June 16, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Do metaphors really matter?

I, like many others, from Leibniz to Lakoff, think that metaphors are important for human thinking and acting. They make us see the world in different ways – for good or evil. So, one should keep an eye on them. Recently I have read two articles which seem to imply that metaphors matter less than I had thought. That is interesting. One article dealt with attitudes to germline modification and the other with public understanding of the scientific consensus on climate change. Let’s have a look at them.

Germline modification

At the end of May, a paper by Steven Weisberg et al. appeared in Frontiers in Public Health dealing with public attitudes to CRISPR (more specifically, the use of CRISPR in germline modification). The paper is entitled ‘A CRISPR New World’, a title that plays both with the ever-punnable word CRISPR (see for example: ‘Genome editing: That’s the way the CRISPR crumbles’) and also references the ever-present biotech cliché of ‘Brave New World’. The title and various phrases in the article itself (revolution, tipping point, game changer) make it sound a bit breathless and slightly hyped. (The article also doesn’t mention any other gene/genome editing surveys, of which there are quite a few; the most recent one by the Nuffield Foundation)

However, the meat of the article is quite interesting. It explores US American attitudes to germline modification, commonly known as gene editing or genome editing. Participants were recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the authors used a vignette study designed to test whether various metaphorical framings of germline modification would influence attitudes towards that new science and technology.

The results are a bit startling. The people they surveyed supported, on the main, genetic modification research. This was the first surprise. The second one was that their attitudes were not influenced by the framing of this type of still quite futuristic genetic modification. Metaphors, such as genetic modification, engineering, editing, hacking and surgery did, on the whole, not influence attitudes. Neither did, and that’s the third surprise, a risk framing (there were variations, though, with regard to various demographics, see article). (On the gene surgery metaphor, see my blog post here)

This disconfirmed the authors’ initial hypothesis that “the way information about new technology is presented influences people’s attitudes” (p. 2). They conclude: “We did not find that common metaphors used to describe genetic modification influenced people’s attitudes. From our data, there is no evidence that the media’s use of language influences people’s attitudes in ways that scientists might not intend” (p. 7).

The authors explore some possible reasons for this, such as that “this sample of participants with a relatively high degree of support for research in genetic modification may have been at ceiling such that they were insensitive to modulation by framing metaphors.”

The results puzzle me, as I always assumed metaphors would have some sort of impact on people’s attitudes. On to the second article.

Climate change consensus

The other paper that found that metaphors didn’t really have a communicative effect dealt with the issue of how best to communicate the climate change consensus. This paper was published in 2014, but I only recently stumbled upon it. Van den Linden et al. asked “to what extent can descriptive text, pie charts and metaphors influence people’s estimate of the scientific consensus? Second, do any of these three approaches have a comparative advantage in terms of their ability to improve public understanding?”

Their findings were, again, rather unexpected: “First, regardless of whether the message is in the form of a metaphor, descriptive text or pie chart, providing people with information about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is effective in and of itself and can significantly increase people’s estimates of the scientific consensus […]. Second, as a communication device, the pie chart and descriptive text were most effective at conveying the scientific consensus on climate change” – not the metaphors! As I said in a tweet – a pie in your face is probably easier to understand than a metaphor in your brain…

Do metaphors matter?

Again, I was somewhat surprised, and, to be honest, disappointed about these results, especially since I had just read yet another paper exploring the potential of metaphors to shape people’s attitudes. Paul Thibodeau (a specialist in this field) et al. argued in a recent paper “that certain metaphors for the human-environment relationship can lead people to adopt a more nuanced and responsible conception of their place in the natural world.”

Where does this leave us? One or two studies obviously don’t make a summer, so to speak. But they perplex me. I’d love to hear from other metaphor analysts, especially those studying the function of metaphors in persuasion, about what they think about the studies and about the matter of whether metaphors matter or not in shaping understanding of and attitudes to scientific issues. Understanding these issues better is important for science communication.

Image: Pixabay

Posted in biotechnologyClimate ChangegenomicsMetaphorspublic engagement with scienceresponsible innovation