Friday, June 16, 2006

Making reasoned judgements

Reasoned judgement: the basis of academic enquiry

The complexity of any issue or problem arising from your studies can only be dealt with by formulating questions to delve into this complexity; to clarify each and every factor that bears on the issue or problem.

Only when we become fully aware of these factors and how they impinge on an issue can we, as reasoning individuals, produce judgments that are rational and that stand up to scrutiny.

Reasoned judgments based upon pertinent factors are not merely opinions; rather, they are what we term ‘considered opinions’ – that is to say they are opinions based upon reason, which is itself based upon the factors we have considered and used to formulate our judgment.

Of course, in our daily lives we are continually forced to make reasoned judgments, based upon our knowledge of the factors that are connected to what we are deciding. Most of the time, our knowledge is limited; we do not have perfect information, or the total amount of information on any given topic, and yet we still make informed decisions.

We make what we loosely term ‘informed decisions’ based upon this limited knowledge and this imperfect information. If we waited until we had every piece of information before we made decisions or formed judgments about what to do, we would never be able to make up our minds to do anything.

Sometimes, we have to force ourselves to use very limited information to make us act. Think of the thought processes and the amount and kind of information we use when we are driving. We use information from what we see and hear when making an emergency stop – if we used any more information than was absolutely necessary, we would not be able to stop quickly enough – we see a child running across the road in front of us, and we immediately apply the breaks to prevent us hitting the child and injuring her.

When we are deciding on our destination, and the best way of getting there, we use far more information – we think. Think about what kind of questions you ask yourself when deciding where to go and how to get there.
 Questions of purpose
First, we must define our task – what we want or have to do. This affects the other questions we ask.
For example, if we are visiting a friend in hospital, most of the other questions will fall into place almost without being asked. Usually though, the task is more complicated and needs the remaining questions answered.
 Questions of information
We need to look at the quality of our information and where it comes from.
 Questions of interpretation
This question forces us to think of how we are going to use the information – how we are going to organize information, how we are going to prioritize information, and how much importance and meaning we are going to give this information.
 Questions of assumption
This question forces us to think of what we are taking for granted without thinking it through or ignoring it.
 Questions of implication
These questions force us to think about the consequences of any action we take, or any information we act upon or use.
 Questions of point of view
These questions make us take into account our feelings and the feelings of others.
 Questions of relevance
Questions here make us think about whether information is important enough to be considered for our purposes.
 Questions of accuracy
Here we question the truth or accuracy of information we are about to use to fulfill our task.
 Questions of consistency
Questions here relate to any contradictions inherent in the information we are about to factor in.
 Questions of precision
These questions are required to make us specify details and be specific and focused in what we consider.
 Questions of logic
Questions of logic require us to think about how we organize and use all the information at our disposal, ensuring that we use sensible ways rather than relying merely on what are known as ‘gut feelings and reactions’. These last types of questions, if answered systematically and fully, will ensure the success or otherwise of the whole task.
Robert L. Fielding


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