Back in college, I took an elective creative writing class. As a frequent assignment, the professor would pass out pictures— obscure historical photographs, current news photographs, or photos of famous artwork. Our assignment was to write a fictional story inspired by the image. If the photo was of a current news story, the idea was to imagine something other than the news story with which we were familiar. My classmates and I spun our tales, sometimes based on known truths of historical events with our imaginations filling in the details. Other times, students would invent a totally fanciful account of what might have been happening in the picture. Realistic or absurd, it didn’t matter. It was a creative writing class.
I am reminded of those short stories when I read the thoughts of Sandy Hook hoaxers. They may pride themselves on their superior critical thinking, but what they are actually doing is creative thinking.
There is a big difference between creative thinking and critical thinking. Creative thinking can be part of the critical thinking process. Not only do creative thinkers give us important literature and art, creative thinking leads to inventions in all areas of life from science to business to the arts. It’s how we solve problems with new ideas. But in order to be successful, creative thinking must be combined with critical thinking. And that’s where the hoaxers fall flat.
Creative thinking is generative. It’s goal is to create new ideas. Critical thinking is analytical. A critical thinker looks at the data and analyzes the probability not just the possibility of an outcome. Critical thinking demands logic and reason to come to a single answer. Creative thinking relies on speculation and intuition to come to a possible answer. And critical thinking is linear, that is, the answer must consider all available data to lead to a single conclusion, eliminating elements that are irrelevant, unlikely and false along the way. Creative thinking is associative, that is, it correlates multiple things to the same starting point whether they are causally related or not, and it does not require the elimination of the unlikely or impossible. (For fun, see why understanding causal relationships is important when drawing your conclusion http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations.)
For example, consider the two famous “conga” line photographs of the children exiting Sandy Hook. Hoaxers have invented all kinds of creative stories that go along with the photo. Some say the same children, or at least two, appear in both pictures. Others imagine that the photographer actually appears in one of the pictures. Just as we did in that creative writing class, the hoaxers are inventing creative stories to go with a picture.
Does the photographer actually appear in one of the pictures? The name of the woman who appears in the right foreground is well known to most hoaxers and was photographed multiple times that day. Shannon Hicks’ picture is available on line and they are clearly not the same person. The hoaxers are just imagining possibilities and not discarding falsehoods. That’s creative thinking.
Are two similarly dressed blonde boys the same child as the creative hoaxers suggest? The critical thinker analyzes the photo and sees the clothing, hair parts, shoes and draws the conclusion that the boys would have had to change and be restyled in similar clothing. Is it probable that in front of witnesses, the boys were lead back into the school and restyled in very similar clothes? Why would it be necessary to recycle these two particular children and only two children? And why not give them different colored shirts instead of changing their shoes? Creative thinking doesn’t need to answer my questions, but critical thinking does.
Don’t get me wrong. Creative thinking is an important component of problem solving. But without the ability to analyze data and draw accurate conclusions, creative thinking is simply fantasy.
For more on the conga line photo, read here: