Reading and Thinking Critically


(adapted from “Propaganda Alert” and “Questions to Ask When Examining a Position” [no longer available online from McGraw-Hill Companies])



edited 4/23/19

Critical thinking requires us to be actively involved with what we read. The following is a list of some of the more commonly used propaganda techniques. The list is derived from Analyzing Controversy: An Introductory Guide (McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 1997) by Gary K. Clabaugh, La Salle University (ret.), and Edward G. Rozycki, Widener University (ret.).




One kind of generalization that can be hard to identify, interpret, or test is reification. To reify means to treat a vague general term as if it were a concrete, even living, thing. Reifications tend to obscure important questions about responsibility, cost, and benefit. In addition, they are frequently used to demean or demonize entire groups of people.


We encounter reifications every day. Here are a few headlines from a major metropolitan newspaper with possible reifications italicized.



These are story headlines, and, in most cases, in the body of the story, we learn who in the drug company failed to act, which city and union officials extended the strike deadline, and so forth. Sometimes, however, these vital details never emerge.


Consider a column found on the commentary page of a local newspaper with the headline: "UN should clean up its act." The columnist charges that "the UN's bureaucracy has long ago forsaken its commitment to Article 100 of the [UN] Charter." (Article 100 forbids UN staffers from seeking or receiving instructions from any government.) He denounces "UN apparatchiks [who] have tried to cover their trail" and charges that "The UN bureaucracy . . . inhabits a culture of paranoia, fearful always that a powerful member country or a powerful block of countries is looking over their shoulder." [Emphasis added.] There are over 20,000 UN employees working worldwide at many different jobs, but the reader is encouraged to lump them all together as "apparatchiks" (a derisive term for Soviet-era bureaucrats) and "the UN bureaucracy." Some UN employees may well deserve such labels; but most must surely be worthy and do admirable work. Consider, as an example, those who sacrificed their lives attempting to bring food and medicine to besieged Bosnians. Do they deserve such labels?




Many people would not directly insult those who disagree with them. Such people often pride themselves on either their civility or objectivity. Nonetheless, they often subtly insult their opponents not by focusing on the argument but by questioning their opponents' character or motives.


In evaluating competing sides of a controversial issue, look for terms that delegitimate interests (rob them of their legitimacy). Whose interests they invalidate can be quite revealing. For example, in "The Tilt to the News: How American Journalism Has Swerved from the Ideal of Objectivity," The World and I (December 1993), H. Joachim Maitre denounces the alleged liberality of National Public Radio (NPR). He cites as an example NPR's correspondent at the Supreme Court, Nina Totenberg, for her "stubborn effort to prevent Clarence Thomas from being confirmed as a justice of the Court." He might have said "intensive," "tireless," or "persistent" effort. "Stubborn" delegitimates her actions without giving reasons as to why he thinks she was wrong.


Emotions and Persuasion


However irrelevant they might be when it comes to factual claims or the logic of an argument, feelings still play a particularly crucial role in persuasion. In fact, Aristotle classified emotional appeals (pathos) as one of the most effective means of influencing others.


Some appeals to emotion are uncalculated, coming from disputants who are emotionally wrapped up in the issue themselves. But others emanate from practiced publicists or cunning propagandists who play on emotions as skillfully as a virtuoso plays the piano. We should be wary of this. Some classic appeals to emotion that you should watch out for are:


1. Appeals to Envy


Envy, we are told, is one of the seven cardinal sins. And it is all too common. A Danish proverb asserts, "If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill." Perhaps this is why appeals to envy are so seductive. Essentially, a disputant appealing to envy will try to manipulate you into accepting an argument because of jealousy of the other person.


Loaded language is a key indicator that an appeal to envy is being made. In analyzing controversies, be alert for loaded words or phrases that might be used to trigger and exploit envy.


The table below contains a sample of loaded words that appeal to envy. Compare the terms that capitalize on envy in the left column with their more neutral alternatives in the right column.


Loaded Words That Play on Envy

Alternative, More Neutral Words

fat cat








conceited, stuck-up





in control

power mad



2. Appeals to Fear


Fear as a self-protective response is perfectly reasonable. But this same emotion can also cloud judgment. And, as in the case of envy, fear can be played upon.


Some possible indicators that fear is being appealed to are the use of the left-column terms instead of the right-column terms in the chart below.


Loaded Words Appealing to Fear

Alternative, More Neutral Words






















The point is that the same essential trait or behavior can be referred to in a way that plays on our feelings—in this case, fear.


3. Appeals to Hatred


Hatred is strangely seductive, and zealots of every stripe seem to need a devil. Hitler, for instance, demonized the Jews, and it served Stalin's murderous purposes to incite hatred for "wreckers" (of the revolution) and so-called enemies of the people.


Loaded language is particularly effective in triggering hate. For example, there seems to be a nearly endless supply of nasty words that promote and exploit hatred for particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups. These are all too commonly known, and we omit a chart of examples for the sake of good taste. Bear in mind, however, that there are subtler loaded words that also play on hatred. Here are some code words used to trigger revulsion: welfare queen, bleeding heart, fascist, extremist, international banker, one-worlder, tree-hugger, union buster, puritan, bureaucrat, shyster, and draft dodger. Of course, there are many, many more.


4. Appeals to Pride


Pride is another of the so-called seven deadly sins-the one, we are told, that most surely separates a sinner from the grace of God. Often we can spot appeals to pride by looking for characteristic indicator phrases like the following:



An inverse appeal to pride plays on our fear of seeming stupid. Persuasion professionals are well aware of this and cleverly use it to their advantage. To make you feel alone and stupid in your opinions, for instance, they might commission a poll with loaded questions; then release the findings to the press. Essentially they are saying "Look at all the people who agree with us. You must be wrong." Be alert for such maneuvers.




Slogans are vague statements that typically are used to express positions or goals. They characteristically conceal potential conflict while promoting broad but only shallow consensus. Because of their vagueness, they are easy to agree with; but we often later find that others interpret them in ways we find objectionable.


Slogans are not so vague as to be meaningless. On the contrary, slogans are powerful persuaders precisely because they do mean something. Crucially, however, what that something is differs dramatically from person to person.


Consider the following:



Pseudo Solutions


When a real solution to an urgent problem is not forthcoming, many arguers offer pseudo solutions, vague generalizations that sound convincing and incite people to a cause but say little more than "Let's solve this problem by doing something that will solve this problem." That's pretty safe advice, but with these solutions, arguers are really avoiding the possibility of failure, evading details, and neglecting to talk about who will shoulder the cost. Real-solution proposals, on the other hand, require the risk of failure, saying exactly what is to be done, and, often as not, wrestling with issues of cost.


To distinguish pseudo solutions from potentially workable ones, use the "Can it fail?" Rule. This involves asking, Can the solution fail?



Consider the following problems and paired "solutions." The "a" items are pseudo solutions. The "b" items are real proposals. Can you see why?




1. That party is too noisy.

a. Quiet it down.

b. Call the cops.



2. Kids aren't doing homework.

a. Motivate them.

b. Assign lunch detentions.



3. Trains are seldom on time.

a. Improve on-time performance.

b. Purchase more locomotives.



4. Government is wasting money.

a. Improve fiscal efficiency.

b. Decentralize purchasing.



5. Too many are using illegal drugs.

a. Teach them to say "No!" to drugs.

b. Spend 10 percent more on drug education.




Controversies may rest not on deliberate misinformation but on the incorrect assumption that the fundamental sources of knowledge that we depend on are functioning well. It is this presupposition of their trustworthiness that supports our arguments. For instance, consider the following presupposition shared by disputants on either side of the controversy "Should Marijuana Be Legalized as a Medication" from Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues on Drugs and Society, Second edition (Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1996, pp. 135–143). Professor Lester Grinspoon argues that marijuana has proven beneficial to patients suffering from various medical problems. He thinks that the federal government is unjustifiably prohibiting its use. Eric Voth, a medical professional, counters that marijuana has no real medical benefits, and its use should be prohibited. Underlying both of their arguments is the presupposition that adults cannot be permitted to treat their own bodies as they choose. A libertarian who worries about governmental restrictions on personal liberty would immediately recognize this deep assumption and challenge it. The point here is that controversies rest on presuppositions that may (or should) themselves be challenged.



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Questions to Ask


It is vital to learn how to evaluate an argument calmly and objectively. The following questions will enable you to break down an argument into its component parts, thereby avoiding the common tendency to be swayed by a presenter's delivery techniques or by one's own set of biases and opinions.


How Empirical Is the Presentation?


The most persuasive argument is the one that supports its thesis by referring to relevant, accurate, and up-to-date data from the best sources possible. One should investigate the credibility of the author, how recent the material is, the type of research (if any) that supports the position outlined, and the degree of documentation behind any argument. Empiricism implies going to the best source for material. Original research material is preferable to secondary sources, which in turn are preferable to hearsay.


What Is Fact? What Is Opinion?


A fact is a statement that can be proven—or verified through recognized means of investigation. In contrast, an opinion is a statement that expresses what a person thinks about an issue, or what someone thinks is true. Many authors blend fact and opinion; it is the responsibility of the critical thinker to discriminate successfully between the two.


This process of discrimination often ties in with the concept of empiricism. Facts are generally empirically determined from research. They are documented and can be known or observed by other people. Facts can be verified in other sources or can be replicated by other research. Good facts should be most convincing in any issue.


Opinions should carry less weight in evaluating an argument. While the writer may believe them to be true, opinions are a product of the writer's biases and personal system of beliefs. While many opinions make good sense and may win a reader's approval, they must still be classified as mere opinions if there is no factual evidence supporting them. Opinion may, in fact, be entirely correct, but generally it still should be viewed with less trust than facts.


Some statements contain both fact and opinion. For example, research has demonstrated that animals living in crowded cages show more aggressive behavior than those living in less crowded cages. A statement such as "Overcrowding of people in slum areas will foster high levels of aggression, rape, and child abuse in the same way that one sees in caged animals" contains elements of both opinion and fact.


Is Propaganda Being Used?


Propaganda is information presented in order to influence a reader. It is not necessarily "good" or "bad." Many authors consciously use propaganda techniques in order to convince their readers of their special point of view. A close look at the author's background or some of the motivations and editorial policies of the source of the publication may provide clues about what types of propaganda techniques might be used.


What Cause/Effect Relationships Are Proposed?


Much material is written to establish or advance a hypothesis that some circumstances "cause" specific things to happen. Experiments often consist of searching for cause/effect relationships. Scientists seem to be linking more and more observations with their antecedent causes. We should note when an issue has at its heart a disputed cause/effect relationship; isolating the claim and examining the relationship is the readers' responsibility.


Are These Cause/Effect Relationships Merely Correlations?


Many cause/effect statements are flawed because no appropriate research or evidence has isolated a single cause. There may be other hidden factors underlying the relationship. A good example is this statement: "Birds fly south in winter because it gets cold in northern areas." This statement is plausible, and many readers would accept it because it "makes sense." Data exist to show a relationship between temperature and bird population density: population decreases as temperature decreases. However, no experiment has conclusively established that temperature is a causative factor of bird migration. Alternative hypotheses may very well also explain the behavior. Food supplies may become scarce during low-temperature periods, breeding instincts may precipitate migration, or the birds may simply want a change of scenery! If sufficiently controlled experiments could rule out these alternative hypotheses, the cause/effect statement could be made. As it is, a simple correlation (statement of coincidence) is all that remains: "Birds fly south at the same time that the weather turns cold." It would even be possible (although not very plausible) with the observed data to infer the opposite causation: "It turns cold in the northern latitudes because the body heat from migrating birds is no longer present!"


We should be aware that faulty cause/effect statements may be a major source of confusion and misdirection used by authors to defend their points of view. In some cases, the faulty cause/effect proposition is the only rationale used by an author. A good technique for analyzing this sort of error is to try to generate alternative plausible hypotheses for any proposed cause/effect relationship.


Is Information Distorted?


Many authors, in an attempt to produce facts to substantiate their positions, quote statistics and research that support their viewpoints. All of these statements of facts may be biased. "Statistics don't lie—statisticians do" is a truism. We should always question the bias involved in obtaining and presenting data. If averages are given, ranges and standard deviations should be evaluated critically. One interesting question that can be raised is: What statistics or data are missing? If a simple survey could be done (in lieu of a statement such as "Most Americans believe that . . ."), why was such an easily supportable piece of data not produced?


We should learn not to be too easily impressed by statistical data. Tabulated numbers or graphs may only reflect opinions.


Are Analogies Faulty?


Many authors make much of analogies as they attempt to prove their theses. An analogy is a comparison of a hypothesis (which is unproven) to a known set of causal events. For example, a statement such as "The United States should not be getting involved in Central American politics; we will have another fiasco as we did in Vietnam" uses an analogy. However true the second part of the sentence may or may not be, it should not necessarily be accepted as a demonstration of the truth of the first part of the sentence. Analogies usually ignore many differences (in this example, differences in military position, geographic location, political motivation, and other factors) that make the current situation unsuitable for comparison and render the analogy worthless.


Is the Author Oversimplifying the Issue?


Authors generally try to show their theses in the best possible light and to discredit opposing viewpoints. When authors are so single-minded as to completely ignore opposite viewpoints, they probably are guilty of oversimplification.


It may be argued, for example, that bilingual education has been shown to be beneficial for people. However, if data are presented without a discussion of the many social ramifications of bilingual education programs, the argument has not answered all of the important questions.


Is the Author Stereotyping?


This sort of logical flaw is similar to the cause/effect flaw. The authors may have observed some general behavior; they then may attempt to apply this general behavior (which may or may not be true) to a specific individual or situation. For example, if an author asserts that American cars are inferior to foreign cars (which may or may not be true), he or she might not establish that any particular American car is truly inferior. Each point should be analyzed as it is empirically observed, not as it is grouped with other observations.


Are There Faulty Generalizations?


In the case of a faulty generalization, a judgment is based on inaccurate or incomplete information. For example: "Ducks and geese migrate south for the winter; therefore, all birds migrate south for the winter."


In presentations, many subtle forms of inappropriate generalizations may occur. The most common form concerns research in one area being applied to other areas (as in a faulty analogy). For example: "The brain deals in electric potentials. Computers deal with electric potentials. We can thus say that the brain is a computer."


Another example of a faulty generalization is when an author observes only one event or cites only one case study and infers that this applies to many other phenomena. Sigmund Freud could be considered guilty of this—his theories of behavior are derived from only a few published observations of individual case studies.