Criticism is overrated
A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book called “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, whose thesis is that for some apparently complex cognitive tasks, it may be equally or more effective to make a quick decision rather than deliberating at length. Gladwell’s book was a bestseller, and spawned much popular attention and discussion.
Soon after Gladwell’s book, Michael R. LeGault wrote a very serious followup,
Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye. Intended in part as an attack on Gladwell’s book, “Think!”‘s eye-opening thesis was that for some cognitive tasks, it’s a good idea to think before making a decision. LeGault discusses, for example, the case of Albert Einstein, who, LeGault assures us, had to think at some length before coming up with his revolutionary theories.
The difference between the works, of course, is that regardless of the merit of LeGault’s criticisms, Gladwell’s book is based on an interesting and novel idea, while LeGault’s is not. LeGault would have been far better off applying his effort to see how far Gladwell’s thesis could be taken, and what the limits of the thesis are, i.e., when it’s a good idea to make decisions quickly, and when it’s a good idea to be more reflective.
A similar phenomenon is now playing itself out in the blogosphere. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, has just published an article arguing that for many new businesses, the natural business model is to give their service away for free. Many bloggers have lept to dismiss Anderson’s ideas. While some of the criticisms have merit, even those with merit mostly rehash standard existing ideas, and so have little intrinsic interest in their own right. Furthermore, many of these bloggers are largely ignoring the extremely interesting and stimulating core of Anderson’s article. It’s as though these critics are watching a miner dig stuff out of the ground, exclaiming “look at all that muck!”, while ignoring the nuggets of gold buried amongst the dirt.
There are two ways to approach the reading of a piece of writing (or, indeed, an idea presented in any form). One way is to take your intellectual firepower and use it to locate the dirt in the piece, all the errors and mistaken assumptions. The second way is to try with all your might to locate the hidden nuggets of gold, the new insights, and, once those insights are located, to extract and purify them as best you can.
Too often I fall into the trap of starting with the first, critical approach. “What’s wrong with this?”, I ask as I read, attempting to track down all the errors and assumptions. Only if the piece passes critical muster do I go to the trouble of locating and purifying the hidden nuggets.
I’m not alone. I suspect most people approach reading primarily from this critical perspective, and formulate their response to a piece of writing largely on the basis of that criticism, as in the examples above. Far better to approach reading looking first for the hidden gold. Sometimes, of course, there is no gold to find; in such cases, there is is no point in applying one’s faculties to criticism. But when one finds gold, then one has something precious, to reflect on, internalize, build upon, and, indeed, to criticise.