Science Corner: A Bridge Too Far

bridge photo

Physical bridges require a lot of planning and engineering to get right; how should we construct conceptual bridges? Photo by FrankWinkler

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.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, 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.

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    lirantha commented on September 17, 2015 Reply

    A colleague of mine was once teaching about Hesiod (7th c. BCE) and his writings on the ages of man – Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, with each subsequent age becoming a little morally worse until it reaches the Iron Age, in which Hesiod says we live today – the worst of all. My colleague joked, “Of course, today we’re living in the age of plastic.” He was surprised and dismayed when that answer showed up on the test.

    There will always be people who don’t understand jokes, let alone metaphors or analogies. I don’t think that’s a reason not to make them. Sensationalism in the media is the main problem, in my opinion; writing flamboyantly and with exaggeration or oversimplification gets a lot more quick attention. It’s like junk food: you may start with a perfectly reasonable potato, but by the time it circulates through reddit, Buzzfeed, and a half dozen link aggregators before winding up on Facebook, you end up with something greasy and unrecognizable. The potato is fine; it’s the people processing it and the consumers choosing to eat it who need to be more careful. :P

    Of course, I’m saying that as someone who loves a good analogy (the “good” part is important, too!) and would be reluctant to give them up. But Jesus used a whole lot of analogies, and he might have known a bit about communication. :) Let those with ears to hear…

      Andy Walsh commented on September 19, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts. That “age of plastic” story is a good one! And I like your potato analogy; I shall have to remember that one. I suppose we could push a little further; fast food is appealing because it is cheap and fast, just as simplified stories are easier/faster to read and share. Among other things, that means they can circulate that much faster, which is advantageous. Fast food is also appealing because it is predictable and consistent, never unfamiliar or surprising. In the right circumstances, these can all be genuinely positive traits, but as you note, without care one can get too much of even a good thing.

      Jesus’ example is definitely one reason why I am interested in metaphors. I wonder how obvious it was to his audience that he was speaking in metaphors? So many of the parables are familiar, and neatly labelled as such with section headers, making it hard to approach them as anything but parables. Of course, there are indicators in the text itself that he is speaking metaphorically; I just would like to know more about how they would have been received by their original audience. I also wonder if his metaphors worked well because he didn’t explain them in much detail, which puts more of an onus on the listener to be actively engaged.

      Thanks again for giving me more to think about!

  • David Parry commented on September 17, 2015 Reply

    I wonder if this passage from Luther’s Galatians commentary is helpful at all (1575 English translation, folio 206v):
    “Allegories doe not strongly proue and perswade in Diuinitie, but as certaine pictures they beutifie and sette out the matter. For if Paule had not proued the righteousnes of Faith against the righteousnes of workes by strong and pithie arguments, he should haue litle preuailed by this allegorie. But because he had fortified his cause before with inuincible arguments taken of experience, of the example of Abraham, the testimonies of the Scripture, and similitudes: now, in the ende of his disputation he addeth an allegorie, to geue a beautie to all the rest. For it is a seemely thing sometime to adde an allegorie when the foundation is well laide and the matter thorowly proued. For as painting is an ornament to set forth and garnish an house already builded: so is an allegorie the light of a matter which is already otherwise proued and confirmed.”
    (Via Early English Books Online (EEBO).)

    This is in the context of Luther trying to make sense of Paul’s allegorical reading of the Genesis narrative of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians. This passage is a bit tricky for the Protestant Reformers, as they are generally opposed to medieval allegorical readings of Scripture, but here Paul is reading Scripture allegorically. One nice touch here is that Luther finishes with an analogy/allegory to illuminate his argument about the proper role of allegory.

      Andy Walsh commented on September 19, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for these thoughts. Who doesn’t love a good meta-analogy?

      Paul is an interesting counterpoint to Jesus. Jesus did not always start with “strong and pithie arguments,” often opening with a parable or teaching exclusively in parables. Of course, Jesus and Paul had different educational experiences, different audiences, and different media. I suspect the sort of argumentation that Luther is commending works better in a written format that an oral one, since the points can be revisited if one loses the thread. And Luther himself may have responded more strongly to certain approaches because of his own education and experience.

      All of these thoughts, plus your observation about Protestant Reformers and their opinion of medieval allegory, point to the significance of audience and context. Jesus, Paul, and Luther all had a pretty good idea of who their (original, immediate) audience was and what context that audience had. On the Internet, that is much trickier. In principle, anyone can be the audience for anything. I wonder if that makes the situation more complicated.

      Of course, the fact that we are still receiving the teaching of all three proves that they had audiences far beyond the ones they targeted. Still, as a future audience we at least have some awareness that we have a different context and that we need to pay some attention to the original context. It is much easier to imagine that anything one finds on the Internet was written for you, since there aren’t generally obvious cues to the contrary.

      Thanks again for sharing and stimulating some interesting (at least to me) thoughts!

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