Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Should we ditch analogies to explain science--or just use them sparingly?

Professional communicators like me have been urging scientists to use analogies and metaphors for a long, long time, as part of the effort to make their work clearer to public and non-scientist audiences. But on the eve of the March for Science here in Washington, DC, I think we may need to reconsider this advice, because we're in danger of overload. It's not that they're ineffective, one at a time. But we seem to be overusing this tool.

Scientists rewrote the DNA of an entire species, a Vox article, shows why. Here are the metaphors and analogies I found in the article, all referring to the same discovery. Some are from the journalist who wrote the story, some from his scientist sources:
  1. tailoring microorganisms
  2. snip out one single gene
  3. a rewriting and reorganization of the entire genetic book
  4. base pairs...are the individual building blocks that make up DNA
  5. if you know how a radio works, you should be able to take it apart and put it back together
  6. what yeast genes are necessary for keeping it alive and which are bloatware
  7. if you think of yeast as a factory, then its genome is the operating system
  8. if scientists can re-engineer yeast from scratch, they can teach it a few more tricks
  9. we wanted to make changes that are very difficult to make without rebuilding it from the ground up
  10. the scientists have designed some new “programs” into the genome. One is called a “scramble” function
  11. The analogy is if you had a million decks of cards, there would be one that would give you the best hand at gin rummy, there would be another that would give you the best hand at Texas Hold’em
  12. the biologists have done some tidying up of the genome
  13. An architect can draw the most beautiful building her mind can imagine. But if an engineer says it can’t be built, it can’t be built. A similar thing happens with DNA design.
  14. they have to get glued together at very specific points
  15. there is no DNA “printer” that can perfectly spit out that many in a stable chain.
  16. We’re not starting with a bunch of inanimate chemicals, mixing chemicals, and having life pop out
Some of these metaphors and analogies are used as shorthand, some as comparisons. But 16 metaphors or analogies is about 15 too many, folks. You can tell when the author realized he may be using one too many, because he puts quotes around them, as if to apologize. The quotes also delineate metaphors that might be taken literally, a big fat clue that you should reconsider their use. Adding confusion--or quotation marks--is not the goal.

And boy, are these metaphors mixed. They draw from 17 sets of imagery: tailoring, sewing, books, toys, radios, software, factories, computers, dog training, building, codes, card games, cleaning, architecture, engineering, glue, printers, and pregnancy (or, possibly, toasters, or gopher holes). And by the end of the article, they do little to enhance actual understanding of the process being described.

Better are the simple-language sections of this article which describe the methodology, step by step. It's a misstep I see all too often in the way communications pros coach scientists when they are preparing for media interviews. "Skip the methodology and use a metaphor," scientists are urged. But the method often is what makes your research unique and understandable. I'm a big fan of figuring out how to describe the method first, and then deciding whether a metaphor helps, or hurts.

The article could be seen as an example of how frequently and easily we use metaphor, but I know better, because I've heard the advice for decades about being deliberate with this choice. Even if it's natural to reach for metaphor, taken together, they are overwhelming. In the end, that's the editor's job to fix, but scientists can help by choosing with care the tools they use to communicate.

Another sign that analogies and metaphors are the default: The Sideways Dictionary, which translates tech terms into analogies, was built by the Washington Post and Alphabet to explain tech to non-techies.

Don't get me wrong: Metaphors and analogies are powerful tools, great for translating from the technical. Here's what TED curator Chris Anderson has to say about them in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. He's breaking down what works in Dan Gilbert's talk, The surprising science of happiness:
For an explanation to be satisfying, it has to take puzzling facts and build a connection from them to someone's existing mental model of the world. Metaphors and analogies are the key tools needed to do this. They help shape the explanation until it finally snaps into place with a satisfying aha!
And of course, he worked in two metaphors right there at the end, didn't he?

Like any language tool, however, metaphors and analogies are best used with care. You'll do better, scientists, by finding one metaphor and working it all the way through your discussion--be it a presentation or a media interview--and by testing your metaphors before you bring them forward, lest they fail to do the task you intend them to do. The cautionary tale at the link is one from science, and once you read it, you won't look at metaphor the same way again. Start by choosing one analogy and sticking with it, resisting the urge to pile on more. It's not helping. And journalists, how 'bout a better edit?

If you want to learn more about metaphor and how we use it, I recommend two books: George Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By, which is a landmark book explaining the facility with which we use metaphor to make sense of the world, and James Geary's I is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. It's worth learning more about how you use metaphor now, and how you might use (or avoid) it in the future.

My thanks to Tiffany Lohwater, who pointed me to this article and its basketful of analogies.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Tiago Daniel)

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