Saturday, August 21, 2010

Compare and Contrast Critiques

There are a few very useful tools that make certain people stop and think.  I don't want to call them "bad" people, but that's how I think of them.  Usually, they aren't really bad, it's just that they put more effort into avoiding the truth when they're wrong about it than into actually figuring out that they're wrong.  Yeah, that's a lot of people.  It is unfortunate that most of them have good hearts, and so I like to try to help them.  This essay is one of my attempts.  Let's call them Flamingos, since they tend to bury their heads in the sand.

There are some people that understand the truth, but they work to hide it.  Think Big Tobacco, or Timothy Geithner, or Ben Bernanke (sorry guys, but I've seen you sweat and I've heard you grasp authoritatively at straws.  They are both convincing acts.)  I won't bother coming up with a word to describe them, and these useful tools I referred to usually won't make them stop and think because they already know their best bet is to alter the subject enough to distract you from the truth that these tools uncover.

The tool I'd like to describe here is a comparison of critiques.  The general strategy allows you to distinguish between a critique that is propaganda and one that is honest without considering the actual facts presented in the critique.  It is the style of the critique that matters. 

When critique is propaganda, it tends to subtly (the smart authors are subtle, at least) describe its subject in a poor light, and works on generalities.  It tends to address the weakest pieces, or those most difficult to understand, or sometimes the least well-known.  It generally ignores any elements that are agreeable to the author, or agrees with them in a sentence using the word "but".  It tends to use opinions that are popular and often based on differences in belief systems (for example, some believe that legislation is the best way to increase good behavior, while others believe freedom works better) to conclude that the elements that are addressed are incorrect or bad.  Having brought together several elements and conclusions, the critique finished up by providing a feeling that the thing being critiqued is just no good.

In comparison, an honest critique will generally identify both the agreeable and the contentious elements (in the author's opinion).  When it does rely on popular opinion to judge an element, it often explains what the popular opinion is and how a person who does not share the author's belief would not have a problem with that element.  It openly identifies problems that stem from beliefs.  Of course, some honest critiques don't do this because their author isn't bright enough to recognize that there is a belief system difference.  An honest critique attacks the elements of its subject, rather than the subject itself.

Here's the nutshell version:  An honest critique will not leave you with the feeling that there's no use looking into the subject discussed.  Only a fool (or a propagandist) would spend time critiquing something they believed had no value.  When you read something that leaves you with a feeling that its subject isn't worth studying further, be sure to check for the subtle digs and denigrations, and the failure to honor the good intentions of those who support that subject.  For example, try an Internet search on Krugman and Austrian.

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