Creative Thinking in Epidemiology

for Workshops at ENVIRON & UMass Amherst on 19 Sept & U. Toronto/CancerCare Ontario on 21 Sept

Table of Contents

Creative Thinking in Epidemiology
Process themes
Themes about the workshop Topic
Guided (topic-based) freewriting
Discussion Paper
led by
Peter J. Taylor
Graduate track in Science in a Changing World
University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA 02125, USA.

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.


(as of 18 Sep 11)
Initial activity (guided freewriting looking ahead on the workshop; share one question with neighbor)
Overview of workshop goals [see above], schedule, and themes [see summary at end]

Autobiographical backgrounds: “How I ‘grew up to be’ someone who would join in a workshop on creative thinking in epidemiology”

Everyone encouraged to take notes on points of intersection, interest, curiosity.
After every third introduction, stop to draw connections (on a large sheet of paper) and discuss with a neighbor what is emerging.
After all the intros, extract from our sheets of connections 5 statements or questions (copies submitted to be circulated after the workshop).not done, for reasons of time

Focus on Discussion paper (read in advance; see link below) providing six contributions to the workshop topic.

30 minute Break for: meal together; to sign up for office hours; and to share thoughts in a 3-minute survey at
Compilations of responses: 19 Sept CtiEGatherThoughts19Sep11.pdf, 21 SeptCTiE21Sep11.PDF

Office Hours (

Dialogue Process (introduced in a way that can be taught to a group on the spot, on: opening up new directions in our epidemiological thinking and research

Closing circle:
1. What we are taking away to chew on or put into practice
2. Appreciation + Something to be developed more in future workshops
(Comments from 19 Sept; Comments from 21 sept)


Process themes

a) Participants always bring a lot of knowledge about the topic, so allow that to be brought to surface and acknowledged.
b) What you really learn from a workshop or participatory experience is what you integrate with your own history and concerns.
c) There should be reflection on each phase to take into next phase.
d) The workshop should unfold according to the sequence of “4Rs”: a well-facilitated collaborative process keeps us listening actively to each other, fostering mutual Respect that allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans each of us develops (Re-engagement).
e) Emphasize inquiry—seeking clarifications and deeper understanding—more than advocacy, making a statement, or establishing shared conclusions.
f) In any go around, it is OK to pass.

Themes about the workshop Topic

[to be filled in by participants]

Guided (topic-based) freewriting

an exercise to clear mental and/or emotional space and to allow ideas about an issue to begin to come to the surface before you simply push ahead.

In a freewriting exercise, you should not take your pen off the paper. Keep writing even if you find yourself stating over and over again, "I don't know what I'm expected to say." What you write will not be shown to anyone else, so do not go back to tidy up sentences, grammar, spelling. You will probably diverge from the topic, at least for a time while you acknowledge other preoccupations. That's OK- one of the purposes of the exercise is to express what is distracting you is. However, if you keep writing and do not stop for seven to ten minutes, you should expose some thoughts about the topic that had been below the surface of your attention-that is another of the aims of the exercise. There is no expectation about how much gets clear in this exercise-there will be plenty of time yet and opportunities for being stimulated by others. Reference: Elbow, P. 1981. Writing with Power. New York: Oxford U. P.

Continue where this sentence leaves off: Thinking about ways that a 4-hour workshop could help me to opening up new directions in epidemiological thinking and research, the questions, experiences, and hopes that come to mind include….

Discussion Paper

version: 4 Sept. 2011
Peter J. Taylor

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.

continued here: CreativeThinkinginEpidemiologyPaper.pdf


1. Notes from Luncheon Roundtable at 3rd North American Congress of Epidemiology: “Not continuing along previous lines: Exploring how new directions emerge in epidemiological research” EpiCongress22June11RoundtableNotes.pdf
2. Epidemiological thinking in public discourse EpidemiologicalThinkingInPublicDiscourse.pdf
3. Epidemiological Thinking and Population Health: An Open Source-like Curriculum TeachingforEpidemiologicalLiteracy.pdf
4. Alternatives to some statistical conventions AlternativesToSomeStatisticalConventions.pdf