Creativity and Science: An overlooked relationship?

Hello again!

After a long break here is another blog. If you are our reader, you may have noticed something of a hiatus in regularity of the blog when it’s my turn. Bernie is obviously not working hard enough and seems to have bags of time. In the UK October/November tends to mark the deadline for all research bids, so I have been terrifically busy – begging.

Anyway, I have a book out this month on Creative Science so thought I might write about just that. Strange really that the two are often seen as being so distinct, for curiosity is a key scientific attitude as is a willingness to change ideas in light of evidence. Therefore, science is, by its very nature, twinned with creative thinking. Furthermore, Murphy (2005) suggests that learning science enhances the development of creative thinking skills, such as fluency, flexibility, originality of ideas and imagination.

It is interesting that Torrance (1965), an eminent creativity researcher, nearly 50 years ago put forward the following definition of creativity ‘As the process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies; testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results.’ (p. 663-664) This definition, a scientific definition of creativity, met resistance, with objections that he had no right to use the term ‘creative’ outside such fields as art, music, and writing. He argued that his definition seemed to fit the creativity of both artists and writers as well as it did that of the creative scientist. p. 665 Fortunately, things have moved on from then and the notion that science and creativity may not be mutually exclusive is certainly plausible.

In his highly regarded TED talk (Robinson 2006), Sir Ken Robinson made a robust case for creativity in formal education stating that it should have equal status with literacy. He argued that all children have tremendous talent and have an extraordinary capacity for innovation. However, he declared unequivocally that children are ‘being educated out of creativity.’ To be creative, he asserted, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and that the current model of formal education leaves children frightened of being wrong. Unfortunately, this is particularly pertinent in science where there is often a perceived ‘right’ answer and this notion drives down creativity and divergent thinking. Scotland have rooted creativity firmly in their Curriculum for Excellence and it is seen as fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a ‘successful learner’ in the Scottish education system (Education Scotland 2013).  Unfortunately, the recent National Curriculum for England (2013) does not seem to be embracing creativity as much.

Why creativity is important

Science is exciting and engaging in many of the ways in which it is already explained and taught. Some teachers, or trainee graduates, particularly with science backgrounds will already hold a clear and functional view of what science is and what is important in terms of teaching it. You may have very clear ideas of what constitutes a scientific approach and quite strongly held views on what is really important for children to understand about ‘science methods.’ However, such interpretations can framework and even confine your approach to teaching.  The issue here of course is not everyone, even within the scientific community may share your view. We may be very different in terms of the subject we studied (such as physics, chemistry, biology) and the different skills and approaches that this imparts. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with science degrees, training to be science specialists on initial teacher training courses, to express concerns about teaching areas of science that they “know nothing about!”

In teaching we can utilise all sorts of creative and imaginative methods and apply these to topics not normally associated with science curricular. Of course the obvious question is why should we bother to change? Well, the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we want to reassure those who are new to science that they have a whole range of valuable skills that can really promote and encourage children to see science as a creative and relevant subject and secondly, to address a wider issue; that something is going wrong in science education for across many of the ‘high-income countries’ (including the UK) a distinctive downward trend in the numbers studying science has been recognised (Fensham, 2004). Yet, for those of us who work around children, it is plainly obvious that they are natural scientists in that they have an almost universal curiosity about the world around them. Young children are always asking the question “why?” Yet, somewhere along the line they appear to lose this curiosity and fascination.

Of course paradoxically in the last 20 years the advances in science and technology have bordered on the revolutionary, particularly in areas such as biomedicine and electronic communications. The technological tools that we have developed now allow us to explore not only adjacent planets but to view horizons that span from the edge of the known universe to sub-atomic space. Never before in our history have we understood so much about ourselves, or the physical world around us and never before have we had the means of communicating this understanding (as well as intriguing questions concerning that which we still do not understand) to such a wide and literate audience. The advances that we have made and the pace of such developments have been little less than spectacular.

It is also undoubtedly true that the planet is facing a seemingly worsening environmental decline and that there needs to be a profound change in the way we live that is based on sustainability. Science also has a profound role in providing the knowledge and skills that young people will need to face the problems that the future will certainly pose.

Given this, how can it be that young people are being put off science apparently by even as early as 7 – 8 years old? The only possible answer is somewhat worrying. Children do not tend to ‘do’ science at home and only rarely in ‘out of school’ settings. They come across it predominantly at school and therefore something is quite clearly going wrong at this point. Put plainly, children appear to be put off science at school.

How can we halt this decline? One way in which this may be achieved is to remove the artificial barriers that lead to the compartmentalization of science in teaching. We suggest a more holistic approach to science teaching; one that both blurs the distinction between approaches in arts and science and also one that sees science as an integral part of social, emotional and personal development. In a way we would like children not to be able to necessarily distinguish science from any other area of the curriculum. Going even further, sometimes barriers are not just theoretical, but made from bricks and mortar and in the same way we would wish to see artificial divides removed, we’d extend that wish to the classroom walls. Teaching in the environment, for the environment may be a well-worn phrase now, but it is still a valuable sentiment.

We would like to move science away from being a distinct subject to having a more integral role across the wider curriculum. A potential problem with this lies in the way in that science is sometimes perceived. How would you describe science? Logical? Precise? Analytical? Or creative, imaginative and inspiring? Most people would probably draw up a list close to the sentiments at least to the first set of words


Calls for new approaches to teaching science are of course not new, the famous Nuffield Science Teaching Project was developed in the 1960s and the Schools Council Integrated Science Project in the early 1970s.

We have over 50 years of pedagogic and curriculum development as a backdrop to the decline in numbers studying science. Given the amount of time, money and enthusiasm put into these projects to re-contextualize science and to change the approach to science teaching one wonders about the real impact of any suggested change in teaching approaches. Perhaps the difference here is that we only want to utilize the skills and develop the confidence of teachers in primary settings not to see science as something daunting and separate from everything else that goes on. In fact to see ways of teaching science that don’t necessarily depend on designing and carrying out experiments, that maybe are creative and artistic in the way that data are presented, that can lead to discussions about ‘bigger’ ideas and concepts, not being afraid to engage in potentially controversial areas. In reality of course, all the characteristics of good science!

What we are not suggesting here is a ‘new science’ but rather different ways of teaching and seeing the old one. Whenever there is an attempt to change the way we approach teaching science, we have to be very wary of slipping into what could be called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is perhaps best described as something that purports to be scientific, looks scientific, even sounds scientific (in terms of the language it uses) but on close inspection it is not. It is a bit like a science ‘tribute band’ – it looks a bit similar from a distance, but doesn’t stand any degree of closer inspection. It normally lacks supporting evidence, employs non-scientific methods and cannot be reliably tested or verified. In this sense it is different from something that has come to be called ‘Bad Science’. Bad Science is just that, poorly designed, erroneous results, it is generally just poor practice. Any endeavor, however noble and well intentioned can be carried out badly, it sometimes happens and can be understood. Pseudo-science cannot.



Do You Understand Lupine Ways of Knowing? The value of reductio ad absurdum in scientific debate.

This week I thought I would raise the rather contentious  issue of the reductio ad absurdum argument (also known as argumentum ad absurdum). This is the ancient form of logical argument that seeks to demonstrate that an argument or idea is nonsense by showing that a false, ludicrous, absurd result follows from its acceptance, or alternatively that  an argument is sound as a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial.

The nature of this argument has venerable roots and it is well documented as a form of logic in ancient Greece, used by such luminaries as Xenophranes, Socrates, and Plato . However, in modern academia there seem to be rather polarized views on it. 1) that it trivializes an argument and belittles the person taking a particular position or 2) that is is a valid and reasonable way of demonstrating that an idea is unsound. There also seems to be a cultural aspect in that I have found it used more frequently in Europe, whereas in North America it is somewhat frowned upon in many academic circles.

Naturally, as Rog and I are somewhat subversive and agitative academics (I use the term loosly) we are in full support of it, and to this end have just published a paper in Nursing Inquiry using exactly this form of argument to challenge the established wisdom of a specific postmodern argument for alternative ways of knowing. This paper was based on an earlier blogpost on this very blog site. Here, we use the ad absurdum argument to note that the principles used to support Carper’s  four ways of knowing can equally well be used to support a more creative typology (in this case including, arcane knowing, and lupine knowing).

Naturally, as with any form of intellectual rationale the argument is only as good as the fundamental data and facts it is based upon. Therefore, an ad absurdium argument can be misused, or poorly constructed. It is also often used erroneously as a Straw Man argument.

Considering what is absurd and what isn’t is a tricky thing for anyone, and particularly problematic in science.  For example, many Victorian scientists scoffed at the thought of powered flight, and even Einstein had issues with the notion of black-holes. Therefore, identifying absurdity is not something easily undertaken, as it may simply be the ideas presented are highly original or unconventional. The bacteria Helicobacter Pylori being suggested as a cause of gastric ulceration is a good example, as this theory was not readily accepted by the medical community for several years, despite good evidence.

Also, this is not the same as absurdity as used in common parlance. Commonly absurd positions are seen as ridiculous, or foolhardy, but an argument ad absurdum does not suggest the person making the argument should be ridiculed or lampooned. After all, we have all believed ridiculous things at one time or another; for western children the notion that Santa Clause brings all the children in the world toys on one night a year is a case in point! For the purpose of scientific thinking, for something to be demonstrated as absurd here we really need to see that there is inconsistency in the arguments presented. An absurd position may be considered one that is contrary to reason, irrational, or ludicrous to follow due to the practical implications of believing it. Unfortunately, several concepts now accepted and used in modern science arose in exactly this fashion: Quantum physics for example. However, repeated scientific observation and empirical data have proved quantum theory correct. So, paradigms change with time and we should be cautious about suggesting any position is ridiculous.

From a pragmatic position, I would argue an argument that can be demonstrated as fallacious by analysing its components, and demonstrating inconsistencies, or that you can demonstrate by accepting it you are also supporting associated positions that make no sense and have no practical value, then an ad absurdum position can be used effectively to demonstrate these weaknesses.

At the end of the day the sensitivities invoked by this form of argument are worth considering, and it is a form of rationale that is not easy to develop effectively. However, as long as the use of it involves demonstrating the nonsense an idea or position presents, rather than attacking the person making the argument, I would suggest it is a useful form of analysis. As a scientist if you are prepared to make any case, hypothesis or argument, you should be prepared to have it challenged and debated, and defend it. If the position is sound it will survive this critique, and win through. That is what good science is all about, but to make sound ad absurdum arguments you have to have a good working knowledge of the logical fallacies to start with.  They can also be a lot of fun too, and if this form was good enough for Socrates…



Carper B.A. (1978), “Fundamental Patterns of Knowing in Nursing”, Advances in Nursing Science 1(1), 13–24

Garrett B.M. & Cutting R.L. (2014) Ways of knowing: realism, non-realism, nominalism and a typology revisited with a counter perspective for nursing science. Nursing Inquiry. Retrieved 21 May 2014.

Rescher N. (2009) Reductio ad absurdumThe Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 21 May 2014.




Marking and the downshifting of science

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?

Well the summers here and the time is right for… marking bloody student degree projects!

Yes, the summer for me (and Bernie) has once again bought the delightful mixture of bright sunny days, wine in the barmy evenings and cricket on the radio. This idle is only disrupted by the deafening thud of student’s degree projects hitting my study floor. As I write I am actually surrounded by piles of them. One quite small pile is where I’ve put those I’ve marked. Another much, much bigger pile (that has already fallen over sideways and now cuts me off from the door) comprises those yet to be marked and then two still unopened boxes contain the ones I need to double mark for colleagues.

In part my misery at my marking is just the shear weight of numbers, but another aspect, and I hate to say this, is reading pretty much the same stuff every year. Students tend to look at previous projects, pick out the best ones and re-do them with slight changes to variables or parameters. So rather than looking for the effect of one nutrient on plant growth, they’ll look at another. Instead of looking at the relative effectiveness of ‘commercial’ against ‘green’ washing powders, they’ll check ‘commercial’ and ‘green’ washing up liquid… and so on and on and on…

This approach is hardly the type that promotes the exciting projects that will attract students into science, but it’s not uncommon.

Even at the very highest level of science research the data flatters to deceive. In an editorial piece Charlton and Andras (2008) point out that although numbers studying science for research based degrees is up, but they have identified a so-called trend of ‘down shifting’ in UK science, a trend away from so called ‘revolutionary science’ (that which is paradigm shifting) to ‘normal science’; that which is an “incremental extrapolation of existing paradigms” (Charlton and Andras, 2008: p 466). There is certainly very strong evidence in my field of this taking place.

If we are not careful, graduate projects will become little more than practical sessions, where the project is evaluated not on its originality, but on the accuracy with which the generated data fits the published results. We stop looking at the anomalies, the negatives, the outliers and stay safely in the mainstream, constantly verifying that the Sun goes around the Earth.

It won’t be the funding cuts that kill UK science (though they’ll kick it unconscious) it will be that sort of mind set and the teaching that promotes it.

Sorry it’s a short blog, but I’ve got to get back to my marking. Two more and I’ll treat myself to the cricket, red wine and this rather lovely English summer evening.



Charlton, B.G. & Andras, P. (2008) ‘Down-shifting’ among top UK scientists – The decline of ‘revolutionary science’ and the rise of ‘normal science’ in the UK compared with the USA. Medical Hypotheses, 70(3) 465-472.