About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

How not to be creative

Just finished reading a small book by the Italian cognitive psychologist Paolo Legrenzi, on the subject of (individual) creativity and (technological) innovation. Not exactly smooth prose, but it makes a few good points. One chapter in particular deals with the obstacles to creativity, i.e. the sort of behaviors that actually make it more difficult to be creative (in the arts as well as in the sciences).

One such behavior, according to Legrenzi, is the tendency to focus too much: this consists in a linear approach to solving a problem, as in the following example. Suppose the question is whether to engage in action A or not (shall we go to see that movie?). A focused approach will start by gathering information on A (but not on some suitable alternatives, B or C, which immediately narrows our range of options). Only if A becomes obviously unsatisfactory we switch our attention to the alternatives. This is similar, in science, to consider only one hypothesis at a time, rather than a series of alternative ones; the same goes for, say, police investigation when one focuses on one suspect, despite little initial evidence suggesting the closing of other venues of investigation at an early stage.

A second a-creative behavior, according to Legrenzi, is the tendency to get stuck on a particular answer to the problem at hand, which he terms "fixation." There is plenty of experimental evidence concerning this pattern of behavior. For example, consider the sequence of numbers 2-4-6 and suggest a rule by which the fourth number in the sequence can be obtained, trying to guess which specific rule the investigator had in mind. (Pause here if you wish to think about it) Most people, if they discard the obvious solution (even numbers increasing by 2 -- which most subjects rightly consider too easy to be the answer), get stuck into wanting to identify a precise rule the investigator might have had in mind, while in fact the target rule is "any sequence of increasing digits." The answer simply sounds too fuzzy to be true, but it is in fact perfectly compatible with the initial sequence (I venture to suggest that part of the reason for this failure is that the initial sequence appears to be tidy, with regularly increasing, all even, numbers. But of course, it is a small sample, and it shouldn't be considered a perfect representation of the underlying rule).

Interestingly, when experimental subjects are faced with the 2-4-6 problem and are given the opportunity to try out different rules they tend to do exactly the wrong thing from the point of view of scientific methodology: they attempt to prove a particular hypothesis they elaborated, rather than trying to disprove it. The few individuals who do the latter instead reach the right answer much faster. This is reminescent of philosopher Karl Popper's idea of "falsificationism" as opposed to confirmationism in science (I do have reservations about Popper, but the point is interesting nonetheless).

So, if you want to be creative, try to "de-focalize" (relax, consider several alternative routes simultaneously) and to falsify your preferred solutions, rather than butress them at all costs. As Q told Captain Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, "Must you be so linear, Jean-Luc?"


  1. My dad, his dad, his brothers and some of his nephews are inventors, with various patents for practical and technical things. (my dad was promoted from machinist to engineer because of his inventions and whatnot) I think it interesting that so many people of the same family have the same ingentive mindset.

    As your writer suggested, they knew something about breaking patterns of thinking on problems that most people do not.


  2. I meant "ingenuitive"

    its always helpful when one can spell, too....

  3. Massimo, if you got the time...

    Can you elaborate what you mean with this: "I do have reservations about Popper".

    (Maybe you already has done this in another post?)

    Johan, Sweden

  4. Johan, my reservations about Popper are elaborated in two articles I published for Skeptical Inquirer:

    Pigliucci, M. (2004). Did Popper refute evolution? Skeptical Inquirer. 28(5): 15.

    Pigliucci, M. (2004). Philosophy of science 101. Skeptical Inquirer. 28(3): 22-23.

    Basically, the idea is that falsificationism doesn't really work, it's not the way science proceeds, if you look at the historical record.

  5. Massimo,

    Thanks for the answer (unfortunately I can't get hold of the articles :( )

    Just one more quick thought...

    In another post you wrote:
    "contemporary philosophers have moved beyond falsificationism, and admit that the boundary separating good science, bad science, and pseudoscience is somewhat fuzzy"

    I'm rather new to the philosophy of science, but I've got the impression that the ability to, at least in theory, falsificate a theory is the most important demarcation criterium. It also seems to be the cornerstone in the critique of ID/creationism.

    Johan, Sweden

    (Sorry if my English is out of order ;))

  6. Johan,

    it is in fact unfortunate that so many scientists bring up falsificationism in conjunction with pseudoscience and creationism. For example, by that criterion, both astrology and young earth creationism are, in fact, sciences. Their statements can be, and have been, falsified.

    Also, by that criterion, major scientific theories would not be falsifiable. The history of science is full of theories (beginning with Copernicus') where a theory initially could not explain all observations, and yet seemed enough of a good candidate to suspend judgment, or even to endorse it provisionally, until more empirical data could help to further assess it.

    The real difference between science and non-science (briefly, I'm just now writing a whole book on this!) is that scientific hypotheses ought to be empirically testable. But testability isn't the same as falsifiability, and there is no implication that one single failed test throws out the whole thing.

  7. It's funny you mention Popper since Wason created the "2,4,6" task to highlight inconsistencies (in Wasons’ opinion) with Popper’s belief in logical intuition.

  8. Hej Mr. Pigliucci!

    If you got the time...

    What do you say about the following argument:

    P1: According to Popper you should only believe that which can be falsified.
    P2: Poppers falsifiability criterium can't be falsified.
    S3: You should not believe in Poppers falsifiabilty criterium.

    Is this argument valid?

    Is this one of the reasons why testability is a better indicator for "what science is"?

    (This question came up in a discussion with a creationist.)

    Best wishes,
    Johan Karlsson (Sweden)

  9. Johan,

    no, the argument is not good, because Popper's falsification applies to empirical claims, not to logical ones.

    On the other hand, philosophers of science have long since moved on from falsificationism, so I don't think anyone needs an argument about its validity.

    Your argument is similar to what got logical positivism in trouble, but in that case logical positivists made the mistake of stating that any sentence (not just empirically based statements) that could not be verified was meaningless, which clearly includes also logical stands such a positivism itself.


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