Why we should care about the language we use in science

This post first appeared in the ‘On Society’ blog at BioMed Central and is reposted here with permission. *** Brigitte Nerlich and Carmen McLeod at the Synthetic Biology Research Centre at the University of Nottingham have given ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ a new twist, by focusing on responsible language use. As everybody knows by now, words matter in politics as …

Climate change metaphors: Crimes, detectives and fingerprints

For quite a few years I have written about metaphors in climate change, such as the metaphors of the greenhouse and the footprint. There is one metaphor I overlooked, and that is the one of the ‘fingerprint’. While the carbon footprint metaphor was used in order to get people to act on climate change, making them …

Cars and cancer: Metaphorical musings on the occasion of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Metaphors are weird. They are crucial for the expansion of human knowledge. However, they don’t really impart knowledge. They only tell a story. And that story can only be understood by people who already have some knowledge. When I say ‘life is a journey’, I expect people to understand that metaphor, as people generally know …

Epigenetics: Grappling with definitions

Definitions of epigenetics are notoriously slippery. This does not seem to hamper basic research. But it might hamper public understanding. The words ‘epigenetics’ and ‘epigenetic’ have undergone quite substantial changes in meaning over time, leading up to a meaning which is now popular but open to misinterpretation. This history and increasing confusion has been charted, …

Groundhog day in the hothouse

On 6 August Will Steffen and others published a paper entitled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”. The paper explores “the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a …

Synthetic biology: Modelling joys and fears brick by brick

Carmen McLeod, Stevienna de Saille and I recently published an article in which we used findings from a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop to show that scientists’ (synthetic biologists’) views of risk and responsibility are much more ‘societal’ than one might expect. This means, involving them in a new form of science governance (RRI), which itself involves new …

Bacteria, metaphors and responsible language use

A lot has been written about the war on bacteria, especially in the context of antimicrobial resistance. Some articles reflect on the metaphor of war in medicine and in microbiology more generally, others deal with the metaphors of bacterial communication and communities. A few papers look more closely at the way bacteria are anthropomorphised in the …

Data harvesting: A metaphor ripe for scrutiny

At the end of March news of a data scandal broke – you all know which one. As Steven Poole in The Guardian wrote: “The political data firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of unauthorised ‘data harvesting’ from millions of Facebook accounts. This handily avoids allegations of ‘theft’ or even just ‘mining’”. Data harvesting is not only …

In the shadow of Frankenstein: Mapping and manipulating genes and genomes

I was starting to prepare a talk for Pint of Science in May, for “The Body” strand, which this year here in Nottingham focuses on regenerative medicine and genetic engineering. It’s entitled “GMYou”. I know, it’s a long way off, but they needed a title and so I began to muse. In the end I …

Catching a metaphor on the fly: ‘Greenfield genome design’

A week ago, something interesting washed up in my twitter stream, something a metaphor collector like me had to pick up and inspect. Andrew Hanson, an expert in metabolic engineering working at the University Florida, tweeted: “Excellent short 2016 piece from @claudiaevickers on #synbio platforms & the future of the microbial cell factory industry. Coins …