Turning Noise into Meaning


One of the keys to the clear analysis of claims is to identify the actual claim being made. This sounds simple, obvious and easy, but it isn’t always. Sometimes, the main premises of an argument can get lost. When they get lost, they cannot be assessed. 

Frequently in discussions with others we fail to identify the unspoken claims at work. Pay attention to what is not said—oftentimes silence on a particular aspect of an issue can hint at a larger agenda in play (which may not be spoken or written down). You can’t argue a premise that hasn’t been stated. People may use this fact to push an argument in a particular direction by trying to keep certain items out of the discussion.

Check for assumptions. Are we even aware of the assumptions floating around a particular claim? After a close look, you may be surprised to find more assumptions than you anticipated. Unwarranted assumptions will lead the argument off the path and into the woods. When you hear the phrase, “As we all know…” start looking for solid support for what is being claimed. Do not allow unsupported assertions to pass unchallenged.

Finally, you can’t argue a premise that lacks clarity because of ambiguity. Point out any ambiguous words or phrases and get clarification. Not until we have identified a clear premise can we ask, “Is this true?”

Things to consider:

Do you  have questions about the reliability of information or the accuracy of the  interpretation of it? Does anything in particular bring a question to mind? Are you wondering about anything?

What is the actual claim? Are the statements factual? Any value judgments? Assumptions? Spiritual beliefs? Combinations?

Is there an identifiable point of view? How does the point of view influence detail selection, language use, consideration of consequences? Do you understand the point of view or do you need to do some research in order to understand the context of the claim?

Clarity or ambiguity? Fact or interpretation? Manner of presentation—language, images, music, graphs? How do they influence you?

Is the appeal primarily to reason and does it seem factual and logical? Is there anything that feels emotionally manipulative—are your buttons getting pushed, are you being sold something, asked to accept an assumption? Or is the emotional response connected to the material and important to the claim? Are emotional appeals appropriate in assessing some issues? 

The reliability of our sensory apparatus, the assumptions we make that are culturally based, the influence of personal beliefs or biases, even our physical condition at the moment can all have an unwarranted, negative impact on our thinking. Be sure to self-assess as well. Keep these questions in mind the next time you’re evaluating a claim; they help turn the noise into meaning.


Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.