What Causes What? How to Read a Book or Article

Professor Dan Lindley; 448 Decio, 631-3226, dlindley@nd.edu, May 8, 2001, v. 1.71

The first purpose of this paper is to help students read critically. Learning to read critically, write clearly, and argue persuasively is the primary purpose of liberal arts and graduate political science education. Reading critically means understanding the authorís argument(s), critiquing them, and improving on them. Graduate students in particular should be able to destroy any argument they come across. While this sounds arrogant and mean, this ability, properly understood, should induce respect and humility.

The second purpose of this paper is to guide students in my Government 545-667 Great Books class. These students must make presentations and write book reviews on the books we read. As this handout is a recipe for making critiques, it serves as a template for topics the class discussions and book reviews should cover.

The third purpose is to help students write and argue effectively. Most of the criteria for reading can be applied to one's own writing and argumentation.

The final purpose is to help readers use their time efficiently. Often, there is not enough time to fully read an article or a book. Articles and books must instead be "confronted" or "harvested." By focusing oneís attention on key points and issues when reading (those summed up in the next paragraph), one can grasp most of what one needs to learn from the article or book without reading every word.

The following are questions to ask of each work you read. They boil down to this: A. What is being argued? What causes what? B. How persuasive is the argument(s)? Is it crafted with well chosen and executed methodology(s) and with convincing evidence? C. Who cares?


  1. What is/are the argument(s)? aka: What causes what?
    1. This has two parts: the puzzle to be explained or question to be answered, and the argument/explanation/answer. What is the puzzle and what is the argument?
    2. The argument usually takes the form of something (the IV) that caused something (the DV). In the argument, what causes what?
    3. What is/are the Independent Variable (IV or IDV)?
    4. What is/are any Intervening Variables (IntV)?
    5. What is the Dependent Variable (DV)
    6. Can you arrow diagram the causal chain? (IVó>DV)
  2. How logically valid are the arguments?
    1. Are the hypotheses/arguments clear?
      1. Again, can they be arrow diagramed?
      2. Again, what causes what?
    2. Do the hypotheses/arguments build on one another?
      1. A well-made major argument often consists of a number of subarguments that are well-sewn together. One cause of weak arguments is that the subarguments are contradictory, do not support each other, or are otherwise unraveled and unconnected. They must be logically consistent.
    3. Is the causal chain plausible?
      1. Deductively: Is there a sound explanation about how and why the IV affects the DV?
      2. In the real-world?
    4. What does the argument assume?
      1. What preconditions must exist for the theory/argument to work?
      2. Given the assumptions, is the argument still interesting or does it assume a tautological or garbage in, garbage out quality?
    5. Are the hypotheses and arguments parsimonious?
      1. Often it seems that the ideal graduate dissertation is one that starts with a novel puzzle and ends with a counterintuitive argument. However, enduring quality is often found in projects that start with important puzzles and end with arguments that clarify a previously murky debate. Truth is often found in the clearest and simplest answers. Avoid elegant but unreal, implausible, and irrelevant arguments. Remember Occamís razor (see note below).
  3. Are the arguments empirically well supported?
    1. Are there clear predictions and observable implications?
      1. If so, how well does the evidence match the predictions?
      2. If not, what should the predictions be?
        1. And how well does the evidence match the new predictions?
    2. How are the variables defined and measured?
    3. How do we know the causal chain is at work?
    4. Are the cases or other data well chosen to answer the questions and make the argument?
      1. For example, if a comparative case study is being conducted using Mill's method of difference, then the cases should be as similar as possible, while showing variance in the DV. Is this true? Could better cases be chosen? Were relevant cases excluded and how does this skew the results? Similar questions about case selection and case coding can be applied across methodologies.
      2. Bottom line: Does the evidence speak to the argument?
    5. Are there any alternative explanations for the phenomena being explained?
      1. What other theories predict the behavior found in the cases?
      2. Which of these theories provides the best alternative explanation and why?
        1. How do the theory at hand and its most likely alternative fare when applied to other cases?
    6. Does the author argue against her/himself? Does s/he contend with the alternative explanations?
    7. What would it take to falsify or weaken the argument?
      1. New or missing evidence?
      2. New or missing variables or arguments?
        1. Omitted variable bias?
      3. What research should be done that might strengthen (or weaken) the findings?
    8. Are the findings strong and decisive or weak and uncertain?
      1. Is the theory given an easy test or a hard test?
        1. If easy, could it pass a harder test?
    9. How well do the findings stand up to counterfactual analysis?
      1. What would have happened in the absence of the independent variable or if its value had been different?
    10. How could the argument be modified to strengthen it?
      1. Can the assumptions be better specified? Are there unspecified but necessary conditions for the argument to work? Are there unspecified but important intervening variables?
  4. Style
    1. Is the writing clear?
      1. Should this article or book serve as a role model for others?
  5. What are the authorís possible biases?
    1. What else have they published?
    2. Where are they coming from?
      1. Education
      2. Job
    3. Are biases evident in the argument or in the use of evidence?
  6. What is the authorís purpose?
    1. Again, what is the puzzle or question?
    2. Who are the targets? Who or what is the author arguing for or against?
      1. In policy world
      2. In academe
  7. How useful are the argument(s) and overall project?
    1. Are they new? Creative?
    2. Are they important or trivial?
      1. Do they help resolve, create, or otherwise contribute to scholarly debates?
        1. What is the intellectual heritage of the arguments and how will they shape future arguments and debates?
      2. Do they have policy relevance?
        1. Are they addressing important issues?
    3. Will anyone care about this work in 5, 10, or 50 years? Why?
    4. Would you assign this article or book when teaching? Why?



This handout (and the course for which is was written: Govt 545-667) have been shaped by Barry Posenís MIT course 17.468, Foundations of Security Studies. His handout is "Suggested Approaches to Each Work."

On Occam's razor, from the American Heritage Dictionary: OckAham's razor also OcAcam's razor (ľk"Ömz) --n. A rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. Also called law of parsimony. [After William of Ockham.]