The memorandum from Salvador Monella to the Board of Directors addresses the rising costs of employee healthcare benefits at Penn-Mart. His communication includes an explanation of his purpose in addressing the healthcare costs, findings regarding Penn-Mart’s benefits costs, a recommended program to implement for cost reduction, and a discussion containing support for their recommendation. While some business people may be tempted to simply accept the information presented in Mr. Monella’s memorandum, it is my opinion, after reading Browne and Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions (2012), that adopting a critical thinking approach is the most effective way to evaluate the document.
Using a critical thinking approach to evaluate this business document will help a reader to know when to accept and when to reject information they are presented.
The reader knows that information that passes the critical thinking questions they ask is worth accepting. Implementing strong-sense critical thinking and using the same skills to evaluate all claims, even one’s own, prevents falling to conventionality.
In the tenth edition of Asking the Right Questions (Browne & Keeley, 2012), there are ten critical questions to ask that are presented. The ten questions are: What are the issues and the conclusions?, What are the reasons?, Which words or phrases are ambiguous?, What are the value and descriptive assumptions?, Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?, How good is the evidence?, Are there rival causes?,
Are the statistics deceptive?, What significant information is omitted?, What reasonable conclusions are possible? (Browne & Keeley, p. 9) After asking and evaluating each of these questions, a reader will have a solid basis on which to decide if Mr. Monella’s recommendations should be accepted. It is my opinion that his recommendations should not be accepted until more information is provided. Each of the ten critical thinking questions will be evaluated in order to demonstrate how this conclusion was reached.
The first question a critical thinker must ask when reading is, “What are the issues and conclusions?” (Browne & Keely, p. 18) As a reader, it is important to identify the issue the author is discussing and the conclusion they have drawn in order to successfully form an opinion regarding the information presented. The issue is the topic that an author is addressing, while the conclusion is the message they intend to convey to the reader.
There are two types of issues- descriptive issues and prescriptive issues. A descriptive issue poses questions regarding descriptions of the past, present, or future. Prescriptive issues pose questions about actions that should be taken, what is ethical or moral, and what is good or bad; they are issues that require prescriptive answers. In the memorandum, Mr. Monella presents a descriptive issue that requires an answer to describe how the work place will be in the future. How can Penn-Mart control the cost of employee healthcare benefits? The conclusion presented is to implement a new wellness program call the “Get Well” program.
The second question that must be addressed is, “What are the reasons?” (Browne & Keeley, p. 29) Reasons are the statements an author provides that support or justify their conclusion. As the book states, “you cannot determine the worth of a conclusion until you identify the reasons.” (p. 29) In order to identify the reasons supplied by an author, a critical thinker must ask why the author believes their conclusion. In the memorandum, the reasons stated support the conclusion of initiating a “Get Well” program. The memorandum states that data “indicates that individuals who voluntarily neglect their health account for the greatest impact on the growth in benefits costs.” The data includes smokers, individuals who do not exercise, and those who avoid preventative care in the group in question. The second reason given is that the program will make employees more aware of their own health status and identify issues they can improve to become more fit.
Other reasons provided by the memorandum are that the initiative aligns with other public health initiatives, there have been other studies on obesity, the initiative will provide initiative for employees to adopt healthier lifestyles, and it will make employees feel better about themselves. After identifying the basic structure of a message, a critical thinker must ask, “What words or phrases are ambiguous?” (p. 40) An ambiguous word or phrase is one that has multiple possible meanings. Ambiguous words or phrases in an argument create the need for clarification of the meaning before a reader can fully evaluate the argument. When reading a document such as the memorandum, it is helpful to mark ambiguous words or phrases in statements as they occur. The ambiguous terms identified in the memorandum have been italicized. “The objective of the ‘Get Well’ program is to…help them identify issues that they could mitigate on their own to become more fit.” (p. 2) “The ‘Get Well’ initiative completely aligns with other current public health and fitness objectives…” (p. 2)
“There have been numerous research studies on obesity published in scholarly journals.” (p. 2) “We firmly believe that many Penn-Mart employees want to get fit and that the ‘Get Well’ initiative will provide the necessary incentives… Giving a blood sample and filling out a survey form is not intrusive or burdensome – these are two things that people do routinely. Those who might oppose “Get Well” are either unfit, or they have something to hide.” (p. 2) “These recommendations have been thoroughly researched and represent state-of-the-art in our field.” (p. 2) Each of the italicized phrases can either have multiple meanings, or is not specific enough to use to determine the statement’s validity. For example, the suggested program is intended to help identify employee health “issues,” however different people may consider different things to be health issues.
While one person may consider smoking to be a health issue, others may not. “Completely align[ing]” with objectives may mean that initiatives are designed by the same person, implemented for the same group of people, and intended to accomplish the same goal; however it also may mean that it has the same general objective. Each ambiguous term has the same possibility of containing various meanings. Next a critical thinker must ask the fourth critical question, “What are the value and descriptive assumptions?” Assumptions are beliefs that are generally taken for granted that support the reasoning and conclusion of an argument. Value assumptions demonstrate a preference for one value over another. Descriptive assumptions demonstrate beliefs about the world. In the memorandum both value and descriptive assumptions are demonstrated. The value assumption demonstrated is equality versus individualism. Mr. Monella states that is unfair to young, healthy people to let employees unequally use healthcare insurance resources. This demonstrates a preference for individualism over equality.
The descriptive assumption in the memorandum involves beliefs about Penn-Mart’s healthcare benefits strategy and controlling the cost of the employee healthcare program. It assumes that there are no other ways to control spending, other than by implementing the Get Well program. Fifth, a critical thinker must ask, “Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?” (p. 74) Fallacies are logic tricks an author may use to lure a reader into accepting their conclusion. There are multiple fallacies in the memorandum. First, the authors claim that the “Get Well” will make Penn-Mart employees feel better about themselves, which appeals to emotions. The memorandum states that the recommendations have been thoroughly researched and represent state-of-the-art in our field, which appeals to questionable authority; the researchers and qualifications for being state of the art have not been specified. Those who might oppose “Get Well” are claimed to be either unfit, or they have something to hide, which attacks person rather than ideas.
The final statement, “to quote the famous Charles Darwin, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a natural part of evolution,” introduces a red herring. The next step in evaluating the conclusion is to ask, “How good is the evidence?” (p. 92) The memorandum cites data from underwriters that indicates individuals who voluntarily neglect their health account for the greatest impact employee healthcare benefits costs, which is the author using a case example as evidence. The underwriters believe that many Penn-Mart employees want to get fit, which generalizes the desires of a portion of the employees to the entire population. Cited published research studies on obesity appeal to authority. A research study is used as evidence with data from underwriters is cited twice. The “Get Well” program is claimed to make Penn-Mart employees feel better about themselves, generalizing from the research sample. Finally, an employee survey about satisfaction with their benefits could be a biased survey. “Are there rival causes?” (p. 128)
This question helps evaluate an argument’s strength by examining any other reasonable causes for the event in question. Rival outcomes would provide different causes for the rising employee healthcare benefits costs at Penn-Mart. The memorandum states that the rise in benefits costs is driven by causes such as an aging workforce with tenure. However, other possible causes exist, such as inflation for common medical procedures such as physical examinations. The memorandum also demonstrates the fundamental attribution error by citing individuals who “voluntarily neglect their health” (p. 1), although there may be other reasons they do not exercise, such as preexisting conditions like arthritis. While statistics may seem like impressive additions to an argument, they may also be deceptive. They frequently do not “prove what they appear to prove.” (p. 142) Knowing the unreliableness of statistics makes it important for a critical thinker to ask, are the statistics deceptive? (p. 142)
Statistics stating that wages and benefits make up roughly 40 percent of Penn-Mart’s annual budget are cited, however 40% is not clearly defined or accurately identified. Also cited is data from underwriters indicating that participation in voluntary health benefits programs “peaked at 5% of total FTE’s in 2006” (p. 1), but what does 5% of total FTE amount to? The 5% is again not clearly defined or accurately identified. Equally as significant as the information included in an argument is the significant information that is omitted. Omitting significant information from an argument shapes the reasoning in favor of the author. In order to judge the quality of an argument’s reasoning, a critical thinker must ask, what significant information is omitted? (p. 153) For example, in Penn-Mart’s situation, the potential long-term negative effects of the Get Well program are omitted. Could the program have negative consequences?
The suggestions state that employees who do not comply with the terms of “Get Well” should be given the possibility of paying a fine, declining future healthcare benefits, resigning, or being fired. However, the memorandum does not address what the consequences might be of the majority of employees refusing Get Well would be to Penn-Mart. If the company selects to fire those employees, they may lose many workers, causing the whole organization to suffer. The final question to ask in the critical thinking model is, what reasonable conclusions are possible? (p. 163) As a critical thinker, the objective is to determine and accept the most reasonable conclusion(s) to an argument that most closely adheres to personal value preferences. There are frequently alternative conclusions or multiple conclusions that are possible given the reasoning of an argument.
For example, one conclusion to the Penn-Mart situation is that the Get Well program is the best solution to rising healthcare costs. Another conclusion may be that there is another program that may be a better fit for Penn-Mart. After asking and evaluating all ten of the critical questions to ask, I believe that I have determined the most reasonable conclusion. To determine the best conclusion, it would be necessary to obtain clarification about the ambiguous terms before evaluating the argument’s strength. Without that information it is not possible to make a firm opinion about the strength of reasoning. Until the clarification is provided, it is my opinion that the suggestions of the consultant company should not be accepted. There are too many ambiguous terms and fallacies employed to determine that the argument is strong enough for acceptance.
Browne, M. N., & Keeley, S.M. (2010). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
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