Critical thinking versus criticism thinking

Critical thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.


Google the expression critical thinking, and this definition pops up. Of course it’s accompanied by a rich set of other entries on the subject. From Wikipedia we find material like the following:

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgement. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

Scientists (and I am one) tend to hold critical thinking in high regard; often it’s tied to ideas of evidence-based thinking, systematic study through observation and experiment; occasionally notions of logic and mathematical analysis get thrown in. Scientists are encouraged to be the severest critics of their own work, and the peer-review process is essentially one that begins and ends with critique. It happens to be Peer Review Week (who knew?); you can find a bit more on this topic on the AMS blog, The Front Page.

But to read the newspaper (old school), as I did this morning on the Metro, or to go online and access social media, is to realize that the term has been misappropriated. The larger society frequently settles on something else.  For want of a better description, let’s call it

Criticism thinking:  the objective analysis and evaluation of a person in order to form a judgment.

As a society, as a species, we seem to be equally interested, if not much more interested, in fixing blame as we are in fixing problems. It seems that sooner or later, anyone and everyone who’s in the spotlight, who holds any sort or degree of responsibility, finds his or her decisions and actions first under intense scrutiny, and then as the shortcomings emerge (and they’ll always emerge), being criticized. Not long after, the focus of criticism becomes the character flaws of the person himself or herself. We’re not satisfied until we can bring the political or business leader, the athlete, the celebrity, the wealthy, down to our level. And we all fall short! So ad hominem attacks are low-hanging fruit.

Institutions are similarly vulnerable.

In meteorology, Hurricane Dorian is the most recent case in point. As of this morning, the death toll stands at 50 or so; more than 1000 people are still missing. Abaco islands and Grand Bahama look as if they’ve been hit by a bomb. Recovery will take years – a lifetime for many of those directly affected. But there’s just as much ink (old school again) or electrons (virtual media) devoted to fixing the blame (for hiccups in what was basically an excellent forecast/warning process) as opposed to attention to the larger and more consequential issues of weather readiness: what actions could accelerate short- and long-term recovery; how to improve resilience, reduce vulnerability, especially on tropical island nations; how to address the links between vulnerability and poverty, etc.?

But Dorian’s only one example of many. We face many other natural hazards: cycles of flood and drought, for example. We also confront natural resource concerns: meeting the food, water, and energy needs of eight billion people. Loss of habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem services challenge us globally – by their respective names as well as the umbrella concern of climate change. In every instance, people are putting forward ideas – notional solutions. But we’re paying more than equal attention to finding fault – initially with the proposals themselves, but then quickly with the proposers whose suggestion different from our own. The poisonous polarization of the climate change dialog comes to mind. By the way, to think critically is to acknowledge that scientists display this same character trait pretty much to the same degree as the larger society.

Perhaps this misappropriation arises in part because of an Achilles heel in the above definition of critical thinking. It’s couched in terms of “an issue,” remaining silent on whether that issue matters. Perhaps critical thinking ought to read something more like

Critical thinking: the identification of salient issues, and their objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment.

When it comes to misappropriation, it helps to know that science and scientists and other critical thinkers are not alone. Other terms, such as religion, have been hijacked in the same way. We’re quick to see the shortcomings of people who self-identify as people of this or that faith (they don’t practice what they preach), rather than examining the larger ideals and values that are on offer.

Diiferent faith traditions actually recognize this aspect of human nature early on. Take, for example, the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden, as found in the book of Genesis. We’re told that Adam and Eve, the first human beings, made a choice for the ages, one that still pretty accurately defines what it means to be human:

We’d rather be able to distinguish good and evil than live forever[1].

(Wow. Really? Let that sink in.)

Whether we think the account was divinely inspired or a purely human invention, we have to admit the authors had our basic character pegged.

Too bad Adam and Eve didn’t first stumble across the tree-of-the-knowledge-of-status-quo-and-how-we-can-work-together-to-improve-things. Fortunately, nothing’s stopping us from doing that today. To the extent possible, let’s forget about the blame and fix the problems – together.


[1]Genesis 2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

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