Critical Reading#

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” - Fran Lebowitz

Critical reading is an active, discerning engagement with text. It demands that you not merely consume words but analyze, question, and judge them. This approach requires you to penetrate beyond the superficial, to assess the writer’s motives and the solidity of their arguments. As a critical reader, you engage in a dynamic interrogation of the text, forging connections to wider themes and applying your own knowledge to evaluate the veracity and implications of what is written. This skill is essential, not just for professional success, but for living as a fully aware, rational individual. Your mind is your primary weapon against mediocrity and falsehood; wield it with precision and purpose.

When should you use a Critical Reading approach?

The diagram below shows you when to decide using Critical Reading:

Deciding on Critical Reading


The Critical Reading procedure that we wish to teach you is outlined below. You learn by practicing and improving over time.

Critical Reading Workflow and Procedure

Click here to download it.

Guiding Principles#

When reading critically, it’s essential to adhere to guiding principles that ensure thorough understanding and objective evaluation of the text. We propose a total of 9 principles.

The first five principles are for engaging with ideas:

  1. All ideas are attempts to achieve a goal or solve a problem

  2. Make an effort to engage with ideas that you disagree with

  3. Even if you refute an idea, you have not necessarily refuted the problem it attempted to solve

  4. If an idea that is falsifiable has not been refuted then it has merit

  5. If you don’t like an idea that cannot be refuted, then either fix it or propose a better idea

The remaining four principles are for debating ideas:

  1. Don’t quarrel, justify, attack, or try to prove; instead: understand, refute, fix and innovate

  2. Have the courage to critique and be open to receiving criticism

  3. Receiving criticism for your own ideas is the only way to know whether they are any good

  4. Accept that it’s rational for another person to believe or prefer an idea that has not been refuted

Assume Errors#

“In cybersecurity, we assume breach. In knowledge, we assume errors.” - Benjamin Mossé

In the pursuit of knowledge, you must always remember that error is an inevitable companion to human endeavors. It is not enough to collect facts and build theories; you must also be vigilant, always prepared to challenge and revise your conclusions when faced with new arguments. Do not cling stubbornly to old beliefs if a new argument proves them inadequate. This intellectual flexibility is not a weakness but a sign of strength — a commitment to rationality and objectivity. Remember, it is through the rigorous questioning and testing of our ideas that we achieve clarity and understanding. You must never fear to acknowledge a mistake, for every error corrected is a step closer to the truth.

Phase 1: Prepare & Research#

How to Select a Text#

In a world inundated with a deluge of information, not all ideas merit equal consideration or possess equivalent potency. It is crucial, therefore, that you exercise discernment in selecting what to read, where to invest your invaluable time and energy. Many are the hours, even lifetimes, squandered on studying theories long refuted or ideas devoid of the transformative power that marks truly great concepts. To derive the utmost value from your intellectual pursuits, you must focus on content that is not only credible and rigorously supported but also potent and applicable to real-life challenges. This methodical selection ensures that your intellectual endeavors are not merely academic exercises but are investments that yield concrete, beneficial results in reality. Choose wisely, for the mind is your most precious asset, and its nourishment should not be left to chance or swayed by the prevailing winds of mediocrity.

Ask yourself these three questions, and if the answer is YES to all of them, you’re all set:

  1. Does the text address a current problem or topic that you are specifically interested in?

  2. Do the ideas presented challenge or expand your existing knowledge in meaningful ways?

  3. Does the text promote a deeper understanding or new ways of thinking that could influence your perspective or actions?

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I just analyze a single chapters or a set of chapters rather than the whole book?

Yes. Focus on the areas you are most interested in and have fun with it.

Can I use Critical Reading for other texts than books?

Yes. You can analyze any text that interests you.

How do I know what to read?

Learn the most powerful ideas that humanity has discovered. Ideas that have created entire new fields, revolutionized old ones and propelled us forward.

Objectively, not all ideas are equal: some ideas are true, others are false, and some are better than others. If you’re not sure where to start, then start with ideas that are scientifically proven and have an impact on all aspects of life.

In cybersecurity, many books are outdated but not entirely irrelevant. In many cases, you are better off reading summaries of books published over 3 years ago and extracting the key ideas. Furthermore, many books focus specifically on one very technical area. Before buying them, we recommend that you analyze the Table of Content and read a free chapter or two online.

How can I be sure that I selected a good author?

Once you’ve decided on a topic to study, look into the various authors who have written about it. Choose the one you liked most and build from there.

Technique 1.1: Deep Author Research#

After you’ve chosen an author, start gathering all of their written works, even if they don’t initially seem to be connected to a particular topic you’re interested in. Keep a copy of their articles, books, tweets, essays, and so on in a note-taking app. It’s worthwhile to invest one to three hours gathering all of this data because intellectuals frequently build their concepts over extended periods of time and through a variety of media.

Deep Author Research

Technique 1.2: Library of Existing Criticisms#

Collect criticisms that others have made about the author you’ve decided to read. The following image shows criticisms made of Ayn Rand by Geoffrey James on CBS:

Annotating PDF Files
  1. Collect as many criticisms as you can find

  2. Quickly rule out the criticisms that are ad hominem

  3. Evaluate and decide for yourself whether the other criticisms have merit

  4. Reflect on what you have learnt

Technique 1.3: Context Recovery#

To fully engage with a text, one must approach it not merely as an assortment of words, but as a concrete expression of values and ideas emanating from a specific mind. A text is an intellectual artifact borne out of distinct contexts—historical, cultural, philosophical, biographical, and technological—which are integral to its creation and must be understood to grasp its full meaning and intent.

  • Historical context anchors a text in time, linking it to the specific events and conditions that prevailed when it was created. It provides insight into the challenges and realities faced by the author, which invariably influence the themes and ideas explored in their work.

  • Cultural context embodies the prevailing norms, beliefs, and values of the society from which the text emerged. It shapes the way characters think, act, and interact, and colors the narrative with the societal expectations and taboos of that time.

  • Philosophical context reveals the underlying ideas that drive the narrative. It is the framework within which the author’s thoughts are organized, presenting a particular view of man, society, and the universe. It influences how characters reason, the choices they make, and the consequences they face.

  • Biographical context provides insight into the author’s life and experiences, shedding light on their motivations and influences. It often reveals personal philosophies that permeate their work, offering a deeper understanding of their literary pursuits.

  • Technological context reflects the state of technology at the time of the text’s creation, which can fundamentally affect the setting and plot mechanisms. Understanding this helps in appreciating the limitations and possibilities faced by the characters and the author themselves.

Thus, to neglect these contexts is to view a text in a vacuum — an egregious error for any serious thinker. A true understanding comes from integrating these aspects, thereby appreciating the work as a complete, rational product of a particular mind and era.

Phase 2: Read & Analyze#

“Analyze text like you would reverse engineer malware: systematically and without compromise.” - Benjamin Mossé

Note Taking Software#

Download and use Obsidian with the following plugins:

PDF Annotations#

The following image is a screenshot of book opened in PDF format in Obsidian with the Annotator plugin:

Annotating PDF Files

On the left, near (1), you see text that has been highlighted because it seemed like the most important ideas of the paragraph. On the right, near (2), you see a summary of the ideas.

How to Read a Line#

There’s no right or wrong way to read a line. But if you’ve never been taught a method before, give this one a try:

How to Read a Line

How to Read a Paragraph#

There’s no right or wrong way to read a paragraph. But if you’ve never been taught a method before, give this one a try:

How to Read a Paragraph

How to Deobfuscate Text#

“Like malware code, text and meaning is frequently obfuscated too. You need tradecraft to recover the truth.” - Benjamin Mossé

Some writers deliberately obfuscate the meaning of their text, employing a malicious technique designed to evade the scrutiny of critical thinking. This is an assault on reason, a deliberate muddying of clear waters with the intention of disarming the reader’s capacity to judge and evaluate. As a critical reader, it is imperative to cut through this fog with precision and assertiveness. Decipher the jargon that serves as a smokescreen for emptiness; cross-reference claims to expose falsehoods; rewrite complex sentences to unveil their true, often simplistic nature; and question the motivations behind the author’s words. Such vigilance is your duty in the battle against intellectual deceit, ensuring that clarity and truth prevail.

Click here to download and read the essay “How to Read (and Not to Write)” by Ayn Rand where she demonstrates how to read closely and deobfuscate text.

  • Identify Ambiguity: Look for words or phrases that are vague or whose meaning is not clear. Ambiguity can be a deliberate tactic to obscure the truth or to make statements less directly accountable.

  • Detect Euphemisms: Notice when softer, more palatable words are used to disguise harsh realities or unpopular actions. Euphemisms may be used to manipulate sentiment or soften criticism.

  • Analyze Modality: Pay attention to the use of modal verbs (could, should, would, might) which can suggest possibilities rather than certainties, often used to make assertions less direct or definitive.

  • Evaluate Quantifiers: Pay attention to the use of quantifiers such as “all,” “every,” “none,” which can exaggerate or oversimplify claims and create misleading impressions.

  • Look for Loaded Language: Identify emotionally charged words designed to elicit strong feelings. These can be used to sway opinions or distract from factual information.

  • Check for Overgeneralizations: Be wary of statements that make sweeping claims or generalizations without specific evidence. These can be a means to influence by overstating or oversimplifying the truth.

  • Spot False Dichotomies: Recognize when language is used to present only two extreme options, suggesting no possible alternatives. This technique forces an either/or decision, ignoring other viable options.

  • Unpack Assumptions: Dig into the assumptions that underlie certain statements. Often, manipulative language rests on unspoken premises that, if examined, may not hold up.

  • Cross-Verify Facts: Always check the factual basis of any statement. Manipulative language may distort or omit key facts, so verifying information through multiple reliable sources is crucial.

How to Think Critically#

Here are critical questions to ask yourself whilst reading text:

  • What is the main argument or thesis of the text? Identify the core message or claim the author is trying to convey.

  • What evidence does the author use to support their argument? Consider the type and quality of evidence presented. Is it factual, anecdotal, statistical, or theoretical?

  • What assumptions does the author make? Identify any underlying assumptions in the arguments. Are these assumptions reasonable or do they weaken the argument?

  • How does the author address counterarguments? Evaluate whether the author acknowledges and effectively counters opposing viewpoints, or if they ignore or dismiss significant alternative perspectives.

  • Is the argument logically coherent? Analyze the logical flow of the argument. Look for any fallacies or gaps in reasoning that might undermine the argument’s validity.

  • What is left unsaid in the text? Think about what the author has omitted. Are there relevant facts or viewpoints that are not included that might change the interpretation of the argument?

  • How does the author use language to influence the reader? Analyze the use of rhetorical devices such as metaphors, similes, and analogies, or language techniques like emotive language, technical jargon, or formal/informal tone.

  • What are the implications of the author’s conclusions? Think about the potential impact or consequences of the author’s arguments. What could happen if the author’s recommendations or conclusions are followed?

  • Does the text consider all relevant perspectives? Assess whether the text acknowledges all significant viewpoints regarding the issue it discusses. If not, what perspectives are missing, and how might this affect the argument?

  • What kind of reasoning does the author employ? Analyze whether the author uses deductive or inductive reasoning, and the effectiveness of these methods in supporting the text’s arguments.

  • What emotional response does the text evoke? Reflect on your own emotional response to the text. Does the text seem designed to elicit a specific emotion? How might this influence the reader’s reception of the message?

  • What is the author’s purpose in writing the text? Try to discern why the author wrote the text. Was it to inform, persuade, entertain, or provoke thought? How successfully does the text achieve this purpose?

  • Does the text acknowledge its own limitations or potential biases? Consider whether the text self-reflects on its potential biases or the limitations of its arguments or perspectives, and how this affects its credibility or reliability.

Technique 2.1: Grammar Trees#

Grammar trees are precise visual representations of sentence structure, breaking down language into its grammatical components. Each node and branch defines the function and relationship of words, offering a clear, hierarchical blueprint of linguistic architecture. This method exposes the logical construction of language, demanding intellectual rigor in its analysis.

Here’s a tutorial from Elliot Temple on how to do Grammar Trees:

Technique 2.2: Argument Mapping#

An argument map is a visual tool that delineates the structure of reasoning. It organizes claims as nodes linked by lines that represent logical relationships, highlighting how conclusions are derived from premises. This method exposes the architecture of an argument, demanding precision and aiding in the detection of logical flaws.

Here’s an Argument Map Template created by Scott E. Ingram:

Argument Mapping

Technique 2.3: Library of Refutations#

When reading a book, extract all of the thinker’s refutations of ideas that he or she believes are incorrect. The following image shows some of the refutations that Dr. David Deutsch developed in his book The Beginning of Infinity. You don’t need to agree with a thinker’s refutations, but you need to catalogue the refutations and investigate them.

Annotating PDF Files

Technique 2.4: Library of Ideas#

When reading a book, extract all of the thinker’s ideas. The following images shows some of the ideas that Dr. Carl Rogers develops in his essay Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being.

Annotating PDF Files

Note how every idea is tied to a goal and a context. More on that below in the section Critical Fallibilism.

Phase 3: Critique Ideas#

Critical Fallibilism#

According to its website: “Critical Fallibilism (CF) is a rational philosophy created by Elliot Temple which explains how to evaluate ideas using decisive, critical arguments and accept only ideas with zero refutations (no known errors). An error is a reason an idea fails at a goal (in a context). CF explains why it’s a mistake to judge how good ideas are, how weighty evidence is or how strong arguments are, or to use credences or degrees of belief. We learn by an evolutionary process focused on error correction, not by induction or justification. CF offers an approach to thinking and decision making focused on qualitative differences not quantitative factors.” [1]

Here are some key characteristics of CF relevant to critical reading:

  • Binary Evaluation Focus: CF only uses binary (success or failure) outcomes and never grading or scaling the quality of ideas and arguments. This approach reduces ambiguity and simplifies evaluation processes​​. [2]

  • Error Correction Emphasis: CF views knowledge as error-corrected information, suggesting that traditional probabilistic beliefs (credences) often fail to address how beliefs should be systematically corrected in light of new evidence or better reasoning. [3]

  • Contextual Knowledge: CF emphasizes that knowledge and error correction are contextual, meaning that evaluations of ideas should take into account the specific circumstances in which they are applied. This perspective helps avoid overly general or abstract judgments that might not hold in particular situations. [3]

  • Decisive Criticism: CF introduces the concept of decisive criticism, which is central to its methodology. It stresses that criticism should be clear and decisive, aiming to either refute or not refute an idea directly. This is part of a broader critique against the common use of graded or scaled evaluations, which CF argues can lead to logical problems and ambiguities in how ideas are assessed​. [4]

  • Avoiding Overreach: CF warns against overreaching, or extending beyond one’s current capabilities or understanding, which can lead to errors or failures in reasoning. This is a critique of traditional approaches that may push for conclusions or decisions without adequate grounding or preparation​. [3]

  • Objective Reasoning: CF insists on objective reasoning, which should be persuasive to reasonable third parties, not just the individual making the argument. This promotes clarity and reduces personal biases in discussions and evaluations.​ [5]

  • Focus on Error Detection: A central tenet of CF is focusing intensely on detecting and correcting errors as a primary method of improving ideas and understanding, rather than merely accumulating new information.​ [5]

  • Non-compromising Solutions: In line with its binary evaluation system, CF advocates for solutions that do not involve compromises, suggesting that real solutions should completely resolve problems rather than merely finding a middle ground that may leave underlying issues unaddressed. [4]

Technique 3.1: Yes or No Evaluations#

In the previous phase, we collected all of the author’s ideas. Now, we process them one by one in accordance with CF’s Yes or No Evaluation:

Yes or No Evaluations

At the end of this process, you should have:

  1. Refuted some ideas that were not achieving their intended goal

  2. Accepted the ideas that have merit

  3. Improved some ideas that had problems

From the perspective of critical thinking and creativity, this exercise ought to have been invaluable. You were required to engage deeply with new ideas, to rigorously analyze and assess their merit. The process of challenging, refuting, accepting, and refining ideas should have sharpened your intellectual faculties. This is not merely an academic task; it is a fundamental practice of a rational mind striving to achieve clarity and certainty in its convictions.

Important clarification by Elliot Temple: “For inventing a new idea to solve a problem, after a refutation, a common issue people have is they don’t realize that variants or versions (small changes to existing ideas) count as new. They may only look for something brand new or very different.”. Hence, attempt to improve an idea even if it has been refuted because an adjustment could work.

Technique 3.2: Template#

You write a refutation by explaining why an idea doesn’t achieve its intended goal. Here’s a basic argument template for you to use:

If the goal of this idea is [state the goal and context], then it doesn't work because [explain why].

Technique 3.3: Library of Reusable Refutations#

You can also develop and maintain a library of common criticisms that refute lots of ideas very quickly. For example:

  • Randomized Double Blind Experiments: “The idea can’t work because it doesn’t pass a Randomized double blind placebo control (RDBPC) experiment.”

  • Contradictions with Modern Science: “The idea contradicts [cosmology, physics, biology, continue to list].”

  • Ad Hominem: “This response is directed at the person but it doesn’t refute the idea that they’ve proposed.”

  • Lack of Error-Correction Mechanisms: Refute an idea by demonstrating that it lacks mechanisms for identifying and correcting errors, which are crucial for refining and validating beliefs.

  • Failure to Address Contradictory Evidence: Challenge an idea by showing that it fails to adequately address or explain evidence that contradicts its claims, indicating a lack of comprehensiveness.

  • Unfalsifiability: Challenge ideas that are structured in a way that they cannot be tested or falsified, as this shields them from critical scrutiny and makes them scientifically and logically unsound.

  • Ignoring Alternative Explanations: Refute an idea by showing that it ignores plausible alternative explanations for the phenomena it attempts to explain, suggesting a lack of thoroughness in considering different perspectives.

  • Circular Reasoning: Identifying arguments that assume the truth of what they are attempting to prove, thereby creating a logical loop that lacks independent validation.

Technique 3.4: Debate#

“Don’t quarrel, justify, attack, or try to prove; instead: understand, refute, fix and innovate.” - Benjamin Mossé

Debate Effectively#

Elliot Temple’s approach to debating effectively centers around creating a structured, critical environment where ideas can be rigorously tested and refined. His recommendations, derived from the philosophy of Critical Fallibilism, provide a clear path for engaging in meaningful and productive debates. Here’s how you can use his recommendations:

  1. Structure Your Debates: Begin by clearly presenting ideas before arguing about them. This separation helps clarify what is being discussed and sets a foundation for effective critique​. [6]

  2. Impasse Chains: Utilize impasse chains in debates, a method where participants can document where they agree to disagree if a resolution cannot be reached. This helps in understanding the exact points of contention and where the debate could not be resolved.

  3. Error Correction: Engage with mechanisms like the Paths Forward policy, which offers a generic framework for addressing disagreements when standard debate structures fail. This is particularly useful as a secondary failsafe to catch errors that might not be covered by the primary debate rules.

  4. Public Engagement and Transparency: Address criticisms publicly rather than privately. This not only increases accountability but also enriches the debate by exposing ideas to a wider range of criticisms and perspectives. It’s important to document and respond to criticisms openly to foster a transparent intellectual environment​. [7]

  5. Encourage Rational Debate Culture: Cultivate an attitude towards debate that values learning and improvement over winning. Recognize that losing a debate can be more educational than winning, as it provides opportunities to refine your ideas and correct errors​

Act Courageously#

“You took a chance. You did something great. You were wrong, but it was still great. You should feel great that it was great. You should feel like crap that it was wrong. […] I think that what you do and what I do matters.” - Dr. Gregory House

You must take your ideas beyond the confines of your own mind and expose them to the harsh light of reality. Test them, challenge them, let them clash with the ideas of others. This is the crucible in which true knowledge is forged. Do not shrink from criticism or fear contradiction; embrace these as opportunities to refine your thoughts and strengthen your convictions. Reality is the ultimate arbiter of truth. If you find that your ideas withstand the rigorous tests of practical application and objective scrutiny, then you have earned the right to call them truths. Act on your ideas, for in action, they are either proven or dispelled. Stand firm in your pursuit of knowledge and never cower before the unknown; the world awaits the imprint of your reasoned, tested convictions.


This article presents a systematic procedure for reading critically. You can be confident you’ve properly applied the procedure if your answer to all the questions below is “Yes”:

  1. Did you understand the author’s main thesis and all of the arguments? Yes or No.

  2. Did you deobfuscate the text and cross-examine all of the claims? Yes or No.

  3. Did you build Libraries of Ideas, Criticisms and Refutations? Yes or No.

  4. Did you decisively refute some of the author’s ideas? Yes or No.

  5. Did you accept the merit of some of ideas put forth by the author? Yes or No.

  6. Did you fix problems and/or improve some of the author’s ideas? Yes or No.


  1. Critical Fallibilism, Elliot Temple

  2. Introduction to Critical Fallibilism, Elliot Temple

  3. Fallibilism and Problem Solving with Meta Levels, Elliot Temple

  4. Learning Critical Fallibilism, Elliot Temple

  5. Overreach Summary, Elliot Temple

  6. Positively Presenting Ideas and Negatively Arguing about Ideas, Elliot Temple

  7. Ignoring Criticism and Peer Review, Elliot Temple

Courses Recommendation#

If you want to learn more about Critical Fallibilism consider purchasing Elliot Temple’s courses “Critical Fallibilism Course” and “Yes or No Philosophy”. For the purposes of training with MCSI, the information listed on this web page is sufficient.