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Critical writing: Critical reading

“Take time to read arguments carefully. If you don't fully understand them it shows in your responses.”

Debra Hills, Student Essentials: Critical Thinking

In order to read critically, you must be able to recognise, analyse and evaluate arguments made by the author. Depending on the assignment, you may also have to then decide whether the text is relevant for you to use in building arguments of your own.


Elements of an argument

A piece of academic writing is made up of a series of arguments. Authors will make claims that they support with evidence/reasons and they will try to persuade the reader that these claims are correct or significant in some way.

An academic argument is made up of three components:

Claim + Premise + Attempt to persuade = Argument

Each component is looked at in more detail below:

Claim

The claim is the point that the author is trying to make. They are asserting something that they are then going to try and back up in the rest of the argument.

Premise

Premises are the reasons and evidence the author is using to justify a claim. A premise is something that the author believes to be true - either because they suggest it is uncontested knowledge or because it is contested yet persuasive knowledge. This is important because at university you are often looking at papers that are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and a lot of that is contested.

Example 1 (uncontested):

When knowledge is uncontested, the claims made can be more definite. Take the following premise:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production.

This is a known fact and can therefore be used to support a claim as shown:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production. Actions during pregnancy cannot have contributed to incidences of the syndrome.

Example 2 (contested knowledge)

The following premise involves contested knowledge and therefore uses less definite language:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour.

It is the phrase 'have been associated with' rather than 'cause' which acknowledges that this is potentially contested.

This premise can still be used to support a claim, but the claim must include an element of caution:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour. A proportion of men could be imprisoned as a result of their biology.

The caution is added by using the phrase 'could be' rather than 'are'.

When a premise is contested knowledge, it can be useful to use more than one premise. Here, the claim is further bolstered by a second premise about the gender discrepancy for violent crime in prisons:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour and there is a higher proportion of men in prison for violent crimes than women. A proportion of men could be imprisoned as a result of their biology.

Premises are the parts of the argument that need backing up with references to appropriate sources.

Attempt to persuade

Without attempting to persuade the reader of something, the author is not completing an argument. The simplest way an author can do this is to show exactly why the premise leads to the claim:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production. As this has happened before pregnancy occurs, it is impossible that actions during pregnancy can have contributed to incidences of the syndrome.

For a really strong argument, authors must also answer the 'so what' question. They must explain why the claim is significant in furthering their overall argument:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour which could explain why more men are imprisoned for violent crimes than women. A proportion of men could, therefore, be imprisoned as a result of this aspect of their biology. Coupled with the high incidence of ADHD in prison inmates discussed earlier, this raises serious questions about the suitability of prison, rather than psychiatric care, for a significant portion of the current prison population.


Analysing and evaluating arguments

Analysing claims

When you are analysing claims, you are mainly deciding if the claim is justified by the premise(s). This involves a number of different subquestions:

  • Are the premises believable? (How does the author back them up?)
  • Is the author making any assumptions that weaken the premises?
  • Is the claim a logical one given the premises?

Evaluating arguments

When you are evaluating arguments, you are deciding if you have been persuaded by the arguments. Analysing the claim is the first step, but even justified claims can fail to persuade you if you have read other counter-arguments. When evaluating arguments you are bringing in your wider reading of the literature.

Think about the EU referendum. Both sides of the debate made claims that they backed up with 'evidence'. Many of the figures that each side quoted (their premises) were true and the claims that they made were logical at first look. However, in order to evaluate the arguments critically it was necessary to look more widely, acknowledge bias (including our own), take in the views of others and accept that there were strong arguments put forward by both sides. We were then able to make our own personal decision about which set of arguments we found the most persuasive. The same process is needed when evaluating academic arguments.

 

Critical questions

Critical questioning goes beyond identifying the argument. The following critical questions are adapted from the University of Plymouth (2008:13). Every question won’t apply to every paper you read, but you should find them applicable to most situations:

What? What is this about?
  What is the context?
  What is the main point(s)?
Where? Where does this take place?
 

Where is this?
What context does this bring?

Who? Who is this by?
  Who is involved?
  Who is affected?
  Who might be interested?
When? When does this occur?
  How long ago was this?
  Is this still relevant?
How? How did this occur?
 

How does this work? 
In theory or practice?

  How does one factor impact others?
  How does this link to the whole?
Why? Why did this occur?
  Why was that done?
  Why this argument/theory?
  Why this conclusion/suggestion?
  Why not something else?
What if? What if this were wrong?
  What are the alternatives?
  What if there were a problem?
  What if this factor where changed? 
What if something is added/removed?
So what? What does this mean?
  Why is it significant?
  Is this convincing? Why? Why not?
  What are the implications?
  Is it successful?
  How does it meet the criteria?
What next? Is it transferable?
  What can be learnt from it?
  What needs doing now?