Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (6th Edition)

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9780130891341: Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (6th Edition)
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This book helps readers bridge the gap between simply memorizing or blindly accepting information and the greater challenge of critical analysis and synthesis. It teaches them to respond to alternative points of view and develop a solid foundation for making personal choices about what to accept and what to reject as they read and listen. Chapter titles include: The Benefit of Asking the Right Questions; What are the Issue and the Conclusion?; What Are the Reasons?; What Are the Value Conflicts and Assumptions?; Are There Any Fallacies in the Reasoning?; How Good Is the Evidence: Intuition, Appeals to Authority, and Testimonials?; and What Reasonable Conclusions Are Possible?. For any critical reader who wants to enhance and develop better reasoning skills in order to make rational decisions.

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The success of previous editions of this book is potent testimony to our collective curiosity about what to believe. Our minds are under assault by experts and scam artists alike. Sorting among all their claims about what to eat, do, and believe is an incredibly difficult responsibility. We know that we need all the help we can get to protect ourselves from the dangers implicit in nonsense. It is in that spirit of watchful curiosity that we join with our readers in using this sixth edition of Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking.

The sixth edition builds on the advice of hundreds of readers, many of whom care enough about the book and critical thinking to suggest how we could "do it better." The tone of their comments almost always reflects their general satisfaction with the approach, while suggesting a tweaking here and there that, they believe, would make the book even more useful. We have attempted to be attentive to as many of these suggestions as we could, while maintaining the strengths of earlier editions. Individual readers who do not see their suggestions included will surely understand that writing for a general audience requires us to omit many valuable components that we would include were we writing for a more specialized group of readers.

Thus, like its predecessors, this sixth edition is much more a joint work than the title page suggests. It is increasingly difficult for us to determine where our contributions end and where those of our readers begin. We hope that this edition reflects any wisdom that may have been lurking in former editions, while taking advantage of fresh insights gleaned from our own teaching and the caring suggestions of others.

Like this edition of Asking the Right Questions, critical thinking is both old and new. Systematic evaluation of arguments based on explicit rational criteria is as old as recorded history. Terminology changes, emphases emerge, and worthwhile disputes about the criteria for rational conversation break out. But the habit of questioning the quality of the reasoning for a belief or contention is implicit in our daily living.

Certainly, individuals may not be particularly skilled at this questioning process, but it is hard to imagine what it would mean to always and ever accept as true whatever we hear. Critical thinking thus has staying power. All of us can be confident that the interest in critical thinking will outlive us. So this book is part of a very old, yet enduring, tradition. Our interest in critical thinking ties us together in an important respect: We want to think carefully before we make a belief our own.

From the start of this book's history, we have been motivated by our personal experiences and observations. First, we have been dismayed by the degree to which students and citizens in general increasingly depend on "experts," textbook writers, teachers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and TV commentators. As the complexity of the world seems to increase at an accelerating rate, there is a greater tendency to become passive absorbers of information, uncritically accepting what we see and hear. We are concerned that too many of us are not actively making personal choices about what to accept and what to reject.

Thus, the need for such a book is now even more pronounced. The use of "sound bites," the popularity of simplistic arguments, and the amount of information to which we are exposed every day have all increased dramatically. To encourage us all to use critical thinking more frequently as an antidote to this "information explosion" is our dream for Asking the Right Questions.

Our experience in teaching critical-thinking skills to our students over a number of years has convinced us that when individuals with diverse abilities are taught these skills in a simplified format, they can learn to apply them successfully. In the process, they develop greater confidence in their ability to make rational choices about social issues, even those with which they have formerly had little experience.

Another motivating factor for the book has been our inability to find materials with which to teach the skills we wanted students to learn. We did not want a philosophy text, but rather a book that, while informal in nature, would outline basic critical-thinking skills explicitly, concisely, and simply. We did not find such a book.

Thus, we have written a text that does a number of things that other books have failed to do. This text develops an integrated series of question-asking skills that can be applied widely. These skills are discussed in an informal style. (We have written to a general audience, not to any specialized group.)

The development of Asking the Right Questions has leaned heavily on our joint experience of sixty years as teachers of critical thinking. Our ideas have evolved in response to numerous classroom experiences with students at many different levels, from freshman to Ph.D. students.

These experiences have taught us certain emphases that are particularly effective in learning critical thinking. For example, we provide many opportunities for readers to apply their skills and to receive immediate feedback following the practice application. The book is replete with examples of writing devoted to controversial contemporary topics. The breadth of topics introduces the average reader to numerous controversies with which he or she may have little familiarity. The book is coherently organized, in that critical questions are discussed sequentially as the reader progresses from understanding to evaluating. In addition, it integrates cognitive and value dimensions—a very important aspect of critical thinking and personal decision making.

One feature that deserves to be highlighted is the applicability of Asking the Right Questions to numerous life experiences extending far beyond the classroom. The habits and attitudes associated with critical thinking are transferable to consumer, medical, legal, and general ethical choices. When our surgeon says surgery is needed, it can be life sustaining to seek answers to critical questions.

To make this general applicability apparent and to provide an element of cohesiveness to the book, each chapter begins with brief exchanges concerning the desirability of capital punishment. We all care about this issue, and critical thinking enables us to express our concerns in a more reasonable fashion. The exchange should be read both before and after the applicable chapter. It is our hope that the second reading will be more satisfying.

In addition, the sixth edition includes the following new features:

  1. Creation of a Web site with additional practice passages. This addition is our response to the most oft-repeated request from current readers.
  2. Completely revised comprehensive example of the critical questions at work in Chapter 14.
  3. Inclusion of hints for using the critical thinking questions as an aid to writing and speaking.
  4. Revision of almost half of the practice passages to reflect changing student interests.
  5. Highlighting of those chapter sections that explain how to use the critical questions to evaluate arguments.
  6. Inclusion of end-of-chapter Internet practice opportunities.
  7. Addition of a "Final Word" emphasizing the need to use critical thinking skills in a constructive manner.

Each new element has emerged from the teaching experience of numerous colleagues.

Who would find Asking the Right Questions especially beneficial? Because of our teaching experiences with readers representing many levels of ability, we have difficulty envisioning any academic course or program for which this book would not be useful. In fact, the first five editions have been used in law, English, pharmacy, philosophy, education, psychology, sociology, religion, and social science courses, as well as in numerous high school classrooms.

A few uses for the book seem especially appropriate. Teachers in general education programs may want to begin their courses by assigning it as a coherent response to their students' requests to explain what is expected of them. English courses that emphasize expository writing could use this text both as a format for evaluating arguments prior to constructing an essay and as a checklist of problems that the writer should attempt to avoid as he or she writes. The book is especially functional in courses for training prospective teachers and graduate assistants because it makes explicit much that teachers will want to encourage in their students. Supplementing their current content with our step-by-step description of the process of critical reading and thinking may enrich courses in study-skill development. The text can also be used as the central focus of courses designed specifically to teach critical reading and thinking skills.

While Asking the Right Questions stems primarily from our classroom experiences, it is written so that it can guide the reading and listening habits of almost everyone. The skills that it seeks to develop are those that any critical reader needs in order for reading to serve as a basis for rational decisions. The critical questions stressed in the book can enhance anyone's reasoning, regardless of the extent of his or her formal education.

This sixth edition owes special debts to many people. Many readers of earlier editions have cared enough about this project to suggest improvements. Several have been especially helpful. Carrie Williamson has made numerous contributions to this edition. Her continued success as a learner is the type of legacy that this book hopes to facilitate in some small way. As always, Andrea Giampetro-Meyer of Loyola College in Baltimore has provided us with much dependable advice. We also wish to acknowledge the following Prentice Hall reviewers: Brian Allan Wooters, Metropolitan Community College; Naomi Werne, Wichita State University; and Valeri Farmer-Dougan, Illinois State University.

While our students are always a major source of suggested improvements, a few distinguished themselves in that regard. The sixth edition depended heavily on improvements suggested by Kathleen Maloy, Amanda Sanford, Justin Esarey, Kari Freeman, and Elizabeth Barre.

M. Neil Browne
Stuart M. Keeley


"I have assigned ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS to a wide range of students in a wide range of courses over my fourteen years as a college professor. First-year college students have used the book to analyze and evaluate arguments about contemporary business issues. College juniors and seniors have used the book to analyze and evaluate legal arguments, and issues related to race and gender. ... Many of my students tell me the book has changed the way they read, write, and argue." — Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, J.D., Loyola College in Maryland

"I think ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS is one of the most valuable resources currently available for higher education courses as well as for other contexts.... Virtually any course could benefit from the addition of this book and the integration of the authors' approach to critical thinking. I myself have used the book for several years in a variety of courses and know that it has truly enhanced my students' rational thinking processes." — Norrine L. Ostrowski, Ph.D., University of Minnesota-Morris

"As an instructor I like the approach ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS takes. It is practical and uses a cross-disciplinary approach. Asking the "right" questions is a technique that can be used in any discipline at any level."— Valeri Farmer-Dougan, Illinois State University

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