Blog Post: Critical Writing. Part 3.

Gerald Nosich
Apr 14, 2020 • 188d ago
Critical Writing. Part 3.

{"ops":[{"attributes":{"color":"#010101"},"insert":"[To repeat the background of this blog: I am finishing a book on "},{"attributes":{"color":"#010101","italic":true},"insert":"Critical Writing: Using the Concepts and Processes of Critical Thinking to Write a Paper"},{"attributes":{"color":"#010101"},"insert":". It will be published by Rowman and Littlefield, probably in Fall, 2020.  The following is adapted from an earlier draft of the book.]"},{"insert":"\n \nI invite you to look back at the two previous blogs on critical writing.  I’ll begin here by recapping some of what was in those previous blogs, but re-reading them as a whole will give more context to the work of writing a paper using critical thinking.\n \nThere are many challenges in writing a paper, and critical thinking helps with all of them.  Of all those challenges, it probably helps least when it comes to writing mellifluous, beautifully phrased sentences, but it helps--not just a little, but dramatically--in everything else: in creating and developing a paper, one that is well-thought-out, well-organized, speaks to the audience, and communicates something that is worth communicating.\n \nTo write a paper (or to write virtually anything non-fictional) you need to have a main thing that you are trying to convey. (In my book, I use the traditional term “thesis statement.)  I say “a” main thing—as if it is singular—but in fact that “main thing” can contain multiple parts.  In addition to a thesis statement, or as parts of your thesis statement, you need to have other main points in your paper, ones that explain or support the thesis. Assembled all together, the thesis statement plus the other main points constitute the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"structure "},{"insert":"of the paper.  Of course, none of these is set in stone.  Any parts of the structure—any of the points—can be changed, or added to, or dropped entirely in the course of writing the paper.  The main topic of this blog is "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"structure"},{"insert":": finding the thesis and the main points the paper will be built around.\n \nIn the example from the first two blogs on critical writing, Alyssa starts out with an utterly unpromising topic: "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"scientific thinking"},{"insert":".  As a topic, it is extremely general, unfocused, and amorphous.  You can’t even come close to writing a paper on a topic this general without focusing it.  How can you do that?\n \nIn my workshops, I ask instructors to choose a very general topic, one that lacks all the specificity you need to write a cogent paper. Participants have chosen topics as vague and unpromising as sexism, global warming, body image, or “Jane Austen.”  Unhelpful as those are, instructors in workshops choose them because they are the kind of unspecific topics students often start off with.\n \nSo again the question is now to focus it?  How to start with such a general topic and come up with specific, crisp, clear main points and thesis?  \n \nThe process begins by taking the unpromising topic and analyzing it around the circle of elements of reasoning.  Here, from the previous blog, is Alyssa’s analysis.\n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Alyssa’s Analysis-around the Circle"},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Topic: Scientific Thinking"},{"insert":"\n·     "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"concept: "},{"insert":"The concept of scientific thinking is the kind of thinking that tries to establish what is true by means of precise observation (including exact measurement) and by careful testing of hypotheses.\n·     "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"question at issue"},{"insert":": the main questions at issue in scientific thinking are: “Can a belief or hypothesis actually be tested?” and “If it is tested, does the test confirm or disconfirm it?”\n·     "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"purpose"},{"insert":": the goal in scientific thinking is to find out what actually happens, and why.  The goal is not to make my beliefs win out over yours, but to find out what actually happens.\n·      "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"assumption"},{"insert":":  An assumption in science is that the best way to find out what happens, and why, is through observing things closely, by measuring them as precisely as possible, and then by carrying out tests of the hypotheses I come up with. (R: I could research howyou measure really small things, such as atoms?)\n\t"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"Another assumption is that the tests have to be repeatable again and again, always giving the same results. (R: search for some good examples; plus some examples where the repeated tests don’t come out the same (an example I remember from class: cold fusion))"},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"·      "},{"attributes":{"color":"black","bold":true},"insert":"implications and consequences"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":": an implication of this is that we shouldn’t believe things on the basis of prejudice or preconceptions (R: find a preconception that has been disproved in the past), or even on a single highly unusual experience.  We shouldn’t simply believe everything we hear or are taught.  We should test it out for ourselves.  If that isn’t possible for us to do personally, we should read about the scientific tests that have been done by others (example: Scientific American)."},{"insert":"\n·     "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"information"},{"insert":": the information used in scientific thinking is the kind that can be measured or at least carefully observed. It is not the kind of information that is based on uncorroborated testimony (example: ghosts).\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"·      "},{"attributes":{"color":"black","bold":true},"insert":"point of view"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":": There are many valid points of view from which to look at the world: cultural, political, legal, and so forth.  The scientific point of view is different from the others because it puts careful observation and testing at the center of everything."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"·      "},{"attributes":{"color":"black","bold":true},"insert":"conclusion"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":":  A main conclusion I draw from this is that there is nothing wrong in believing things on the basis of culture or politics, or the way you were brought up, but when those beliefs are contradicted by scientific findings, it is more reasonable to believe the scientific findings (example: Galileo). "},{"insert":"\n·     "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"context"},{"insert":": Historically, scientific thinking has developed into a whole way of looking at the world.  It is very different from Galileo’s time.  (Honestly, I don’t know enough about the history of science to talk about the historical context very much.)  Today, scientific thinking takes place in a context where many people have an agenda they are trying to push.  They want society to go in a certain direction, and they put pressure on people to agree with them, even if the scientific evidence goes against them.\n \n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"[Note that “context” is not literally one of the elements of reasoning. Rather it supplies background to the topic.  It is often helpful to describe contextin a paper.]"},{"insert":"\n \nThe suggestion last time was to read Alyssa’s analysis slowly, to notice how the elements focus her thinking.  Instead of just a vague topic, instead of just random thoughts that happen to occur to her, she now has a set of specific sentences, each of them relevant to one of the essential parts of reasoning.  They are not perfect; they are not professionally accomplished; but they are solid, they are plausible, and they are at least moderately clear. Sometimes they contain insight.  All of them are the product of Alyssa’s own creativity and thought.\n \n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"Before going on, set aside your expertise as a writer and put yourself in Alyssa’s place.  Use her analysis around the circle to come up with the thesis statement of your paper, and then also the other main points that constitute the structure of her paper."},{"insert":"\n \nThere are two methods you can use.  First you can just "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"see "},{"insert":"your thesis statement among the responses in the analysis.  If you do this yourself, there is a good chance that one of the responses you gave will just jump out at you.  It is the main thing you want to say in the paper.  (Among my students, about 60% just see their thesis statement in their analysis.)  If this method works for you, you would then again read your analysis and pick out other responses there that you believe best explain or support your thesis statement. These will then be the other main points of your paper. You will have in front of you the paper's structure.\n \nThe second method, plan B, is what you can use if no single statement pops out as the one main thing you want to say. For this method, you carefully re-read your analysis around the circle, and then choose the responses that, in your judgment, are most important.  There is no set number of these. You base your choice on the critical thinking standard of importance (significance). You then construct your paper by taking the set of these responses as the main points that, together, constitute the structure of your paper. In effect, they form a composite thesis statement.\n \n            Whichever method you use, the thesis and main points you choose from Alyssa's analysis will probably be different from the ones she herself would choose.  That’s because many different papers can come from the same analysis-around-the-circle.  The elements of reasoning don't impose one structure on you.  Rather, they allow you to continue to use your own best thinking in constructing it.\n \n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Alyssa chooses the second method. She constructs her composite thesis statement out of four of her responses: the ones she gave for "},{"attributes":{"underline":true,"italic":true},"insert":"concept"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":", "},{"attributes":{"underline":true,"italic":true},"insert":"purpose"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":", the first "},{"attributes":{"underline":true,"italic":true},"insert":"assumption"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" and the first "},{"attributes":{"underline":true,"italic":true},"insert":"implication"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" she identified.  She chooses these in part because they seem very important aspects of scientific thinking, and because she sees them as fitting well with one another."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"1.  The concept of scientific thinking is the kind of thinking that tries to establish what is true by means of precise observation (including exact measurement) and by careful testing of hypotheses."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"2.  The goal in scientific thinking is to find out what actually happens, and why.  The goal is not to make my beliefs win out over yours, but to find out what actually happens."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"color":"black"},"insert":"3.  An assumption in science is that the best way to find out what happens, and why, is through observing things closely, by measuring them as precisely as possible, and then by carrying out tests of the hypotheses I come up with."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"4.  An implication of this is that we shouldn’t believe things on the basis of prejudice or preconceptions, or even on a single highly unusual experience.  We shouldn’t simply believe everything we hear or are taught."},{"insert":"\n \n(You can see that Alyssa doesn’t distinguish a single thesis statement from the other main points in her paper.  She can do that if she chooses to, but she doesn’t have to.  Even without doing that, she has the structure of her paper.)\n \n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Refining the thesis and main points"},{"insert":"\nOnce you have chosen the main points of your paper, however many of those there are, you will probably face the challenge of re-phrasing them and putting them together so that you (and your readers) can see how they fit coherently with one another.  A goal is for you to see them as a well-integrated whole, and for your readers to see them the same way.\n \n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Alyssa faces that challenge as well.  She has put a lot of thought into her analysis and into choosing the points she thinks are most important for her paper.  She thinks they make a good overall structure for her paper.  But when she looks at the points as she has written them out, the four points seem a little choppy and disjointed.  She is confident that they link together logically, but the way she has said them makes them sound awkward.  So she spends a little time putting them together and rearranging them to make them sound better and more interesting.  (She finds that this re-phrasing actually goes pretty quickly.) Here is what she comes up with:"},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"            "},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" In scientific thinking, scientists try to establish what is true by means of precise observation (including exact measurement) and by carefully testing their hypotheses.  They do this because the goal of science is to find out what actually happens, and why. It is not to make my beliefs win out over yours, but to find out what is really true.  An implication of scientific thinking is that we shouldn’t believe things on the basis of prejudice or preconceptions, or even on a single highly unusual experience.  We shouldn’t simply believe everything we hear or are taught. The best way to find out what happens, and why, is through observing things closely, by measuring them as precisely as possible, and then by carrying out tests of the hypotheses we come up with. That is an assumption scientists base their research on, but it is one that has worked out again and again. "},{"attributes":{"indent":1},"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"For now at least, Alyssa is pleased with how she has written and integrated her main points.  She has also reminded herself of places in her analysis where she has already had ideas for examples and for further research."},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"            Having re-written her thesis/structure/outline, Alyssa sees something that is even more pleasing for her: she realizes that she has written the introductory section of her actual paper.  “It may not be perfect,” she says, “and I may want to fill it in a little more later, but I have the introductory section.”"},{"insert":" (It seems almost a lucky accident to Alyssa, but it’s not.  Writing out the structure of your paper—the thesis plus your main points—in a coherent way will usually constitute a major part of the introductory section of your paper.  It may also constitute much of the concluding section of your paper as well (though you will want to add any additional insights you came up with when you actually wrote the paper).\n"}]}


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