Brainstorms have been around for decades, but it’s not clear they work. Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock/Mary Evans

The idea was simple. Strapped for cash and searching for ways to persuade funders to be more generous, one Italian scientist had a brainwave. Why couldn’t researchers trade their old microscopes for cash? The car company Fiat, after all, ran a scheme that paid owners to relinquish ten-year-old models, with the amount of compensation matched by the government.

History suggests the microscope idea went nowhere. It was quickly dismissed as unworkable. Indeed, it survives only because it is mentioned in The Lancet in a brief write-up of a 1997 meeting, described as a brainstorm on European Union research funding.

That makes it unusual, because unused suggestions that emerge in brainstorming sessions tend not to even leave the room. They lie forgotten, scrawled on pink sticky notes on walls and flip charts in corporate headquarters everywhere. And they have done since the concept of the brainstorm was popularized in the 1950s as a way of freeing the creativity of a group.

No idea generated, the brainstorming rules insist, is a bad idea. But what if that itself is a bad idea? In a Comment article published this week in Nature Human Behaviour, the organizational psychologist David Burkus argues that brainstorming sessions stifle, rather than unleash, solutions (D.BurkusNatureHum.Behav.;2017). It’s not a new suggestion. Indeed, Burkus draws on research published more than a decade ago to help make his case that immediate criticism helps, rather than hinders, creativity. But it comes at a valuable and pertinent time: a time when the intellectual free-for-all of the brainstorm is leaking noticeably more and more into public and political discussions of scientific issues.

The Wellcome Trust, for example, is concerned that “something seems amiss”. The UK-based biomedical funder last week launched a project to investigate the perceived “pushback in society on ‘experts’” and whether this hinders the environment for research. Also last week, The New York Times was heavily criticized by climate scientists and others after its new conservative columnist Bret Stephens shared his (predictably negative and depressingly tired) opinion on the robustness of data and models used to assess global warming.

The newspaper offered a defence that sounds awfully like the instructions issued by the moderator of a corporate brainstorming session: it’s an idea and one just as valid as yours. Shouldn’t we hear all opinions? Please don’t respond with ‘Yes, but’. Say ‘Yes, and …’.

Yes, but. As has been pointed out many times before, although everyone is entitled to their own view, it is not unreasonable to judge (and to expect responsible media to choose to highlight) opinions that rest on documented evidence — concerning, for example, climate change, childhood vaccinations, evolution — as carrying more weight than those merely perched on top of other opinions.

An intellectual brainstorm is no way to respond to the legitimate concerns thrown up by the shifting political sands of today, and an uncertain place for science and reason. Because it is not a lack of creative thought that threatens at present, it is more an unwillingness to seek and agree common ground and then build on it. That is a difficult job, but one — as Nature has said before — that more scientists must embrace, by reaching out to communities and engaging with the issues they raise.

Science is a creative process, and the free expression of ideas is a vital component. But so, too, is the robust (and expert) criticism of those ideas, and the rejection of ideas that fail. In his piece, Burkus presents a telling statistic about the role of the devil’s advocate in the Roman Catholic Church’s process of beatification. This individual was instructed to criticize, to say ‘yes, but’, and to present all the reasons why someone should not be sainted. From 1587 until 1983, when the practice was abolished, just 98 people were canonized. From 1983 until today, the number is more than five times greater.