Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to Write a Critique

How to Write a Critique

Strangely enough, one of the things I notice about online discussions is the poorness of clarity, the shoddy argumentation, and the amount of constant digressions. All this only seeks to confuse or confound a proper criticism of any given theory or proposition.

My expertise is in literary theory, rhetoric, and criticism (I also have a history degree but many of the same critical thinking skills apply). So here I am going to offer a few suggestions on how to critique someone else's comment(s), essays, and writing.

Before we begin, however, I have to explain what a critique is. In literary theory and criticism, a critique is an analytical criticism which gives a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory. We can extend criticisms to ideas, concepts, and beliefs as well. So without further delay, let us begin our investigation of how to write a better critique.


The Rules of Engagement
The first rule in any criticism is to be clear about what you are trying to say. Pick your words carefully and try to express your difference of opinion as straight forward as possible. Usually this means you must save your keen rhetorical jabs for later in the critique. In other words, don’t start with sarcasm or snide remarks, but keep it clinical, mundane. Simplicity is best.

Example:

If somebody says that “Invisible Pink Unicorns exist, they’re real, I know it in my heart,” whether or not the statement is rational, or even coherent, take them for their word. In all likelihood they do believe in such things. Before you call them delusional, however, try to deconstruct the proposition before you criticize it—otherwise they will be left feeling like you’ve criticized them for what they believe—rather than simply criticizing the belief itself.

So, if someone does claim “Invisible Pink Unicorns exist!” A standard response would be along the lines of: “I don’t quite understand your meaning—your terms are in conflict.”

Notice that the main critique here is with the wording of the claim and the contradictory terms—not the actual existence of IPUs (this correlation makes itself known later). The reason for attacking the wording is important. The words used to express a concept usually frame the concept in a way which helps us to better understand the said concept. If this framework can be proved faulty, then it stems to reason the belief may be just as faulty. In the case where the wording is bad, but the concept seems to be a valid inference, it may mean that further explanation is needed, and the problem will be cleared up.

Either way, we do have a problem. In the case with invisibility and pinkness, we have a conflict in terminology. The fullness of color cannot simultaneously be a lack of color. Therefore, the logical next step is to cordially explain why the statement “Invisible Pink Unicorns exist” is an invalid claim.

[Note: Many times, at least has been my experience, the person will automatically become defensive, after all, they want to maintain their beliefs as proper beliefs. So expect resistance as such.]

Maintaining your polite demeanor, you may decide to inform: “Pink things cannot be invisible. Invisible things cannot be pink. Invisibility is the absence of any color whatsoever, whereas pinkness is when two equal pigmentations—in this case both red and white—blend together to make pink. To claim something is both colorless and full of color(s) is incoherent.”

On Dealing with Bad Rationalizations
Remember, when offering a critique KISS is always the best method (Keep It Simple Stupid). If, for example, you like to throw out a lot of big words, this will only add to the confusion. Words have many different meanings. Other words are synonymous with words which may or may not share the intended meaning. Meanwhile, you can’t always be certain that you are using the word correctly or that the person you are responding to will understand your exact meaning. Additional wording means the potential for additional confusion, and should be avoided whenever possible.

[Note: Now is not the time for name calling. Calling the person a moron, idiot, or stupid face will only make you into a relentless, cruel, contrarian who is less concerned about revealing the truth than merely making somebody feel miserable—at the same time you’ll only cause them to become more defensive which will make them less likely to listen to anything you have to say. Showing a willingness to properly consider their argument and maintain a level of polite decorum will show that you’re both serious and professional.]

Proving IPUs incoherent, however, will not be your defeater argument. As with most beliefs, they are usually founded upon other considerations, some of them good—some of them bad. Even if your criticism is spot on, the person may simply rationalize away your criticism, stating that “You’re mistaken,” and interjecting an artful dodge, “You haven’t understood anything I’ve said,” only to add, “the Unicorns are pink—but they are cloaked by an invisibility field!”

[Note: Beware of the dodge. If you get side tracked attempting to re-educate them, or go back to citing the same information, they can just keep deflecting, running in circles, or digressing to other topics—such as arguing semantics with you. If you notice such patterns, chances are they have already derailed the conversation. Try to get back on track. At the same time, be aware that some people are manipulators; they would rather toy with you than take their own beliefs seriously, and will argue just for argument’s sake. These people can be infuriating, and so it is up to you to decide how much of your time you want to waste on them.]

At once, some new information you weren’t aware of enters the equation (as is typical of any rationalization). The pinkness that is still pink only because of a mysterious new element, the cloaking device! Suddenly your criticism becomes invalid—which can be frustrating. Indeed, anyone who has watched enough Star Trek knows that Romulan cloaking technology is highly advanced optics by which the surrounding image of space is warped around an energy field replicating the same image of space, thus shrouding the star-ship in a field of empty space! If all IPU’s had little saddle like backpacks with a cloaking device on the top, indeed, they would technically still be pink beasties with single horns—they’d just be cloaked beneath an invisibility field.

Much like the optical illusion itself, rationalizations often try to magically resolve a problem. Whether or not it will work depends on how believable the rationalization is.

The good news is that you now have the advantage, because the person is no longer making an authority appeal, but rather, is retreating to the defensive tactic of rationalizing away inconsistencies in their belief. This means, they are subtly aware (even if they don’t quite realize it yet) that there is a problem with their professed belief and/or concept.

At this point they can either fall back on solid evidence, and thereby gain support for their claim or offer a more convoluted rationalization. Proving your claim by obtaining trustworthy support is called a validation. Validating a claim is the formal way of recognizing whether or not the purported claim actually fits in accordance with the available evidence/data, thereby either rendering it true or false. Regardless, a proper validation is always needed before one can hope to convince anybody of anything.

If they provide evidence, your critique will be forced to shift to the validity of the evidence to establish the validity of the claim. The question we must ask is: If there is support, and the claim looks to be true, is the evidence itself trustworthy? Once you establish the validity of the supporting evidence, assuming that you can, you should be able to better determine whether or not their belief makes more or less sense given the new pertinent information.

[Note: Be keen to spot false information and/or misinformation. If you suspect they are making up the evidence, such as giving erroneous polling data, weird statistics from other questionable sources which made it all up, etc., ask for their sources. If they change the subject or duck the responsibility of supporting their argument with the required information, then you can rule them out as full of B.S.

At the same time, however, be careful not to dismiss them off hand if they readily (and honestly) admit that they cannot recollect where their source came from. They may have actually cited the correct information, but their source has simply gone missing. Perhaps a broken hyperlink is at fault, perhaps something else. Technically, this temporarily rules out their evidence as trustworthy support, at least until their source can be validated, but it doesn’t make them entirely wrong.

I once ran into this problem when somebody asked me for a source, in which I had initially hyper-linked to, but which I had the bad luck of having accidentally inserted the wrong hyperlink. Unable to relocate the original online article I used for support, my critic accused me of being a liar. Indeed, all I had done was lose a source. My argument, however, was still legitimate—as I had many other sources in support of my claims. Which brings me to another important point: a well supported idea, concept, or claim makes for a better argument. It suggests that you have seriously looked into the nature of the claim, and finding a plethora of support means any such idea, concept, or claim is more likely to be true than an argument with little to no support.]

If the Story Keeps Changing—then the Battle is Half Won
If, on the other hand, the person’s original story changes while they continue to fail to provided any evidence whatsoever, and their claim has detectably become a rationalization, e.g. that the pink unicorns are being cloaked with a cloaking device, then you have the responsibility to question them on these new details/information (which seemingly came out of nowhere). In order for their claims to be valid, in this case with regard to a mysterious cloaking device, they need to offer evidence for said cloaking mechanism. If they cannot, then their rationalization only made it more difficult to sustain their belief.

Often times, people will try to rationalize their rationalizations away once they realize their rationalizations weren’t so good to begin with. Asking them to validate their rationalizations is the best way to catch them at a slight of hand, in which the person working purely from faith is claiming more than they possibly can. Sensing it’s a trap, they’ll attempt to correct for the lack of evidence, either by explaining that the cloaking device existed long ago, but all evidence has since been buried and the location forgotten, not forgetting to mention it was written about in a very old book, causing them to wrongly assert that’s evidence enough.

Other times they will make it impossible for you to continue to attack the validity of their claim by retreating into metaphysical sophistry—as they attempt to buttress their belief(s) with a subsequent metaphysical rationalization. The cloaking mechanism, as it were, happened to be a bit of black magic, also written about in an ancient book, which has since survived antiquity only in badly damaged, barely readable, fragments written in a dead language. Therefore, we can never recover the spell in full required to reveal all the IPUs prancing about all around us. As such, this metaphysical claim forces us to take their word for it, because it is impossible to prove or disprove. Realize, at the same time, such metaphysical defenses only make it impossible to ever properly validate their belief(s).

[Note: Proper arguments about the world usually require empirical support. Philosophical arguments may or may not require empirical support, as any formal argument can be written logically. However, when talking about the existence of something, rather than the theory of its existence, empirical support is always required.]

Are either of these cases good arguments? 1) Pink unicorns with technologically advanced cloaking device backpacks, or 2) the enchanted pink unicorn turned invisible by a magic spell? Not really, because the IPU rationalization stopped being a good argument after the initial failure to produce the necessary prerequisite evidence. Neither claim can be qualified, and therefore they are baseless rationalizations… and as we all know, baseless rationalization = fail.  

Luckily, this is exactly what a critique is supposed to do. It’s supposed to expose the bad reasoning with proved critical methods of deconstructing a text, idea, or theory and analyzing every aspect of it. Even if you don’t succeed in getting the person to relinquish their belief and/or position, you at least caused them enough discomfort in their own belief to get them to make up excuses for continuing to believe in a bad concept despite the evidence (or lack thereof) mounting against them.

Conclusion
Whichever way you choose to look at it—a proper critique is all worthwhile. Time consuming, a head strain, and sometimes frustrating, yes—but taking the time to write a proper critique will help you hone your critical thinking skills—and that’s to be desired. In the future, the criticized will be forced to come up with better ideas, concepts, and theories. As such, whenever you show their excuses to be wanting, this makes their rationalizations all the more difficult to sustain. Eventually, they will have to admit to themselves that their beliefs are founded upon bad reasons to believe, and perhaps, they will have to heavily amend their beliefs, or else forfeit them altogether. I hope this guide helps you in the ongoing struggle to formulate better criticisms and offer better critiques in the future, and hopefully, causes you to think more critically about your own thinking processes as well. Good luck!

[For more on formal writing, rhetoric, and argumentation see: The Norton Field Guide to Writing (2nd Edition).]


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist