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clarify intent, to negotiate the meaning, to establish exclusions and exceptions, or to stipulate the meaning for a given purpose. People with a shared understanding of the meanings of words and icons can be thought of as a language community. Academic language communities, also known as professional fields or academic disciplines, are defined not only by their terminology, but by the sets of questions, kinds of evidence, conceptualizations, methods, and standards of proof that they accept. Critical thinking calls for us to give reasoned consideration to precisely this same list of things when we are making a reflective judgment about what to believe or what to do. The core critical thinking skill of interpretation is vital for this, because using it well enables us to understand what words and symbols mean in a given context and, therefore, what the members of these different language communities are saying.


In this chapter we applied our critical thinking to the problem of interpreting ideas expressed in language. Knowing the context within which a word or expression is used and the intent of the speaker in using that word or expression is essential to making an accurate interpretation. Vagueness and ambiguity are unproblematic if the context and purpose make the speaker's meaning clear to the listener. But vagueness and ambiguity can be problematic in those contexts in which multiple plausible interpretations are possible. We may not be sure exactly what cases a problematically vague term is intended to include or exclude. We may not be sure which meaning of a problematically ambiguous term the speaker intends. There are strategies we can use to resolve problematic vagueness and ambiguity. Using our critical thinking skills, we can ask probing questions to contextualize, to

56 Chapter 04


problematic vagueness is the characteristic of a word or expression as having an imprecise meaning or unclear boundaries in a given context or for a given purpose. 45 problematic ambiguity is the characteristic of a word or expression as referring to more than one object or as having more than one meaning in a given context or for a given purpose. 46 language community is a community in which people share an understanding of the meanings of words and icons. Dictionaries were invented to record a language community's conventions for what its words shall mean. 53


· Both Inherit the Wind (p. 41) and My Cousin Vinny (p. 45) send us to www.TheThinkSpot. com. There are so many great scenes in these two wonderful films that it's difficult to know which to offer as examples of strong or weak critical thinking. Both films are courtroom dramas set in Southern states, and both bring to mind the importance of precise language and rigorous thinking.




· George Carlin's bit "I'm a Modern Man" (p. 53), found at, is not only fun but is also a masterful display of linguistic dexterity. The precision with which Carlin uses language is matched by the troubling sloppiness

with which some toss around the word "science." That's why the Small Group Exercise on page 57 invites you to visit the National Science Foundation link at



Reword each of the following to expose the problematic ambiguity or vagueness, if any, that each statement contains. Add context as needed. Remember that a given statement might be both ambiguous in 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. America is the land of opportunity. If you can't afford food, then you're not free. I love my brother and my wife, but not in the same way. God is love. When in doubt, whistle. Organic foods are healthier. some respects and vague in other respects. Mark any that are crystal clear and entirely unproblematic no matter what the context or purpose as "OK AS IS." 7. 8. 9. 10. Clean coal is a green business! Hamlet contains timeless truths. Music soothes the savage beast in all of us. Ignoring lazy thinking is like snoozing on a railroad crossing--not a problem until it's too late.


For many years the National Science Foundation (NSF) has conducted surveys of the public attitudes and understanding about science and scintific knowledge. The results inform policy development, legislation, and funding for scientific research and science education in the nation. NSF reports, "In 2002 the survey showed that belief in pseudoscience was relatively widespread. . . For example 25% of the public believed in astrology. . ., at least half the people believe in the existence of extrasensory perception, . . . 30% believe that some of the UFOs are really space vehicles from other civilizations, . . . half believe in haunted houses and ghosts, faith healing, communication with the dead, and lucky numbers." Form a small working group with one or two others in your class. Do steps 1, 2 and 5 as a group. Divide the work among yourselves for steps 3 and 4.

1. Review the public information on the NSF

Web site, particularly the report "Science and Engineering Indicators­2002" Access the NSF report at 2. Define the words "pseudoscience" and "science" in a fair-minded and reasoned way.



3. Survey 10 of your friends and family members about their views on astrology, extrasensory perception, and ghosts. In each case invite them to use their critical thinking skills and explain why they believe what they believe.

4. Objectively summarize the reasons pros and cons for each of the

three topics.


5. Using the Holistic Critical Thinking Scoring Rubric in Chapter 1, evaluate the quality of the thinking pros and cons for each of the three topics. Explain your evaluation.

Clarifying Ideas


Song lyrics and poetry often contain references to emotions, ideas, issues, persons, or events well known to the members of the language community for whom the song was written. Select a song you particularly enjoy. Write out the lyrics. Research the song and the composer or author in order to learn what you can about the purpose and context of that work. Restate what is being said to explain what the composer or poet is trying to communicate with each verse. Locate and listen to Bob Dylan's original version of "Forever Young," then listen to Rod Stewart's 1988 version. Compare those interpretations to each other and to's rap rendition, which was used in the 2009 Pepsi Superbowl commercial. Use your critical thinking skills to explain how each artist's interpretation slightly modifies what the song is intended to mean.




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