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The war against war metaphors

The age-old practice may harm both science and scientists

Melinda Wenner
Last month, when the University of Nottingham in the UK opened its new Centre for Healthcare Associated Infections, a facility dedicated to studying and controlling "superbugs," The Guardian newspaper interviewed its director, Richard James, about why such a research center was necessary. He said:"This is a sophisticated army with astonishing weapons. And each time we develop something new, [bacteria] develop a defense for it."The use of such war metaphors in science and medicine is not new. As early as 1934, the British Medical Journal wrote about the "War Against Cancer," a phrase we still often hear. But today, militaristic language pops up in almost every scientific domain: conservation biology ("invasive species," "biosecurity"); global warming ("global war on global warming"); and biomedicine ("killer cells," "hitting multiple targets"). The attraction to such language is understandable, as it draws attention, and perhaps even funding (who can forget US President Richard Nixon's...

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