Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More Metaphors and More Science

Metaphors, since my previous post, have led me into hitherto unexplored areas of the net. See, for example, here, here, and here. Popular science writing requires the use of metaphors to explain complex or counter-intuitive concepts. The selfish gene is the obvious case, but there are many others, see, for example, here for Wikipedia's use of an "intuitive metaphor" for Brownian Motion. But, in fact, as Denis Noble points out in The Music of Life, metaphors creep unseen into science writing even when they are not intended simply to aid popular understanding. In Noble's book the notes the use of 'top down', 'bottom up' and even 'middle out' explanations of biology. The words come so naturally that nobody notices that they are metaphors that condition thought. "Every metaphor produces its own form of prejudice," writes Noble. Of course, there is an interpretation of science that sees the whole structure as a particular kind of metaphor. We make models of the world that seem to work but we can never claim that these are exact descriptions of the world, merely useful tools. The 'real' world is a metaphysical concept that, in these terms, has no meaning. Stephen Hawking has ambivalently embraced this view in the past. Of course, this can topple over into the postmodern view of science as just one narrative among many others or simply a game. This is, obviously, dangerous as we may forget that the game has real world consequences. We live in metaphors, it may be the only way we can live, the trick is not to get lost in them.

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