Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: Asking the Right Questions by Browne & Keeley

Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (8th Edition) by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley, as the title suggests, is all about critical thinking through a process of simply asking the right kinds of questions. However, this is a book that has the potential to change the way a person looks at and interacts with the world. This book helps one peel back the layers to thoroughly evaluate the issues and to think carefully. The authors define critical thinking: “critical thinking, as we will use the term, refers to the following: 1) awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions; 2) ability to ask and answer critical questions at appropriate times; and the 3) desire to actively use the critical questions.”1

From the outset, Browne and Keeley give the reader an excellent metaphor for the process of critical thinking: the difference between being a sponge and panning for gold. “The sponge approach emphasizes knowledge acquisition; the panning for gold approach stresses active interaction with knowledge as it is being acquired.”2 The idea here is that one should avoid the mindless sponging up of knowledge; much more useful is a careful, methodical approach that is thoughtful and precise.

The first step in the process is to look for the issues and conclusions. The authors emphasize this: we cannot critically evaluate until we find the conclusion. Once we know the conclusion, we can look for the reasons for that conclusion and evaluate the reasons. Reasons plus a conclusion makes an argument; the stronger the reasons, the stronger the argument.

So much of the content of this book is just nugget after nugget of great information, instruction, and insight. The book helps the reader to understand the underlying assumptions and processes behind much of the thinking he encounters. The reader is encouraged to watch out for ambiguous language, look for assumptions, identify fallacies, and identify good evidence.

When it comes to evidence, the authors offer excellent insights into how the critical thinker can separate good evidence from bad evidence. Intuition, personal experience, testimonials, appeals to authority, and other types of evidence are all evaluated by asking the right questions.
The content of the book entails fourteen chapters, each dedicated to a particular line of question, listed here:

1) What are the issues and the conclusions? 2) What are the reasons? 3) Which words or phrases are ambiguous? 4) What are the value conflicts and assumptions? 5) What are the descriptive assumptions? 6) Are there any fallacies in the reasoning? 7) How good is the evidence? 8) Are there rival causes? 9) Are the statistics deceptive? 10) What significant information is omitted? 11) What reasonable conclusions are possible?3

Of course, critical thinking is not simply knowing a list of questions. Each chapter is like a meal to be enjoyed in its own right. Speeding through this book is not the way to benefit from the insights. Careful reading and re-reading would be encouraged in order to build new habits of thought and to internalize the content.

In their conclusion, the authors end with an exhortation to the critical thinker to use his skills to become a better person. A humble tone is encouraged: “You seek…not to elevate yourself above those who have other conclusions, but to move us all forward to some better understanding of who we are. All the while, you will be improving yourself as a thinker.”4

In sum, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking is a superb book. Easy to read, engaging, and remarkably beneficial, it is sure to be a significant title in the critical thinker’s library.

1 M. Neil Browne & Stuart M. Keeley, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007), p. 2.
2 Ibid., p. 4.
3 Ibid., p. 13.
4 Ibid., p.206.


6 Comments

  1. Lee May 11, 2009

    “The authors emphasize this: we cannot critically evaluate until we find the conclusion. Once we know the conclusion, we can look for the reasons for that conclusion and evaluate the reasons. Reasons plus a conclusion makes an argument; the stronger the reasons, the stronger the argument.”That does not sound right at all…

    I will have to read that again.

    “we cannot critically evaluate until we find the conclusion”No, I must be reading this out of context or I do not understand something.

    If we have made a conclusion, a fixed conclusion for whatever reason, then isn’t it a bit late to the start to ‘think critically’?

    Once a conclusion has been made, everything (evidence, reason, etc) could be used to try and prove the conclusion already made. (Cherry picking I think this is called)

    Now, if you mean we should make a tentative conclusion (which to me sound like an oxymoron), and then try and prove that conclusion false – then I might be with the author.

    I am looking for a critical thinking book, but your review has not suggestive this book is a good one as yet.

    Lee

  2. Lee May 11, 2009

    I suppose I should add… but what do I know about critical thinking 🙂

  3. Brian May 11, 2009

    The authors are talking about (in this context) examining an argument. They advise that you should break down an argument into its basic terms… first find the conclusion, then find the supporting premises, then see if the conclusion follows from the premises.

    So this particular element is not talking about how you come to your own conclusions – this is talking about how you examine someone else’s arguments or reasoning.

  4. Lee May 11, 2009

    Thanks Brian,

    That makes sense now – I was misreading.

    I may look into this book further

    Lee

  5. Brian May 11, 2009

    No probs!

    It is a good book… not a complete accident that it’s in its eighth edition.

  6. Unknown October 13, 2013

    Here's an easy way to remember an outline of how to ask the right questions, using the 11 points Brian posted:

    1. Get Specific (Points #1-5)
    2. Get a Scale (Points # 6,7,9,10)
    3. Weigh Other Options (Points 8, 11)

    Getting Specific involves finding the argument(s)
    Getting a Scale involves evaluating the argument(s)
    Weighing Other Options involves looking at alternative explanations

    JC