Critical Thinking

Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration was a great success from my perspective.  Several hundred people visited City Hall to enjoy some talks about historic Albany, listen to music, square dance, share in refreshments, and tour the city in a trolley.  The only criticism I heard came from a woman who confronted me about having to wait a half hour for the trolley.  I pointed out that the trolley was making a circuit of the historic districts that lasted about 40 minutes and that it would be arriving back at City Hall soon.  I was being lectured about how badly this event had been organized when I was able to point out that the trolley was arriving back at City Hall right on time.

Criticism can be an important incentive to improve; but when it is constant, personal, and frequently wrong, it is discouraging and destructive.  Most of us understand this principle when it applies to our relationships because we know that constantly berating a spouse or children leads to resentment and separation.  I trade barbs with my closest friends, but I have no friends who frequently criticize me in front of others.  Despite what most of us know about how harmful criticism can be, many of us seem to have few inhibitions about criticizing public figures regardless of how much or little we know about the person or situation in question.

I stopped reading anonymous blog postings a few years ago, mostly because I hoped they did not represent the thinking of any significant number of the general population.  A newspaper editor recently referred to these rants as the “sewer” of his publication, which raises the question of why they exist at all.  I strongly believe in honest debate between competing opinions and just as strongly do not believe anonymous, ill-informed attacks serve any constructive purpose.  Generations of newspapers required letter writers to provide their name and address before publication, but somehow that standard disappeared coincident with the decline of newspaper circulation.

It is rare to see irrefutable proof to support public criticism and much of what passes for factual analysis is arguable at best.  True critical thinking is not entertaining and probably wouldn’t play well on television or in the newspapers.  Perhaps that’s why we see so little of it.  Even-handed analysis requires hard work and resources that very few people are able or willing to expend.  We generally settle for using convenient facts to support our point of view rather than looking at information that contradicts our conclusions.

 

I have been as guilty as anyone about making snap judgments and drawing conclusions based on weak facts; however, I have learned through unpleasant experience, and am still learning, to be slow before criticizing and respectful of opinions I don’t like.

 

I am most grateful for all the good work that went into Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration and for the many volunteers who give of their time to make Albany a good place to live.  The occasional potshot should not obscure the fact that there are many generous people who live in this community.