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 • Critical Thinking

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InfoTrac College Edition

Critical Thinking

College instructors will expect that your writing does more than report on the obvious or express what you "feel" about a subject. Academic and professional writing must go beyond the surface and analyze situations and problems in depth. In writing a narration, for instance, it is important to not only state what happened but analyze causes, comment on effects, or speculate on the event's significance. Effective comparisons rest on more than superficial similarities. Cause and effect and persuasive writing demand critical thinking to avoid making errors in logic and overlooking alternative interpretations.

Strategies For Improving Critical Thinking

Observe Your Subject Closely

The first step in critical thinking is carefully examining your subject. Avoid making immediate judgments, but accurately and objectively record facts. You might review Samuel Scudder's essay Take This Fish and Look at It in your textbook. Scudder emphasizes the importance of close observation. Too often we "look" at things but never truly "see" them.

Record Notes In Objective Language

In taking notes, be aware of connotations. Avoid making stereotypical judgments. Are the people you observe gathering or loitering in a park? Are they bums, drifters, or the homeless? Are they victims or derelicts? Ask yourself how other people might view your subject. In dealing with controversial issues, you might consider recording observations in dual notation system, pairing positive and negative connotations. You might describe politicians as being bold/reckless or cautious/cowardly or traditional/old-fashioned.

Avoid Making Immediate Assumptions

In studying your subject, avoid making assumptions until you have collected and examined sufficient evidence. The fact that a store is crowded with shoppers does not prove that the business is profitable. The past performance of a mutual fund does not guarantee that its value will increase in the future. A successful teacher cannot be assumed to be an effective principal.

Look At The Big Picture

Following the dramatic mass shooting at Columbine High School, television news programs featured numerous commentators lamenting about the lack of values among American young people -- ignoring evidence that the mass of teenagers in the 1990s were less likely to drink, take drugs, drop out of school, commit crimes, or engage in premarital sex than their parents. Because airplane crashes often kill hundreds in a single dramatic incident, many people are afraid to fly. Those same people, however, rarely show the same fear about driving -- which is far more dangerous. Don't allow a single situation or chain of events -- no matter how shocking or dramatic -- to shape your perception of an issue or topic. Examine other forms of evidence.

Ask Questions About Your Topic

Posing questions can help you avoid making assumptions by suggesting alternative ways of looking at your subject and indicating needed research. Asking questions can help sharpen your observations. If you enter a crowded store, you might ask yourself some questions before assuming the business is a gold mine. How many of the shoppers are looking and how many are actually buying? What are they purchasing -- low profit sale items or full-priced merchandise? Does the store have more employees or more expensive features than its competitors? Does the store's success depend on massive advertising or costly promotions? Is the store located in expensive location that would inflate its overhead?

Discuss Your Ideas With Others

In order to detect blind spots in your thinking, talk to friends or other students. Ask their opinions of your topic. Pose a question on a computer bulletin board or use a chat room to solicit the views of other people. Even a humorous or sarcastic comment by a stranger may lead you to look at your topic in new way.

Avoid These Common Errors In Critical Thinking

Hasty Generalizations

Don't jump to conclusions, making general statements based on limited evidence. Having spoken to three students, you cannot assume to have a definitive insight into the quality of the university. Finding two or three errors in a government report in itself is not evidence of fraud or a cover-up.

False Analogies

Comparisons form weak arguments. Because an educational program works in Japan does not mean it will work in America. When analyzing an issue, realize no two situations are alike. You cannot argue that drugs should be legalized based solely on the observation that Prohibition failed to curb consumption of alcohol.

Post-Hoc Fallacies

"Post hoc" refers to a Latin phrase warning against mistaking a time relationship for cause and effect. If you take an aspirin and your headache fades in ten minutes, that alone does not prove the pill worked. If a rash of crimes follows a violent TV movie, there might or might not be a causal relationship. Events that occur on Monday do not necessarily cause what happens on Tuesday.

Either-Or Fallacies

There are rarely only two options. It's not realistic to suggest that "either we pass the new school bond issue or we condemn our children to a life of illiteracy." A company demand that employees accept a wage reduction or face losing their jobs ignores other solutions to the firm's financial problem.

Attacking Personalities

Because an idea or position is advanced or supported by a controversial person does not automatically discredit it. Evaluate ideas on merit, not the personality supporting them. Do not allow yourself to be overly impressed by endorsements by celebrities.

Begging The Question

Do not assume what has to be proven. If you state, "The college's irrelevant English requirement must be dropped," you must first prove the requirement is no longer valid. Arguing that a corrupt lawyer should be disbarred assumes his or her wrongdoing. You can avoid making this error by breaking statements into separate elements. Do you provide proof for each of your assertions?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.