In graduate school you will need to read critically most of the time so it's important that you understand how to approach a text with a critical eye. Critical reading involves evaluating and judging the accuracy of statements and the soundness of the reasoning that leads to conclusions.
Critical reading raises many questions such as:
What to consider when reading critically?
Authors rarely explicitly state all that they wish to communicate especially when they assume that their "audience" has certain background knowledge, attitudes, and values. Therefore, it is the reader's job to be aware of the implicit messages.
For practice in detecting underlying assumptions see:
What is an "argument"?
People present arguments to persuade others to accept claims.
2. Premise- reasons/evidence to support a claim. Arguments can have 1 or more premises.
3. Conclusion - the claim being defended by the reasons or evidence. (Do not confuse this with the other usage of ‘conclusion' to mean the last part of an essay or presentation).
Therefore, an argument occurs when...
a CLAIM is made and PREMISES are put forward to justify a CONCLUSION as true.
The arrangement for an argument is often (but not always):
Premise 1 + Premise 2 + Premise 3 etc. → THEREFORE + Conclusion
What the difference between an argument and an explanation?
Explanation = claims are offered to make another claim understandable, i.e., to say why or how it is true.
For a practice exercise see:
An indicator word indicates the presence of an argument and helps us determine what role the statement plays in the argument, i.e., either premise or conclusion. Some indicator words come before the premise; others come before the conclusion. Indictor words are NOT part of the content, but serve to signal which statements are premises and which are conclusions. They indicate the direction of the reasons in the argument. Learning these words and their meanings will help you spot an argument more quickly.
For practice with indicator words, see:
Arguments must be valid which means the conclusion follows logically from the reasons given. Depending on the writer's goal, differing degrees of validity are used to persuade the reader to support his/her argument. A critical reader needs to be aware to what extent the author is providing support for his/her argument.
Degrees of support/validity:
Nil. Even if all the given reasons are true, they would provide no justification whatsoever for the conclusion. (aka a faulty conclusion or non sequitur)
Weak. If the given reasons are true, they would provide a small amount of support for the conclusion, but certainly not enough to justify accepting the conclusion as true. In other words, the reasons are logical, but NOT compelling enough to make it ‘a good bet'.
Moderate. Between strong and weak. If the reasons are true, they do not establish the truth of the conclusion, but they make the truth of the conclusion a ‘live possibility' worth further consideration and investigation.
Strong. If the reasons are true, then they make the truth of the conclusion extremely likely, but not totally guaranteed. In other words, you would stake something of great value on the truth of the conclusion.
Deductively valid. If the reasons are true, then there is no possible way in which the conclusion can be false.
Source: Allen, M. (1997). Smart thinking: skills for critical understanding and writing. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
For practice in distinguishing degrees of support see:
One important aspect of critical reading is our ability to evaluate arguments, i.e., to judge and assess an argument's persuasiveness. If you are persuaded by an argument, you will accept it based on the strengths of the reasons provided.
Arguing a conclusion based on premises is a natural human activity.
In a good argument the ‘arguer' puts forward 3 assertions:
Someone who offers a ‘good' argument is giving you REASONS and EVIDENCE to accept their claim. Therefore, if you look only at the conclusion and accept or reject it without looking at the reasons (premises), you are ignoring the argument.
Adapted: Govier, T. (1992). A practical study of argument. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
For an example of good and bad arguments, see.
i. Terms are clearly defined.
Writers and readers need to agree on what is meant by the key terms. Without agreement on terms, the argument's validity can by questioned.
ii. Information is used fairly.
The information used to support the argument is correct and current. It avoids distorting the facts or being one-sided, i.e., both sides of the argument are represented.
iii. The argument is logical.
Arguments can be biased but NOT fallacious. To determine if an argument is logical: 1) consider the "grounds" on which it was based, i.e., personal knowledge, reliable expert opinion, common knowledge, reliable testimony, common sense; and 2) look closely at the claims to make sure they are not fallacious.
Source: Behrens L. & Rosen L. (2005). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. NY: Pearson/Longman.
A logical fallacy is faulty logic used in writing or speaking. There are many types of fallacies. You need to be able to recognize them when you read and avoid using them in your writing.
Use the following checklist of guided questions to assist you in reading more critically: