Thursday, February 24, 2011

A metaphor too far...

Check out this excellent column in Nature News that I'll be thinking about for a long time.

The Nature News column describes new research showing just how much influence metaphors have on our reasoning and opinions -- often without us even realizing it. When crime is described to people as 'a beast', they want strong enforcement. When it is called 'a virus' in society, they favor prevention and rehabilitation measures.

The writer worries that the use of metaphors to help describe scientific findings, theories and new technologies can be misleading, and too easily used for political purposes. They can also be difficult to dislodge when science moves on, as it always does.

"Metaphors....tend to stick," he says. In fact, Simplicity is the first principle of good communications advocated by my gurus, Chip & Dan Heath, in their must-read book Made to Stick. Metaphors and analogies are sticky because they substitute something easy to think about for something difficult.

Still, metaphors shouldn't be chosen lightly. As a communicator, I want to encourage the agriculture scientists that I work with to use words and concepts that people will understand, to "explain what is going on as clearly and honestly as we can," just as the columnist recommends.