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InfoTrac College Edition

Critical Thinking

You have probably been told that critical thinking is an important skill. The articles in Critical Thinking are excellent at helping you learn to think critically about issues. What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking has been described as "the careful and deliberate determination of whether to accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim" (Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking). More simply, critical thinking is the process of evaluating what other people say or write to determine whether to believe their statements.

Some statements are easy to assess. For example, "The President of the United States serves a four-year term." This is a fact and requires little deliberation. It can be easily verified. Other statements involve ideas that are more complex: "The United States must develop its Strategic Defense Initiative to protect it from enemy attack." Not only do you have to decide whether the United States has enemies that can destroy it, you have to determine whether building a Strategic Defense Initiative is the best way to counter such an attack. Your assessment of this statement may have a significant impact on your attitudes toward American defense and the policies of the U.S. government.

Critical Thinking and Bias

Developing the ability to think critically can be difficult because it is easier to make hasty judgments based on opinions and biases than it is to evaluate facts and arguments. For example, your friends might think that the death penalty is just, and you might also think so just because your friends do, without hearing any arguments to the contrary. Your viewpoint, based solely on the opinions of others, would be weak.

A brief overview of several critical thinking skills is important when assessing views. Click on any of the list below to receive more information about a particular area.

Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Bias from Reason
This skill focuses on distinguishing between a statement based on fact (one that can be proved true) and a statement based on opinion (one that expresses how a person feels about something or what a person thinks is true). The ability to distinguish between these two types of statements is the essential first step to critical reading. Whether reading a newspaper or magazine, listening to a disagreement, or preparing for a debate, you can become a more sophisticated consumer of information if you can identify the speaker's viewpoint.

When first learning to assess this skill, you may be tempted to identify statements of fact as "important" and statements of opinion as "irrelevant" or "unimportant." It's important to remember that a factual statement may be false or taken out of context and thus be misleading. Likewise, on some issues, a statement of opinion might be the most important of all. The point is to practice distinguishing the difference between a fact and an opinion, not make evaluative judgments about them.

The hardest statements to label will be those that include statistics or other objective proof, yet are not merely fact. It is fairly easy to recognize that "two percent of all teenagers commit suicide" is a statement of fact. However, by adding another factor-"The high rate of divorce is responsible"--the "factual statement" becomes an opinion. You must be aware of such pitfalls.

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Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source is original material or information that has not been interpreted by another person. Examples of primary sources are court records, government documents (like the Constitution), letters, some documentary films, memoirs, and position papers of organizations, original research, and editorials. A secondary source is made up of information collected from numerous primary sources that is interpreted by the collector. Examples of secondary sources include histories (such as a history of the Constitution and its framers), many magazine articles, and critical analyses.

Primary sources often have the immediacy of an eyewitness. They can provide details that may not be available to an outside observer or scholar. But they may also present information in a manner colored by the author's personal views or experience. For example, a Palestinian describing his life under Israeli rule gives a valuable personal account of what conditions are like. Yet in looking at such an account, one might ask whether the author's individual experiences are typical of the average Palestinian. Is his account affected by his political views or affiliation? The reader must presume that this eyewitness account would be different from a version given by an Israeli living in the same town. Both accounts might be accurate, in which case you would have to consult other primary and secondary sources to gain an understanding of what life on the West Bank is like.

A secondary source may or may not offer information that is more analytical and comprehensive than that found in a primary source. The secondary source author has the advantage of hindsight and, in many cases, access to several primary sources and thus to several perspectives. The author may have more of an objective distance from the events being depicted. But a secondary source is only as factually accurate as the primary sources it uses. And the secondary source author may write an account as colored by personal views as an eyewitness might. Thus a secondary account of Palestinian life on the West Bank in a newspaper that targets a Palestinian audience might reflect and reinforce the publication's editorial stance about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some sources are not clearly primary or secondary and must be considered carefully. For example, is a television documentary a primary or secondary source? On the one hand, it contains visual presentation of primary sources, such as interviews. On the other hand, the interviews and the presentation of the topic in general are a product of the filmmaker's interpretation of what is important in covering the topic. In this case, the source could be both primary and secondary.

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Evaluating Information Sources
In addition to identifying whether a source is a primary or secondary source, you must also learn to discern what information is most valuable for completing an assignment or report. You probably have been told that all information, no matter how objectively presented, has a point of view. When Time magazine promises to "put the world in your hands," it is really promising that its staff will gather and condense what they consider the top stories of the week into a concise, convenient package. Although such a product is not a bad source of information, it is not a perfectly objective, all-knowing source, either. Its content is the reflection of the biases, both political and cultural, of the magazine's editors and publisher and also of their limitations in time and resources when trying to cover world events on a weekly basis.

You should critically examine sources of information to determine point of view and to find out how this point of view affects the accuracy of their coverage. When examining a source of information, check the author's previous writings or his/her relationship to the events being written about. Is the author a member of a partisan organization involved in a dispute being portrayed? Has the author shown a consistent stand on the topic in previous writings? In addition, you should look at other articles on the topic in the same publications. Is there a consistent point of view? Its point of view can also be discerned by comparing its information with other sources that are known to have opposing views on the same topic. Learn to question a source: What are its intentions? What are its biases? What does it gain by presenting a particular perspective?

A source should also be evaluated for its timeliness. It must give information that adequately reflects the time period of the topic being covered. For example, when writing about a topic such as the protest movement during the Vietnam War, you may consider a variety of sources in order to write on the topic. While you may want to look at histories of the protest movement first, to get an overall impression, you will also want to look at eyewitness accounts of participants in the movement, as well as opponents of it. A mixture of such accounts from both the time period of the war and those written later might also be useful. The sources written after the war may bring some historical distance to their discussion of the topic. But the sources written during the war give direct evidence of why people were opposed to it.

Beyond determining the point of view and timeliness of an information source, you must also judge its usefulness. You must determine whether the source deals with the aspects of the subject needed for the research project. You should know that some sources will be more directly useful for writing about the topic, while some will provide valuable background information, while others will have only marginal value at best.

In evaluating a source, you should determine whether the author's intention is appropriate to serve your needs. A scholarly secondary source, for example, would be more useful in providing an in-depth historical perspective on a topic than seventy seconds of documentary film footage on a television news program. On the other hand, the news story may contain quotes that give useful information or insight into a topic. All of these factors should be considered when determining the usefulness of a source.

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Recognizing Deceptive Arguments
The ability to distinguish between deceptive and logical reasoning is an essential skill in critically analyzing written and oral arguments. The danger of deceptive arguments comes from their misleading nature, which may cause you to reject a valid opposing argument or embrace an argument that has little rational merit. Deceptive arguments often distract people from the vital issues and focus their attention on matters of little importance. For example, an author who writes on animal experimentation argues: "All animal liberationists do, ridiculously, claim that their movement is just a logical extension of the more serious and legitimate black and women's liberation movements." By generalizing about animal liberationists, and then by ridiculing their argument, the author diverts attention away from the issue and focuses instead on animal liberationists' sense of priority. Whether animal rights deserve equal attention with civil rights is an interesting topic, but it may have little bearing on how experimental animals should be treated. In labeling a part of the argument as ridiculous, the author aims to invalidate the entire issue.

Many writers are skilled at using emotional appeals to sway readers in support of irrational arguments. For example, one author writing on the issue of criminal justice contends, "Crime in the United States is up by 300 percent--which goes to show that the criminal justice system is incapable of dealing with crime." The author exploits the public's fear of an escalating crime rate, yet offers no solid evidence of a link between the quality of the criminal justice system and a rise in crime. The quoted statistic has little relevance unless the author can prove that crime rates rise when criminals have no fear of being punished.

By reading and evaluating opposing views, you will become more proficient at recognizing deceptive arguments. Many arguments seem reasonable at first reading; however, once students read the opposite opinion, they are forced to decide between two apparently equally plausible arguments. Though opponents may use the same statistics and even the same logic, they may reach different conclusions.

There are innumerable types of deceptive arguments. To facilitate discussion, the examples below fall into eight broad headings.

  1. Bandwagon--the idea that "everybody" does this or believes this.

    Commonly held beliefs are not necessarily correct beliefs. One author, for example, writes: "History shows that when millions of Americans want something (ie., drugs) they'll do anything to get it . " The author attempts to rationalize the legalization of recreational drugs because "everyone is doing it."

  2. Scare tactics--the threat that if you don't do or don't believe this, something terrible will happen.

    This argument is commonly used during emotional discussions or debates when dealing with topics that concern the public's well-being. One AIDS commentator writes, "Federal action is essential if the 'Typhoid Mikes and Marys' of the AIDS epidemic are to be prevented from continuing to infect others individually and en masse." Alarming words such as "typhoid," "epidemic," and "infect" alert readers to the author's intent to frighten the reader into believing his/her argument.

  3. Strawperson--distorting or exaggerating an opponent's ideas to make one's own seem stronger.

    A popular method of creating a strawperson is to distort and exaggerate an opponent's argument and dissect it, thereby ignoring the genuine issues and attempting to invalidate the entire argument through attacking an inflated misrepresentation of its main points. An author writes, "The warped logic of the men and women who are more concerned with bleeding hearts than bleeding bodies goes something like this: 'It is prejudice and poverty that forces young people to break the law.'" The writer uses inflammatory language and states the opponent's argument in one simple sentence, making the argument seem ridiculous. The author creates this exaggerated argument, or strawperson, to more easily knock it down.

  4. Personal attack--criticizing an opponent personally instead of rationally debating his/her ideas. One author attacks animal rights supporters: "Their sweeping indictments of science and technology, their portrayals of science as a force beyond political control, might lead a weak mind to conclude that extraordinary evils require extraordinary solutions." The author personally attacks and categorizes animal rights activists rather than proving his own point.

  5. Testimonial-quoting or paraphrasing an authority or celebrity to support one's own viewpoint.

    Testimonials can be used to legitimately further an argument if the person quoted is truly a well-respected authority. However, testimonials often come from people who have little or no experience in the field debated. A U.S. senator's wife may argue, for example, music lyrics that contain violence or sexism may lead to violent or sexist acts. However, whether this woman's opinion should be more heavily regarded than any other's is arguable. Her husband's fame gives her statements false credibility.

    However, testimonials can be used legitimately. Quoting an expert on a given topic may lend more validity to an argument. The reader should keep in mind, though, that the quote may be taken out of context or used in a manner the speaker did not intend.

  6. Slanters--to persuade through inflammatory and exaggerated language instead of reason.

    The adjectives used to describe people or their political positions often reveal the author's prejudiced beliefs. Many authors do not intend to display their bias, but the words they use send a signal to careful readers. Flagrant slanters, however, are relatively easy to spot. One economics author writes, "The titanic expansion of bureaucratic power is shattering the foundations of a free society and menacing the well-being of every citizen. Words like "titanic," "shattering," and "menacing" are obvious clues to the author's beliefs on government control. The author employs inflammatory words, rather than a solid argument, to persuade readers that large government programs threaten society.

  7. Generalizations--using statistics or facts to generalize about a population, place, or

    This argument can be difficult to recognize if the generalization is a statement the reader already accepts. The reader's preconceived ideas about a topic can hinder his/her ability to distinguish between factual statements and generalizations based on personal

    A commentator writing about Latin America states, "Latin American societies do not encourage new ideas. They are unconcerned with the task of changing the world in which they live." Not all Latin Americans would agree with that statement, but a reader with limited exposure to the topic might not understand the controversy such a statement generates. In generalizing, authors exclude the possibility that alternatives exist, thereby severely limiting debate.

  8. Categorical statements--stating something in a way implying that there can be no argument.

    "Animals are in no sense the moral equals of humans, and therefore we are under no moral obligation to refrain from using them for experiments." This author suspends the debate with a broad statement that assumes that any further discussion would be futile. Categorical statements squelch the open exchange of ideas by denying the possibility that logical alternatives exist.

Recognizing deceptive arguments is pivotal to the evaluation of opposing viewpoints. Many writers attempt to manipulate readers through emotional pleas, scare tactics, and other devices. By coming to understand these techniques, you will become more adept at reading and thinking critically.

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Recognizing Ethnocentrism and Stereotypes
This critical thinking skill will challenge you to question commonly held beliefs and attitudes about identifiable groups. These attitudes--stereotypes--assume that all members of a group share the same set of characteristics. Through recognizing stereotypes and ethnocentrism, you will realize that your perceptions of a group are not always accurate and, in fact, often hinder their understanding of a topic.

Stereotypes are often difficult to recognize because many are deeply ingrained and widely accepted. Obvious stereotypes stand out because they often appear as statements such as, "All Asians are bad drivers." Few people, on reflection, would accept that statement as fact, yet many people are influenced by such generalizations. Becoming conscious of stereotypes can help you discern between authors who rely on stereotypes to further their arguments and those who do not.

Ethnocentrism is a specific form of stereotyping which holds one's own nationality, religion, or cultural traditions and customs as superior to others. This attitude emphasizes the differences between one 's own group and others which are considered inferior. For example, the leader of a Caribbean Basin country states, "Our nation is the most fair, egalitarian society in this hemisphere. We consider it to be superior to yours." The author leaves no room for argument. His ethnocentric comment ends all further discussion on the relative merits of differing political systems.

Some stereotypes are easy to spot, while others are less obtrusive. It is especially important to recognize stereotypes when reading conflicting opinions or when involved in debates and discussions. Stereotypes and ethnocentric attitudes can prevent sound analysis of a debate because they obscure issues in favor of emotional arguments that may exploit participants' preconceived notions. An example from one writer states, "Immigrants are flagrant welfare abusers." Instead of using facts or statistics to support his argument, the author exploits the public's fear that it is being financially exploited by immigrants. If you understand that a stereotype has been used, then you can more objectively read a viewpoint without being misled by flawed logic or biased generalizations.

Despite the misleading nature of stereotypes, they are often necessary to make sense of a complex world. To treat every person as an individual would make political or social discussions very difficult. For example, one author describes politicians' manipulation of the media as though all politicians take advantage of the media in the same way. In reality, individual politicians have their own style of using, or even ignoring, the media. However, it would be very cumbersome for the authors to elaborate on each politician's use, or abuse, of the media. This would detract, in fact, from this author's central argument, which is the media's affect on American politics. Similarly, an author may generalize about the gay population as if all homosexuals form a cohesive community and share the same traits. While this is not entirely true, there are general concerns among gays that are less important to heterosexuals. AIDS is more of an issue among homosexuals than it is among heterosexuals. To effectively deal with this issue, writers must often stereotype to facilitate discussion.

Stereotypes and ethnocentric beliefs are not always negative. However, seemingly positive generalizations can have negative effects. Positive stereotypes can skew arguments and obscure the truth just as negative ones do. For example, if you accept as true the stereotype that all religious leaders are virtuous and trustworthy, then a scandal involving a television evangelist's sexual exploits and misuse of donations may give you a tremendous shock and cause a serious reconsideration of your beliefs toward all ministry. However, if you consider ministries objectively, you will realize that ministers are like other classes of people; some are frauds, but many abide by the values they promote.

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From Gale