Q1: Can't an issue be BOTH prescriptive and descriptive?
A: Certainly. A rule of thumb that you'll find useful as a critical thinker is that most dichotomies are also oversimplifications. Issues EXPLICITLY stated in a should, ought, or must form (e.g., Should people pay more taxes?) are going to be prescriptive in nature. However, many issues that look like descriptive issues have an IMPLICIT prescriptive component, which will be useful to recognize. For example, the question of whether sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are good cars at first glance seems to be a descriptive issue focusing on the way things ARE. But answering this question requires that judgments be made about what criteria we would use to decide whether a car was good; and if we argue that SUVs are good cars because they are safer than other cars (what looks like a descriptive conclusion), are we not also suggesting they are a kind of car that we SHOULD consider buying a prescriptive conclusion? So, yes, you will encounter mixes of descriptive and prescriptive issues, and thus should be alert to that. Because of the potential of a mixing of the two kinds of issues, we encourage you to sort issues as prescriptive, descriptive, or both, as you begin the critical thinking process. You will see more clearly in later chapters how this sorting can help you as a critical thinker.
Q2: Why do communicators make the conclusion hard to identify if the whole point of communication is to let others know their opinion or conclusion regarding a certain issue?
A: There are many reasons for this. First, communicators write with many purposes, such as informing, persuading, and entertaining, and they also write for many audiences. Also, they vary greatly in their ability to present their arguments in a logical, coherent fashion, even if they desire to do so. Someone writing a brief for the Supreme Court is going to be much more concerned about making the conclusion clear than someone writing an editorial for a political magazine. Some communicators prefer to get their points across as directly and logically as possible; others prefer to communicate in a way that appeals less to the audience's conscious mind and more to its unconscious mind, or to its visual-spatial mind. Political cartoonists, for example, present arguments in visual, metaphorical form. Some writers want their audience to have to work hard to construct the main point, perhaps believing that such a struggle makes the message more effective. Whatever the reasons communicators have for not making their communications explicit and clear, you will find it useful as a critical thinker to work hard at being as clear as you can be about just what the writer's conclusion is. ou should always be asking, 'What is your point?"
Q3: If a communicator leaves the reader hanging in the conclusion of his article, and you believe the message can be interpreted in many ways, what are some techniques the reader can employ to get to the best possible answer?
A: We have several suggestions. First, reread the article VERY CAREFULLY, looking for clues that you may have missed the first or second time through. Second, try to determine what the person is reacting to. What may have happened to motivate this person to express his ideas? Third, try to find out something about the writer's background. What other positions has the writer taken on related issues? It is now very easy to make a quick background check on a writer by going to a favorite web browser.
Q4: When evaluating a topic, we are supposed to keep the conclusion in mind. How do we do that?
A: As you will see in later chapters, keeping the conclusion in mind is one of the most important actions you can take to successfully evaluate arguments; thus, this is a very important question. We suggest that you write down the issue and conclusion in a very visible place whenever you are interested in evaluating someone's argument. Such noting is especially helpful when you are responding to lengthy arguments, in which case it is often very easy to get sidetracked from the central issue and conclusion.
Q5: Why is it so important to know the issue, as long as I know the conclusion or the main point?
A: Because the point or the conclusion may BLIND YOU to other possibilities, if you are not aware of the question. A problem with many textbooks, for example, is that they present the reader with hundreds of "facts," or conclusions about a topic but fail to explicitly state the questions in order to lead someone to search for such facts. If you don';t recognize the questions leading to those conclusions, you are likely to fail to consider other possible conclusions. Knowing the questions reminds you that there is many possible answers not just one.
Q6: It seems like issues can be stated in varying degrees of abstractness. How concrete should we be in identifying the issue?
A: Excellent question. Issues usually can be stated in many different ways, all of which may be "correct," and communicators fail to explicitly state their version of the issue. For example, when someone argues for abolishing the death penalty, is that person responding to the issue "Should capital punishment be abolished?" or to the issue "How should murderers be punished?" or to some other issue? A case could be made for different questions as the central issue. You will find that you and your classmates may differ in how specific you state the issues. We suggest that you consider both specific and more abstract issues as possibilities and then select the one that seems most helpful to you in evaluating the entire argument. You will want to be able to answer the question, Why do I think THAT is the issue?