When reading a journal article or book, it is important to evaluate the author’s arguments rather than simply accepting them as valid. You should ask yourself: what is the evidence that supports particular statements? Passionate emotions, intuition, deep personal beliefs, and allegiance to particular authorities or “schools of thought” are not evidence; they are sources of bias in thinking. Evidence may include interview data, measurements of observable phenomena or events, the results of carefully structured experiments, surveys of public opinion, photographic evidence, and many other forms.
Some important questions to ask while reading include:
- What evidence does the author use to support assertions and interpretations?
- Is the type of evidence offered adequate to support the author’s assertions?
- Is the author making any questionable assumptions?
- Are the overall conclusions drawn from the evidence appropriate?
- If comparisons are used, are they appropriate?
- Does the author appear to be biased in any way? If so, what are those biases?
- Based on the evidence presented, could you tell a completely different story or come to different conclusions?
- When references are cited, are they from credible scholarly sources?
How does one know if an author might be biased? If an author states that most citizens of a particular country dislike the country’s leader, but their evidence consists of interviews with five citizens, then their “sample size” is too small to provide adequate evidence. Even if the author has interviewed a large number of citizens, it would be helpful to know that participants were not asked leading questions, as this biases the data. Additionally, if we learn that an author is a member of a rival political party that has openly denounced the leader, then we have identified a potential source of bias. However, bias should not be assumed on this basis. The evidence offered may be sound.
Learning to look for the evidence upon which particular assertions are made and to critically evaluate this evidence is useful not only in developing critical reading skills; it also helps your own writing become more evidence-based and thus more sound and convincing.