The war against war metaphors

The age-old practice may harm both science and scientists

Feb 16, 2007
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 declaration to "conquer" cancer in his 1971 state of the union address, since which hundreds of billions of dollars have poured into cancer research?). Still, some scientists worry that the use of war metaphors has negative effects on both science and the scientists who adopt the language.For instance, scientists who use military terms may risk losing credibility, warned Erik von Elm, an epidemiologist at the University of Berne in Switzerland and co-author of a recent Lancet correspondence on military metaphors. "One of the features of science should be to be objective," but war metaphors are precisely the opposite, he noted. "These terms have an intention, they are sort of modern propaganda." Indeed, when Nottingham's James referred publicly to the coming "post-antibiotic apocalypse," the UK's Chief Nursing Officer accused him of sensationalism and scaremongering.Scientists who frame problems in a militaristic manner also likely have a drastically limited perception of the problem and how to tackle it, noted Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff. "This is not language, this is the way people think." In microbiology, for instance, scientists often frame viruses and bacteria as the enemy, and may focus on destroying them and be blind to alternatives, said Brigitte Nerlich, professor of science, language and society at the University of Nottingham. With bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), however, "You have to look at multiple factors, and not just in terms of attack and defend," she said. Indeed, some argue that our militaristic use of antimicrobial agents has, by introducing new selection pressures, only made pathogens stronger, while a consideration of other factors -- like host behavior and the social and physical environment -- could offer better solutions.Brendon Larson, assistant professor of environment and resources studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, argued the same of "invasion biology," where scientists may automatically assume an invading species must be removed. But in some cases, a sustainable relationship makes more sense -- for example, removal of the "invading" Himalayan blackberry from parts of California hurt the native tricolored blackbird, which used the plants as nesting habitats. "We're entrenched in a particular way of seeing this situation, that [invasive species are] enemies, they're bad and we have to get rid of them," Larson told The Scientist. Indeed, according to Larson, the modern use of military terminology may have contributed to US President George W. Bush's decision to merge part of the government agency responsible for invasive species into the Department of Homeland Security. Still, scientists are not likely to move beyond the adversarial metaphor anytime soon, said Columbia University's Barron Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America. "They're here to stay," Lerner said, admitting that when he was writing about the prevalence of such metaphors, he unknowingly began using them himself. Remembering, as writer Susan Sontag advised, that war metaphors in medicine can be misleading, and remaining aware of metaphors' effect on science, is the best scientists can do, Lerner noted.Melinda Wenner mail@the-scientist.comP Brickley, "The 21st Century War on Cancer," The Scientist, September 22, 2003. von Elm and MK Diener, "The language of war in biomedical journals," The Lancet, January 27, 2007. ? James, "Out of Control?" Exchange Magazine, February, 2007 Lakoff O'Neill, "A battle cry to decipher immunity," The Scientist, November 8, 2004. Nerlich Ganguli, "A new weapon for resistant bacteria," The Scientist, May 2006. Larson Palevitz, "The continuing saga of invasive species," The Scientist, April 15, 2002. Lerner, The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, 2001 Sontag, Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors, 1989.