Saturday, February 17, 2007

The war against the war against war metaphors

My first article in The Scientist about the use of war metaphors has prompted some interesting discussion. My piece in a nutshell: some scientists believe the use of such metaphorsβ€”examples being the "war against superbugs" and the characterization of "invasive species"β€”is evidence of a certain way of thinking that might limit how scientists approach particular fields.

Some people felt that my article was "alarmist." While I don't think that someone working to "conquer" cancer will literally think of himself as a soldier in the lab, I do think that the use of military language is sometimes indicative that scientists and doctors are approaching an issue or problem from a limited perspective, and that this could be a big problem.

For example, when it comes to virology, most scientists focus on the microbes that cause disease. The majority of viruses, however, live symbiotically or mutualistically with their hosts, causing no harm. We know very little about these viruses because we haven't studied them, but they could harbor some pretty interesting secrets: for example, studies suggest that symbiotic viruses protect some monkeys infected with SIV, the primate version of HIV, from developing AIDS. So shouldn't we be studying symbiotic viruses more than we are? Not if we're only interested in those that we want to kill.

As the Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg wrote in Science:
Perhaps one of the most important changes we can make is to supercede the 20th-century metaphor of war for describing the relationship between people and infectious agents. A more ecologically informed metaphor, which includes the germs'-eye view of infection, might be more fruitful. Consider that microbes occupy all of our body surfaces. Besides the disease-engendering colonizers of our skin, gut, and mucous membranes, we are host to a poorly cataloged ensemble of symbionts to which we pay scant attention. Yet they are equally part of the superorganism genome with which we engage the rest of the biosphere.
I certainly wasn't trying to create a panic with my piece, but I do think that every once and a while, it's important to re-think how we are approach and perceive issuesβ€”so that we can, as they say, think outside the box. Or maybe even realize there is no box at all.


Blogger Chris said...

Out of curiosity, did you contact any cognitive scientists other than Lakoff for the piece?

4:37 PM  
Blogger Melinda Wenner said...

Hi Chris,

Lakoff was the only cognitive linguist I talked to -- I chose him because he's written so extensively about metaphors.


8:33 PM  

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