Posted by: soniahs | September 20, 2010

Exam readings: metaphors and NGOs in science communication

More chapters from the Handbook of Public Communication of Science & Technology. First, Iina Hellsten and Brigitte Nehrlich discuss how metaphors are used to frame new or changing ideas in science:

Summary: Discussion of metaphors as framing devices. In life/medical science, they identify 2 important frames: “breakthrough/key to cure disease” and “playing god/Pandora’s box;” both grounded in a narrative of linear progress (journey or creating a map.) Function of metaphors is to create boundary objects between two or more domains either within science (between disciplines, novel models) or in popularization (help understand complexities, evoke emotion, concretize concepts.) Metaphors are both flexible enough and robust enough to remain identifiable across domains. They approach metaphors as “discourse metaphors:” they evolve within disciplines, but can become fixed and create stable (sometimes limiting) structures. They end with an analysis of the metaphors used in the Human Genome Project: metaphors changed as goals changed (e.g., “language of life” and “mapping” to “blueprint” as unexpectedly few genes discovered), and outdated metaphors are still in use (“book of life” predates idea that genetic info has multiple layers, but attempts to include complexity haven’t caught on, e.g., “orchestra,” “ecology”.) Metaphors also have ethical implications: e.g., journey/race metaphors might possibly exacerbate competition & lead to breaches in research ethics.

Comments: Key concepts: metaphors as boundary objects, metaphors providing internal structure within disciplines, metaphors competing for insight in different contexts. Selection of metaphors is a key popularization issue, esp. in areas of science with large social/political implications.

Next, Steven Yearley discusses a related topic with his chapter on the role of NGOs (specifically environmental NGOs) in science communication:

Summary: Environmental groups and other NGOs rely to a large extent on empirical data to back up their claims, so have a unique need to balance powerful imagery with accuracy. First case study on climate change, in which the primary skeptical position is to cast doubt on research; NGOs find themselves in the (unusual) position of urging the public to accept government/institutional claims, as well as point out the vested interests of denialist groups. This position makes it harder for NGOs to counter “official” views in other situations (a key reason being that, given the wide scope of the IPCC, it’s hard to find peer reviewers that are both informed and disinterested). Second case study on GMOs, in which NGOs have argued that regulation is insufficient compared to the possible magnitude of adverse impacts. The strategy here has been to align with other pressure groups, and basically throw every objection possible at the issue; the more professional NGOs have tried to mobilize public engagement with the issue and have been less successful at drawing public into dialogue than generally riling them up. NGOs are generally wary of stepping out of their role as mediators of public action/lobbying for policy decisions, because they fear govt./business manipulation of public and the unpopularity of the best environmental choices (becomes a case of touting public wisdom when it aligns with their goals).

Comments: Some groups generate their own data; these tend to have a more data- than emotion-based persuasive strategy. This chapter is more useful in an applied context, and not central to the direction my research has been going recently…



  1. […] to: Hellsten & Nehrlich (metaphors in sci. comm); Bucchi (metaphors for communication between disciplines) Possibly related […]

  2. […] to: Groffman et al. (environmental communication); Yearley (scientific uncertainty often makes sci. a bad ally to environmentalism, public participation in […]


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