【Michael Stuart】Ethics of Scientific Imagination: Who Gets to Use Imagination in Science?

Ethics of Scientific Imagination: Who Gets to Use Imagination in Science?
Michael Stuart

Scientists imagine a lot. They imagine to come up with new research problems, design experiments, interpret data, troubleshoot, draft papers and presentations, and give feedback to each other. But what kinds of imagination are used in science? When do scientists feel it is appropriate to employ imagination, and when not? How are the tricks of the imaginative trade taught?

Answers to these questions require data that we don’t currently have. There is research done on imagination in animals, non-scientists (especially young children), and studies focusing on science students, but there are no in-vivo sociological studies on the role of imagination in practicing scientists. Since 2015, I have been trying to perform my own sociological research (interviews and observations) on scientists, including mathematicians, biologists, geologists and physicists. In this post I want to talk about an early but provocative finding.

In an article published a month ago in Science & Education, I report what I found in the first stage of my project, which focused on two systems biology labs in the United States. Both labs were interested in how cells “know” what to do in response to stimuli, for example, how they know when to commit suicide. One lab built computer models of signalling pathways in cells. The other performed experiments and recorded videos of cell behaviour through a powerful microscope.

I found that there was a continuum of views toward imagination. Less established scientists (e.g., new graduate students) expressed a negative view of imagination. For example, a second-year graduate student said, “I guess some people would say that imagination would help you” to do your work, and while she believed that “a long time ago,” now she thinks she does her work without imagining. Hypotheses come from your supervisor, or otherwise by simply “describing a relationship” that’s been observed. Imagination isn’t required to test hypotheses either, because “the human” just mechanically codes a hypothesis into a computer model and hits Enter. A finishing graduate student said there’s “probably a lot of room” for imagination, and spoke about some of the ways imagination might be useful, while the postdoc and Principle Investigators spoke at length about the essential and notably positive role that imagination plays in their work. For them, imagination is “really important” and “extremely important,” and through it, “you don’t just develop new techniques, you also frequently more directly look at whatever it is you’re looking at.”

In the last few years I’ve confirmed this trend in a broader sample of scientists, working in the UK and Europe, in fields from climate science and molecular biology to high energy physics, using methods from computer simulations and wet lab experiments to particle colliders. So, what’s going on? We shouldn’t conclude that less established scientists always or usually imagine less often than established ones. That might be true, but it would be very difficult to prove, and there is evidence to the contrary. For example, the least established scientist that I interviewed expressed a negative opinion of imagination, but was nonetheless extremely imaginative, at least in the sense that she was always coming up with new ideas and making new connections. And many established scientists mourn the fact that their administrative work prevents them from taking part in the more imagination-laden lab work. All we can say with confidence, I think, is that less established scientists are disposed to talk about imagination differently. Why might this be?

At least part of the answer relates to pedagogy. Undergraduate scientific education (at least in some disciplines, in some areas of the world) can beat the imagination out of you.[1] Imagination just isn’t emphasized when getting students to memorize theoretical principles and replicate historical experiments. By graduate school many students are encouraged to start being more imaginative, but by then it’s already too late for those who quit because they felt like they were being turned into abstract puzzle-solving machines. There is one study that confirms a trend away from imagination during undergraduate study (Özdemir 2009), and the scientists I interview agree that imagination is discouraged in their undergraduate years. There is also a lot of published and unpublished anecdotal evidence.[2] In my paper, I present some epistemological reasons to think that discouraging imagination at the undergraduate level might be a good idea; basically, you have to learn the relevant rules and techniques before you can imagine new ways to use them. But even if there are some reasons to put off imagination education until later, this should be made known to the students, and also, it should be done in a way that’s fair to everyone. At present, however, it might not be. And this brings me to the ethical consequences of imagination repression in science education.

Who will feel most inclined to deny the role of imagination in their scientific work? A worry is that it won’t just be young scientists, but anyone who feels extra pressure to come across as a ‘legitimate,’ ‘serious’ scientist. This would mean that the pressure to disavow imagination would be felt more strongly by vulnerable groups of all kinds (whether that vulnerability is based on age, gender, race, ability, etc.), and those at the intersections of these groups will feel it most strongly of all.

One might think the damage done by dulling enthusiasm for imagination in vulnerable groups of scientists is exceeded by the good it does: established scientists should be the ones imagining new research problems and methods because they have better scientific intuitions. Less established scientists are just wasting their time, and our money. But, firstly, even if this were true, there would be no reason for it to disproportionately affect certain groups, especially groups that are already disadvantaged. Secondly, the vulnerable scientists of today must become the established scientists of tomorrow. How will they do this without some education in imagination?

Focusing more directly on the ethical consequences, it’s important to remember that science can improve the human condition by facilitating the reduction of suffering through the development of new medicines and technologies. If imagination is discouraged enough during undergraduate education, imaginative minds will leave science, and this will make things worse for everyone (all else being equal).[3] Secondly, science is done best when there are different perspectives being brought to each problem. Reducing the number (or volume) of different voices is counterproductive because while humans cannot avoid having somebiases, our biases are best identified by people with a different set of biases. Also ethical science should represent the full spectrum of human interests, which is best attempted by enabling and employing a broad spectrum of human scientists, which current science education may be thwarting.

What does this add to the philosophical literature? Philosophers have already discussed moral issues that arise in connection with the imagination.[4] Many of those discussions concern the content of what we imagine. I’m proposing that we focus also on who gets to use imagination. If there is some educational-institutional norm that discourages certain people from expressing positive views on the role of imagination in science, that might not stop them from imagining, but it might. Certainly, this pressure might cause members of vulnerable groups to avoid talking about their uses of imagination, which could prevent them from learning how to imagine more effectively. It could also cause them to feel uncomfortable imagining.

To repeat, the worry isn’t that people will feel uncomfortable imagining certain things; it’s that they will feel uncomfortable imagining at all while they’re wearing their lab hat. This could lead to something like a class distinction between those who are encouraged to imagine and those who are not. From the perspective of the more vulnerable, the imagination class somehow comes up with exciting new ideas, and there’s no clear way for the vulnerable scientist to join that group.

We might have expected that imagination would be taught to budding scientists, but it doesn’t appear to be, at least not consistently, and not in the way that theory or experimental techniques are taught. And until we learn to talk about it, and teach it, institutional biases might be having a worrying negative effect on imagination, and therefore also on science.



[1] Paul Feyerabend wrote about this in Against Method. There, he claimed it was dangerous for educators to think that science has one stable, universal set of methods, because this assumption causes teachers to teach only those methods to the exclusion of all else. “‘Teachers’ using grades and the fear of failure mould the brains of the young until they have lost every ounce of imagination they might once have possessed. This is a disastrous situation, and one not easily mended” (1975, 160). It “leads to a deterioration of intellectual capabilities, of the power of the imagination. It destroys the most precious gift of the young, their tremendous power of imagination” (96-7).  

[2] For example, here is a nice video that one of my participants recommended of biologist Uri Alon, talking about how difficult it is for science students to deal with the lack of education relating to the subjective and psychological elements of science. From reading research papers, students get the false impression that science progresses smoothly from research question to solution via some obvious, clever choice of method, and they feel like failures when their own work doesn’t go that way. Even when imagination is not being actively discouraged, it is not taught or discussed, and this can lead to depression and burnout.

[3] One might worry that there would not be enough resources to support the increase in science students that we would have if this trend were reversed. The obvious reply is that we can find another way to reduce the number of students that would be more meritocratic.

[4] Often on this blog! Some examples include the posts by Sophie Grace Chappell, Jessica Black, Miriam McCormick, and Shen-yi Liao.


Feyerabend, P. 1975/1993. Against Method. 3rd edition. London: Verso.

Özdemir, F. 2009. “Avoidance from Thought Experiments: Fear of Misconception.” International Journal of Science Education 31: 1049–1068.