|Writing a critique of another person's argument|
© 2003Theodore Gracyk
What is an argument critique?
How do I get started?
Challenging their premises/assumptions
Identifying a hole in the argument
Challenging the conclusion
A brief example
Click here for a sample essay Click here for another
A critique is an evaluation. A critique or critical essay evaluates what someone has said.
Some critiques are analyses of writing, as when one critiques a novel or poem for an English course.
This outline covers a different kind of critique, a critique of the person's thinking. Thinking cannot be strictly divorced from matters of language use, but here we are going to focus on evaluation of the rationality of a person's position, not on evaluation of the person's facility in communicating it. To put it crudely, this sort of critique focuses on content and not presentation.
The simplest type of argumentative essay is one that simply criticizes the position of an opponent. There are only a limited number of strategies to adopt with this sort of essay.
Your thesis will be very straightforward. It will take one of these forms:
Before you start writing, study and take apart their argument for their position. You are looking for the parts of their argument.
An argument consists of three things:
(Premises are reasons they give to prove that they're correct. Conclusions are anything they give reasons to believe. Some of these conclusions are likely to be used as premises for later conclusions. Assumptions are undefended beliefs they hold in order for the argument to make sense.)
There are three basic strategies for criticizing the argument once you have identified it.
Let's review these one by one.
1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions
The simplest critique will focus
There are three basic strategies for showing that we should not agree to a premise or assumption.
- We can give good reasons to regard it as false.
- We can show that it directly contradicts something we know is true.
- We can show that there are no good reasons to believe it.
The first two of these three strategies are simpler than the third. The third involves reviewing all of the reasons that someone might give for the claim and then showing that all of those reasons are weak. Obviously, this is very time-consuming. It's much simpler to argue that the claim is false or contradicts something we know is true.
So how do you show that a claim is false?
These are best strategies for arguing that a premise or assumption is false:
- Describe a personal experience you've had that shows it is false.
- Cite a reliable authority who says it is false.
- Assume that it is true and then show that this assumption leads to something else that is false or highly questionable. (Technically, this is to construct a reductio ad absurdum.)
2. Show that there's a hole in the argument
(show that the conclusion simply does not follow from what has been said)
Sometimes we cannot find good objections to the premises and assumptions, but we can show that the conclusion does not really follow from the ones offered by the arguer. This happens when the evidence might be true, but the arguer does not offer enough of it or the right kind. Perhaps their evidence only supports a different but weaker thesis.
For example, the arguer might want to argue that there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Their premise in defense of this thesis is that it is traditional to eat meat in our culture. We can respond that the truth of the premise does not demonstrate the conclusion. Human slavery is also a traditional practice, but hardly demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with human slavery. Since tradition does not justify slavery, it doesn't justify eating meat, either.
Here is another example, from philosophy: Some philosophers contend that innate ideas do not exist. As evidence they point to mathematics as a candidate for innate ideas and then point out that nobody has ever seen a newborn baby doing mathematical calculations. We might respond that the evidence is true, but point out that we don't see evidence of it because newborns can't talk and can't manipulate objects that allow them to draw diagrams and write out math problems. Their inability to do these things might still allow them have innate mathematical ideas in advance of being able to communicate them in the usual ways.
The more you know about argument fallacies and what it takes to put together a strong argument, the easier it is to critique arguments.
3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable
This approach ignores the premises and assumptions in favor of focusing attention on the conclusion. The problem with this strategy is that you will have to have a very good reason to deny the conclusion is true when you cannot point to flaws in the reasoning that supports it! It suggests that you are just being stubborn and refusing to look at the evidence! About the only thing that you can do in this case is to construct a powerful reductio ad absurdum. Other strategies (offering evidence that it is false, or showing that reliable authorities reject it) are weak here because they still leave the opponent's evidence right where it was, supporting the conclusion, leaving the impression that there are good arguments both ways. We might conclude that the matter is undecided and not that the opponent's thesis is false.
So while a direct assault on the conclusion is a questionable strategy, it is powerful when paired with one or both of the other two.
- Be fair! Be accurate in summarizing the arguments you critique.
- Be thorough. Deal with all of the arguments!
Obviously, most arguers will give several different reasons in support of their conclusion. A critique usually begins with the strongest of them, and proceeds to examine each of them, one at a time. It is wrong to focus only on the weaker arguments when several are given, for this is to misrepresent the strength of the opponent's position by committing the fallacy of straw man. If there are a lot of arguments to deal with, the best strategy is to focus directly on the conclusion you want to dispute, and concentrate on showing it is false or questionable.
- Stay on task. Do not get personal! Do not shift attention to the person who wrote the argument. The person who gives the argument is not the issue.
Pulling it all together
|A Simple Example|
Here is a short argument : "Frank is jerk. Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk."
Suppose that's all that's said to prove that Frank is a jerk (which is the conclusion). So the only premise is "Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk." But there are at least two assumptions. One is that Frank has a daughter. The other is that Frank isn't paying child support for that daughter. This offers three places to begin criticizing the argument.
We might start by disputing the premise, by pointing to several good counterexamples (men who fail to pay child support but who are not jerks). In this case, that's not hard to do. Some men don't pay child support because they are unemployed and have no income, in which case they might fail to pay through no fault of their own. We can also attack the assumptions. We might say that Frank can't be held responsible for the child support until there's clear evidence that he's the child's father, but the argument has assumed that without offering evidence of it. Or we might produce evidence that Frank does pay the child support.
After examining the premises and assumptions, we try to find a hole in the argument. In this case, that won't work, because the argument is valid (i.e., deductively successful).
Finally, we could just attack the conclusion directly by pointing out all of Frank's good qualities. (If Frank were a jerk, he wouldn't have all these good qualities. But he has them. So he's not a jerk.) We might admit that Frank should pay the money, but that it's too strong a conclusion to accuse him of being a jerk.
|Reductio ad absurdum |
Latin for "reduction to the absurd."
This argument strategy takes an opponent's claim (either a premise or assumption or conclusion) and argues that its truth would lead us to accept something completely absurd, ridiculous, or impossible.
Example: Someone defends vegetarianism by saying that it is unethical to live by killing. A reductio ad absurdum reply might go like this:
© 2003 Theodore Gracyk
Last updated August 24, 2012
Critique of a Research Article
The goal of this activity is to give you an opportunity to apply whatever you learned in this course in evaluating a research paper. Warning!!!!You might have done some article summaries or even critical evaluation of some resources. However, this activity is unique because you evaluate a research article from a methodology perspective.
For this assignment you briefly summarize and extensively evaluate the attached educational research article (If you cannot download the article please go to BeachBoard/Content/Articles to download the article).
This assignment should be done individually. In the summary section, you should write a brief (up to 500 words) summary of the article in your own words. Don’t use copy and paste try to rephrase. This will be a good practice for your final project’s literature review. In the critique section, you evaluate the article using the following grading criteria.
Grading criteria for research critique
In your summary, you should identify main elements of the research including
1. Research problem
2. Research goal
4. Research Questions
5. Research Method (briefly explain)
6. Sample (participants)
8. Tools (instruments, tests, surveys)
9. Main findings (brief summary of the results)
The critique part should be 2-3 pages (1000-2000 words) and include to the following sections. Your critique should be longer than your summary and you pay special attention to the design and procedure. Your grade on this assignment is based on your answer the following questions.
There is a long list of questions. You don’t have to address all questions. However, you should address highlighted questions. Some questions are relevant to this article some are not. I listed so many questions simply because I’d like you to learn what to look for in evaluating a research article.
The format of your paper should NOT be like a Q & A list. Instead, you should integrate your answers into an essay format similar to the given examples.
1. Is there a statement of the problem?
2. Is the problem “researchable”? That is, can it be investigated through the collection and analysis of data?
3. Is background information on the problem presented?
4. Is the educational significance of the problem discussed?
5. Does the problem statement indicate the variables of interest and the specific relationship between those variables which are investigated? When necessary, are variables directly or operationally defined?
Review of Related Literature
1. Is the review comprehensive?
2. Are all cited references relevant to the problem under investigation?
3. Are most of the sources primary, i.e., are there only a few or no secondary sources?
4. Have the references been critically analyzed and the results of various studies compared and contrasted, i.e., is the review more than a series of abstracts or annotations?
5. Does the review conclude with a brief summary of the literature and its implications for the problem investigated?
6. Do the implications discussed form an empirical or theoretical rationale for the hypotheses which follow?
1. Are specific questions to be answered listed or specific hypotheses to be tested stated?
2. Does each hypothesis state an expected relationship or difference?
3. If necessary, are variables directly or operationally defined?
4. Is each hypothesis testable?
1. Are the size and major characteristics of the population studied described?
2. If a sample was selected, is the method of selecting the sample clearly described?
3. Is the method of sample selection described one that is likely to result in a representative, unbiased sample?
4. Did the researcher avoid the use of volunteers?
5. Are the size and major characteristics of the sample described?
6. Does the sample size meet the suggested guideline for minimum sample size appropriate for the method of research represented?
1. Is the rationale given for the selection of the instruments (or measurements) used?
2. Is each instrument described in terms of purpose and content?
3. Are the instruments appropriate for measuring the intended variables?
4. Is evidence presented that indicates that each instrument is appropriate for the sample under study?
5. Is instrument validity discussed and coefficients given if appropriate?
6. Is reliability discussed in terms of type and size of reliability coefficients?
7. If appropriate, are subtest reliabilities given?
8. If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are the procedures involved in its development and validation described?
9. If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are administration, scoring or tabulating, and interpretation procedures fully described?
Design and Procedure
1. Is the design appropriate for answering the questions or testing the hypotheses of thestudy?
2. Are the procedures described in sufficient detail to permit them to be replicated by another researcher?
3. If a pilot study was conducted, are its execution and results described as well as its impact on the subsequent study?
4. Are the control procedures described?
5. Did the researcher discuss or account for any potentially confounding variables that he or she was unable to control for?
1. Are appropriate descriptive or inferential statistics presented?
2. Was the probability level, α, at which the results of the tests of significance were evaluated,
specified in advance of the data analyses?
3. If parametric tests were used, is there evidence that the researcher avoided violating the
required assumptions for parametric tests?
4. Are the tests of significance described appropriate, given the hypotheses and design of the
5. Was every hypothesis tested?
6. Are the tests of significance interpreted using the appropriate degrees of freedom?
7. Are the results clearly presented?
8. Are the tables and figures (if any) well organized and easy to understand?
9. Are the data in each table and figure described in the text?
Discussion (Conclusions and Recommendation)
1. Is each result discussed in terms of the original hypothesis to which it relates?
2. Is each result discussed in terms of its agreement or disagreement with previous results
obtained by other researchers in other studies?
3. Are generalizations consistent with the results?
4. Are the possible effects of uncontrolled variables on the results discussed?
5. Are theoretical and practical implications of the findings discussed?
6. Are recommendations for future action made?
7. Are the suggestions for future action based on practical significance or on statistical
significance only, i.e., has the author avoided confusing practical and statistical
8. Are recommendations for future research made?
Make sure that you cover the following questions in your critique even if you have already covered them in your crtique.
1. Is the research important? Why?
2. In your own words what methods and procedures were used? Evaluate the methods and procedures.
3. Evaluate the sampling method and the sample used in this study.
4. Describe the reliability and validity of all the instruments used.
5. What type of research is this? Explain.
6. How was the data analyzed?
7. What is (are) the major finding(s)? are these findings important?
8.What are your suggestions to improve this research?
Here is a hint on how to evaluate an article.
Use this resource for writing and APA style.
Examples (please note some examples are longer than what is expected for this article)
· Good example
· Poor example
· Original article
· Article critique