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Lost in translation: The dangers of using analogies in science

29 Oct, 2012

We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. In this article, Richard Roche explains how analogies can sometimes get in the way of science, not to mention science communication.

1958 Lifeboats for Spaceships, Mechanix Illustrated (American) 1958

Lifeboats for spaceships (1958)

[Warning alarm sounds]

“Captain, the star is about to collapse and engines are still not responding. We have less than two minutes before we’re vapourised.”

“Very well. Crew, it’s been an honour serving with you…”

“Wait! If we reverse the polarity of the shields, the build-up of charge caused by the ions in the upper atmosphere might just cause enough impetus to force us clear!”

“You mean like shaking up a bottle of pop and taking your thumb off the lid?”

“Exactly!”

It’s a familiar scenario – the resigned crew of the intrepid starship are saved from destruction by a bit of scientific quick-thinking. The nuts and bolts of their salvation are, of course, incomprehensible to most until the helpful Ensign Layman provides a simple analogy that elegantly explains it all to the bemused viewers. This is a staple of science fiction – the inclusion of an everyman character, whose primary role is to act as translator, to make the technical mumbo-jumbo accessible to the masses, typically via the use of well-chosen analogies. And it’s very effective.

For scientists trying to convey their work to the public, though, it’s not so straightforward. The challenge of expressing sometimes very complex scientific ideas to people who are not trained in the ways and procedures of scientific enquiry is a difficult one. Very often, a simple analogy is wholly inadequate to properly express the principle or model being described. And so, there arises a trade-off: is it better to make do with an accessible yet imperfect analogy that fails to capture the complexities of the subject matter, or to explain the concept in intricate and impenetrable detail and leave the lay audience none the wiser? Borrowing a term from science fiction, this conundrum has been called the Babel fish Dilemma.

But using analogies to explain science can lead to more serious problems than merely inadequate understanding. Not only can they give a false impression of the nature of phenomena, they can actively limit and restrict the way we think about those phenomena as a result. They can shape the type of questions we ask and influence the techniques we use to investigate them, sometimes resulting in major aspects of a problem being neglected. Scientific analogies can be worse than passively insufficient explanations – they can actively obstruct our pursuit of knowledge.

Consider how we think about the process of memory and the language we use to describe it. We seem to view memory as a place: we talk about “storing” information, so that it can later be “retrieved” or “recalled”. We speak of “recollection”, as if our experiences are somehow kept in a great mental repository, catalogued and shelved for later (re)collection when we wish to “bring” this event to mind. There is a clear implication that our memories are discrete objects which are sent from one place to another when we learn something, and later brought back from this mysterious storehouse when we remember it.

We now know that this is not accurate. One of the most important findings to emerge in recent years is that memories are not the same every time they are retrieved; rather, they are malleable and subject to change over time. It seems that remembering an event really constitutes an internal “re-living” of that event, as the entire complex neural circuit involved at the time of learning will become activated again. It is this reactivation that corresponds to our subjective experience of “remembering”.

But we have also discovered that remembered events are not exact carbon copies of the original experience. Research into the phenomenon of memory reconsolidation has shown that a retrieved memory is malleable: it can be altered, modified, weakened or even, in some cases, eradicated. To use an inadequate analogy, we could consider memory as more like watching a play than a DVD. A DVD movie will be identical every time you play it but each performance of a stage play will be slightly different to the last: subtle aspects or nuances will change, even though the lines and the themes remain roughly the same.

The use of analogies to communicate science is often necessary – sometimes there are simply no other means available to convey complicated ideas to a mass audience in an accessible way. It is the nature of how we process information to seek to relate new material to things with which we are familiar. But we must bear in mind that even the most elegant and carefully considered analogy will, by virtue of its use as a simplification, be fundamentally limited.

Ensign Layman might say that these analogies are just like putting on an ill-fitting coat: most of the important parts are covered, but unsightly bits may protrude here and there and wearing it can seriously restrict movement.

But of course, like all the others, that analogy falls some distance short of the truth. Perhaps that’s why he’s an Ensign, and not the Captain.

Richard Roche

Dr Richard Roche, shortlisted entrant in the 2012 Science Writing Prize

Richard Roche

This is an edited version of Richard’s original entry in the professional scientist category. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the next couple of months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays from the 2012 competition. Read them all, and the 2011 essays, in our archive.

Image credits: davydubbit on Flickr (top); Wellcome Images (Richard, left)
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Mc Inerney permalink
    8 Nov, 2012 7:52 pm

    Interesting read. But analogies are fundamental to science on every level. Do you believe that scientists only use them as shortcuts when dealing with the uninitiated and scientifically illiterate? I strongly disagree, if this is your opinion. The very best scientific theories, even in the physical sciences, are ultimately just models of the world. And models are built from analogy, not experimental observation. Have I misunderstood?

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