The cost of hidden metaphors
The New York Times’ blog Scientists at Work is a good example of how scientists’ communication might focus on process, not results. I’ve been enjoying the current sequence about glaciers in Bhutan; each episode ends with a cliffhanger!
A couple of words in the most recent post jumped out at me, though. In addition to “reconstructing the history” and “behavior” of the glacier–how it “changed in the past”–the scientist-author explained his interest in figuring out what the glacier was like when it “last maintained a robust, healthy profile.” Healthy?
The glacier doesn’t care about how big it is–but we do. ”Healthy” and its correlate “sick” are value-laden metaphors; they direct us to think of the state of the ice as something like a human body, that needs maintaining or remedying.
Some work has suggested that such normative terms are pervasive even in scholarly publications, at least in natural resource fields (Scott et al., 2007). Should such terms show up at all when scientists discuss their results? Brendon Larson in his recent (and great) book Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining Our Relationship with Nature argues that such metaphors are inevitable and useful–but ought to be chosen with care:
“Consider the metaphorical statement “The health of the Great Lakes has recently declined.” Some scientists would defend this statement with objective measures of health, such as pollution levels or the population sizes of aquatic indicator species. When we speak about ecosystem health, however, we necessarily draw on both factual and normative components because the choice of which measure or measures to use is value-laden. It depends on how we conceive of health. There has thus been continued debate about whether ecosystem health can even be considered a scientific concept. Those scientists who use it as such entangle the facts with the popular resonance of the word health. Most of us would interpret a statement about ecosystem health to be value-laden because we consider health to be a positive feature within our normal personal experience. A factual statement thereby easily becomes an evaluative ought, namely that we should seek to return the Great Lakes to a state of renewed health. A similar process applies to many terms in environmental science, most notably biodiversity, which assumes that diversity is a good thing. I do not wish to claim that such statements are straightforwardly problematic; instead, this type of terminology may exemplify the sort of resonant language that environmental scientists need to cultivate, though carefully.”
One difficulty is that normative terms like “health” tap into large and basic patterns of thinking. That gives them their power; but it also can deflect critical thinking. To speak of a glacier in Bhutan as less than fully healthy, for example, assumes that the glaciers have indeed gotten smaller and that their shrinking is bad–specifically, bad for people who live downstream, since big glaciers play a key role in providing their water. In this case, the author has probably fulfilled his responsibility by presenting evidence in other posts for these assertions. But not all communicators are equally up front, or perhaps even aware of the normative spin “health” metaphor is giving their words. Speaking from an Iowa perspective, I know that I don’t want all glaciers to be “healthy”!