Are you having challenges picking up the main idea of an article, deciding whether the author makes a good argument, so then you can make up your own mind about the issue at hand? Then keep reading, as you will find some fantastic tools which will help you improve your critical thinking.
Having the skills to analyse arguments presented to us in various forms (newspaper articles, political debate, academic essays etc.) provides a net advantage of clear, rational thinking. Critical thinking at its core deals with analysing arguments and this is the area I will dive into today.
JUMP TO SECTION
- Critical Thinking while Playing the Believing Game
- Critical Thinking and Playing the Doubting Game
- Critical Thinking Achieved through Descriptive Outlining
- Critical Analysis with Argumentful
- Believing, Doubting, Transforming
- What is Your Position Overall?
Understanding an Argument
I will use some great techniques laid out by Jennifer Fletcher in Teaching Arguments and I will apply these to a recent article on the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat depression, written by Robin Carhart-Harris in the Guardian.
To analyse this article from a critical thinking perspective, I will take it through four stages: the believing game, the doubting game, descriptive outlining and building the argument map with Argumentful.
We’ll start with the believing game.
1. Critical Thinking while Playing the Believing Game
Playing the believing game means reading a text with a perspective where we keep a very open mind and as much as possible try to suspend all judgement. We do this so that we can better understand the author’s position before any personal thoughts or opinions jump in our minds. Negative information tends to influence evaluations more strongly than positive one, so starting the analysis of the text with a positive outlook will feel a little strange and perhaps forced, but we will get the chance to doubt the author’s position in the next phase.
Below are the steps adapted from Jennifer Fletcher’s book:
- Find the central idea
- Suspend any personal opinions and judgement
- Understand the background
- Observe the layout of the article and the way the paragraphs are organised
- Note examples provided by the author
- Re-phrase main arguments
- Sum-up the central argument
- Determine the author’s objective
- Acknowledge words or phrases used as transitions
- See the issue from the writer’s point of view
- Place confidence in the writer
- Clarify key terms
To include these, I will make notes under each paragraph below:
The author seems to declare their central idea here in the title: there seems to be a great potential for psychedelic drugs to treat depression which can no longer be ignored.
This is the intro where author makes us aware of the size of the problem of depression, especially within the pandemic crisis:
-20% spike of number of prescriptions for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs in the US during the lockdown- supported
-prescriptions have more than doubled in the last decade in the UK, with the demand threatening to exceed supply- supported
This section makes the reader familiar with the author’s background and the current status of academic research of psychedelic drugs, with its important application within the mental health realm.
This section offers a reason for the increase in interest and investment in the mental health application of psychedelic drugs, more specifically results from two studies:
-one has shown how “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin) can be used to assist psychotherapy for difficult-to-treat depression -the second compares psilocybin to a conventional antidepressant drug- with preliminary analyses indicating “game-changing results”.
In these sections we are offered reasons against conventional drug treatments and psychotherapy.
Starting with this paragraph, the author is putting together the case for psychedelic therapy as a comprehensive treatment package for mental health.
An explanation of what the psychedelic treatment entails is provided.
These paragraphs continue the explanation of how the psychedelic therapy impacts the brain, comparing the experience to other extreme states such as trauma or stress-induced breakdown. The idea that the therapy has to be conducted in very specific setting with expert support is further stressed.
A description of what people perceive during the therapy is provided. The experience- of high connectivity to self and the world, is contrasted to people’s descriptions of conventional anti-depressant drugs- where people describe “feeling emotionally muted”. The author wants to be cautious in not disclosing the study’s findings before scientific review, however he does mention antidepressant effects as well as “remarkable changes” in patients, such as increased quality of life or ability to feel pleasure again.
Further information is provided regarding the future access to psilocybin therapy in North America and Europe. The author believes that use could scale up before formal licensing, with the most ambitious initiative for phased legalisation taking currently place in the US, in Oregon. The author makes the point for the importance of aligning these initiatives to the scientific research, both for advancing scientific understanding as well as informing and protecting the individual.
An opposing view is considered in this paragraph: since both mental illness and psychedelics have stigma attached to them, any initiative to include psychedelics in mental health therapies will probably face challenges, more reason for the approach to be a scientific, “dispassionate” one.
In this paragraph the author informs about the typical “Buddhist” effects of a psychedelic trip, putting them in the pandemic perspective, which might make them even more relevant in these times: “the self as illusory, suffering as inevitable, attachment as a common cause of suffering, impermanence as fundamental, and slowing down, contemplation, breath, and community as potent resources.”
A final paragraph which invites us to further contemplation: the pandemic has made two truths obvious, despite our attempts to escape them: the fact that we all breathe and we all die. These might have become visible to many during the lockdown slowdown. The author predicts that psychedelic therapy might provide the same lessons, but it is still up to us if we decide to listen or not.
2. Critical Thinking and Playing the Doubting Game
Once we have gone through the article, keeping an open mind and noting the author’s main points, it is time to look more closely. Within the doubting game, we are moving from accepting the text to examining it. The steps are:
- Find any information that is accepted as true, but no proof is presented
- Investigate the writer’s expertise
- Analyse the efficiency of any rhetorical techniques (pathos, logos, ethos etc.)
- Is the evidence presented appropriate?
- Question the claims being made
- What is your personal feedback to what the author is stating?
- Suggest likely counterclaims
- Question the writer’s reasoning
- Disagree with the writer
As it can be quite difficult to go through this exercise, especially if done soon after the believing game, take your time with it.
Here are some helpful questions which Fletcher advises to keep in mind while applying this type of scepticism:
- Does the writer say anything that bothers me?
- Are any of the writer’s claims unsupported?
- Does the writer draw any dubious conclusions?
- Does the writer contradict himself/herself?
- Do I disagree with any of the writer’s claims or assumptions?
- Are there any reasons not to trust the writer?
- Does the writer leave anything out?
To work with these, I will go through the text again and make additional notes as follows:
As already observed during the believing game, the central idea is already declared by the author in the title.
I am not sure why the author uses the word “ignore” here- I wonder if these benefits of psychedelics were already known but ignored?
This is a strong claim- the mental health emergency is characterized as “devastating”.
The author’s comparison of the transformative effect of psychedelic experiences with the pandemic seems pretty bold.
It is stated that the Centre of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London was founded only more than a year ago- I wonder if that is enough time to reach such significant conclusions.
In this paragraph it is claimed that conventional antidepressants and talking therapy have not made a lot of difference for difficult-to-treat- depression. There is no evidence provided to support this claim.
In these sections we are offered reasons against:
-conventional drug treatments- they have not changed much since their discovery, come with side effects, their action moderates the stress response, affording relief but not cure and requiring to be taken for several months or longer
-psychotherapy- although preferred by many people, it is very expensive, more difficult to access and no more effective than drugs
Again, no supporting evidence is provided.
Perhaps “much more comprehensive” is a bit exaggerated?
The writer puts forward the claim that psychedelics appear to increase brain “plasticity”, which might be true, but I would have hoped for evidence to support this- there is no link to a study here, although I am guessing the author has just not included it and it probably exists.
In this paragraph the experience of psychedelics is contrasted to the experience of taking conventional drug treatments. “Revelation” and “epiphany” are used to describe the impact of psychedelics- very strong choice of words.
There is no supporting evidence offered, but the author does mention that the study referenced is still undergoing scientific review.
Getting psilocybin therapy licensed within the next five years is an idea the author does not offer any support for. I wonder where he is taking this information from.
Strong phrases are used in this paragraph: “petrol on flames” to suggest potential reactions against psychedelics for health, “stigma”, “evangelizers”, “passions to temper” contrasted by “dispassionate, scientific approach”. A contrast meant to make science look rational and wise?
A comeback to the spiritual characteristics of the insights awaken by psychedelics use. This doesn’t seem consistent with the scientific rationality used in the previous paragraph.
A final appeal to pathos by using words like “care”, “love”, “life”, “contemplated own impermanence”.
3. Critical Thinking Achieved through Descriptive Outlining
Descriptive outlining is a technique which helps “see” in more depth the author’s intentions. What could be more beneficial for critical thinking than looking at a paragraph and more than just understanding what it says, being able to figure out what it does- uncovering the author’s unstated ideas.
Here is how I applied it to the article in question: for each paragraph or groups of paragraphs below, I note what it says and what it does.
Says: “The world is experiencing a devastating physical health emergency.”
Does: Informs the reader about the size of the mental health problem, especially within the pandemic crisis. Uses powerful words to convince the reader emphatically.
Says: Speaks about the author’s background and the current status of academic research of psychedelic drugs for mental health.
Does: Appeals to ethos by presenting author’s credentials and brings evidence to show the increasing interest in the psychedelic drugs for mental health.
Says: Reports on preliminary positive results of studies looking into psychedelic drugs for mental health and contrasts them with psychotherapy and conventional anti-depressants.
Does: Attempts to persuade the reader of the positive effect of psychedelic drugs for mental health. Presents two contrasting alternatives which are reported to not have had significant impact (but no sources provided).
Says: Communicates about the lack of progress in mental healthcare. Says that psychotherapy is more expensive, harder to access and no more effective than traditional drugs treatment. Reports on how conventional anti-depressants work and says that these are palliative rather than curative.
Does: Offers clarification against psychotherapy and conventional anti-depressants focusing on the disadvantages of these: high cost, difficulty of access, ineffectiveness. Attempts to sway the reader against traditional therapies and in favour of psychedelics, but does not provide any supporting evidence.
Says: Describes what the psychedelic treatment entails.
Does: Puts together the case for psychedelic therapy as a comprehensive treatment package for mental health. A suggestion of quality is offered- that this is “much more comprehensive”- presumably compared to the alternatives.
Says: Makes predictions regarding the future access to licensed psilocybin therapy in North America and Europe.
Does: Highlights the importance of aligning these initiatives to the scientific research, both for advancing scientific understanding as well as informing and protecting the individual.
Says: Stigma is attached to both mental health and psychedelics, so it will be difficult to overcome these.
Does: Appeals to pathos and logos and contrasts science to people’s passions, meant to emphasize science’s characteristics of being rational and dispassionate.
Says: Informs about the typical Buddhist effects of a psychedelic trip.
Does: Invites the reader to contemplation, which seems a complete U-turn from the lucid, rational tone of the previous paragraph.
Says: The pandemic has had two silver linings- it has invited an expanded consciousness and people have slowed down. The author compares these to psychedelic treatments which might offer similar lessons.
Does: Offers a comparison of spirituality to psychedelics effects, next to using pathos (care, love, life).
People should start considering psychedelics as better alternative to psychotherapy and conventional anti-depressants.
Having gone through these activities, let’s now put the whole argument in an argument map and see what else it might reveal.
4. Critical Analysis with Argumentful
Transferring the article into an argument map, I get the following image.
The argument is supported by evidence on the branch that deals with claims regarding psychedelics.
Nevertheless, now that the argument is in a visual map, its weaknesses are becoming quite obvious: the fact that the author has only included evidence in support of the statements regarding psychedelics and has missed to include any evidence in support of the statements regarding psychotherapy and conventional antidepressant drugs.
As with other past analysis, I am not saying that this evidence does not exist, only that the author has not included it. From a critical thinking perspective, this omission hurts the argument, because it misses the opportunity to show the readers that these statements are supported in science and could result in readers losing trust.
Let’s see how the argument could be improved.
5. Believing, Doubting, Transforming
This final exercise moves us to the phase where we have the opportunity to suggest improvements to the argument and to make up our own minds regarding the matter at issue.
I have filled in the table below to reflect my current view of the article:
|Which claims, if any, do you believe? |
The claims regarding psychedelics usage in mental health interventions seem to be true and the author managed to convince me of their effectiveness.
|Which claims, if any, do you doubt? |
As I am not an expert in this field, it’s very hard for me to judge if the claims regarding the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy and conventional drugs are true. I would need to do further research to find out for myself if this is the case.
|What claims could be changed or modified to better represent how you think? |
In order to convince me, the claims regarding the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy and conventional drugs need to include supporting evidence.
What is Your Position Overall?
The author has made me very curious regarding this topic. He managed to convince me of the effectiveness of psychedelics usage in mental health interventions and I look forward to reading more about the upcoming results of the clinical trial they have conducted. However, I am not yet convinced that these are more effective than current therapies. My next step will be to do my own research and find out if these claims are true. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that not all readers will take this extra step and they might dismiss the unsupported views without bothering to look for further evidence.