Early in the year some epidemiologists who had found me on the web, got in touch about helping them with a workshop on Creative Thinking in Epidemiology during a conference in June. They were interested in how researchers could find fresh directions for their work. That workshop did not happen, but they were happy to host workshops I offered to lead at their own institutions. These will happen in September. Here is the description:
This workshop explores ways to open up new directions in epidemiological thinking and research. Participants will be introduced to tools and processes for individual reflection and group interaction designed to produce the insights and to deepen the people-connections valuable for seeing new paths and generating new opportunities. The workshop facilitator, Peter Taylor, directs the graduate programs in Critical and Creative Thinking and Science in a Changing World at the University of Massachusetts Boston and teaches a doctoral course on epidemiological thinking for non-specialists. His personal goals in leading this workshop are to learn more from epidemiologists about what shapes their practice in research and public health while developing his approaches to stimulating creativity and reflective practice among scientists.
In the posts that follow I present a draft of a discussion paper for a session in the middle of the workshop. For that session, I give a brief introduction, then participants take turns, say 5 minutes each, to relate how the paper intersects with or stimulates their own thinking (while the author stays quiet, listening). I join in at the end. The emphasis is on participants teasing out their own thinking more than on digging into what the author thinks.
I work on the margins of epidemiology. My contributions to the topic of this workshop do not come from a position of expertise and deep experience. I am not someone who assembles and analyses epidemiological data, advises policy makers, secures research grants, or leads a research team. These limitations, however, also give me the freedom to raise questions and stimulate your responses without having to provide the answers. In this way, I hope this discussion paper and the workshop as a whole succeed in turning my limitations into something positive.
My background is in critical thinking about the life sciences in their social context. My primary appointment is directing a graduate program on “Critical and Creative Thinking,” in which typically mid-career professionals move their work and lives in new directions. However, since 2007 I have taught a doctoral course for public policy and nursing students on “Epidemiological thinking and population health.” I took on this challenge after studying researchers who address the complexity of biological and social influences on the life course development of health and behavior. Through my research I had become acquainted with a range of methods, results, and controversies in social epidemiology and related fields. This experience made me want other non-specialists to become conversant with the issues; indeed, “Epidemiological thinking for non-specialists” was the course title the first time around. This said, I have drawn on the advice of many specialists as I chose the readings. Yet I did not try to channel their authority when teaching and serve as arbiter between competing approaches or perspectives. I was more interested in drawing students’ attention to alternatives so they would be more critical or probing when they asked advice from biostatisticians and other specialists. I was quite open about joining with my students in employing strategies of reading that allowed us to extract take-home lessons even as we skimmed sections of readings that were too technical for us.
I offer the six contributions to follow in a similar spirit to my teaching of the epidemiology course: I am open to learning from epidemiological specialists who can provide a deeper account of the conceptual and practical issues in any case (and correct my presentation when necessary). At the same time, I want to draw attention to and invite discussion on contrasting approaches or perspectives so you can be more critical or probing when charting your paths ahead. However, these six contributions by no means circumscribe the issues you might bring to the topic of creative thinking in epidemiology.