In How I do research, TurnTrout writes:
[I] Stare at the problem on my own, ignoring any existing thinking as much as possible. Just think about what the problem is, what's confusing about it, what a solution would look like. In retrospect, this has helped me avoid anchoring myself. Also, my prior for existing work is that it's confused and unhelpful, and I can do better by just thinking hard.
The MIRI alignment research field guide has a similar sentiment:
It’s easy to fall into a trap of (either implicitly or explicitly) conceptualizing “research” as “first studying and learning what’s already been figured out, and then attempting to push the boundaries and contribute new content.”
The problem with this frame (according to us) is that it leads people to optimize for absorbing information, rather than seeking it instrumentally, as a precursor to understanding. (Be mindful of what you’re optimizing in your research!) [...]
... we recommend throwing out the whole question of authority. Just follow the threads that feel alive and interesting. Don’t think of research as “study, then contribute.” Focus on your own understanding, and let the questions themselves determine how often you need to go back and read papers or study proofs.
Approaching research with that attitude makes the question “How can meaningful research be done in an afternoon?” dissolve. Meaningful progress seems very difficult if you try to measure yourself by objective external metrics. It is much easier when your own taste drives you forward.
And I'm pretty sure that I have also seen this notion endorsed elsewhere on LW: do your own thinking, don't anchor on the existing thinking too much, don't worry too much about justifying yourself to established authority. It seems like a pretty big theme among rationalists in general.
At the same time, it feels like there are fields where nobody would advise this, or where trying to do this is a well-known failure mode. TurnTrout's post continues:
I think this is pretty reasonable for a field as young as AI alignment, but I wouldn't expect this to be true at all for e.g. physics or abstract algebra. I also think this is likely to be true in any field where philosophy is required, where you need to find the right formalisms instead of working from axioms.
It is not particularly recommended that people try to invent their own math instead of studying existing math. Trying to invent your own physics without studying real physics just makes you into a physics crank, and most fields seem to have some version of "this is an intuitive assumption that amateurs tend to believe, but is in fact wrong, though the reasons are sufficiently counterintuitive that you probably won't figure it out on your own".
But "do this in young fields, not established ones" doesn't seem quite right either. For one, philosophy is an old field, yet it seems reasonable that we should indeed sometimes do it there. And it seems that even within established fields where you normally should just shut up and study, there will be particular open questions or subfields where "forget about all the existing work and think about it on your own" ought to be good advice.
But how does one know when that is the case?