For most people, careful thought is hard work. A thorough analysis takes time, too. Most people don’t have the time to analyze all the issues that affect them. Because of this, the first thing that we want you to do is to prioritize the issues. Which issues are really important to you and those people you care about? There’s no use spending a lot of time and energy on an issue that’s not important to you.
This webpage describes four ways to make a decision about an issue:
1. Use a trusted source. [See immediately below.]
These four ways to decide an issue are in order from the easiest (and weakest) to the hardest and most complete approach. We encourage you to use the easier methods for issues that are of some importance, and use the more in-depth methods for issues that are vital to you.
In addition, before the third method, we offer some definitions of eight important terms in critical thinking, including ‘soundness’ and ‘validity.’ Understanding these concepts will improve your critical thinking abilities.
Method 1: Use a Trusted Source
This method requires little thinking on your part. You merely get someone to do your thinking for you. It could be a friend whose opinion you respect, or it could be an organization that studies issues and makes recommendations.
If you’re going to choose a person, pick someone who stays well informed politically and who can give good reasons for their stance on the issues or candidates. Some people can sound confident, but not really have any rational thoughts about an issue. They go on impressions and feelings.
If you’re going to rely on an organization, you can probably find several that match your values and politics. These organizations often send out emails regarding issues, and also voter guides. One place to find these organizations is to look at the organizations you belong to, such as any professional groups, cultural groups, or religious groups. Leaders in these groups can often point you to related advocacy organizations. Another way to find these is to find an organization that sponsors several pieces of legislation that you support. Then go to their website and sign up for their email alerts.
Method 2: Use pro and con sources and make a gut decision
In Part 4 on news sources, you were asked to choose at least two sources of news from different points of the political spectrum. If you did this, you will be able to find news articles, op-eds, or blogs that present both the pros and cons of many issues. As long as you have two sources that strongly disagree and that make good arguments, you will be able to do some simple critical thinking. You simply read both articles, and then pick the side on the issue that seems to make the strongest case.
Note that certain newspapers have much better reputations than others. The following are page rankings on Google. Popularity here is assumed to be approximately equal to quality, but that’s certainly not guaranteed. However, you could argue that very popular papers would have the money to hire better journalists, so there may be some correlation.
- 9/10 – The New York Times stands alone as far as Google concerned – it has the highest PageRank of the top 25 U.S. newspapers
- 8/10 – The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, NY Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and StarTribune have equal authority at 8/10
- 7/10 – The Dallas Morning News, The Chicago Sun-Times, Detroit Free Press, Houston Chronicle, The Arizona Republic, The Oregonian, The Star-Ledger, The San Diego Union-Tribune and Newsday are tied for third place with a PageRank of 7/10
- 6/10 – The Seattle Times, The St. Petersburg Times and The Plain Dealer share fourth place at 6/10 [Source: http://blog.journalistics.com, October 16, 2010.]
Note that it’s best to have more than two sources, since there are sometimes more than two sides to an issue, and since different people miss different aspects of an issue.
You can also do this simple analysis if you have two or more friends who usually land on opposite sides of the issues. Again, they would both need to be well-informed and also rational thinkers. People who care about politics usually like to talk about the issues, and will usually appreciate people who ask for their help in deciding issues.
You could also sign up for updates from two advocacy groups that normally oppose each other. When you get two emails, one telling you to support an issue, and the other telling you to oppose it, you can study the arguments. Just be sure that you choose advocacy groups that give a roughly equal amount of background information.
The point that an arguer is trying to make in an argument is the conclusion. It’s usually pretty easy to find, since that’s what the arguer wants to make clear, but a few tricks to locating it include looking for words like “then,” “therefore,” “so,” “thus,” “it follows that,” “implies,” and “indicates.”
The premise of an argument is, essentially, the set-up to the conclusion. In the basic argument “if X, then Y,” the premise is X (and the conclusion is Y). The premise usually comes in the form of evidence, whether it be strong statistical data or weak anecdotal evidence, and many arguments contain more than one premise. For example, in the argument, “If Jane is wearing all black and it’s dark outside, she will be hard to see,” wearing all black and it being dark are both premises.
Hidden Assumption / Unstated Premise
Where it gets tricky is when the argument contains a hidden assumption, also known as an “unstated premise.” This happens when the person making the argument takes something for granted or deliberately omits something. You should always think very carefully about an argument to make sure there aren’t any hidden assumptions at work. In the example argument above, for instance, the argument only works if you assume that Jane is outside. If she’s inside, the conclusion isn’t “valid.”
A valid conclusion is one that logically follows from the premise(s). If all the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. If there is any possible way that the conclusion is false even if all the premises are true, then the argument is not valid. For example, “if John is shorter than all of his siblings, it follows that he must be shorter than his sister Kate” is a valid argument, but “if John is shorter than his sister Kate, then he must be shorter than all of his siblings” is invalid, because it leaves room for John to have another sibling who is shorter than him.
It is much easier to prove that an argument is invalid than it is to prove it valid. You can easily deflate an invalid argument by proposing a scenario in which all the premises are true and yet the conclusion is still false. It doesn’t matter if the scenario is unlikely or if it can be demonstrated that all premises and the conclusion are actually true; the argument would still lack validity. In addition, any argument with an unstated premise is by definition invalid.
Once an argument’s validity has been established, it still needs to be checked for soundness. An argument is sound when it is valid and all the premises are true. If an argument is sound, then its conclusion is inevitably true, since we know its premises are true and that the conclusion must logically follow from them. To prove an argument’s soundness, one needs to prove both the argument’s logical validity and its premises. An argument that is demonstrably sound is the strongest kind of argument.
In the absence of a conclusion, there are multiple ways of locating it from the available information. The most basic method is called “deductive reasoning.” In deductive reasoning, you start from broad, general information and narrow it down to something specific. For example, if you know that all fish breathe water and you know that a platy is a type of fish, then you can “deduce” that a platy must breathe water.
“Inductive reasoning” is a little more complicated and comes in two forms. The classical definition of induction is the method whereby one comes to a general conclusion based on specific evidence. Using the fish example, an inductive argument would go something like this: “A platy breathes water and a platy is a type of fish, therefore all fish breathe water.” Note that, even though the conclusion is true, the argument is invalid.
The more modern definition of induction is any logical argument that relies on probability rather than certainty. For example, if Jeff has always gotten a stomach ache after eating ricotta cheese, you could induce that the next time Jeff eats ricotta cheese, he will probably get a stomach ache. This is a sound argument, but it still leaves room for the implicit conclusion (that Jeff will get a stomach ache) to be false. Inductive arguments are typically described as strong or weak—rather than sound or unsound—to account for this margin of error.
An easy rule of thumb in determining whether an argument is based on deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning is to ask the question: “If this argument is true, can the conclusion still be false?”
An analogical argument is a specific and incredibly common form of argument. Whenever an argument asks you to compare one thing to another thing—using an analogy—it is making the hidden assumption that the similarities between them are more important than the differences. For example, “Knives can kill people just like guns can, so their sale should be controlled, too.” is an analogical argument. However, many people would say that it’s not a strong argument because a gun can be far more lethal, and requires far less effort and time to do harm.
Analogies are powerful, but are also easy to exploit. While it is safe to say that analogical arguments tend to rely on inductive reasoning, they can still be logically sound deductions. However, a sound logical deduction should not require the use of analogy. For example, “A dolphin is like a human because they are both mammals, therefore a dolphin breathes oxygen” is a sound analogical argument, but it clouds the more basic logic behind it that “A dolphin is a mammal and all mammals breathe oxygen, therefore a dolphin breathes oxygen.”
Since a purely logical conclusion should not require the use of an analogy, analogical arguments should, in general, be approached with skepticism and caution. To analyze an analogical argument, you should check for truth and relevance. Make sure the premises of the argument are true—that the similarities are real—and then identify if the similarities have any relevance to the conclusion. There is no such thing as a perfect analogy, so you need to make sure that the conclusion is not ignoring any important differences between the two objects being compared.
Method 3: Use several sources and do a simple five-step analysis
1. What is the conclusion, the main point that the article is trying to make?
2. What are the reasons, quasi-reasons or evidence that are presented to support the conclusion? (Quasi-reasons can be things like stories, the opinions of others, isolated facts, statistics and other things that may or may not be very strong.)
3. What kind of clever language, emotionally-charged language or deceptive techniques are used? (Some anecdotes may be irrelevant; and in video footage, some music or visual images may be meant to create an emotional reaction.) If you are dealing with a printed article, it may be fun to draw lines through all the “clutter” and “garbage.”
4. How well has the case been made for the conclusion? (Note that in some cases, it’s impossible to totally prove a conclusion. If something is an issue, it’s probably an issue because there are some good reasons for both sides of an argument.)
5. How relevant or significant to the overall issue is the conclusion, if supported? For example, the debate over whether or not there is really significant manmade global warming seems to be ending. But that is only part of the bigger issue: what to do about it? Or, another example: If you read one article that seems to make a solid case for strict gun control, and another article that makes a solid case for allowing widespread ownership of guns, you need to compare the two arguments, and choose the strongest one.
To help you recall these five questions, think that you want the argument to be as strong as a CEDAR tree (like the one pictured above). The CEDAR critical thinking questions are:
1. What is the CONCLUSION?
2. What is the EVIDENCE that proves the conclusion? (Reasons, and quasi-reasons like stories, analogies, etc.)
3. What DISTORTION techniques are used? Propaganda techniques, powerful imagery or images, emotionally-loaded words, and so forth.
4. How ACCEPTABLE, appropriate or valid is the argument?
5. How RELEVANT or significant is the conclusion to the overall issue, if true or probably true?
Method 4: Do a Thorough Step-by-Step Analysis
Is thinking about this issue a priority? (Or is there a better, more strategic issue? If so, then work on the more strategic issue.)
Is it too late or too early to think about this issue? If so, stop and work on another, more strategic issue.
What is the issue? What is in question?
Is this a question about ends or about means? In other words, if it’s about ends, we are talking about goals or desired scenarios, but if the argument is about the means, we have already decided on a goal and are arguing about the best way to accomplish it.
Information on the issue
Do I have enough information on this issue? Do I have articles on both or all sides of the issue? (If not, get more articles.)
Is the information trustworthy?
Is the information high quality? (Is it oversimplified? Is it easy to understand and without lots of manipulative language?)
Are there any precedents or previous experiences that can help you understand this situation?
Is there background information that I need to understand the issue? (prior history of the issue? politics of the people involved? )
The basic argument
What are the conclusions? (What does the author ultimately believe about this issue or candidate? What does the author wish us to do or not do? What is the bottom line?)
What are the reasons given to support the conclusion? (Note the reasons that are presented, whether or not you think they really support the conclusion.)
Are there any jumps in the logic? In other words, are certain things assumed? If so, what are the assumptions? Are these value assumptions or descriptive assumptions? [Descriptive assumptions are beliefs about how the world is; value assumptions (also called prescriptive assumptions) are beliefs about how the world should be.]
Assuming that the information in the argument is true, do the reasons support the conclusion? (Later, we will examine the strength and validity of evidence given.)
Check: Reconstruct the basic argument, including assumptions. Does the argument make sense? Or are there errors in logic, or logical fallacies being used? (For a list of logical fallacies, go here.)
Check: Is anything being called the cause of anything else? (Look for words or phrases like “factor” “is linked to” “leads to” “causes” “increases the likelihood of” “contributes to”) If so, think about whether the stated or implied causality is accurate.
When people say that one thing causes another, (that X causes Y or is a major factor in causing Y) that may be the case, but there are several alternatives that may be what’s really happening:
1. X does not really cause Y, or is a minor cause (by you should by thinking about Z causing Y. In other words, ask the question “Is another cause of Y more likely?”)
2. X and Y are often found together but are caused by W.
3. Y actually causes X.
4. X and Y are not really related, but historically they were found together and traditionally people believe they are related.
5. X and Y influence each other (sometimes in a cycle).
6. X merely happened before Y, and so people think it’s the cause. (For example, after President John Doe went into office, inflation went down, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that President Doe’s policies caused inflation to go down. It could have been due to the policies of the president before him, or due to factors completely unrelated to the US government, for instance more and cheaper labor in other countries driving down the cost of goods.)
Examining each part of the argument
Are there ambiguous or undefined terms in the reasons?
Is there emotionally loaded language in the reasons? In other words, is there language that carries a judgment? (For instance, “mainstream values” “justice” “vision” “realism” “reform” “self-discipline” “strategic interests” “peace through strength” all carry positive associations. But words like “bailout” and “tax and spend” usually carry negative associations. (By the way, isn’t taxing and spending the job of all legislators?)
Is the evidence solid?
– Are factual claims being made?
– Is intuition or an appeal to authority used as evidence?
– Are personal testimonials or opinions used as evidence?
Are analogies used as reasons? If so, are the similarities described in the analogy more weighty than the differences not mentioned in the analogy?
If statistics are used, what is the source? And do the statistics actually help prove the conclusion, or do they prove something else? See statistics for more information about assessing statistics for validity.
Are other conclusions possible?
Should the conclusion be qualified (in other words, limited or restricted)?
Missing Information Check
Have all alternatives to the proposed action or candidate been considered?
If some very expensive legislation is being proposed, has anyone explained where the money will come from to pay for the new project?
Have all of the costs been listed? (money, time, and hidden costs such as increased health problems, environmental damage, or from stress or long-term economic problems.)
Have counterarguments for an action or candidate been left out? Have other useful ways of looking at the situation been left out?
Has information been left out from any relevant authority or expert source?
Have benefits to the person making the argument been left out? (for instance,“Follow the money.”)
Have the benefits and costs to all players been included?
(First list the players. Then list the benefits and costs to each.)
Have any long term effects been left out? (For instance, to people’s health, to certain sectors of the economy, to the environment, to related or analogous laws (In other words, has as a precedent been set?)
If someone has been quoted, was the context given? Were their words taken out of context?
Has the option of doing nothing been considered?
Were reasons given for why this issue is coming up now? Is the timing natural, or does it seem that it this issue is being delayed or moved ahead for some reason not disclosed? (If so, this might be a diversionary issue that’s meant to take attention away from a more crucial issue or action.)
How does the proposed action affect the distribution of power?
Decide your position
First restate all positions.
Restate the main (or most solid) arguments for and against each position.
Summarize the costs and benefits of each position.
Pick the position with the greatest benefits and lowest costs.