Critical Thinking vs Critical Feeling

That feeling when you know someone is wrong on the Internet… It’s the overlap in the middle of the Venn diagram between Critical Thinking and Critical Feeling. On one side you think they are wrong and on the other side you feel that they are wrong. Combine those two experiences and you’ve got a self-righteous cocktail like a dropshot of everclear into strong beer. That kind of mixture triggers an emotional response that you can’t just ignore. You have two options: either you need to take action and post an incendiary comment in response or you need to slap the laptop closed and let out a sigh of resignation because you know you aren’t going to change that person’s mind.

Critical feeling doesn’t require evidence or even a second thought. It’s sometimes a gut feeling that something just isn’t right. Other times it’s a smack in the face to your core beliefs. I don’t know about you but I have to practice biting my tongue every day because the magic of the Internet has brought more critical feeling into my life.

Critical thinking is a skill we use every day. Humans are one of few species who can figure out how a machine works just by looking at it. If you look at a door with a push bar across from left to right which side do you push on? If you can see the hinge you know instantly which way the mechanism swings. You do this automatically but you are picking up subconscious queues from the world around you and using that evidence to make decisions. Sometimes you have to focus a little longer. Like when the mechanism is inside a computer. There is an art to critical thinking: knowing when to use it. I’ve built a career on using critical thinking to solve problems and predict project outcomes. But I have a hard time turning it off when I quit for the day.

I broke my arm when I was 7. It was late spring and the doctor said I would be wearing a cast from hand to bicep for at least 8 weeks. The worst part – besides not being able to climb trees – was the itching. I knew I couldn’t scratch all the way up to my elbow in either direction. An older friend of the family had given me a tip: a cool butter knife slid down my wrist would distract me from the sensation and it worked. Even though I couldn’t reach the spot I could get relief from the feeling.

There is a crossover experience where you feel critically and you have evidence to support thinking critically about the same issue. The problem for me is when there is no evidence to feed my critical mind but I act on the feeling anyway – trying to scratch that itch.

On this trip I think critically about which gas station to go to. I make a call based on the price and ease of access (Costco is usually cheap and has huge bays). I check a couple apps to see where the nearest gas station is. Mobile Internet gives me access to unlimited evidence. That’s the catch to being connected all the time: lots of evidence and also lots of people who are wrong. But even when I’m out at a campground with no service I have plenty of opportunities to feel critical.

I feel critically about this guy at the campground who strings up his Union Jack confederate flag on the tailgate of his grotesquely oversized pickup truck. I might have a critical thought about the fuel economy of the truck which in this particular case is only being used to haul a cooler full of Coors. But I have a critical feeling about the flag. I assume this is a symbol of his beliefs and I believe that my beliefs are superior.

Maybe he and I aren’t so different. He might have fears and hopes like I do and he might value quality craftsmanship and care deeply for his family. I still have unevidenced feelings that make me think something ought to be done. I have an itch to scratch but there’s nothing for me to do. I don’t want to (can’t possibly) change his beliefs in equality or the historical significance of the Civil War. I don’t even know what his beliefs are for sure – just my assumptions based on his flag.

But this itch I can scratch. I’ll blog about it!