8 Analysis, argument and critical thinking
In this section, we are going to look in detail at analysis and argument. Analytical thinking is a particular type of higher order thinking central to much academic activity. It is concerned with examining 'methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of something' (Oxford English Dictionary). This includes looking at variables, factors, and relationships between things, as well as examining ideas and problems, and detecting and analysing arguments. Many essay questions require argument. Skills in manipulating content to make a good argument can make the difference between higher and lower assignment grades.
You can start to explore the ideas of analysis and argument by using an everyday example.
Carefully read and consider Figure 3 - the back of a cereal packet. On a sheet of paper note down the thoughts that you have about this together with your answers to the following questions.
What was your reaction to doing this activity?
What do you think the text was aiming to do?
Do you feel the writer was successful in achieving what she or he set out to do?
What worked and what did not work?
How did you feel about this activity? Perhaps your first reaction is that under normal circumstances you would not read the back of a cereal packet. Perhaps you would normally be too busy to read this sort of thing, or would not bother because it is not relevant or of interest. The attention we give to something is dependent on the context. You probably do not have to read and think about cereal packets, but do need to read and think carefully about academic texts.
Did you accept what was written or did the text prompt you to ask questions such as 'What is the purpose of this text?' The initial question 'Why breakfast is the most important meal of the day?' seems to suggest that the aim of the text might to be to provide answers, perhaps to convince us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You might reasonably have expected the text to provide some good reasons for us to be convinced of this. But perhaps after reading it, you decided that the writer's aim was simply to convince you that eating cereals for breakfast is a good thing.
If the aim was to show that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, was the text a convincing argument? The writer certainly tells us that 'breakfast refuels the body and helps get the day off to a good start', which could be a reason to support the view that breakfast is important, but is not really one to convince us that breakfast is the most important meal. The writer has not told us why breakfast is more important than lunch, tea, dinner or supper. He or she seems to unquestioningly accept or assume that breakfast is the most important meal. Telling us about hectic lifestyles or the nutritional benefits of breakfast cereals does not tell us why breakfast is the most important meal. The relevance of these points is not clear at all. All in all, this is not a very convincing case for breakfast being the most important meal of the day. If the aim were really to persuade us to eat cereals, would we be convinced? It is hard to know if the information given as facts is correct and relevant to a healthy diet unless you have some knowledge of nutritional science.
Although this is a simple everyday text, it provides an opportunity to exercise analytical thinking skills. The process of looking at the structure and parts of something in the way we have done here is what we mean by analysis. The text also illustrates the ideas of having a point or a case you wish to prove, and providing evidence and reasons to support it - together these form what the academic world calls an argument. This is very different from the everyday sense of the word, 'having a disagreement'. Here, we have been analysing an argument.
What do you think is needed to make an argument a really good one (i.e. for the case to be convincing)?
What could be done to improve (make more convincing) the argument analysed in Activity 19?
When arguing a case, it needs to be clear what the case is. Perhaps, in the example above, the title should have been 'Why breakfast cereal is worth eating'. A good argument will have a clear and logical flow (line of reasoning). The sequence of thinking in the example was not clear or logical. For example, starting from the original question, a logical path might lead to discussion of reasons why breakfast is more important than other meals, and perhaps include information on demands on the body and physiological perspectives on the timing and types of food eaten. To be convinced, we need good reasons or evidence which is relevant. It is not immediately clear how the information about the nutritional value of breakfast cereals is relevant to the case for breakfast being the most important meal of the day. Moreover, how do we know the information is correct?
Having appropriate evidence to support arguments is important.
Which of the following statements might be most convincing and why?
▪ There is life on other planets in the universe.
▪ There is life on other planets in the universe because Mike Edwards says so.
▪ There is life on other planets in the universe because an eminent Cambridge Professor of Astronomy says so.
▪ There is a high probability of life on other planets in the universe because we know from studies by experts that there are in the order of 100 billion stars in our galaxy and there are 100 billion galaxies. This gives 1022stars. Some of these stars are likely to have planets associated with them. While the conditions conducive to life are rare, such a large number of planets gives a high probability that life will exist on a planet somewhere in the universe.
▪ Samples of surface material from other planets in the universe have been taken by space missions and found to contain life forms.
(Adapted from Collier and Twomey, 1997)
It would be reasonable to feel somewhat unconvinced by the first statement; it is an unsupported assertion. It may well just be an opinion, there is no reason or evidence provided. Being able to distinguish fact from opinion is important. In the second case, the statement is apparently given authority by being attributed to Mike Edwards. The question is - who is Mike Edwards? What reason is there for believing him rather than anyone else? We do not know on what basis he has made such a statement. We might feel a bit more convinced by the eminent Cambridge Professor of Astronomy. After all she or he may have spent many years in relevant study and be making a statement based on this wealth of experience. But, what if the professor had not been a professor of astronomy? What credence would we give to someone's views if they were an expert in another area? For example, a pop star or celebrity chef making a statement on a political issue? We need to take care in transferring authority in one area to another. Maybe someone's skills are transferable to another situation - but maybe not. The penultimate case is more convincing, because we are presented with a logical line of reasoning. In the final statement, we appear to have factual evidence that there are life forms on other planets. Even then, we need to think about the certainty of 'facts'. Knowledge changes and depends on context. It is only as good as the methods used to obtain it. Instances of 'facts' turning out to be artefacts of methods are common. Perhaps in this case the life forms found in the samples were contaminants on the equipment (acquired from Earth before or after the sampling journey). Sometimes, general conclusions are drawn from insufficient data or information. Does the evidence provide sufficient information to prove something or only suggest something is probable?
We hope this example illustrates the importance of using appropriate evidence or reasoning to support an argument, and the importance of being cautious in what you use and accept as evidence. You should certainly avoid unsupported assertions in academic work and strive to provide the most appropriate and convincing evidence you can.