The goal of Asking the Right Questions is to give the reader some tools to use when evaluating the reasons given for a particular conclusion in a specific argument. The authors state early on that critical thinking is a term meaning three components: 1) “awareness of a set of interrelated questions,” 2) “ability to ask and answer critical questions at appropriate times,” and 3) “the desire to actively use the critical questions” (2). The authors’ purpose is to help the reader build these skills of critical thinking and use those skills not only in what they hear and read, but also in what they speak and write themselves. Critical thinking skills are set in contrast with a simple act of absorbing information as it comes in the first chapter. While it is valuable and right to absorb information as it comes in the form of writing or speaking, it is not enough to stop there. Critical thinking does absorb information, but it takes the information and evaluates it in order that an independent and intelligent conclusion may be reached.
The book is divided into fourteen chapters. Chapters 1 and 14 deal mostly with various introductory and concluding issues, while the substance of the book is met in chapters 2 through 13. These chapters, each in their turn, deal with the critical questions in the order that they may be asked. As the reader proceeds through the chapters, the critical questions become more and more complex. The critical questions which the authors present are centered around the following: 1) issue and conclusion, 2) reasons, 3) ambiguous terms and phrases, 4) value conflicts and assumptions, 5) descriptive assumptions, 6) fallacies, 7) evaluation of evidence, 8) rival causes, 9) potentially deceptive statistics, 10) potentially omitted information, and 11) possible reasonable conclusions.
The book is designed so that the reader may master each critical question by reading the material in the chapters, encountering and considering the examples offered, and working the practice exercises at the end of each chapter. More practice exercises are offered on the book’s website to the ambitious learner. The practice exercises provided by the authors are certainly valuable, but it is better to try the skills out on actual articles, editorials, speeches, and other sources. Doing this is much more challenging, as well as much more practical. Once the reader has proceeded through the entire book, he should have a good idea about how to think critically about any issue, whether it is found in written or spoken form. The chapters are meant to be analyzed individually, but then taken as a whole package once they are studied in their entirety.
The intended audience is primarily an academic one, although the authors make clear at the outset that everyone with sufficient motivation may hone their critical thinking skills using the questions addressed in the text. I have found this to be true, having recently taught an eighth grade logic class through this book and seeing the effect of the application of critical thinking skills upon young teenagers.
Once the authors have concluded their practical study on critical thinking, they close their book with some helpful advice on the tone of critical thinking. Several suggestions are offered in order to communicate friendship rather than hostility while exercising critical thinking skills. It was refreshing to see the authors stress that, even if we are being misled or tricked in some way by a politician, salesman, lawyer, etc., it is always imperative to offer argumentation in a positive and edifying spirit. This is especially important to remember in an often adversarial society, as well as one whose general idea of argumentation and critical thinking too often insists scoring victory at any cost.
Browne, M. Neil and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, 10thedition. New York: Longman, 2011.