Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well. For example: Fire is hot; it can burn me if I touch it. These strongly held beliefs can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.
Every year, John Brockman, asks a community of academics and thought leaders, a question, and posts the responses on Edge.org. This year’s question was:
Barbara McClintock was ignored and ridiculed, by the scientific community, for thirty-two years before winning a Nobel Prize in 1984, for discovering “jumping genes.” During the years of hostile treatment by her peers, McClintock didn’t publish, preferring to avoid the rejection of the scientific community. Stanley Prusiner faced significant criticism from his colleagues until his prion theory was confirmed. He, too, went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1982.
Barry Marshall challenged the medical “fact” that stomach ulcers were caused by acid and stress; and presented evidence that H. Pylori bacteria is the cause. Marshall is quoted as saying, “Everyone was against me.”
Progress in medicine was delayed while these “projective thinkers” persisted, albeit on a slower and lonelier course.
Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe generative rather than reactive thinking. McClintock, Prusiner, and Marshall offered projective thinking; suspending their disbelief regarding accepted scientific views at the time.
Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives.
Twenty years of studying maize created a context within which McClintock could speculate. With her extensive knowledge and keen powers of observation, she deduced the significance of the changing color patterns of maize seed. This led her to propose the concept of gene regulation, which challenged the theory of the genome as a static set of instructions passed from one generation to the next.
The work McClintock first reported in 1950, the result of projective thinking, extensive research, persistence, and a willingness to suspend disbelief, wasn’t understood or accepted until many years later.
Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and, in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well: Fire is hot; it can burn if touched. It can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.
When we cling rigidly to our constructs, as McClintock’s peers did, we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us. Can we support a scientific rigor that embraces generative thinking and suspension of disbelief? Sometimes science fiction does become scientific discovery.