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?3Of 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.