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Critical writing: Alternative viewpoints

“Any idea can be endlessly confirmed if you're only looking for support – you can convince yourself the Earth is flat if you never look more than a mile away. Seek out challenges and contradictions”

Tom Chatfield, Critical Thinking

Being able to deal with alternative viewpoints is one of the most important elements of critical thinking. Weighing up the arguments surrounding an issue and coming to a conclusion regarding your own viewpoint is the essence of critical thought.

Angel or the devil, right or wrong?

Right or wrong?

In academic work it is rarely possible to discern who is right and who is wrong. It can be argued that knowledge is socially constructed and ideas of right or wrong are dependent on culture, society and individual beliefs.

If you are reading a peer reviewed journal article it is unlikely that there will be major flaws in reasoning or methodology as these would have been picked up by the reviewers. It is more likely that there are points of interpretation that you can disagree with or at least question.

icons of faces look at an issue from different viewpoints

Incorporating different perspectives

When researching a topic, you will often find writers who approach the subject from different perspectives. For example, an issue may be researched from the viewpoint of different individuals or groups involved. Teachers will have a different view on a subject than their pupils; inmates will tell a different story to prison guards; geneticists will have a different perspective to psychologists. In these cases the information may well appear to be contradictory, but this can give you a richer picture of a complex matter. Admitting and embracing the complexity is an important element of approaching the topic critically.

Ultimately, one of the aims of higher education is to produce students who look at situations from multiple points of view with an open mind and are not dogmatic about believing one thing or another. In your writing you will have to try to make a convincing argument towards one position but that position can be one that embraces the complexity involved. You can refute counter-arguments but you should not ignore them. Whilst you do have to justify your own position, you do not need to make the final judgement, that is actually the job of your reader. Your job is to make a convincing case for your overall position that takes into account all the relevant evidence, not just the evidence that fits nicely into your side of the story.

Happy vs Sad icons - struck through. Also Happy and Sad icons overlapping each other

Avoiding binary thinking

Whilst it is useful to consider an issue from opposing viewpoints, as in a traditional debate, this approach can be limiting to critical thought as it potentially polarises issues that are more multifaceted.

Even if a subject has two strongly opposing viewpoints, it can be more useful to imagine a Venn diagram of these and seek out the intersecting positions so that you develop compassionate and convincing arguments that incorporate both viewpoints.

It is easy to focus on polarised positions such as 'for' or 'against'. In any debate 'neither' is an alternative position. You should always consider what alternative perspectives and viewpoints there are on any particular issue. It can help your work develop a more nuanced position.