The Role of Creativity in Science: Moving the Picture out of the Picture Frame
The common knowledge of today was the pipe dream of yesterday. Science encapsulates the set of theories we have deduced from our observations about the world. The process of moving forward in science necessitates not only the development of radically new theories but also the discarding of old ones which no longer fit with recent observations. Creativity, or the use of imagination to form new and original ideas, has a fundamental role to play in this.
What if the best way to protect oneself against a disease was to be deliberately infected with it? The invention of the vaccine through this counterintuitive realization revolutionized medicine’s understanding of the human immune system. The first role that creativity has to play in science is its ability to push us past the most intuitive and plausible explanations in order to consider the potential of wilder theories that often end up being more accurate representations of reality. The process of imagination is fundamental to this because scientists need to be able to conceptualize a world in which conventional facts and assumptions do not hold sway, if they want to be able to compare such theoretical explanations to reality.
In order to be able to move from one paradigm to another, an individual needs to be able to step outside the existing paradigm by distancing themselves from the currently widely accepted conceptualization of the world. Until the mid-19th century, it was believed that bad air, or ‘miasma’, was responsible for most disease. John Snow’s skepticism of this theory led him to demonstrate that it was the contamination of water which best explained an 1854 London cholera outbreak. Creativity, being the ability to conceptualize something different to what is known and perceived, is a prerequisite to skepticism.
Such creativity holds similar value for the processes and methods used at the highest levels of experimentation. Far from the typical secondary school scientific exercise, the lack of established procedure on the frontiers of science necessitates individual inspiration. An example of the role of creativity in experimentation was the Geiger-Marsden experiments, in which the original idea of observing alpha particles scattering after striking a metal foil shed light on the existence of the atomic nucleus.
This can be weaponized by the collaborative, team nature of most scientific projects for progress: whilst the creativity of an individual is limited, in the ideal scenario the interaction of a number of unique creative contributions allows for two crucial mechanisms of progress. The first is the ability to select the most effective or comprehensive solution from a set of possible theories or proposed methods. The second is the complementing or combination of multiple ideas in order to address the flaws or shortcomings of the other. Therefore, overall creativity is not just crucial on an individual but also a collaborative level.
Creativity is particularly important in science due to the herd mentality that can often suppress burgeoning theories. Humans have psychological tendencies to subconsciously drift towards the opinions that are commonly held by those around them, a fact which has been supported by extensive observation and research. Furthermore, existing scientific ‘facts’ often have the backing of trusted and feared bodies of authority, which are difficult to challenge because of their prestige and position of power. Galileo Galilei, perhaps one of the most creative scientists and polymaths of all time, was persecuted by the Catholic Church until his death for daring to promote the paradigm of heliocentrism. Given the vast incentives to simply fall in with the crowd, creativity on its own is often insufficient. Scientists need to be confident and assertive in their creativity, and scientific institutions need to be willing and able to foster creativity.
Whilst creativity has its uses, the importance of creativity is still limited insofar as the scientific method has yet to be supplanted as the best method of acquiring empirical knowledge. When it comes to science, what is observed will always take precedence over what is imagined. However, the field of science is greater than a set of observations- in the same way, an author builds a wider narrative through the combination of thematic and descriptive language, a scientist must become an artist to paint a clearer picture of the universe.