Thursday, February 24, 2011

A metaphor too far

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 [1]. 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 [7].

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’ [10]. They might sympathize with biologist Paul Hebert’s response to criticisms of his ‘DNA barcoding’ metaphor [11]: “Why want to be so scientifically proper as to make our science tedious?” [12]

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 [13]. 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” [14].


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).


JimmyGiro said...

What, no metaphors?

Does this mean they will have to do maths in Women's Studies?

Why the concern of metaphors, when science has managed for centuries without trouble? Is it because people actually doing the science these days, include ever more stupid graduates, that they can't tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw?

Surely science should be concerned more with direct political interference, than the choice of anthropomorphic words in illustration. Consider research that states "Same sex couples make better parents", or "Anthropomorphic Global Warming"; the problem is not so much the confusion by analogy, it is the confusion between truth and authority; the latter being bought and paid for by which ever ministry needs a propaganda boost.

The words and their metaphors are fine, it's the pipers tune, and who's paying for it, that is the problem.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Here's my take from the perspective of a science educator.

Glad to see that this issue is deald upfront in high level science magazines. Thank you.

Philip Ball said...

I'm not sure I completely follow you, Jim, but I'm not sure that science has indeed managed for centuries without trouble. I think science has struggled against this problem for centuries ("survival of the fittest", say?). Indeed, in the very earliest days (16th century, say) metaphor and analogy were accepted virtually as a form of scientific argument - a consequence of science's roots in Neoplatonic magic. This "just as X, so Y" tendency survives in popular and pseudoscientific culture ("if the moon affects the tides, and we are mostly water..."). But scientists aren't always as clear about these distinctions as they might like to believe.

JimmyGiro said...

Maybe there needs to be a clear distinction between types of 'science' communication.

(i) Science research.
(ii) Science writing.
(iii) Science education.

I was referring to (i), though I see that you were probably referring to all three.

Unknown said...

As Humphry Davy said: "Perceiving analogies and comparing them by facts is the creative source of discovery". Perhaps metaphors are useful for scientific breakthroughs-discoveries and figuring out new relationships. Yet usually metaphors are surpassed by the complexity of reality. I can't help but think that metaphor persistence in "public memory" is the reason why every single interview I hear scientists can´t avoid using that infamous pet phrase: "not exactly..." ("not quite...").

Unknown said...

Sadly, the sentence Lewontin quotes (FN 14) is unverifyable in the Wiener/Rosenbluth papers in Philosophy of Science.

Anonymous said...

This is something I am going to be a bit more aware of from now on—which words are chosen, whether in the news or science. Can we even uncover the truths behind some metaphors, if we are not aware of the metaphors themselves?
But the truth can be a subjective thing...

Mong H Tan, PhD said...

RE: Adding another drop into the ocean!?

I thought you're right: I had just added another drop of "metaphor-industry" into your nice Nature musing piece, therein!

Best wishes, Mong 3/3/11usct4:21p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).