27 March, 2013
If I'm putting together a requirements document, and one of the requirements of a feature or product is highlighted as "critical", do you think you'd get very far in a response if you treated that requirement as "optional"?
If a local service was deemed "critical", and it was one of the first things dropped in a crisis, do you think the incumbent representatives would have an easy time at the subsequent polls?
Why, then, do we treat "critical thinking" as some optional, easily discarded luxury? Why is being a "critic" used as a pejorative description?
Critical thinking is, literally, critical.
Yes, I know there are two slightly, subtly different usages of the word at play here. But really, what does that tell us? That our words are out of whack, or that we've forgotten the original intention of the phrases?
Why should we treat critical thinking, or general criticism, with such revulsion? Maybe it is an ego or power thing, or maybe it’s just that too many people have received "criticism" that amounted to little more than bullying.
At its most basic level, criticism is the foundation of all learning. All learning involves practice and correction, whether that correction comes from within or without. Without correction—without criticism—there is no improvement. There is only flailing and floundering.
There is death.
In the context of public services, "critical" is often used interchangeably with "vital". Vital, of course, means "of life", so "vital services" are those which are fundamental to life.
Critical services are similarly "fundamental to life", and I'd say that "criticism" is fundamental to our existence. With no criticism, we stagnate. We cease to be vital creatures.
Of course, not all criticism is born equal. Many people understand the word as an example of being “contrarian”: that all things should be opposed, that the objective, given any opinion presented as fact, is to find weak spots in it and destroy it.
That may be what often happens, but there are two parts to "critical thinking": the criticism and the thinking. One is nothing without the other.
Criticism is asking questions, it's looking for the flaws, but it’s also wanting to know the answers. It's a way to provide the brain with enough fuel to do the second half, the "thinking" part.
Simply attacking an idea without any thought or any interest is not "critical thinking". It's not even "criticism": it's just being a dick.
Belief is easy. I can believe anything I like, and I don't have to do a damn thing to defend it. This has the funny consequence of making my beliefs on their own literally inconsequential to the rest of the world. Without being able to demonstrate, argue, defend or otherwise allow it to live in the real world, a belief is incapable of interacting with the world. Without interacting, how can a belief hope to influence the world on its own.
You may be smelling some bullshit here, though: of course a belief can influence the world. The trick I’m pulling here lies in the phrase “on its own”.
How my belief can influence the world is through me. Fuelled by pure belief, I can act as the belief's puppet. Through me, this inconsequential belief can have consequence, can have impact. Without care, I can become a mindless, thoughtless zombie.
Critical thinking can save us from that fate. Beliefs are personal, and important, but their importance extends precisely as far as the inside of our skulls. To move them out, we have two chocies: protect them with thoughtless zeal, or let them out into the real world to be criticised. Your belief will come back battered, bruised, perhaps even unrecognisable, but it will come back better: it will come back truer than it left.
Critical thinking is the mechanism by which we discern the real from the imagination. It’s the difference between seeing what is, or what we wish.
Without it, all we can do is live trapped inside our own heads.