions. Let’s get started!
Question 1: What are the issue and the conclusion?
In order to evaluate someone’s argument, you first need to understand it.
This starts with identifying the issue and the conclusion of the argument.
As Browne and Keeley write:
“An issue is a question or controversy responsible for the conversation or discussion. It is the stimulus for what is being said.”
There are two types of issues: descriptive and prescriptive.
Descriptive issues raise questions about the accuracy of descriptions of the past, present, or future. They are of the form “What was…?”, “What is…?”, or “What will…?” For example:
- What was the most important cause of the US Civil War?
- What is the biggest threat to national security?
- What will happen to our climate if we don’t reduce carbon emissions?
Prescriptive issues raise questions about what we should do, or what is right or wrong, or good or bad. They are of the form “What should…?”, “How should…?”, or “Must we…?” For example:
- What should the current administration do to reduce violent crime?
- What business initiative should we invest in?
- How should politicians report campaign contributions?
Sometimes you need to search for the issue being discussed. To do so, try one of the following:
- Ask, “What is the author reacting to?”
- Locate the conclusion. The conclusion is typically answering the main issue of the conversation.
Now the next task for us is to identify the conclusion. As Browne and Keeley have written:
“A conclusion is the message that the speaker or writer wishes you to accept.”
Like the issue, sometimes you need to search for the conclusion. Here are some tips for identifying the conclusion:
- Ask, “What is the author’s main point?” or “What is the author trying to prove?”
- Ask what the issue is. If you know the issue, it will be easier to find the conclusion.
- Look for the conclusion in likely locations: the title, beginning, or end of the document.
- Look for indicator words: “Therefore,” “thus,” “consequently,” etc.
Question 2: What are the reasons?
As noted above, an argument consists of a conclusion and reasons. Browne and Keeley write:
“Reasons are explanations or rationales for why we should believe a particular conclusion… An argument consists of a conclusion and the reasons that allegedly support it.”
It’s very important to identify and analyze the reasons within an argument. The strength of a conclusion is dependent on quality of the reasons. “Weak reasons create weak reasoning.”
Keep in mind that a conclusion without any reasons is not an argument — it’s merely an opinion, a baseless assertion.
So how do you identify an argument’s reasons?
- Ask “Why does the writer or speaker believe the conclusion?”
- Look for indicator words: “As a result of,” “in view of,” “studies show,” “First… second… third.”
If the reasons provided to support a conclusion are weak, you can reject the conclusion on that basis.
Question 3: What are the assumptions?
You should be able to find the issue, conclusion, and reasons explicitly in a communicator’s message. However, the visible, stated reasons are not the only ideas that a communicator includes in her reasoning. The communicator may also be including some hidden, unstated beliefs in her argument — assumptions.
The definition of an assumption, according to Browne and Keeley, is the following:
“An assumption is a belief, usually unstated, that is taken for granted and supports the explicit reasoning.”
To avoid being blindly led into accepting an author’s conclusion, you must identify and analyze the assumptions embedded within the argument. If you miss these hidden assumptions, you may find yourself accepting a conclusion that you would have rejected had you explicitly reflected on the assumptions. Keep in mind that communicators will want to position their argument in the most persuasive way, and sometimes may intentionally hide assumptions that are likely to spark disagreement.
Where should you look for assumptions?
- Linkage assumptions are found in the movement from reasons to the conclusion. These linkage assumptions are needed in order for the reasons to support the conclusion.
- Look for assumptions necessary for a reason to be true.
There are two different types of assumptions: value assumptions and descriptive assumptions.
Value assumptions occur when the communicator demonstrates a relative preference for one value over another. For instance, an author may value privacy over security, and thus may argue against state surveillance. Value assumptions are what cause two perfectly intelligent people to look at the same information and arrive at completely different conclusions (for or against abortion rights; for or against gun control). As Browne and Keeley write:
“What leads you to answer a prescriptive question differently from someone else is the relative intensity with which you hold specific values… A value assumption is an implicit preference for one value over another in a particular context.”
How do you identify value assumptions?
- Typical value conflicts: Look for typical value conflicts, such as competition-cooperation, individual rights-welfare of the group, privacy-security, etc. An author is likely to make a value assumption if the issue involves value conflicts.
- Consequences: In prescriptive issues, each position will lead to consequences. Note which consequences are provided as reasons for supporting the conclusion, and then think about what value assumptions would lead the communicator to select those reasons.
- Reverse role play: Ask the question — “What do those people who would take a different position from a stated argument care about?”
Let’s look at a specific example to make it more concrete. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Harvard professor Dani Rodrick argues that Trump’s trade policies prioritize the interests of businesses above those of average consumers and workers. Some examples of value assumptions that the author makes in the article:
- Economic fairness and equality are more desirable than competition and wealth concentration
- Government assistance is more desirable than individual responsibility
- The national sovereignty of foreign countries is more important than the expectation that they will adapt to US trade policies
The second kind of assumption, descriptive assumptions, reflect the communicator’s world view. Value assumptions help you understand how the communicator thinks the world should be; descriptive assumptions help you understand how the communicator thinks the world is.
As Browne and Keeley write:
“A descriptive assumption is an unstated belief about how the world was, is, or will become.”
Let’s review a specific example provided by Browne and Keeley:
- Conclusion: This particular car, the newest model, will get you where you want to go.
- Reason: The past models of this car have functioned well on multiple occasions.
How do you go from the reason to the conclusion? There are two descriptive assumptions being made here.
- Assumption 1: Since the past models of this car have functioned well on multiple occasions, the new model will function just as well.
- Assumption 2: The way that you will be driving this particular car are the same as the ways in which past models of this car have functioned well.
If both of these descriptive assumptions are true, then the conclusion follows from the reason given. However, you could challenge these assumptions and disagree with the conclusion, unless better reasons are provided.
Here are some descriptive assumptions that commonly show up in arguments, courtesy of Browne and Kelley:
- Personal choices: It is one’s personal choices, rather than circumstances or luck, that determine the outcome of events.
- I’m typical: The speaker or writer is typical of the greater population. When someone makes this assumption, she relies heavily on her own personal experiences and tastes in her reasoning.
- Justice: The world is just. People will do the right thing. “That something should be true means that it will be true.” [also known as the romantic fallacy]
- Past is predictor of future: Since we have seen this happen before, it will happen again.
- I’m what matters. “My world is the center of the universe.” When someone makes this assumption, it’s difficult for them to prioritize others’ needs or see others’ perspectives.
Once you have identified the author’s value or descriptive assumptions, you can disagree with them— which may also lead you to disagree with the conclusion.
Browne and Keeley recommend asking these questions with respect to assumptions:
- On what basis can you draw this conclusion from that reason? (Identify linkage assumptions)
- Is there any basis for accepting that assumption?
If the answer for the second question is “no,” you can reject the assumption. If the answer is “yes,” then this assumption supports the conclusion.
In this piece, we have discussed the reasons for why critical thinking is important, and we have reviewed the first three of five questions we can ask to improve our critical thinking.
Critical thinking is important because we’re constantly inundated with messages seeking to persuade us. The quality of reasoning that supports these messages can vary significantly. We need to exercise our critical thinking skills if we want to avoid blindly accepting the beliefs that other people impose on us, and instead want to assert our own beliefs and conclusions.
There are five key questions that we can ask in order to analyze an argument. The first three will help us understand the structure of an argument. The last two will help us further evaluate the quality of the argument. The questions are as follows:
- What are the issue and the conclusion?
- What are the reasons?
- What are the assumptions?
- Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?
- How good is the evidence?
We discussed the first three questions in this post, focusing on understanding and evaluating the structure of the argument.
Every persuasive argument is composed of a conclusion and supporting reasons. The conclusion is what the communicator hopes to convince us to accept. We must first identify the issue and the conclusion, so we know what we are being asked to consider.
Then we need to identify and evaluate the reasons provided. A message that contains a conclusion but no reasons is not an argument, but merely an opinion. Weak reasons create weak reasoning. If we are not persuaded by the reasons, we can reject the conclusion.
Many arguments contain hidden, unstated assumptions that are taken for granted but still support the explicit reasoning. These assumptions are typically present in the movement from reasons to conclusion. There are two kinds of assumptions: value and descriptive assumptions. Value assumptions are implicit preferences for one value over another in a given context. Descriptive assumptions are unstated beliefs about how the world is, was, or will be. Once you identify assumptions, you should ask “Is there any basis for accepting that assumption?” If the answer is “no,” you should reject the assumption (and possibly the conclusion if it relies heavily on that assumption).
By learning about these questions, I feel much better prepared to critically analyze documents and messages in the future. The next time you read an op-ed article, a colleague’s proposal at work, or even an advertisement — try asking these questions. I’m confident that you’ll have a much deeper understanding of the message. And more importantly, you will have asserted your own beliefs and reached your own conclusion.