Outside the Box or Around the Bend?
A few years ago, in a university far, far away, our department chairman decided that the staff needed a motivational "retreat". So, he hired a motivational speaker and forced the entire department faculty to leave their comfortable homes and trek to a distant scenic resort. The motivational speaker, a perky thirty-something man by the name of Gerry ("Call me Gerry!"), started off by telling the assembled staff that "Nothing is impossible if you believe you can do it!"
Right off, it was clear that Gerry had a lot to learn about reality. I was silently wishing that Gerry would get it in his head to believe that he could fly and would thus end our torment while he learned some important points about gravity. But that was not to be.
Gerry called his particular brand of nonsense "thinking outside the box". He told us that we needed to not be stopped by "the way things are done" and come up with novel, "solution-oriented" ways of doing "our core business". It rapidly became apparent that Gerry hadn't a clue what our "core business" was.
In the end, I learned about thirty minutes of useful information. Unfortunately, it took over sixteen hours for Gerry to impart that information. On the "feedback" form that Gerry asked us to complete, I listed a number of "solution-oriented" ideas for Gerry to apply to his "core business". I expect that he thought they were too "outside the box" for him to use.
Too often, people coming into a field that is new to them will see rules and procedures that appear clumsy or overly restrictive and want to eliminate them. They feel that their newcomer status allows them to "think outside the box" and are usually frustrated when people who have been in the field longer insist that they adhere to the same clunky, burdensome rules and procedures. If they stay in the field long enough, they almost always come to discover why those rules and procedures are the way they are.
One of the more burdensome and clunky rules that science has had to put up with for the past two centuries or more is the rule that hypotheses are not "fact" (or theory) until they have been successfully tested. This rule has stymied thousands (if not millions) of would-be scientists who are so convinced of their ideas that they feel that testing them is a pointless waste of time and effort.
For these expansive thinkers, this is especially irksome because their new ideas are so obviously correct that anyone who understands them should see their truth immediately. The demands for data and testing seem, to them, merely a distraction - a way for the entrenched old fossils in science to mask their inability to understand. If people would only be more "open-minded" - if they would only "think outside the box" - they would immediately comprehend the beauty and truth of it all.
From the perspective of one of the "entrenched old fossils", a lot of the "thinking outside the box" looks like "not understanding the underlying principles of the field". This sort of error is not limited to the scientific novice, either. Linus Pauling, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) made almost laughable mistakes when he strayed into biology and medicine. In his article "Orthomolecular Psychiatry" (will need JSTOR access - see here and here, as well) and the book of the same name, he showed clearly that he hadn't a grasp of the probabilistic nature of biology when he dismissed concerns that his results were not statistically significant.
If a winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry could be so wrong when he strayed "across the hall" into a somewhat related field, what are we to make of the lesser mortals who disregard the principles of science because they are "thinking outside the box"?
Not all ex box thinking is suspect, however. Much of it is very useful and even insightful - if it stays within the realm of the possible. People who take Gerry's advice (remember "Call me Gerry!"?) too seriously are likely to end up wondering why people won't listen to them.
The best kind of "outside the box" thinking is guided by a thorough knowledge of the field - either from the "out of the box" thinker or from someone they are working with. As an example, interdisciplinary projects (when done right) are marvelous ways to "think outside the box". Members of the team come from different fields and can contribute not only their own particular expertise, but also their field's unique methods and experiences.
This is very different from what Linus Pauling did - he stormed into the fields of biology and medicine with the attitude that he knew more than anyone else. Those that agreed with him were "visionaries" and those that disagreed were simply unable to see his brilliance. In the end, he surrounded himself with like-thinking people and became more and more marginalized. A sad end for a man who thought that he was "thinking outside the box" and was really going "around the bend".
Regrettably, Linus Pauling was not the only Nobel Laureate to trip over his medal. Those things should come with warning labels: "CAUTION! DOES NOT GRANT SUPERHUMAN MENTAL POWERS!".
In 1973, for instance, Nikolaas Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for his contributions to animal behavior (ethology). In his Nobel lecture, Tinbergen - freshly hung with his Nobel wreath - ventured to explain autism as a response to environmental stress, ala Kanner and Bettleheim.
In doing so, he not only hopped on the "Refrigerator Mother" hypothesis of autism as it was sinking, but he also managed to set a nearly unbeatable record for shortest time between receiving the Nobel Prize and saying something really stupid about a field in which the recipient had little experience. Tinbergen thought that his experience - and it was vast experience - in animal behavior gave him special insight into autism. It might have, but it didn't.
So, all you mavericks out there who feel that your lack of education and experience in a field gives you a unique ability to see what those who have labored long and hard cannot, remember these two "cautionary tales". And try to keep an open mind about why the people who have been in the field for years and years may not be receptive to your startling insights. When they brush you off or ignore your input, try to think outside the box of "conspiracy and stubborness" and consider a truly novel idea:
You might be wrong.