Section Progress:

3.5  Reading with Purpose

You have learned a great number of skills already: how to identify arguments and analyze their parts; how to make inferences on the basis of evidence; how to assess arguments for validity and soundness; how to use the concepts of validity and soundness in difficult or confusing circumstances; and, finally, how to take an active approach to learning.

Those skills are fundamental for quite a few professions, not just detective stories. Lawyers, scientists, reporters, and many more jobs regularly rely on those skills.

Investigative journalists, for example, must gather and assess evidence in order to decide what issues to pursue and to argue convincingly to their audience.

There is an additional challenge, though, that people in real-world situations face: lawyers, journalists, scientists and detectives often must wade through mountains of information in order to find the essential bits that matter for the project they are working on.

In this section we'll learn a skill that combines several things you already know to combat this challenge: reading with purpose.

Read with purpose: Actively looking for logical connections and evaluating those connections as you go.

To read with purpose means to interrogate what you read, looking for the bits that have special significance. We are interested in evidence and arguments, so for our purposes it means two things.

First, look for logical connections in the text, often indicated by premise and conclusion signal words. Logical connections can be structural relations between parts of the text that arguments depend on, as well as inferential relations that the author claims, like that some sentence follows from another.

1. Look for logical connections.
2. Question those connections.

Second, question those connections to figure out what does or doesn't follow from the author's premises and what gaps there are in their reasoning.

Let's try an example. A complicated issue that combines science, law, journalism and ethics is the topic of concussions in sports.

Try reading this paragraph with purpose, and then answer the question that follows.

"From 2014-16 the NFL adopted rules to promote player safety, in light of the controversy over concussions and brain injury. But they were ineffective. The number of reported concussions did not drop, it actually increased."

Reading with purpose doesn't just mean finding key premises or evidence and identifying the author's argument. It also means evaluating each step of the argument and identifying gaps in their reasoning.

Evaluating real arguments for validity can be tricky. It's made more complicated by the fact that an author might be making additional unstated assumptions.

The argument in the quote above isn't valid as stated. But it is very common and quite legitimate to not explicitly state every premise of every argument we make in real life.

When you identify a gap in an argument, you should formulate in your own mind what assumptions the author needs for the argument to be valid.

Here's how we handle this situation: when you read with purpose and identify a gap in an argument, you should formulate in your own mind what assumptions the author needs to get the argument to work.

Let's try it. Here's the argument again:

"From 2014-16 the NFL adopted rules to promote player safety, in light of the controversy over concussions and brain injury. But they were ineffective. The number of reported concussions did not drop, it actually increased."

We didn't want to ruin your experience with answering that question by first giving you tips. If you found it difficult, here's a key idea: don't look at the answer choices right away!

That might sound surprising, but all the different choices can start to cloud your thinking.

Instead, you should formulate in your own mind what gap needs filled in the argument.

For example, you already know that the conclusion is that the new rules were ineffective. But the premise is about the number of concussion reports increasing (or not dropping). So the author needs a bridge: if reports are increasing or not dropping, then the rules are ineffective.

This skill of identifying gaps in reasoning and understanding how to fill them is so essential for lawyers that it is the number one skill tested for on the LSAT, the standardize exam students take to get into law school.

For example, here's a question from a past LSAT exam:

Identifying the gaps in an author's reasoning is helpful for several reasons. Here's the reason we will focus on: it allows you to assess their reasoning even if they are making unstated assumptions.

Here's how to do it: evaluate whether the unstated premise that the argument needs is true or false.

That sentence is not the only unstated premise the author could be relying on, but given the gap in the argument, the author needs at least that much information to get the argument to be valid.

That allows us to assess their original argument.

Because if you know those assumptions are false, then the argument is bad.

It can't be sound, because either it is invalid or, if the author was making an unstated assumption, it has a false premise.

Let's practice another one.

"Concussions on developing brains, especially children under 14, carry greater risk of long-term harm. Some cities are responding by changing regulations for high-impact sports like soccer and football. Players still aren't safe, though, because players will be safe only if they change their behavior on the field, and the regulation changes don't magically change coaches' decisions."

Next, evaluate the argument.

3.5 Reading with Purpose