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Where does creativity fit into science?

November 27, 2012

I’m thinking of starting a series of posts on creativity in science. Not the usual stuff about how some scientists are especially creative, what psychological traits they possess to do this, and how they apply them. No, I want to illuminate how the scientific process naturally demands creativity, and the opportunities it gives for any scientist to be original and creative. It seems to me that these stages of the scientific process are not appreciated for the creativity they encourage, so I want to look at them in more detail and give some examples showing how they work.

I have some rationalizing to do here. The subtitle of Science Or Not? is “separating science from nonsense”, and that describes my main purpose. So how does a series on creativity fit into this purpose?

I think a lot of people to whom creativity is important see science as having a different mode of thinking. They see it as authoritarian, mechanical, routine and unimaginative, and because those things don’t fit in with their way of thinking, they tend to avoid accepting the scientific way, and reject much of its advice. That leaves them open to pseudoscience and bogus science, the things that Science Or Not? is against. I reckon that if I can show that the scientific process is just as creative as other fields, they will be more inclined to trust it.

At the moment, I’ve identified eight activities within the scientific process that I’d like to illuminate because I think they require the exercise of creativity.

  • Devising research programs – identifying problems that might be solvable and breaking them down into manageable projects.
  • Devising models – constructing alternative models to explain phenomena.
  • Devising tests for models – designing tests falsify/support models.
  • Dealing with the unexpected – modifying tests and models to take account of surprises.
  • Making connections – discovering links between previously unconnected phenomena and developing the significance of these.
  • Projecting future research directions – extrapolating discoveries to open up new possibilities for research
  • Collaborating with other scientists – coming up with imaginative and productive collaborations.
  • Communicating discoveries – finding effective ways of communicating discoveries to peers and the public.

I’d appreciate any feedback on the suitability of these topics and whether the whole exercise is worthwhile. I’ll be continuing the usual posts on Red Flags and Let’s check the science interspersed with the creativity posts.

 Creativity photo by deichgnu on flickr.

From → Science

  1. Baldscientist permalink

    All are interesting aspects, but my favorite by far is the “making connections” one. I have experienced most of the items in the list firsthand, but the most emotionally rewarding of all is the realization of such connections, literally the “one thing led to another…”. Humbly speaking, my most significant research has come from such circumstances. I am very much interested in what you have to say!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Baldscientist. Good to hear that you think my list is realistic. I hope I can do it justice.

  2. Great direction for a new series of posts. In fact, you’ve been creative in writing your list of topics. That doesn’t surprise me because we scientists are essentially creative people.

    I look forward to reading what you write about each of your topics. And about anything else that occurs to your creative mind.

  3. Baldscientist permalink

    Hi! I found an article that may be useful to your creativity topic. I have not read it yet though….

    • Thanks, baldscientist. It’s an interesting article. I wonder whether the climate-deniers have seen it – I can imagine how they could twist it.

  4. Hi Graham,

    I think this is a great theme. I am a creative person, meaning that I have been allowed to take the moniker, artist, during my life experience.

    Whether a visual expression, or one of language, or music, let’s say, all have science in them. Geometry, physics and chemistry figure prominently in many art forms. Just think, even cooking is a form of chemistry – with the bonus that you can eat your creations to great health and enjoyment (or I suppose to the contrary, as well).

    Clay turned into porcelain, sand into glass, pigment (earth, stones, plants, insects) become inks, dyes and paint). How far apart is an artist drawing a circle for aesthetic effect with a compass and a physicist calculating a circle or ellipse of an orbit of a celestial body?

    There is a very fine line between art and science and I would say that both groups hug that line closely and step over it frequently.

    Please pursue this line of thought.

    By the way, even though I approach my life through the creative lens, I am involved in several endeavors that demand science. Your blog has been a great help. I realize how susceptible I am to pseudoscience. It’s been humbling, but also illuminating.


    • Thanks for your ideas, Donna. It’s good to have an artist’s perspective on the topic.
      At my present stage of thinking, I don’t expect to be dealing overtly with the overlap between science and art in the series. I’d like to concentrate on the aspects of the scientific process that are intrinsically creative because they involve the synthesis and dispersal of new, original and significant knowledge about the natural world. That’s not to say that artistic aspects are not involved, but it wouldn’t usually be the core activity.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I understand your focus. My first comment does sound like I thought you were going to show that scientists are also artists and vice versa.

        So let me describe what I called the fine line: making a work of art/science is essentially problem solving. It requires the development of systems and the observation, use and in some cases, exploitation of patterns to reconcile the question or motivation at hand.

        In one of Richard Dawkins’ many books on evolution he described an experiment about genetic mutation done with bacteria (I’m so sorry that I can’t recall any names in this case, not to mention I do not own the book so cannot easily reference it now). He took several pages to explain the elaborate system the scientist leading the team had developed for keeping track of the behaviors of the bacteria under very strict conditions concerning food so that when the bacteria showed the presence of a new characteristic it was possible to refer to the records and know exactly when the genetic properties developed in the bacteria, unnoticeable at the time, to prepare it to take advantage of a purposely induced change in their environment. I hope I haven’t done too great an injustice to this with my recollection.

        The point is that Dawkins told his readers that he felt it was worth it to take the time to convey all the details because of the sheer artfulness of the experiment’s design and the brilliant creativity of the scientist who came up with it.

        I’m looking forward to your series.


        • Sounds like you’re referring to Richard’s section on the Lenski experiments in The Greatest Show on Earth, Donna.

          Yes, that’s the kind of thing I had in mind. Thanks for the reminder – it’s a great example.

    • I agree. My I add to your list? Working in a research lab is very much like working in a commercial kitchen – I’ve done both. It requires organisation and manual dexterity; it’s subject to legal restrictions esp safety rules; it’s too hot for comfort; it’s crowded with people’s ‘eccentric personalities’; it depends on machines which fail at crucial moments; it all comes down to money. And it’s time-sensitive – whether the lunch rush or the conference, the show must go on.

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