Communicating science to the public is a dicey proposition. Science employs a tighter precision than our everyday language usage. Preserving that precision can leave one’s writing inaccessible to many. Analogies can be employed to improve accessibility. Analogies are like bridges; they help people get from wherever they are to somewhere new, often spanning a conceptual gap that might otherwise be much harder to cross. But what happens when the analogy morphs into fact?
Maybe you heard about the so-called magnetic wormhole which was recently constructed. Wormholes stir the imagination; the “magnetic” qualifier was dropped in some places out of excitement, and pretty soon the Internet was buzzing. Was this the cataclysm we imagined the LHC would bring? Was this the beginning of faster-than-light communication or even travel? Nope and nope. The concept of wormholes was invoked as an analogy; no actual spacetime tunneling was going on. In my opinion, it’s more of a pipe; it carries a magnetic field from one place to another without any magnetic field leaking out in the middle, just like plumbing moves water without water leaking (ideally). But we already have pipes, so I guess a new kind of pipe isn’t as exciting.
You may have also heard about the out-of-this-world octopus genome (I covered it previously here). The word ‘alien’ was tossed off to humorously underline the relative novelty of octopus genes, and away we went. The story evolved until it spawned musings on the possibility that octopuses have genuinely extraterrestial origins. Even earth-bound commentaries proceeded as if ‘alien’ were a tacit admission that the octopus is inexplicable within present biological understanding.
I live in Pittsburgh, a city with many bridges. They have greatly improved the connectedness of the region. But if you drive over the wrong one, it can take you a while to get turned around and back on the right path. If analogies function similarly, what role should they play in science reporting? How careful do we need to be when choosing analogies? Are the analogies themselves creating confusion, or is it the telephone game of 2nd, 3rd, or 9th hand reporting? Do we the readers have an obligation to pay more attention to when an analogy is being made as opposed to a factual assertion? Does this blog need to use more/fewer/better analogies? Does it need to focus more on commenting directly on primary literature?
And while we’re talking about ways to refine these science blog posts, why not share your opinions via our reader survey? You have until the end of today to add your voice and be entered into our book giveaway! Details here, along with my first coverage of the octopus genome.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichÃ©d notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.