By definition, critical readers are skeptical. They do not take the results of research as the final word on the subject, but instead look for flaws in the reasoning; or if it is an empirical study, critical readers look for flaws in the research design. As a result, when you introduce an outside source, be sure to spend a moment clarifying the source's credibility.
For example, when reading the following excerpt on the greenhouse effect, what questions do you believe a skilled reader would raise?
The greenhouse effect is likely to change rainfall patterns, raise sea levels 4 to 7 feet by the year 2100, and increase the world's mean temperature 2.7 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050 (Brown and Flavin 6, 16). Everyone will suffer as irrigation and drainage systems become useless and agriculture faces its first changes in a "global climatic regime" that has changed little since farming began (Brown and Flavin 16). Some places will cease to be productive such as the North American heartland, and the Soviet Union's grainbelt (Brown and Flavin 17). Although some areas, previously unproductive, will suddenly become good farmland, scientists say these climate shifts could occur so abruptly that agricultural losses would be hard to readily adjust for (Brown and Flavin 16).
On what evidence is this information based?
According to the Works Cited section, this information appears in the following source: Brown, Lester R., and Christopher Flavin. "The Earth's Vital Signs." State of the World (1988): 5-7, 16-17. Critical readers would probably question the reliability of this source because the claims are so controversial and because they are not familiar with the journal.
Brown and Flavin may be correct in their dire predictions. However, chances are that critical readers such as your instructors would be more likely to believe these predictions if additional information about the authors and their research were provided or if the author could "power quote"—that is, cite numerous other studies that reached similar conclusions. Below is a student paper that contains several interesting but controversial statements. As you read the two paragraphs, what critical questions do you have about the research that is cited?
It is imperative to realize that protecting dolphins should be a priority because they are gentle animals which possess many human-like qualities. Did you know, for instance, that dolphins, like humans, live in communities where mothers work cooperatively, protecting their young from predators, and that they "babysit" for one another if a mother must temporarily leave the school (Booth 57)? These communities are stable systems that exist for long periods of time, they exist within certain territorial ranges, and they are composed of dolphin peer groups and families (Booth 57). Also, like humans, dolphins assist one another when ill or in danger; they have social norms for attending to deceased members of their community, and they have even been known to assist mariners who are in danger at sea (Booth 57).
But the most notable fact is that dolphins are capable of communicating and comprehending language symbols such as the ones with which we communicate (Chollar 52). The ability to interact with others using language is an accomplishment that only human beings have been associated with performing, and it is certainly far beyond the capabilities of other ordinary land or sea creatures. As consumers, we must therefore ask ourselves if we are willing to tolerate the needless slaughter of these unique, gentle animals just for the sake of having tuna fish on our tables or as a filler for pet food.
By turning to the Works Cited section, an academic reader's critical faculties would be soothed by the following references:
Booth, William. "The Joy of a Big Brain." Psychology Today 23 (Apr. 1989): 57.
Chollar, Susan. "Conversations with Dolphins." Psychology Today 23 (Apr. 1989): 52-56.
Clearly, the imprimatur of Psychology Today is nothing to scoff at. Nevertheless, for readers to entertain the possibility that dolphins have such human qualities, more background information about these scholars' studies should be provided in the text of the student's paper. Without more background information about the research, critical readers would remain skeptical about dolphins' ability to communicate via oral language.