July 29, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Metaphors in science and society

I recently had an interesting twitter conversation with Alex Brown (@alex_brovvn), Peter Broks (@peterbroks), Bev Gibbs (@bevgibbs), Angela Cassidy (@ange_cass) and Sophia Collins (@sophiacol) about metaphors for the spread of knowledge and for science communication. I also read two interesting blog posts related to that conversation, one by Peter Broks and one by Alex Brown.

In this blog post I want to explore another metaphor for metaphor (and science communication), but also provide some historical insights into the study of metaphor and how it structures our thinking and acting (about science and society).

Metaphors as the mind’s eyes

The German philosopher Hans Vaihinger wrote a century and a half ago in his book The Philosophy of As if: “All cognition is the perception of one thing through another.” And one should add: All perception is the cognition of one thing through another. As James Gleick pointed out in his 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science, echoing others before him: “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.”

Metaphors are based on the (mental) perception of one thing through another, of seeing something as something (else). They enable us to establish bridges between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the unimaginable and the imaginable, for example between computers and viruses; genes and computers; clocks and universes, humans and machines…. This means that metaphors enable us to see the world and think the world. Metaphors are the mind’s eyes. They are also the mind’s tools to create the world we live in. They have not only perceptual and cognitive, but also performative and political force, as they commit those who create and use them to accepting a system of standard beliefs or commonplaces associated with them, as Max Black pointed out in 1962. The visions of the world that we create through metaphors make us act on the world in the way we see it or want to see it or, indeed, may also prevent us from acting in or on the world. What is perceived as real or not real is real in its consequences. Such metaphorical frameworks can enhance scientific discovery, can be useful in the context of science communication but can also hinder the interaction between science and policy.

Gertrude Buck on metaphor

The theory of metaphor as pervasive to cognition and social action is an old one and was not created in the 1980s by cognitive linguists like George Lakoff, as is so often assumed. One of the many thinkers to discuss the topic of metaphor from a ‘modern’ perspective was a 19th-century psychologist, Gertrude Buck. In her doctoral dissertation of 1897 she pointed out that a child calling a bird’s nest a house uses metaphor just as much as Newton might have done when calling the universe a clockwork. They both use metaphors to express the inexpressible. One might say, metaphorically, that they both use metaphors as ladders to access new conceptual spaces, ladders that can later be thrown away, once the child learns about birds and what is conventionally called their nests, or once physicists learn that the universe is … perhaps a membrane (but actually, what the universe is still lies beyond our grasp and metaphors are the only thing we have to ‘knock on heaven’s door’, to steal a book title from Lisa Randall).

Metaphors as ladders

Metaphors relate to learning and learning depends on metaphor. And this is a life-long process. Buck asked: “Is it not possible that the same psychological process of growing differentiation in perception may lie at the root of both phenomena?”, that is, the naïve use of metaphor by the child and the more creative or poetic one by, say, Newton. There is however, a difference between this instinctive use of metaphor and the one hand and the more creative, poetic and, in some instances, political use of metaphor on the other. According to Buck, poetic metaphor is: “a straightforward attempt to communicate to another person the maker’s vision of an object as it appeared to him at the moment of expression … the writer is simply taking a snap-shot at his own process of perception in one of its intermediate stages”.

Poetic metaphor is, I propose, a ladder into a certain person’s or social group’s conceptual universe or space and makes us partake of their vision of the world (or not). Buck argues that “the force brought by metaphor to bear upon the reader’s mind is considerably greater than that put forth by plain statement. While the latter avails only to propel the reader’s thought along an accustomed and preferred channel, metaphor forces it to fall in with that of the writer, to trace the writer’s branching idea back to its source and then to follow its ramifications beyond the point of actual expression, to traverse a road that may be wholly new, a country hitherto unseen”. And this can have social and political consequences, as cognitive scientists have recently (re)discovered.

Metaphors, ladders and science (and scientists)

Metaphors as ladders leading into new conceptual spaces or ‘countries hitherto unseen’, used by children, scientists, or indeed anybody, can help us explore new spaces but they can also fail. Some are good ladders and some are faulty ladders. One has to test out which ones work and which ones don’t. Sometimes we may be afraid to test new metaphors or abandon old ones as we may be inhibited by social norms or political circumstances. Sometimes there is just cognitive laziness involved. Some ladders can become so popular (conventional) and stable (such the genome as the ‘book of life’) that nobody even sees them anymore and that can be dangerous too. And finally, some ladders may intentionally be placed to mis-lead. Being aware of and alert to the power of metaphor and how it shapes perception, cognition and action is therefore as important when doing science as it is when engaging society with science.

For many people ‘science’ and also ‘scientists’ are still a new ‘country hitherto unseen’. That is why so many stereotypes of science and scientists continue to permeate people’s perception and understanding (the mad hair, the white coat, the alchemical paraphernalia, the manic German accent, etc…. ‘here be dragons‘!). Some metaphorical framings of science and scientists seem to be amongst the most stable (and faulty) metaphorical ladders there are. Whenever a new scientific breakthrough is announced, especially in the biosciences, various narratives, myths and clichés are used to metaphorically frame them and the scientists that help to achieve them. So scientists invariable ‘play God’, or ‘Prometheus’ or ‘Frankenstein’, ‘open Pandora’s box’, create a ‘brave new world’ and so on. These hubristic, religious and quasi-religious framings obscure the way scientists really work but are almost inevitable when reporting on scientific breakthroughs. And, of course, it is also possible to reclaim metaphors, such as playing God, for science communication as Adam Rutherford has done a few days ago.

There are many issues that need further thought. At what point are such ladders finally thrown away? What determines their stability and use? What are the social and political consequences of their use or misuse? These are all questions that social scientists and metaphor analysts try to answer, especially with relation to various scientific controversies such as GM, synthetic biology and climate change for example.

And finally: My metaphor of metaphors as ladders may not be dynamic enough to capture interactions between science and society, thinking and acting. And so, as Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said: You are invited to throw away the ladder, after you have climbed up on it (Tractatus, 6.54)!

Image: Metaphor enthusiast (me) on ladder in Bandelier National Monument

Posted in LanguageMetaphorsScienceScience Communication