Critical thinking

What questions should we ask, to assess the strength of an argument?

To examine and assess the validity of arguments, a reader needs skills- an understanding of logic, and an ability to scrutinise both the content and the provenance of the statements made.

Some arguments require a solid understanding of scientific principles. Otherwise, it's impossible to know whether the citations are correct, and whether quotes have been used properly, or have been distorted, misinterpreted, and taken out of context.

The same applies for all the statements I make in this website. If you do not yet have a foundation in biology, physics, math, and chemistry, then I can't expect you to fully accept what I say, because my statements contain underlying assumptions about how the world operates, and our perspectives are likely to be very different.

If this is the case, I'd encourage you to get hold of reputable textbooks- the kind that are endorsed by schools and recommended as part of the national curriculum.

Here's a list of things to consider when making evaluations of a statement:
What’s the context?
Where is the information being published? It is available on a website, and if so, is the website run by an individual, a group of people, or an organisation? If it comes from a book or some other printed form, who was the publisher?

Information in websites run by private individuals and religious groups does not have to undergoing scrutiny by scientists or historians before being posted online.

Similarly, the content in self-published books is not reviewed for accuracy by external editors or experts. Small publishing houses most likely do not have the resources to verify all the statements made in submitted manuscripts.

Publishers that are closely affiliated with religion specialise in topics relating to spirituality, and are trained to deal with texts that make claims about God and religion- areas in which submission of proof is often inherently impossible.
Whose word is being given?
Who is making these statements and why? Is the writer religious? Does the writer make his or her affiliations clear? If so, to which religion(s) and religious institutions? How do the writer’s beliefs affect or bias the writing?

One has to gauge whether the writer is knowledgeable enough about the subject for his or her judgment to be trusted. The writer might mention his or her occupation, hobbies, and level of involvement with religious organisations.

If the writer says that he or she is a teacher, a theologian, a historian, a researcher, a pastor, a minister, or a priest, is there some way of verifying this?

If credentials are cited, how might the reader check them up? Does this information have to be taken on faith? How does the presence of such background information influence the reader’s opinion of the writing?

If the writer is a prominent figure (e.g. the leader of a religious organisation), what are people’s perceptions of this person within and outside a religious setting?

What motives might the writer have for making his or her opinions known? Do they stem from a strong dedication to God and a desire to help others? Could they also be motivated by an increase in prominence, status, or financial gain?
What assumptions are being made and are they valid?
Does the writer state the scope of the topic being addressed? If so, is it stated accurately? Does the scope remain consistent throughout the document? If it changes, does the writer say so explicitly? Does the writer make implicit assumptions that may affect the logic of the arguments presented?

For example, some writers precede their main text with the claim that, before broaching the subject of whether God exists, it's necessary for the reader to discard any prior beliefs that God does not exist. They reason that if the reader is opposed to the writer’s stance from the beginning, then no amount of evidence will be able to convince the person otherwise.

The assumption made by these writers is that if a reader is against the idea of God’s existence from the outset, and is not won over by the end of the read, then this must be the reader’s fault for having failed to suppress his or her initial views and keep an ‘open mind.’

This is a fallacious argument, and it uses flawed logic to confuse and distract the reader. On many occasions, people enter a debate with a preformed opinion. In the event that compelling evidence is offered and it is substantial enough to change their minds, then they gradually become willing to alter their original opinions.

The main reason why sceptics refuse to accept ‘evidence’ offered by religious proponents for the existence of God is not due to the tenacity with which they adopted their initial stance- rather, it is because the evidence offered is thoroughly unconvincing.

As an analogy, let’s substitute the question, ‘Does God exist?’ with ‘Does one plus one equal to three?’ Many of us would enter a discussion of the subject with the view that one plus one does not equal to three.

The fact that others are unable to move us, regardless of the ‘evidence’ they provide (such as production of historical texts stating that one plus one equals three) does not somehow prove that there is something wrong with our outlook.

Neither does it prove that we are being pig-headed and single-minded. It might simply be because the arguments offered are paltry, and/or that the premise is untrue to begin with!
What sources of information are cited, and are they reliable?
When external sources of information are cited, the reader has to refer to and check the cited texts to make sure that those documents are reliable and credible.

After all, if secondary sources are inaccurate, then they cannot possibly be counted as evidence. Their inclusion would make the claims unreliable and unsubstantiated.

Many religious proponents quote sections from religious texts. Is one able to verify the claims made in those texts? How?

There are several methods one can apply to assess the accuracy and trustworthiness of cited materials. Ask whether they are produced by reputable individuals and/or institutions. Do the authors have an established track record?

Was the text reviewed by impartial editors and vetted for quality and accuracy? Have the materials received endorsement from trusted reviewers?

Are claims checked for rigour and are they corroborated by findings from reputable sources? Have people raised doubts about their accuracy and authenticity?

What do experts, such as scientists and historians, tend to think of the material? Is there a consensus in opinion or is it disputed?
Are the sources cited correctly?
If one is satisfied with the quality of cited material, the next step is to check that the meaning of the claims made in the external sources is accurately conveyed in the primary document. Is information about the source provided, so that the reader can obtain a copy and read it for his or herself?

Writers may lift sections of text and take them out of context, or neglect to mention the caveats and assumptions that accompany and are integral to the original statements. Writers may misinterpret the meaning of the cited text, deliberately or unknowingly.

If, for instance, the author of the referenced material made a statement in sarcasm, but the text is taken at face value, then the writer of the primary document has formed an interpretation that is the opposite of the other author’s intentions.
What are the conclusions? Are they logical? Are they supported by the evidence?
Do the materials that are offered as evidence bolster the claims being made, or do they have no logical connection to the claims whatsoever? Do they detract from, rather than support, the arguments?

Do the conclusions follow naturally from the evidence, or do they seem contrived? Is the evidence enough to support the claims? Could the writer be leaving out conflicting sources of information that might invalidate the claims? Does the writer exaggerate the importance of some claims, and downplay that of others?

Are the conclusions stated clearly and unambiguously, or are they lost in muddled language? Are there jumps in logic between one statement and the next?

Does the writer rely on tactics other than the direct presentation of evidence, to persuade the reader? For instance, does the writer issue implicit or explicit insults of the reader’s intelligence and personality if the reader does not buy into the conclusions?

Does the writer expound the positive and negative effects of acceptance or rejection of the conclusions? Are these effects real or imagined?

Are the conclusions applicable only within a particular context, or are they generally valid across all contexts? Does the writer state the conditions under which they are valid? Are these conclusions the only ones that can be drawn from the evidence?

What about other possible explanations? Does the writer give an assessment of how likely those particular conclusions are, compared to the rest? Do you trust the writer’s judgment, and why or why not?
What are the error margins of the claims made?
The evidence presented may be strong, but not conclusive. It may be weak, and very inconclusive. What is the amount of uncertainty associated with the claims being made?

Is their likelihood of being wrong low or high? Does one accept the conclusions almost fully, or with reservations?

Does the writer state the size of the error margins, and are his or her estimates accurate? Does the writer use conservative language when appropriate, to match the degree of uncertainty associated with the claims?

Are claims phrased in bold, assertive terms, even when such confidence is unwarranted?
What are the limitations?
If you accept the writer’s claims, how relevant and important are they to you? In the face of all your other concerns, are they sufficient to affect your thoughts and behaviour, or are they relatively trivial and inconsequential?

If they are only applicable within a limited context, how does that affect their usefulness? What are the other contexts within which you’d like to see this topic being addressed?
What more work could be done?
Whether or not the conclusions drawn were reasonable and satisfactory, the text may have triggered new questions. How would you address them? Does the writer provide suggestions for further sources of information?

Maybe the claims in the current document are valid in one context but not others- how could they be studied under alternative conditions?

There is plenty to consider, when carrying out a critical, thorough reading.

Thanks for making the effort to assimilate all this information. It takes practise to read texts with a discerning, detached mindset, and to pay close attention to all these issues. Don’t worry if you’re not used to these procedures- if you’re aware of what considerations to keep in mind, that’s already a start.

In summary, one has to identify the context in which the claims are being made, who is making them, what sources of information are cited, how reliable the sources are, identify possible sources of error and the magnitude of such errors, and judge whether or not the claims are supported by the evidence.

If we feel that the claims can be accepted, we also have to consider their strengths and limitations, and, ideally, discuss the type of findings and studies that could be performed to provide further support for or to cast doubts on the claims.

(Refer to the section on Scientific Enquiry for more details on the steps involved in the process of conducting a scientific investigation.)
comments courtesy of Disqus

background image