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Metaphor in Science

Discussion in 'Creation vs. Evolution' started by Helen, Jul 27, 2003.

  1. Helen

    Helen <img src =/Helen2.gif>

    Aug 29, 2001
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    This review appears in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education.

    Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (Theodore L. Brown)
    Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 215 pp. ISBN 0-252-02810-4. $32.50
    Reviewed by Jeffrey Kovac
    Department of Chemistry, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-1600
    Theodore L. Brown, a well-known inorganic chemist and general chemistry textbook author, has written an interesting and important book, which will certainly be controversial. Brown applies to science the theory of conceptual metaphor, best known from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1). Brown's central thesis is that scientists understand nature largely through metaphorical constructs. This is a bold claim, but Brown argues for it persuasively using examples drawn largely from chemistry and biology.

    According to Lakoff and Johnson "the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (1, p 5). Brown points out that in science we use the embodied experience of the ordinary world to develop the models we use to interpret the results of experiments. Further, the metaphors provide us with ways to think about natural systems. For example, a cell is often called a factory. Biochemists use the concept of a chaperone protein to describe a protein that prevents unwanted interactions. Ideas and experience from one domain are used to understand phenomena in another. The match is never perfect, which is why we often need more than one metaphor to understand something. Perhaps the best example is quantum mechanics where things have both particle and wave properties, so we need both metaphors. Other than Mr. Tompkins, none of us has direct everyday experience with quantum particles, so we use what we know about billiard balls and vibrating strings to try to understand the properties of electrons (2).

    Making Truth is an important book for all science educators to read. Not only does it provide deep insight into the process of science, it shows how scientific understanding is developed, or constructed, if you please. If metaphor is central, then what educators need to do is help students learn how to construct metaphors and connect them to experimental data. Brown's examples provide a paradigm for this process.

    This book will be controversial. The central role of metaphor in scientific understanding is not universally accepted either by philosophers of science or by scientists. For example, reductionists will certainly disagree with Brown's view that metaphors provide an acceptable explanation for scientific phenomena. Among cognitive scientists there is disagreement about the importance of conceptual metaphor in human thought. There are those who will be troubled that Brown does not make a clear distinction between model and metaphor. Brown has not written a tightly-argued work of philosophy. Instead he has written a book filled with insight about the way scientists think and work, a book that will generate an important dialogue about science and science education.


    from Helen: I could not help compare this idea with the frequent accusation that Genesis 1-11 is metaphor or allegory! It seems to me that those who claim this might have the whole thing backwards! Genesis 1-11 is real and science is allegorical!

    Don't shoot! -- it's an interesting review, though, and the book itself should be an interesting read.
  2. mdkluge

    mdkluge Guest

    Thank you for the review, Helen. One suspects that this will have the same effect on science as has the rest of the philosophy of science. Science does what it does and the philosophers catch up later in their own world.

    I don't think the idea of science proceeding by metaphore is ridiculous, although the term "metaphor" probably contains connotative baggage. Oops! "aggage" was a metaphor. One frequently talks of scientific observations being "theory-laden", which means that they make no sense except in terms of our understanding (theory) of something else. One could say that that is a metaphor, but why would one want to? What will I actually learn if I understand scientific thinking to be metaphorical? Time will tell. It does not appear particularly fertile ground (another metaphor!) for investigation. I mean that I can easily (as I have done here) find trivial metaphors in scientific thought, but I don't know if studying them will lead to much deeper understanding.

    You should resist the temptation to play such word games. Just because two people use the same word "metaphor" in different contexts doesn't mean that the two usages are comparable.