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The difference between being a critic and being a critical thinker...

I have observed a practice in many people of criticising where they assume they are employing critical thinking skills, and so I want to discuss the difference between the two activities because it think a lot of people confuse being a critic with being a critical thinker...

Let's look at a couple of dictionary definitions, first up.

a person who expresses an unfavourable opinion of something.
"critics of the new legislation say it is too broad"
synonyms:detractor, censurer, attacker, fault-finder, carper, backbiter, caviller,reviler, vilifier, traducer, disparager, denigrator, deprecator, belittler;More
a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally.
"a film critic"
  1. synonyms:commentatorobservermonitorpunditexpertauthorityarbiter,interpreterexponent, expounder; More

As you can see, a critic is someone who criticises. Someone who looks for what is wrong in something and then points out the wrong to others. A critic is someone who has an intrinsic, and personal, understanding of what is wrong, as opposed to what it right. Their understanding of wrong-ness is primarily about personal taste, personal opinion. This may be an opinion shared by many, but it is nonetheless an opinion. An endpoint of thinking. A conclusion which shuts the door on further investigation of the matter and delivers a judgement.

critical thinkingnounthe objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.
"professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking among their stude

Critical thinking, on the other hand is the practice of setting aside opinion and analysing and evaluating something objectively. It is a challenge, as a human being, to be objective. We have a tendency to take what we have learned previously; experiences and previously formed opinions (the endpoint of thinking) and apply them to new situations all the time. This is because, as humans, judgements based on previous experience often save time in a truly dangerous situations e.g. a snarling wild animal is advancing, this is not a good time to test if the animal is friendly or hungry.

Humans are instinctive, and instincts are formed through experience. This is why human clings to opinions; their instinct, based on previous experience, offers a shorthand to judgement.

However, critical thinking requires us to set aside previously formed opinions on whatever it is we are critically analysing, and look at the product with fresh eyes, evaluate it on its own merit, ignoring the fact that we may - on the face of it - already agree or disagree with the products premise or conclusion.

I often see people employing criticism while attempting to pass it off as critical thinking. Tone is usually the first give away, if the tone of the critique is overly familiar and seeks to establish common ground early on, either through exalting or disparaging the source based on previous experience, you can be sure critical thinking has left the building. For example, 'Because we all know Sue is an expert in her field.' or 'Once again Bill is trying to hoodwink us.' are prime examples of critique without critical thinking. Foregone conclusions are the antithesis of critical thinking!

As a researcher, I have become more and more conscious of denying that voice in my head that says, 'I don't like the person, or the way they speak, so I think this is going to be rubbish even as I read the first paragraph.' and conversely, 'I love this theorist, I always agree with what s/he has to say!' because neither of these modes of thinking are critical.

People who have produced articles of critical thinking usually agree that their early work was a little sloppy, or not well argued, or could have been better sourced and so on. Researchers often hope people don't read their early work and assume that is all there is to them, but sadly too many people do because they don't employ critical thinking skills.

Just because someone made a mistake in the past, doesn't mean their work should be written off for all eternity. We all learn from our mistakes (hopefully) and improve our work as we progress through our careers.

Likewise, just because someone wrote with great insight and brilliance once, or even a dozen times, doesn't mean they won't occasionally make a mistake in their work, or overlook a critical error.

So, being a critical thinker means setting aside the desire to pre-judge something. It requires you to analyse and evaluate only the product in front of you for internal validity and logic.

Remember to be a critical thinker, not just a critic.


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