I have a Muse on Nature’s online news about metaphor in science; here’s the pre-edited version. In this huge and complex topic, this piece is a drop in the ocean.
Are scientists addicted to using metaphorical imagery at the cost of misleading the public and themselves?
Metaphors influence the way we think. In a recent paper in PLoS ONE, Stanford psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky show that how people judge the appropriate response to crime differs significantly when it is presented as a ‘beast’ or a ‘virus’ ravaging society . In the former case they were more likely to call for stronger law enforcement, whereas in the latter there was more openness to solutions involving reform and understanding of root causes.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this study is that the participants were unaware of the role the metaphorical context was playing. Instead they found ways to rationalize their decision based on apparently objective information such as statistics. “Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes”, the researchers say, “metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues.”
To have this demonstrated and quantified is valuable – but perhaps mostly because it underlines what politicians and their advisers have never doubted. If there is a spin doctor or speechwriter who does not already recognize that metaphors sway opinion, it is a mystery how they ever got the job.
It isn’t hard to see why ‘crime as wild beast of prey’ encourages people to think about how to cage or kill it, whereas ‘crime as virus’ fosters more eagerness for ‘scientific’ understanding of causes. But too rarely are such metaphors interrogated at a deeper level.
In both the cases here, crime is presented as a (malevolent) force of nature, outside human agency. Whether beast or virus, the criminal is not like us – is not in fact human. By the same token, a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on terror’ not just is an emotive image but deploys a narrative that bears little relation to reality.
In literature metaphor serves poetic ends; in politics it is a (subtly manipulative) argument by analogy. But in science, metaphor is widely considered an essential tool for understanding. So where then does this latest work leave us?
While the example of crime here imputes natural agency to human actions, science generally invokes metaphors the other way around: natural processes are described as if resulting from intention. This anthropomorphizing tendency was called the ‘pathetic fallacy’ by the nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin, though it was noted two centuries earlier by Francis Bacon.
It is an ingrained and profoundly influential habit, especially in biology [2-6], where intimations of intelligent agency seem irresistible even to those who deplore them. Most famous in this respect is Richard Dawkin’s selfish gene. Given the idea Dawkins strove to convey in his 1976 book of that title, the metaphor seems apt and understandable almost to the point of inevitability. But its problems go well beyond the fact that genes are of course not selfish in the way that people are (which is to say, they are not selfish at all).
For the selfish gene props up the whole notion of a Darwinian world as uncaring to the point of being positively nasty: an image that has sometimes provoked resistance to the sciences in general and natural selection in particular. And as physiologist Denis Noble has compellingly argued, the idea that genes are ‘selfish’ is totally unnecessary for understanding how they work, and in some ways misleading .
But it is no better to talk instead of the ‘cooperative gene’, which is equally value-laden and misinforming. Genes are not selfish or cooperative any more than they are happy or short-tempered. The central problem here is that of scientific metaphor in general [8,9].
Books of life, junk DNA, DNA barcodes – all can and have distorted the picture, not least because sometimes scientists themselves start to forget that these are metaphors. And when the science moves on – when we discover that the genome is nothing like a book or blueprint – the metaphors tend nonetheless to stick. The more vivid they are, the more dangerously seductive and resistant to change.
Thibodeau and Boroditsky give us new cause to be wary, for they show how unconsciously metaphors colour the way we reason. This seems likely to be as true in science – especially a science as emotive as genetics – as in social and political discourse.
Most scientists would probably agree with physiologist Robert Root-Bernstein that ‘metaphors are essential to doing and teaching science’ . They might sympathize with biologist Paul Hebert’s response to criticisms of his ‘DNA barcoding’ metaphor : “Why want to be so scientifically proper as to make our science tedious?” 
But the need for metaphor in science stands at risk of becoming dogma. Maybe we are too eager to find a neat metaphor rather than just explaining what is going on as clearly and honestly as we can. We might want to recognize that some concepts are “a reality beyond metaphor”, as David Baltimore has said of DNA . At the very least, we might admit metaphor into science only after strict examination, and heed the warning of cyberneticists Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener that “the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance” .
1. Thibodeau, P. H. & Boroditsky, L. PLoS ONE 6, e16782 (2011).
2. D. Nelkin, Nat. Rev. Genet. 2, 555-559 (2001).
3. B. Nerlich, R. Elliott & B. Larson (eds), Communicating Biological Sciences (Ashgate, Farnham, 2009).
4. B. Nerlich, B. & Dingwall, R., in Cognitive Models in Language and Thought: Ideology, Metaphors and Meanings (eds R. Dirven, R. Frank & M. Pütz), p.395–428. (Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 2003).
5. Kay, L. E., Who Wrote the Book of Life? (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2000).
6. E. F. Keller, Refiguring Life (Columbia University Press, New York, 1996).
7. D. Noble, The Music of Life (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).
8. G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981).
9. T. L. Brown, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (Univeristy of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003).
10. R. Root-Bernstein, Am. Scient. 91(6) (2003).
11. P. Hebert, Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 270, 313-321 (2003).
12. Quoted in ref. 3, p.161.
13. Quoted in ref. 3, p.158.
14. Quoted in R. C. Lewontin, Science 291, 1263-1264 (2001).