Time To Update Science's Mobile Army of Metaphors?

“Scientists should think like poets,” says E.O. Wilson, because new metaphors mobilize new thinking.

1. Nietzsche called truth “a mobile army of metaphors." That’s no less true in science. (Like turtles, metaphors go all the way down.) Can we mobilize other equation-defying language resources to serve science?

2. The thought-structuring thinking-fashion-shifting work of science metaphors is showcased in great essays by Siddhartha Mukherjee (first, second) and Kevin Mitchell (here).

3. In “Cancer’s Invasion Equation” Mukherjee focuses on the invasion—recasting cancer as an ecology-disrupting invader—but the equation part can mask powerful, potentially misleading, metaphorizing.

4.“The toggle-switch model of disease” yields to “seed-and-soil” thinking—local tissue ecology can enable cancer seeds to thrive or be throttled (swapping relational-ecological for technomorphic-reductionist metaphors).

5. “Cancer is no more a disease of cells than a traffic jam is a disease of cars,” declared DW Smithers). Studying cars alone won’t work—they’re necessary, but not sufficient—jams are higher-level relational contextual phenomena. Likewise gene-level thinking can “mistake the music for the piano.”

6. Smithers felt “lacerated by Occam’s razor,” but Occam-preoccupied thinking can cut against biology’s grain—onions have more DNA per cell than you.

7. Like jam-resilient cities, biochemical “circuitry” often offers high-redundancy routes (multiple “sufficient but not necessary” paths and pathologies).

8. Mukherjee grumbles, “Ecologists… talk about webs of nutrition, predation, climate…[with] complex feedback loops, all context-dependent. To them, invasion is an equation, even a set of simultaneous equations.”

9. That equation-as-best-way-to-know metaphor can limit or mislead. The algebraic moves of equations thrive in reductionist, essentialist domains (physics, engineering) where every X’s reliably isolatable intrinsic traits beget stable behaviors.

10. But, as Mitchell notes, biology’s basic laws differ. They’re emergent, process-oriented, relational, systemic, with polysemic parameters often only interpretable relative to complex contexts: whole cells, tissue ecologies, organisms… you must zoom out to the proper level

11. Mukherjee’s second essay reverts to human-tech metaphors (cardiologists = plumbers, oncologists = exterminators). A single inflammation-influencing molecule’s role in heart disease and cancer is like a fuse-box switch that impacts two disparate disease circuits.

12. Our 20,000+ “gene-switches” aren’t monofunctional on/off elements. Biochemistry’s players are ensemble casts (one mutation can re-orchestrate hundreds of genes). As with musical notes or words, it’s specific sequences that count. The meanings (effects) of genes mostly emerge in higher-level structures—like tunes or texts, requiring precise sequences, synchronization, syntax, and grammar.

13. Biology’s patterns—molecular melodies played on 20,000 keys, cytoplasmic scripts or cell-spanning sentences in a 20,000-word vocabulary, choreographed across trillions of cells—challenge current concepts, vocabulary, metaphors, and methods.

14. Mukherjee mentions “gene-expression signatures,” but can word-count signatures explicate text? We can’t just jettison “gene grammars,“ or cellular syntax without leaking meaning.

15. Grammars express richer part-to-whole relationships (recipe-like algorithmic patterns) than geometric/algebraic essentialism. “What Euclid is to Europe, Panini is to India” (Staal). Panini’s rigorous Sanskrit grammar shaped less algebra-and-geometry-intoxicated minds.

16. Misleading metaphors can hide in mathematical methods—standard stats presume heap-like additive causal factors (stats still can’t decode language’s ecosystem).

17. E.O. Wilson says “scientists should think like poets”—new metaphors mobilize new thinking, but other language tools can provide parts-of-speech models for parts-of-reality interactions.


Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less