August 10, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
Mind change: Some thoughts on the moral implications of metaphors
This quick post was prompted by Andrew Anthony’s article in The Observer on Susan Greenfield’s forthcoming book Mind Change and subsequent exchanges on twitter.
Metaphors are essential to the development of science and indispensable to science communication. I have been fascinated by metaphor for a long time, well before I became fascinated by science in general and climate science and climate change in particular.
For me metaphors make the world go round, so to speak, but I am, of course, not the only who thinks this. Hans Vaihinger said around 1870: “All cognition is the perception of one thing through another.” Gregory Bateson wrote a hundred years later: “Metaphor, that’s how the whole fabric of mental interconnections holds together. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive.” And, of course, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” In short, metaphors let us see or understand something (new, unknown) in terms of something (old, known). They are indispensable to how we think, act and talk in an ever-changing world.
I was therefore pleased when Susan Greenfield gave a lecture on neuroscience in 2007 at the University of Nottingham and said (as far as I remember): “Seeing one thing in terms of another makes connections”; “connections mean significance/meaning” and: “This is how we grow a mind from a brain”. She also told us that we as educators should foster creativity which brings with it a strong sense of self, of being different, of doing something or seeing something that no one else has thought of before. A year earlier, in 2006, I had shared a platform with her at a metaphor conference and enjoyed chatting with her and discovering our mutual admiration for metaphor, for her an important aspect of the brain and mind, for me also an important aspect of science and society.
Change of climate
Since around 2005 I have become interested in the language of climate change and studied some metaphors used to frame climate change and its implications. Since around 2010 I have noticed that Greenfield started to use a specific metaphor, ‘mind change’, to argue that our growing use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and so on) and video games, is changing our brains, reducing our capacity for empathy and also our ability to creatively use metaphor. I also noticed that this metaphor of mind change was modelled on and drew inspiration from the phrase ‘climate change’. However, I never reflected on this issue in detail. Today I asked myself: What does this metaphor of mind change actually mean and is it a good metaphor and if not why not.
Mind change and climate change
In this video Greenfield asks: “Is Mind Change the new Climate Change?” She provides a slightly curious definition of climate change: “Thirty years ago, the term ‘Climate Change’ meant little to most people. Today, it is widely understood as the umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of environmental issues such as carbon sequestration, alternative energy sources, or water use. Some feel that we’re doomed, others that the issues are exaggerated. Many believe that science can still help”. She “suggests there could be an unprecedented feature unique to the 21st Century that, like Climate Change, covers a diverse range of questions and invites controversy and differing views as to how to dealt with it.” This is ‘mind change’.
Greenfield’s curious definition of climate change might stem from trying to map new technologies that impact the environment onto new (digital) technologies that may impact the brain. I am not sure.
In an interview she explains that “just as ‘climate change’ is an umbrella term, a collective noun representing a cluster of issues, we encounter a similar phenomenon when we examine the changing conditions of the human mind” – ‘mind change’. Elsewhere she maps several features of climate change onto mind change: “Like climate change, it’s unprecedented, global, controversial and multifaceted, and it’s one of the big challenges of our age.”
Two features of climate change in particular seem to be important to this mapping between mind and climate, namely that climate change is ‘unprecedented’ and that it is ‘alarming’. And just as climate change poses a threat to humanity so does, in Greenfield’s eyes, mind change. As Andrew Anthony remarks in the Observer article, Greenfield’s detractors have therefore accused “her of being alarmist and a scaremonger”.
Interestingly, the word ‘alarmist’ is also sometimes used by some to refer to climate scientists warning about (and exaggerating the) threats posed by climate change. However, in my view, commentators using this term with reference to ‘mind change’ have better foundations for using it, as mind change has, to my knowledge, not yet been scientifically established as a phenomenon, let alone a threat, while climate change has. So one might argue that climate change as a threat is alarming, whilst positing mind change as a threat is alarmist.
The possible threat posed by mind change is explained in an interview (strangely dealing with the psychology of climate change): “Between a child’s 10th and 11th birthday, they spend on average 900 hours in class, but around 2000 hours in front of a TV or computer screen. The effect of this ‘screen culture’ and strongly sensory environment is to shorten the attention span, to favour processing content rather than true meaning, and to lacking the ability to handle metaphor and abstract concepts. ‘In a sense you are turning yourself into a computer.’” Mind change is seen here as reduction in our ability to create and understand metaphor and therefore to think and talk effectively. If this were indeed true, this would be very worrying, and, indeed alarming. As Greenfield said in 2010: “Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”
In particular, Greenfield worries about an increase in autism related to mind change which for her implies the gradual rewiring of our brains and the gradual shrinking of our ability to create metaphors, to see one thing in terms of another, and our capacity to see the world through the eyes of somebody else: “We are moving from a culture of metaphor to a culture of experience, of literal sensory experiences – a ‘what you see is what you get’ world similar in some ways to that of the sufferer of autism.” Such claims have been hotly disputed by a the psychologist Dorothy Bishop for example.
Playing with fire
Metaphors are little cognitive and communicative miracles. They enable us to expand our knowledge, facilitate social interaction and, as Greenfield has pointed out, probably to ‘grow our brains’. However, creating new metaphors also has ethical implications and should not be done lightly. Some years ago I wrote an introduction to a book that explored some aspects of the politics and ethics of metaphor use in science communication and quoted a psychologist who said that “metaphor is the cognitive fire that ignites when the brain rubs two different thoughts together” (States 2001: 105; italics added). I went on to say that this can create an instant glow of cognitive and creative satisfaction, but it can also lead to serious problems, as both the use of fire and the use of metaphor have ethical implications.
In the case of ‘mind change’ as a metaphor, we have to think about how it might affect young people who enjoy playing video games creatively and interactively (and their parents!) and who might think they are doing something ‘wrong’. We should also, and more importantly, think about the impact this metaphor may have on people with ADHD or autism who might think that they have been affected by ‘mind change’, despite the paucity of scientific studies demonstrating any of this. And of course many people may think: if mind change is as dangerous as climate change, then I should be worried!
Climate scientists raising the alarm about possible impacts of climate change have provoked angry reactions amongst some people, and one can debate whether these reactions are justified or not. A prominent neuroscientist raising the alarm about possible impacts of mind change, a metaphor that piggy-backs on fears about climate change, has also provoked angry reactions amongst some people (at least on my twitter stream). In this case these reactions are, in my view, quite justified. Metaphors are important in science communication, but they have to be rooted in science and they have to be used with care.
Added 16 August, 2014: Review of Mind change by Cordelia Fine for the Financial Times – calls the ‘book a flight of neurofancy’, focuses on issue of identity and has this to say about the metaphor discussed here: “Greenfield concludes that ‘Mind Change . . . is a phenomenon whose enormity and impact is comparable to climate change.’ Unfortunately, such overblown statements can only leave her whistling into the wind of the storm this book is likely to create.” (HT
Maybe the one similarity between Susan Greenfield’s “mind change” idea and some of what goes on in climate science is the suggestion (criticism?) that those who make particularly strong (outlandish?) claims, should really get their ideas published in the peer-reviewed literature where it can be assessed and tested by other experts, rather than relying on books, newspaper articles and blogs.
That’s certainly an extrapolation from the mind change metaphor that, although apt, would certainly not have been intended by it’s author 😉
Indeed, I had meant to include that in my comment, but forgot 🙂
I thought this was an interesting observation that you made
That’s certainly what I would argue. Not sure that all would agree though 🙂
I should perhaps have quoted the Google definition of ‘alarmist’ (which, I suppose, some would argue, applies to climate change pronouncements): “someone who exaggerates a danger and so causes needless worry or panic. ‘the problem is a fabrication by alarmists’
synonyms: scaremonger, gloom-monger, doom-monger, voice of doom, doomster, doomsayer, doom merchant, Cassandra…’. Or, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who is sensitive to potential dangers, esp. in political, social, or financial matters, and quick to express fears or concerns publicly; esp. one who exaggerates such a danger and so causes needless worry or panic; a panicmonger.” hmmm, lots of …mongers…
Thanks for this post. Indeed metaphors should be “rooted in science”, but as Larsen argues, they are ultimately a mix of scientific facts and social values http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300151534
So if metaphors are crucial to science communication (which I think they are), then it becomes clear that talking about science inherently laden with values; political with a small p. This leaves science open to a different kind of challenge than it receives in the academic literature.
In the case of climate change, science communicators often appear to be looking for more optimal means of ‘getting through to’ readers, often through metaphors. The problem is that such communication can never be value-neutral, so just trying to optimise communication is a misconceived strategy without a consideration of the values within the language.
I think this may be where you and I (typically?) part company. I agree with you that metaphors (and analogies) are an important part of communicating science to a public audience. They’re used to make what might be a complex topic understandable to those who may not have a formal background in science or in that specific field. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all that they’re used for – make something complex easier to understand.
Now I can think of two immediate issues. One is whether or not a metaphor (or analogy) works : do people who hear it gain some understanding of what’s being illustrated? Secondly, are there any unfortunate side effects? Could the metaphor be inappropriate for a particular audience (I have an amusing story along these lines, but this may not be the right forum)? What you seem to be arguing is that there are other issues related to people’s values in terms of politics, but I fail to see why this is an issue if the consequence of the metaphor is to correctly communicate the basics of the science and the metaphor itself isn’t socially unacceptable.
If science should be open and honest, I don’t really see the issue with effectively communicating something scientific, even if the outcome of that is to influence people’s values (in terms of politics at least). So, in my view at least, it’s not that the science is laden with values, it’s that people’s response to an improved understanding of the science may influence their values. I would regard these are two different things.
You appear to be arguing that we might choose not to use an effective metaphor simply because if it were to work to improve understanding of some scientific concept, it might influence people’s values. I have no issue with that if the outcome is indeed an improved understanding of the science being communicated. How people choose to use that improved understanding is up to them.
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside recent debates on this blog and elsewhere about the extent to which science is value-laden. Here, I am taking science to mean that which is published in peer reviewed journals, which is (supposedly) our best means of ensuring that personal biases do not come into play.
Metaphors are presumably a less exact means with which to discuss science than the forensic, technical mode within the scientific literature. As long as the gains in intelligibility exceed any losses in exactitude, then the metaphor may be judged to be successful in some way.
My point is that the *choice* of such metaphors is value-laden. They bring certain aspects to the foreground and push others to the background. Academics of all hues can discuss their work in the public sphere, and will often need to adopt different forms of language in order to do so. However, these changes in language are rarely (ever?!) peer reviewed in the same way that forensic scientific papers are.
War metaphors are an obvious example. When one characterises the treatment of cancer, or arguments about climate change as a ‘war’ or ‘battle’, one is bringing very clear sets of values into play about how we see the world. As B says above, these then become very difficult to escape.
Okay, I’ll grant you that that is certainly true. Fine, I agree that metaphors can be (probably are) value laden. I’ll rephrase my point in a slightly weaker way then. If we’re talking only about using metaphors to help people understand a scientific concept (not to convince them to take a cancer, not to describe climate science disagreements – simply a scientific concept) then the issue of values could be one of two things. The metaphor is value laden and this influences how people perceive the significance of the scientific concept. Alternatively, the metaphor is effective, helps people to understand the concept, and that improved understanding influences their values. I can certainly see the latter being possible. I’m less convinced by the former since if it is an effective metaphor (i.e., it helps people to understand the scientific concept) how does one distinguish between the metaphor being value laden and the greater understanding having an influence on their values. Maybe this is what you’re getting at and maybe their is evidence for this. I’ll read your link.
FWIW, my view is as follows. People aren’t stupid. They understand the concept of a metaphor and they understand why one might be used. A metaphor is effective if it aids understanding. It’s ineffective if it doesn’t. A metaphor that adds unjusitified values to a scientific concept would – in my view – be an ineffective metaphor. Showing that, however, may be harder than it seems.
The use of metaphors in science and science communication is a really complex issue. This article might contribute to the discussion.
I don’t agree with everything they say but I think the article provides a good start for thinking about ‘responsible metaphor use’. Having said this, the mind change metaphor is quite different in nature to the metaphors discussed in this article.
I should also say that it is very difficult to change metaphorical framings. They take on a life of their own. And even if you could find ‘better’ metaphors, these might encounter contexts or be used in contexts that change the meaning ‘you’ intended them to have. Once released metaphors escape your control…
The problem with Greenfield’s framing is that she uses a narrow definition of climate change which emphasises its anthropogenic and potentially catastrophic dimension. This stands in contrast to the broader definition sometimes used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which states that climate change is ‘‘any change in climate over time whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.’’ (However, it has to be said that the IPCC sometimes equates climate change with anthropogenic climate change, see here).
Based on a narrow definition of climate change Greenfield introduces an analogy which emphasises the negative implications. However, if we accept the broad definition of climate change then her rhetorical move is rather hyperbole, not metaphor.
Mind change, understood in analogy to the broad definition of climate change, can thus be positive or negative, brought about not only by new technologies. The rise of the knowledge society has led to a situation where increasing parts of the population went into higher education, long before we were glued to the screens. This has arguably had a strong effect on ‘the mind’. Mind change, therefore, could be seen as a perennial process which is linked to social and demographic change.
I agree. I once flippantly said that ‘mind change’ began, at least, with the first cave paintings!
Really? The link you provide (your “see here”) certainly isn’t an example. In your link the blogger has taken two seperate statements (one a definition and the other a description of policy) and riffed on the possibility that they are both definitions of climate change. They clearly are not.
More explicitly the first statement is the IPCC definition of climate change. The second is a description of the role of the IPCC. The role of the IPCC was from the outset specifically to address the scientific basis of possible risk of human induced climate change (it was created as a more robust, conclusive and authoritative follow on from the “Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases”).
There is nothing incompatible between a definition of Climate Change that encompasses natural and man-made contributions and a policy statement concerning an imperative to assess the possible risks of releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases. One’s a definition and one isn’t!
Note that your blogger attempts a second confusion by suggesting that this footnote:
is “in contradiction” with the IPCC policy statement. That’s also incorrect since the footnote refers specifically to attribution studies in which estimates of man-made and natural contributions are always determined. It is entirely compatible with the IPCC policy statement, since to address man-made contributions in attribution studies one must also consider the natural contributions (as the science reported by the IPCC does).
This sort of attempt (rather widespread sadly) at muddying waters might be considered rather more problematic with respect to faithful public communication of science than poor use of metaphors!.
Yes, you’ve said that rather better than I could. An issue that I have with this type of discussion is that it has the possibility of becoming a situation where one is judging a metaphor on the basis of whether or not it is value laden, rather than on whether or not it is effective at clarifying some complex scientific topic. Of course, here I’m assuming that the scientific evidence isn’t – itself – value laden, but that’s probably a topic best left unexplored.
Yes, I think we are straying away a bit from the topic. Basically, what I wanted to say was that the ‘mind change’ metaphor is of dubious quality because it tries to fan fears about digital technologies messing up our minds (a complex scientific problem, but one that has not yet been scientifically resolved, clarified, etc.) by piggy-backing on fears about climate change. That is all. 😉 (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/greenfieldism)
Indeed, it would be hard to disagree. The research is unpublished, which is in itself a red flag, and the metaphor – as you say – appears to be intended to create some kind of concern/alarm. I would argue that it’s simply an ineffective metaphor as it does not really do anything to explain a complex scientific topic. It associates it with something else, but that association doesn’t really aid understanding, as I see it at least.
That’s about it. It also might lead to actions (by parents, etc etc) which are not based on evidence and can potentially be more damaging than the projected damage inflicted by mind change.
It’s a really bad metaphor because climate change involves an effect that, once started, is difficult to halt, let alone reverse. Greenfield’s whole argument revolves around the fact of neural plasticity, which just means that the brain changes in response to its environment. Suppose she is right and there are adverse effects from using computer technology – we could reverse the effects on the brain by getting children to run around and climb trees, as she would like them to do. It is therefore nothing like climate change because if there were bad effects, they would be reversible.
Needless to say, use of a bad metaphor is only one of many problems affecting Greenfield. Her scaremongering about autism and loading guilt on to already stressed parents is perhaps the worst.
As always with these issues I’d like to see some examples! (of supposedly problematic or misleading metaphors with respect to communication of science in this case). Warren linked to a nice article in the Atlantic (re-linked below) but the primary example there wasn’t really about communicating science as about therapeutic psychology (if one can invent a term!).
I totally agree with Dhruv Khullar about the problems inherent in a patient being confronted with exhortations or insinuations that their disease is there to be battled (we probably all know of friends or relatives who at some point simply feel that they don’t wish any more to “battle” their disease). The broader example of Nixon declaring “War on Cancer” is a metaphor as part of a political exhortation and obviously not a metaphor employed to explain science.
However, a scientist might employ the metaphor that the growth of antibiotic resisitance is part of an evolutionary battle or war, and that seems entirely appropriate (yes?) since it’s effectively true. Most of the examples of metaphor/analogy employed in explaining science that I can think of [gyroscopes for nuclear spin; suns with orbiting planets for atoms (it was “currant buns” in the early 20th century!), black holes etc.] seem to be rather good and don’t seem to be “value-laden” at all.
One might also point out that the arenas in which dodgy metaphors/analogies (that positively drip with “value-laden-ness”!) are most prevalent, are the “anti-science” ones. Think “Climategate” or the metaphor of religion applied to a particular science that the proponent happens not to like (“I regained my sanity when I realized that AIDS science was a religious discourse”)*…and so on…
I once got into a discussion with a microbiologist because I tried to argue that ‘war metaphors’ and ‘catastrophe’ metaphors used around antibiotic resistance (as some say, medicine’s ‘global warming’) were bad in the sense that they might lead to disengagement rather than engagement etc etc. He then argued that for him using metaphors such as ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’ and ‘war’ etc. was the only way to get through to politicians and wake them up so to speak. See his letter appended to my rather convoluted article: It’s interesting to read.
As for value-laden metaphors, the Frankenfood etc. metaphor is probably the most famous.
One should probably distinguish between theory-constitutive metaphors (messenger RNA? epigenetic switches?), explanatory ones (suns with orbiting planets for atoms), and promotional metaphors (post-antibiotic apocalypse; DNA barcodes?) – see: on the latter – Hebert – the originator of that metaphor said: “We knew that we were heading into a campaign for serious public support for the enterprise … the initial pitch was really to the broad readership and not to members of our scientific community … I would never have titled it ‘DNA barcodes’ if I were writing a paper for my five scientific peers … You want to be the flavor of the day.” – see Larson chapter in the Communicating biological sciences book (Strauss chapter and Radford chapters also worth a read!!). But all this is quite fluid, of course. Where would one put the selfish gene for example? Or the brain is a computer? These metaphors underpin or underpinned biology and psychology for a while but also explained and promoted these fields. Perhaps the less visible and unobtrusive a metaphor is, the less value-laden it is and the more important it to the actual inner workings of the science. However, once even these metaphors ‘get out’ they can attract values, e.g. the switch metaphor in epigenetics….
Yes I was going to raise “selfish gene” as an example of a poor metaphor since it is rather misleading if not downright anti-explanatory! I was also going to suggest that Dawkins “selfish gene” and Dr. Greenfield’s “mind change” might be considered self-promotional since they seem both to be snappy, easy-to-remember phrases for promoting the authors ideas/books.
“genetic blueprint” is a poor analogy since our genomes don’t resemble blueprints. “DNA bar codes” is quite good I think since it often refers to those colour-coded DNA sequences that look a bit like a barcode and does represent/identify the species (just like a barcode should!). “messenger RNA” is excellent as an analogy and is definitely embedded in mol biol. “Switch” is used a lot in biology and I don’t see much problem with that.
Another common mol. biol. analogy is to describe some of the complex multiprotein/protein-RNA assemblies (ribosome, ATP synthase etc.) as “machines”. This is a good analogy to me since these things do seem and look like miniature machines – not particularly value-laden but one does have to be on guard if there are any anti-evolutionists/creationists around who might therefore insist that if those things are “machines” they must have been created…
The brain as a computer works quite well on many levels. In fact there are series efforts to build “neuronal computers”. It’s a much better analogy than the 19th century one of the brain as a system of pulleys and levers! As scientific and public knowledge of things scientific increases perhaps our scientific analogies become more accurate in the sense of being more faithful representations of the things themselves.
Ah yes, my son recently tried to explain to me what ATP was (sorry, I really have no formal scientific background) and I thought, ah ATP the crankshaft of life, literally! The Victorians would have loved that!
I’d like to make what seems to be a crucial point with respect to the role of metaphor in science communication. This follows from consideration of this conditional argument of Warren further up the thread:
It’s not obvious that this conditional construction (metaphors are crucial… so science communication is inherently value-laden…so it’s small-p political…so science is open to “different kind of challenge”) is true. Here’s why:
We’ve discussed examples of science metaphors, and Brigitte has distinguished different type (explanatory, promotional, theory-constitutive, value-laden); we’ve even invented types (“self-promotional”). It seems to me that the metaphors used in explaining science are of the value-neutral type (Brigitte and I have given lots of examples in later posts on this thread).
Clearly there are “value-laden” metaphors that are used around science. At least from the examples on this thread (“Frankenfood”, “selfish gene”, “mind change”, “AIDS science is religious discourse”, “battle your disease”), the value-laden metaphors are not about science communication/explanation at all. They are about proselytzing for particular viewpoints, self-promotion, political views, influencing policy, science denial and so on.
In other words whether or not metaphors are crucial to science communication (they are certainly useful), it’s a non-sequitur to conclude that they are necessarily “laden with values”. Metaphors used to explain/communicate science can be rather value-free (at least by the examples we’ve discussed). “Value-laden” metaphors are used not so much to explain science to but pursue vested interests/ulterior motives (at least by the examples we’ve discussed).
What Chis describes is where I was coming from. When I think of metaphors used in science communication then I’m thinking of things that are effective at clarifying or explaining a scientific idea or concept. If they’re effective then, in a sense, they’re by definition not value laden. Similarly, if they are value-laden, then they’re not effective. So, it’s not that I don’t think metaphors can be value laden, it’s that I would argue that metaphors that are effective in helping to communicate a complex scientific concept are not value laden.
Of course, it may be that someone has developed a metaphor that is intended to both communicate a scientific concept and introduce some value associated with that concept (i.e., it explains the science and why we should be scared by what the science is telling us, for example). In that case, I would argue that that isn’t science communication. It’s something else. It’s communicating science with the goal of convincing people that that science is telling us something about how we should behave or what we should do. I don’t have any objection to this necessarily, but it’s not – in my view – pure science communication.
Of course, I may be being a little pedantic here as the boundaries may not be all that well-defined, but this is roughly where I’ve been coming from on this topic.
At the risk of pursuing a subject beyond the point where anyone is taking much notice I’d like to point out that the unevidenced suggestion up the thread that “metaphor is crucial to science communication” just doesn’t seem right, even if as scientists and teachers we certainly do occasionally use metaphor and analogy as communication aids. For example, I read the IPCC communication of the current science on climate change (the Summary for Policymakers) last night and couldn’t find any metaphors (I did get rather bored and may have missed one??). I suspect the absence or limited use of metaphors would apply to the entire IPCC communication of the science on climate change:
Similar conclusions arise from reading of science communication around the effects of CFC’s on the ozone layer (e.g.:
and communication of the science on physiological effects of smoking (e.g.:
(the single metaphor I found here is the statement that “Many tobacco poisons disable the cleaning systems that our bodies use to remove toxins.” which seems to me to be a reasonable and rather value-free metaphor since our physiology does encompass “cleaning systems” although these are called “detoxification systems” in scientific parlance.)….and so on…science can usually be communicated quite easily without using metaphor.
Warren linked to a book review of Dr. Mann’s book on “The Climate Wars”, but again this metaphor (“war”..and the others described in the Nature book review; linked below) is not being used to communicate the science but to describe the dreary attempts to undermine the science (i.e. politics..a sort of “anti-communication” of science that we’ve seen time and time again but which some choose to swallow for various dubious reasons – which we could discuss but probably won’t – each time it happens afresh).
Hmmm that made me think. Perhaps, alongside distinguishing between theory-constitutive, explanatory/didactic, promotional etc. metaphors in science and science communication one should also distinguish between metaphor in science-to-science, science-to-policy, science-to-public, policy-to-public, and media-to-public (science) communication. As you say, it is probably quite difficult to find metaphors in the first two types of communication (and anybody who has read through a policy document will probably agree, although there are differences and some metaphors may be quite hidden), whereas the use of metaphors might increase as we go towards the media end. As for the war metaphor in climate change communication, it has a double meaning – based on what some call conceptual metaphors, one being ‘Managing climate change impacts is war’ (combating climate change, fighting climate change) and the other being ‘Debating climate change is war’ (which links to a very well established conceptual metaphor discussed by Lakoff and Johnson: ‘Argument is war‘….).
Yes, exactly Brigitte. I would say that the sources I linked to (certainly the Cancer Research UK one on effects of ciggie smoking and the US Environmental Protection Agency pages on CFC effects on ozone but also the IPCC Summary for Policymakers) are also prepared as science-public communication sources, and individuals with genuine interest in assessing the state of science can find many such examples. Ultimately, science relating to issues of public importance is often very straightforward to communicate. We shouldn’t pretend that the vast edifices of deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentations of science the public may encounter are necessary elements of science communication, although it does seem that they are part of modern life!
That made me smile, as it sounded a little tiny bit like Locke’s argument against the use of metaphor (‘the perfect cheat’) and the early Royal Society’s (Sprat) caution against eloquence 😉 I know this is not what you meant though! But just because above in the thread there were various ‘mongers’ – I just want to add that in 1675 one John Eachard talked about ‘frightful metaphors’ and ‘Metaphor Mongers‘…. but that is another story!
That’s good (that my post made you smile!). As scientists we generally work really hard so that what we say is what we mean, and if a metaphor doesn’t work or is a little clunky, then that’s not very good at all. However it’s not the end of the world! One can always re-group and try again. The important thing is that the individuals involved (the communicator and the recipient) are conversing in good faith, so that the communicator really wants to convey meaning and the recipient wants to understand the meaning conveyed.
On the other hand there’s always going to be someone who will seize upon a poor metaphor and insist that’s an indication of an attempt to politicise the discourse (they may be right). Likewise “leading” metaphors may be used in an attempt to bolster poor arguments. The “caution against eloquence” is well made! Some of us that are not very articulate (e.g. me) quite like science because of the idea that the facts speak for themselves. Unfortunately, things aren’t so straightforward in the real world, and it seems astonishingly and unbelievably easy for science to be misrepresented, seemingly with little consequence for the misrepresenter – which can be bloody annoying 🙂
Yep, I love metaphors but… they can be bloody annoying too. They can illuminate and clarify but also obscure and obfuscate, open up vistas and close them down, be used for good and for evil, lead to more insight but also mislead….. So yes, one needs to keep a good eye on them!