Critical Reading

Skilled readers can recognize an author’s point and the support for that point.

Critical readers can evaluate an author’s support for a point and determine whether that support is solid or not.

Reading critically includes these skills:
Separating fact from opinion
Detecting propaganda
Recognizing errors in reasoning

Separating Fact from Opinion


A fact is information that can be proved true through objective evidence: physical proof or the spoken or written testimony of witnesses.

Here are some facts—they can be checked for accuracy and thus proved true:

Fact:  The Quad Tower is the tallest building in this city.
(A researcher could go out and, through inspection, confirm that the building is the tallest.)

Fact:  Albert Einstein willed his violin to his grandson.
(This statement can be checked in historical publications or with Einstein’s estate.)

Fact: On September 11, 2001, terrorists destroyed the New York World Trade Center, killing thousands.
(This event was witnessed in person or on television by millions, and it’s in records worldwide.)


An opinion is a belief, judgment, or conclusion that cannot be objectively proved true. As a result, it is open to question.

Here are some opinions:

Opinion:  The Quad Tower is the ugliest building in the city.
(There’s no way to prove this statement because two people can look at the same building and come to different conclusions about its beauty. Ugly is a value word, a word we use to express a value judgment. Value or judgment words are signals that an opinion is being expressed.)

Opinion:  Einstein should have willed his violin to a museum.
(Who says? Not his grandson. This is an opinion.)

Opinion:  The attack on the World Trade Center was the worst act of terrorism in the history of humankind.
(Whether something is “worst” is always debatable. Worst is another value word.)

Detecting Propaganda

Propaganda uses emotional appeals instead of presenting solid evidence to support a point. Advertisers, salespeople, and politicians often lack adequate factual support for their points, so they appeal to our emotions by using propaganda techniques. Part of being a critical reader is the ability to recognize and resist these propaganda techniques.

Six Common Propaganda Techniques:

1. Bandwagon
The bandwagon technique tells us to buy a product or support a certain issue because “everybody else is doing it.”
•  A TV commercial may claim that more and more people are
   watching the evening news with a certain anchorperson.
•  A cell phone ad may show people in many different kinds
  of occupations using a certain cell phone.
•  A political ad may feature people from all walks of life
  speaking out in support of a certain candidate.
The ads imply that if you don’t jump on the bandwagon, the parade will pass you by.

2. Testimonial
The testimonial approach tells us to buy a product or support a certain issue because a celebrity is endorsing it.The idea behind this technique is that the testimony of someone we admire will influence us.
•  Famous athletes appear as spokespersons for all
  sorts of products, from soft drinks to automobiles.
•  Movie and TV stars make commercials endorsing
  products and political issues.
Remember, though, that famous people get paid to endorse products. Also, they are not necessarily experts about the products or issues they promote.

3. Transfer
In transfer, the most common type of propaganda technique, products or candidates try to associate themselves with something that people admire or love.
•  A political candidate holds a sign saying “Vote for Me”
  and stands next to a beauty queen wrapped in a U.S.A. banner.
•  A beautiful, sexy woman (or an American flag or other patriotic
  symbol) is used to promote a product, candidate, or cause.
The idea behind this technique is that we will transfer the positive feelings we have for a beautiful, sexy-looking person or our country to the product or candidate.
Over the years, advertisers have found that beauty and sex “sell” and that appeals to patriotism often succeed.

4. Plain Folks
In the plain folks technique, people present themselves as ordinary, average citizens, hoping we will identify with them and like them.
•  Political candidates try to show they are just “plain folks” by
  talking about hard times in their lives. They also pose for
  photographs while wearing a hard hat or mingling with
  everyday people.
•  The presidents of some companies appear in their own ads,
  trying to show that their giant corporations are just family
  businesses run by ordinary folks.

5. Name Calling
Name calling is the use of emotionally loaded language or negative comments to turn people against a rival product, candidate, or movement.
•  A political candidate labels an opponent “soft,” “radical,”
   or “wimpy.”
•  In a taste test, consumers describe the other leading
  brand of spaghetti sauce as “too salty” and “thin and

6. Glittering Generalities
A glittering generality is an important-sounding but unspecific claim about some product, candidate, or cause.
•  An ad calls a certain television set “simply the best.”
•  A campaign slogan claims that the person running
  for office is “the right candidate for our city.”
But no specific evidence is offered to support the claim. Words like best and right sound good, but they say nothing definite.

Recognizing Errors in Reasoning

Fallacies are errors in reasoning that take the place of the real support needed in an argument.
•  A valid point is based on a rock-like foundation of solid support.
•  A fallacious point is based on a house of cards that offers no real
   support at all.
Two common fallacies were discussed in Chapter 9, ”Argument”:
•  Changing the subject distracts us from the issue by presenting
  irrelevant support that actually has nothing to do with the argument.
•  Hasty generalization is a fallacy in which a point has inadequate
  support. Drawing a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence is
  the same as making a hasty generalization.

Six Other Common Fallacies:

Three Fallacies That Ignore the Issue:
•  Circular reasoning repeats the point instead of giving evidence for it.
Mr. Green is a great teacher because he is so wonderful at teaching.
•  Personal attack ignores the issue and concentrates instead on the character of the opponent. Senator Brill’s opinions on public housing are worthless.
He can’t even manage to hold his own household together—he’s been married and divorced three times.
•  Straw man falsely claims that an opponent holds an extreme position and then opposes that position.
Ms. Collins opposes capital punishment. But letting murderers out on the street to kill again is a crazy idea. If we did that, no one would be safe.

Three Fallacies That Oversimplify the Issue:
•  False cause assumes that because event A came before event B, event A caused event B.
The Macklin Company was more prosperous before Ms. Williams became president. Clearly, she is the cause of the decline.
•  False comparison assumes that two things being compared are more alike than they really are.
It didn’t hurt your grandfather to get to work without a car, and it won’t hurt you either.
•  Either-or assumes that there are only two sides to a question.
People who oppose unrestricted free speech are really in favor of censorship.

 Chapter Review

In this chapter, you learned that critical readers evaluate an author’s support for a point and determine whether that support is solid or not. Critical reading includes the following three abilities: • Separating fact from opinion. A fact is information that can be proved true through objective evidence. An opinion is a belief, judgment, or conclusion that cannot be proved objectively true. Much of what we read is a mixture of fact and opinion, and our job as readers is to arrive at at the best possible informed opinion. Textbooks and other effective writing provide informed opinion—opinion based upon factual information. • Detecting propaganda. Advertisers, salespeople, and politicians often try to promote their points by appealing to our emotions rather than our powers of reason. To do so, they practice six common propaganda techniques: bandwagon, testimonial, transfer, plain folks, name calling, and glittering generalities. • Recognizing errors in reasoning. Politicians and others are at times guilty of errors in reasoning—fallacies—hat take the place of the real support needed in an argument. Such fallacies include circular reasoning, personal attack, straw man, false cause, false comparison, and either-or.

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