Lego bricks, program coding and text editing: how metaphors in the press shape the perception of science

Our language is suffused with metaphors, and – often without even realizing it – these metaphors influence the way we perceive things. But what do the metaphors used when talking about a certain area of science reveal about how we perceive this field? A study recently published in Life Sciences, Society and Policy attempts to answer this question for the field of synthetic biology, using a novel combination of metaphor and co-occurrence analysis to systematically examine implications in linguistic images in the news coverage on synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology represents a relatively young field of research closely linked to biotechnology, systems biology and metabolic engineering. Based on the scientific rationale of designing and constructing new biological parts, devices and systems, it has raised public awareness and concern since the development of Craig Venter’s bacterium Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

Framing the DNA in terms of Lego bricks conveys ideas of playfulness and toys because the word LEGO is mainly associated with such expressions.

The news coverage about Craig Venter’s press conference on his new form of life attracted my attention as an average newspaper reader at that time. After a first read of several German, French and British newspapers, I became aware that the news coverage was suffused with metaphors and other linguistic images which – at least to me – seemed to be based on an inherent logic. Framing the DNA in terms of Lego bricks conveys ideas of playfulness and toys because the word LEGO is mainly associated with such expressions. But doing Synthetic Biology is obviously something quite different than playing around with toys.

Having worked on metaphor in technology assessment and biotechnological discourses for some time, I thought that a systematic analysis of linguistic images would be a good start to understand the different meanings framing Synthetic Biology and the meaning-making processes underlying the press coverage of this new technology. A book chapter by Balmer and Herremann and a paper by Komduur, Korthals and te Molder were particularly illuminating to inspire this research. The idea was to connect the study of the language used to inform the public about Synthetic Biology to an empirical ethical analysis.

Analyzing language and co-occurrence of metaphors

I analyzed the news coverage by establishing a corpus of newspaper articles about synthetic biology published in Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Der Spiegel. This was done using the LexisNexis news database for the period between 2000 and 2010. A combined approach was developed that merged linguistic and science and technology studies’ perspectives of analysing metaphors.

Through close line-by-line reading, repeated analyses and thematic maps, 298 metaphors were systematized and grouped into higher-order conceptual metaphors. These conceptual metaphors represent generic structures that semantically permeate the news coverage and their recurrence bears a considerable impact on the overall meaning of the news coverage.

The media discourse was found to be mainly characterised by four overlapping conceptual metaphors:

  • doing synbio is constructing
  • doing synbio is playing a game
  • doing synbio is programming
  • doing synbio is writing and editing a text.

Several examples of linguistic analysis can be found in the full paper.

The novel aspect of my approach consists of the fact that the analysis is based on a co-occurrence database where each word in a large German language corpus is listed with its profile of words with which it frequently used together. Using this database revealed a host of connotations defining the usually elusive moral implications of each metaphorical transfer in my press corpus.

Journalists (and the scientists they quote) only rarely address the possible dangers, impacts and implications of this technology for biology and society. This can be seen as a lack of responsible thinking induced by irresponsible language use.

Overall, the conceptual metaphors used by the German media highlight aspects of controlled engineering on one hand, and playful, even innocuous, scientific work on the other. Although critical comments with regard to problems revolving around biosafety and biosecurity are occasionally mentioned in the news coverage, journalists (and the scientists they quote) only rarely address the possible dangers, impacts and implications of this technology for biology and society. This can be seen as a lack of responsible thinking induced by irresponsible language use.

I think that my research has provided a small step towards revealing unconscious moral implications in metaphor and can increase understanding of how public opinions may be shaped by them. This can help raise awareness about the intentions and codes of conduct conveyed by the language we use to talk about new technologies such as Synthetic Biology. More importantly though, it might hold the potential to empirically base, facilitate and substantiate ethical reflection in science and society and help us decide how to deal with and regulate newly emerging technologies.

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