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Thinking outside the box

March 12 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Thinking inside the box is easy and brings a sense of security. Thinking outside the box is more challenging but it is the essence of progress. We praise innovations in technology, science, design, or art, but at the same time our societies tend to be conservative.

In research we strive to find “high risk, high gain” ideas, the paradigm shifts that can revolutionize an entire branch of research (Thomas Kuhn 1962), but most of the time those “new” ideas are deemed unfeasible by our peers. Research committees are here to “guess” the future success or failure of potential projects. They comprise individuals with different expertise, experience, and background. Most importantly each committee member will have his or her own cognitive biases whether the member is aware of it or not.

Sometimes the judgement of a group is better than that of an individual but this is not always the case. A famous example given in sociology courses is to judge the weight of rice grains in a jar. Every student is asked to guess a value. The average of all the guesses gets closer to the actual value as the number of guesses increase. This is the statistical law of central limit. On the contrary a group of students will not necessary run a 100 m faster in average than a few among them. The common wisdom is not always the right wisdom.

Every researcher has asked him- or herself at least once in his or her career whether committees may have rejected truly innovative projects. Unfortunately we can just hope that this does not happen too often.


Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

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