Saturday, February 25, 2012

Choosing the right metaphor

Metaphors are important, not only because they help color the language of day-to-day use, but also because they happen to affect how people think about the topics to which the metaphors are applied.

For example, the "War on Drugs" and the "Drug Tzar" are both strong metaphors that are arrayed against the social ill of drugs. But what does it do? It changes how people approach the very topic of drugs. And the impact of the metaphors on how people think about a topic has been studied:
In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.

First, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighbourhoods”. After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as calling in the National Guard or building more jails. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care

The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” neighbourhoods. After reading this version, only 56% opted for more enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms. The metaphors affected how the students saw the problem, and how they proposed to fix it.

And very few of them realised what was going on. The two reports both contained the same “shocking” statistics about Addison’s crime rates. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked the students to say which bits of text had most influenced their decisions, the vast majority circled the numbers. Only 3% noted the metaphors.

Compared to students who read about crime as a virus, those who read the “beast” report were more likely to suggest enforcement over social reforms. They were more likely to view police officers as people who catch and punish criminals, rather than people who deter crime or act as role models. They were more likely to look for more information about prisons and the size of the police force, than about poverty levels or youth programs. And as before, they thought the statistics in the report were more important than the language.

But these words have no weight on their own; it’s their context that gives them power. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked students to come up with synonyms for either “beast” or “virus” before reading identical crime reports, they provided similar solutions for solving Addison’s woes. In fact, the metaphors only work if they frame the rest of the text. If the critical sentence came at the end of the report, it didn’t have any effect.
Words have power, and they affect the way one can describe science - and how people can come to understand science. When done well, it can have a powerful impact for "good" learning:
These issues apply to science too. Metaphors about electricity as flowing water or teeming crowds can affect a student’s ability to wire up circuit diagrams. Good metaphors can make a complex and obtuse world seem exciting and accessible. A world of telomeres, epigenetic marks and enzymes can be brought to life by comparing them to shoelace tips, Post-it notes, locks and keys.
But not all metaphors are the same. Some metaphors are not as good in describing scientific ideas, suffusing them with metaphors that perhaps carry with them moral or social judgments:
But bad metaphors can do a great disservice to the public understanding of science. The idea of the “evolutionary ladder” perpetuates the myth that evolution is about a steady linear march towards complexity. The militaristic metaphor of the “war on cancer” threatens to undervalue achievements in treatment that fall short of a total cure. The idea of the brain as a computer creates all sorts of misconceptions about how different parts of the brain work, how memories are stored and whether we will ever be able to download or upload our minds.
I would say that this is a problem in the heavily applied fields of science: environmental management, public health management, social work, education, etc. "Normative science" is what R.T. Lackey calls it (although I think that he's a bit too much of a purist with his language concerns).

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