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Metaphors and Models in Popular Science

Anna Sundlöf
Department of Science Education
Malmö University, Sweden
June 2002


My research concerns what happens to scientific knowledge when it is transferred from the research community to the public. When scientific ideas are being explained in popular contexts, their meanings are often conveyed by means of metaphors and models. However, the meanings risks being distorted by the instruments used to transport them, so that people may sometimes think they have grasped an idea when really they haven't.

My study fits into the exploration of public understanding of science and I am interested in how scientific theories disperse in society. What ideas can be generated when instruments such as metaphors, analogies, similes and parables are employed in the explanation of scientific reasoning? These linguistic tools are not without problems: metaphor is, as it were, construed on the principle that words are recyclable, or taken from a context wherein they are understood literally to another where their meaning is interpreted figuratively. But what happens when the metaphors themselves are recycled in various contexts? Is there a risk that the meaning of the idea will be undermined in the process, so that the words describing it will simply be empty? Or might the text intended to reveal a theory instead be so ambiguous so as to misrepresent it?

In order to investigate these matters, I will do two things. First, I will examine how authors of popular science texts make use of a certain model and a certain metaphor. Both are frequently employed in order to explain the idea of multiple dimensions. The specific image and narrative I have in mind are the tesseract (a four-dimensional cube unfolded into three dimensions) and the Flatland story (a tale about how two-dimensional beings encounter another-third- spatial dimension). The research will focus on how people actually understand or interpret these concepts. To find out, I will heed the suggestion that the meaning of metaphor can only be revealed through an empirical study of how it is understood. I will analyze texts written-as an assignment-by persons discussing their understanding of the theory of multiple dimensions. They must perform this task without using the very metaphor that has figured in a text they have just previously been introduced to.

Second, I intend to study how a specific theory can be misrepresented in popular (and even scientific) contexts. My initial hypothesis is that this partly results from the differing interpretations of the metaphors it is often associated with. This theory is what the geophysicist Dr. Lovelock called the "Gaia" theory, describing how the Earth can be viewed as a self-regulating system. The very name-Gaia ("Mother Earth" or "Earth Goddess")-is perhaps unfortunate, since it evokes associations to concepts related to the terms "caring for," "organism" and "life." The established research community has often dismissed this theory as a pseudo-scientific affair, while some environmentalists comprehend it as a body of ideas that result in an irresponsible view of man's role on Earth. For instance, the latter might argue that a Gaia-theorist proposes that the climate is little affected by how much carbon dioxide is let out into the atmosphere as a consequence of human activities. The debate as to whether "stewardship" is the proper concept by which we should understand humans' role addresses a central issue of concern for Gaia-theorists, but how are their ideas actually described, and in what contexts? I attempt to find out something about this by collecting data from articles in the daily press, on the Internet and in popular science magazines. My intention is to inspect these texts in terms of what models and analogies are used in the explanation of the theory, and what associations can be drawn from them.

This study will hopefully reveal some effects of the usage of metaphor in popularized science. More particularly, I wish to highlight the obvious, albeit problematic, fact that depending on what form of language is considered appropriate in the distribution of scientific ideas, different groups in society are offered different facets of the scientists' knowledge - sometimes even an altogether different theory than the original. An adequate grasp of scientific ideas is, however, crucial for the citizen partaking in decisions that have a major impact on our environment. The results of my research might serve as a reminder that words, instead of mirroring a reality, may create different realities. For a democracy to function, this must always be kept in mind.