December 18, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Science Public 2020: End of year round-up of blog posts
The year began quite innocently, with me blogging, for example, about gene drives. What are gene drives? Who cares about them? And so on. This has now turned into: Who cares? 2020 has been steamrolled by one big event: the Covid-19 pandemic. This meant that many of my posts were devoted to it, that is to say, mostly to its metaphorical framing.
I started the year with something that a bit later would become highly topical: hand hygiene. I reflected on a past project with Kim Hardie and others, where we had tried to develop an educational interactional toy to increase children’s understanding of bacteria and willingness to wash their hands regularly. When Covid came Kim was immediately on the radio talking about the importance hand washing.
After that something else became a topic that now is almost forgotten, but will come back again and again, namely bushfires, this time in Australia. I talked about the difficult subject of the increase in such fires and the issue of climate change and climate change communication.
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, AI and algorithms would probably have featured more prominently in the news and in my posts. This year I only wrote one little post on algorithms, after they became newsworthy for all the wrong reasons, namely the excuse used by the government for their abysmal handling of this year’s A-level exams results: ‘mutant algorithms’. I also wrote one post about ‘xenobots’ and metaphors – a bit of an outlier!
However, I focused mostly on my current topic of choice, genes, and at the moment in particular, gene drives (a technology that can increase the odds of a certain gene being inherited, which could be used to tackle malaria and control invasive species). I talked about the issue of the potential eradication of red squirrels, a topic that was foregrounded in the media after a research group had made an advance in the use of gene drive for the management of non-native species.
In the context of the communication of gene drives a few metaphors have been used, none with outstanding success, I have to admit. One of them is the Trojan Horse metaphor, which can be used to explain the science behind gene drives, but which can also be employed to discuss the potential dangers of the application of that science. One of my posts focused on that thorny issue.
Surprisingly, I still wrote a post in August, that is the then middle of the pandemic, that was about gene drives and societal narratives and summarises all the other things I have written about around gene drives over the last year or so.
As I have written loads of posts about gene/genome editing and/or CRISPR in the past, I couldn’t let this year’s Nobel in Chemistry go by unnoticed, which was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier. This was the first time that a Nobel went jointly to two female scientists. A couple of months earlier, in July, I also wrote a quick post on ‘gene writing’.
And in December, after a rather exciting announcement that the problem of protein folding had been solved, I wrote a post tracing the hype around this announcement and asking for some humility.
But of course, the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it spreads, namely COVID-19 or Covid for short, has dominated everything and has impacted heavily on our lives and our language, as the Oxford English Dictionary has nicely documented. I myself got immersed in collecting and dissecting metaphors used to talk about the science and the politics of Covid. At the moment I am editing a special issue on all that for the journal Metaphor and Symbol with Martin Döring – it should come out at the beginning of next year.
As early as January this year, I wrote a quick literature review, focusing in particular on my own work on war metaphors. This was the time when world leaders around the world gradually began to use war metaphors to talk about how they’d tackle the pandemic. War metaphors were embraced by some and rejected by others.
During March, I homed in on pandemic metaphors starting with a post in which I tried to give an overview of metaphors for the virus, for dealing with the virus (here I returned to war metaphors), for how the virus spread, as well as uses of the virus as a metaphor to talk about other things. I added to that post throughout March and April, making it slightly unwieldy, but still informative, I hope.
In some other posts I looked at emerging metaphors in a bit more detail, sometimes provoked by events or speeches, sometimes by other people’s writing. An article by Ed Yong entitled ‘Our pandemic summer’ contained, for example a lot of interesting metaphors centred around the containers and barriers, as well as journey metaphors, where paths lead out of containers (lockdown) and across barriers. I explored ‘lockdown’, Collins’ word of the year, in a bit more etymological detail here, as well as all sorts of combinations of words around lockdown, such as lockdown hair for example, which in my case has got really long.
I explored some (good) journey metaphors used in a speech by Dominic Raab – an exception to the general rule of government press conferences. The Dominic Cummings affair gave me the opportunity to ruminated on the expressions ‘moving on’ and ‘getting on with it’.
Journeys happen through a landscape. During the pandemic various landscapes were evoked in speeches about pandemic policy. Here we have a convergence of metaphors and mathematically models, graphs and images, which is an important topic for disease management, especially COVID-19, where ‘flattening the curve’ became a mantra for a while. From there it was no great leap to exploring other pandemic landscapes, their peaks and plateaus, tunnels and waves.
Then I turned my attention to something completely different, namely the history of ‘bubbles’, a way of permitting people to return to some semblance of normal life during the pandemic, first explored in New Zealand. At the time of writing, close to Christmas, there is lots of talk of ‘bubbling’ in the news, i.e. families mingling over Christmas. That always brings to my mind an image of a cauldron containing something rather toxic.
Despite all the metaphors and all the policies the pandemic kept on going and policy makers experimented with further metaphors, for examples machine metaphors, such as dimmer switches and circuit breakers, and the more intuitive one of firebreak. The latest news about various successful vaccine trials made politicians like Boris Johnson dream of the scientific cavalry coming over the horizon and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam use a series of lengthy football metaphors
At the very end of the year, vaccination began, first in the UK, using the Pfizer/BioNthek vaccine, then in the US, South America and now Europe, and of course Russia and China. So I wrote a quick post about emerging metaphors that made help or hinder the uptake of vaccines.
However, these hopeful events happened against the backdrop of some worrying developments, namely the emergence of a new, more transmissible, strain, widely reported as a ‘mutant strain’. So I also wrote a quick post about that.
During the pandemic I not only kept an eye on words, phrases and metaphors, but also on texts, images and music. I looked at emerging images of the virus, at music and songs composed and performed apart-together during national lockdowns and in times of social distancing (a post co-written with Martin Döring and Pernille Bogø Jørgensen), and, of course, I looked at pandemic poetry as well – although I really only scratched the surface here! This led however to a nice correspondence and long-distance friendship with the poet Maureen Sutton.
Pandemic science and politics
Now I’ll come to some posts that deal more directly with science and politics during the pandemic. In early February, when rumours about the virus were swirling around in China, I reflected a bit on the more positive aspects of rumours as social tools to foster resilience. Of course, that goes out of the window when rumours become conspiracy theories.
After rumours came science and with science came the once ubiquitous but so mysterious ‘R number’. So in one post I tried to get my head round that one.
In another post, which also deals with some metaphors around sanitation and sewage, I jumped directly into the then heated debates about science, SAGE and policy. The post also dealt with the ‘follow the science’ slogan discussed by so many. At the end of the year, tribes began to emerge, tribes of scientists and tribes of publics who no longer talked to each other. I explored this a bit in a post I called ‘sleepwalking into pandemic polarisation’, wondering why we didn’t see this coming after all the trouble with climate change.
And finally, I wrote a post about all the wonderful efforts that people are making to communicate and engage around COVID-19, stressing that amongst all the misinformation swirling around there is also some good communication going on, and we should not forget that. I called this Covidcomm (rhyming with scicomm). To the list of names I mention in that post I now have to add a few more, for example, Linda Bauld, Devi Sridhar, Chris Smith, David Spiegelhalter, Christina Pagel, Adam Kucharski and many more – for a much better overview than I could ever give, please read Gaia Vince’s post here.
All my pandemic posts are now collected in a wakelet here.
As my health wasn’t quite what it should be this year, I had the honour of hosting quite a few guest posts on topics ranging from genetics to responsible innovation and beyond.
Rebecca Hardesty wrote about more dilemmas in science journalism about genetics research in the case of gene drives
Sarah Perrault and Meaghan O’Keefe wrote about new metaphors for new understandings of genomes.
Patrick Backhouse wrote about responsible innovation and capacity building.
Jennifer Metcalfe wrote about climate change and blogging.
Peter Broks used my blog to announce his exciting new venture he calls ‘alchemarium’, which is all about new ways of thinking about and doing science communication.
Massimiano Simons wrote two posts for me, one on engineering biology and what it might mean; the other on minimal genomes and the assumptions that go into their construction.
Colleagues also wrote three posts relating to the coronavirus:
Chris Toumey mused about the colour of the now so well-known protein spikes on the Covid-19 virus.
Elena Semino allowed me to repost a post she had written on fire metaphors for Covid-19.
And Abigail Wood reflected on the interface between science and policy when trying to control Covid-19.
I hope 2021 will be better than 2020……and that human contact will be possible again….
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