Friday, February 25, 2011

Metaphor At Your Own Risk

This is a very fascinating review of a paper[1]. It discusses the subtle effect of people's understanding and perception of something that has been presented using metaphors {link open for free only for a limited time}.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this study is that the participants were unaware of the how the metaphorical context affected their reasoning. Instead of acknowledging the image's effect, they found ways to rationalize their decisions on the basis of seemingly objective information such as statistics. "Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes," say Thibodeau and Boroditsky, "metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues."

To have this demonstrated and quantified is valuable — not least because it underlines something that 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.

In other words, people can certainly be swayed by STYLE rather than substance (sounds familiar?). How you present your statement, and how you metaphorically describe something, can have a profound influence on how it is perceived by the listener. As stated, this is quite well-known in politics and how some people who barely have anything to say can get away with it (and can get elected to, I presumed).

The examples given in this article focused predominantly on biology. The scary thing is that many of these metaphors tend to stick or become dogmas.

Books of life, junk DNA, DNA barcodes: all these images can and have distorted the picture, not least because scientists themselves sometimes forget that they 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 the image, the more dangerously seductive and resistant to change it is.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky give us new cause to be wary, for they show how unconsciously metaphors colour our reasoning. This seems likely to be as true in science — especially a science as emotive as genetics — as it is in social and political discourse.

I would think that in physics, we do have plenty of such metaphors. Dark energy, dark matter, the god particles, etc. are some of the examples that popped into my head at this moment. These names carry a lot of connotations to the general public who have no clue on the physics. Thus, the names themselves are the descriptive that stick to them and what they understand these things to be. There are reasons to be concerned about this, as stated at the end of this article.

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 explain what is going on as clearly and honestly as we can. We might want to recognize that some scientific concepts are "a reality beyond metaphor", as Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has said of DNA3. At the very least, metaphor should be admitted into science only after strict examination. We ought to heed the warning of pioneering cyberneticists Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener that "the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance".

This is another example on why the Helen Quinn's piece on a plea for the language that we use is so important for scientists to read.


[1] P.H. Thibodeau, P. H. and L. Boroditsky, PLoS ONE 6, e16782 (2011).

1 comment:

åka said...

I'm pessimistic about the possibility to get rid of metaphors. Many metaphors are created not to communicate something but to try to grasp it in your own head. Whether you want it or not, you have to compare things to other things you know from before. Sometimes this metaphorical thinking is fruitful, and sometimes it's a dead end -- but it's probably necessary because that's how thinking works.

It doesn't hurt to be aware of it, and to remind eachother to not get stuck in the metaphors. Actually, as you point out, it's really important.